At home in The Mews

Pavilion III capitals and pediment, June 5, 2004
Pavilion III capitals and pediment, June 5, 2004

UVA Today: Beneath the Mews. As I noted on Facebook, this article covers a plethora of my interests. University of Virginia archaeologists, working underneath the floor of an outbuilding to Pavilion III, have discovered traces of an original Jeffersonian serpentine wall below where slaves were once housed—and where Virginia Glee Club conductor Harry Rogers Pratt and his wife Agnes Rothery once lived.

Pavilion III, currently undergoing a minor renovation, is said to be one of the few pavilions not to have suffered substantial exterior structural additions or alterations from its Jeffersonian incarnation. Apparently this extends to its mews, which an official Historic American Buildings Survey notes was “constructed between 1829–1830 [and] … is visible over the north garden wall.”

Which means, of course, that the Mews was the outbuilding that was visible from the rear window of my Lawn room when I lived in 3 West in 1993-94.

The other thing that’s striking about this recent announcement is the matter-of-fact inclusion of the following statement, which would have been highly controversial even when I was a student:

“In its early years, [The Mews] served as a quarters for enslaved people, and may also have served before 1865 as a washhouse and apparently, a chicken house,” said Kirt von Daacke, co-chair of the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University. “The building is important because it is one of only a handful of extant structures where enslaved people lived and worked.”

So this fixture of the landscape was silently, unremarked-on, a remnant of the secret history of slavery at the University of Virginia. I say “secret” because it was absolutely never discussed when I was a student. The guides would deny that the rooms beneath the student rooms on the East Lawn housed slaves, when it was clear in retrospect that they must have. No one talked about the fact that much of the original Jeffersonian plant was built with slave labor. And yet it was all around us. If you want an example of how screwed up America’s relationship to reality and its own history is, that’s as good as any.

Aside: the photo at the top of the post is of the front façade of the Pavilion because apparently no one takes pictures of the rear garden. It is emblematic of the history of slavery at the University that this staggeringly well-photographed Jeffersonian residence has very few photographs published of its back gardens and outbuildings. Even in the recent IATH project to create and render 3D models of the buildings, they appear to exist in a vacuum, without outbuildings.

Living (building) history: flat roofs on Lawn rooms

West Lawn (Pavilions I and III with student rooms), University of Virginia
West Lawn (Pavilions I and III with student rooms), University of Virginia

UVA Today: Jeffersonian Roofs Restored Over Lawn Rooms. When I lived at 3 West Lawn, there were pitched slate roofs over all the student rooms on the Lawn at the University of Virginia. Turns out that those roofs post-dated Jefferson. His original idea? Flat roofs. And the design was ingenious: Cover a serrated wooden roof with decking. The rain water would run down through the decking and run out through the valleys of the wood roofs. Kind of like this:

= = = = = = = = = =
^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

Unfortunately, Jefferson’s vision outstripped his engineering. The wood sub-roof leaked, damaging the roof over the colonnade walkway. So in the 1830s the flat roofs were covered over with pitched slate roofs.

What I find so fascinating about the story is the fact that Jefferson’s original roofs were preserved under the slate for 180 years. I also like this tidbit:

“All the single-leaf doors were replaced in the 1990s with new half-leaf doors,” Kutney said. “We’ve more recently found evidence that the single-leaf was the original Jefferson condition, so we’re going back to the single-leaf.”

When I was a student, I had a discussion with the late J. Murray Howard about the ongoing renovations of the Lawn, including his dismay that students damaged the paint of the doors on their Lawn rooms by hanging signs on them advertising various student activities. He didn’t appreciate my observation that the students who occupied the Lawn were the living embodiment of Jefferson’s vision just as much as the buildings, and that part of the vitality of that vision was the presence of advertising for the student groups who had gotten them to the Lawn in the first place. Howard was responsible for adding the half-leaf doors. It’s petty of me, but I like the reminder that even experts can be wrong.

“…and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them”

Pitchfork: Blood and Echoes: The Story of Come Out, Steve Reich’s Civil Rights Era Masterpiece. One of Reich’s early experiments in tape loop composition, the composition treats the spoken testimony of 18-year-old Daniel Hamm, who was beaten by police for trying to protect Harlem school children from being injured by an overexcited patrolman.

Later unjustly incarcerated as one of the Harlem Nine, Hamm’s story lives in Reich’s composition. Beaten by six to 12 officers over the course of the night, they tried to refuse him medical treatment on the grounds that he wasn’t visibly bleeding. Hamm recalls that he reached down to a knotted bruise on his leg and “I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them.” Reich loops this appalling statement via two tape players, one in each stereo channel, that drift slowly into and out of phase, into what has varyingly been described as a “raga,” a psychedelic experience, early minimalism, and media overload. To me, it speaks as a reminder that Black Lives Matter is responding to something that isn’t a new problem.

1953 “Christmas Carols”: “Advice to All Those Who Think That Being a Civil Engineer is the Greatest Form of Life”

1953-spectator-rudolph

In a follow up to the post about the 1953 Virginia Spectator and its booklet of ersatz carols, here’s one titled “Advice to All Those Who Think That Being a Civil Engineer is the Greatest Form of Life, or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Wahoo.” Just goes to show that the fine art of taunting the toolies—er, I mean, engineering students—is not new.

A few lyric references:

Slide rule: Precursor of the computer and electric calculator. Ask your dad.

The men of Rugby Road: Then as now, the center of fraternity parties. Presumably “first base” referred to socializing with women at fraternity parties, rather than “getting to first base” WITH a fraternity member; but you never know.

Thornton Hall: UVA engineering building.

“Punch”: UVA humor magazine of the 1940s and 1950s, sometimes appearing in the pages of the Spectator.

Rudolph the red-nosed wahoo,
Was a scroungy first-year man.
Oh how his slide rule hung out,
And oh how his nostrils ran.

He never got to first base
With the men of Rugby Road.
He settled for the worst place:
And at Thornton Hall he glowed.

Then one dreary Christmas eve
F. Scott’s ghost appeared:
“Rudolph with your nose so drippy
Try to act a bit more Chippy.”

Now he’s an English major,
He’s no longer out to lunch,
Sipping his dry martini,
And reading his last week’s “Punch.”

Out of the background: James Armistead Lafayette

Sarah Wells: Why We Need to Talk About James Armistead Lafayette. A thoughtful blog post from a high school student about a lesser known figure from the American Revolution.

James Armistead, born a slave in the possession of Virginian William Armistead, secured the permission of his master to join the American army under the command of General Lafayette. He became a spy, serving as a double agent to get information both from Benedict Arnold and from Lord Cornwallis. After the war, with support from both William Armistead and Lafayette, he petitioned the General Assembly for his freedom and was manumitted.

James Armistead Lafayette’s story gives me pause—not merely because of the general lack of knowledge about his life, but because of the small window of time during which his manumission was possible. Though William Armistead sounds enlightened, the odds that James would have been freed had he not rendered such extraordinary service to the new Republic—and had a war hero on his side—seems extremely unlikely. I would guess that if his story played out around 1830 or later (when he died), the sentiment of the average Virginia slaveowner would not have been toward freedom.

Christmas in June: the December 1953 Virginia Spectator

 

Cover, 1953 Virginia Spectator
Cover, 1953 Virginia Spectator

In the 1940s and 1950s, the former Virginia University Magazine / University of Virginia Magazine, the literary magazine at the University founded by the Washington and Jefferson Literary Societies, had become a men’s magazine in the mold of Esquire. Jokes, dating advice, and parodies ruled. But I’m not sure they ever exceeded the conceptual brilliance of the December 1953 issue (volume 115, number 4), also known as “The Misplaced Mistletoe Issue.” Featuring woodcuts (which we’ll look at another time), a Christmas story, and a suggestive cocktail themed cover, the whole package provides a humorous, if sexist, dose of holiday mirth.

The best bit of all is the eight page carol book, “A Treasury of Yuletide Song,” stapled into the center. Featuring such titles as “Lament of a Reindeer at Christmas Time,” “Advice to All Those Who Think That Being a Civil Engineer is the Greatest Form of Life, or Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Wahoo,” and “Sexual Misbehavior of a Female Reindeer, or I Saw Donner Kissing Santa Claus,” the apex (or nadir, depending) is “Wreck the Halls, Carouse, and Volley,” which ends with the admonition “Neck with molls and fraus of folly … Don’t forget to use protection / Oui-oui-oui, oui-oui-oui, oui-oui-oui! / Or you’ll get a bad infection, / V.D.D.D.D.D.D.D.D.” Besides making “Rugby Road” look tame, the songbook confirms that the early 1950s at Virginia were a different time.

Below is a relatively presentable excerpt from the songbook, showing that bourbon was not always the exclusive tipple of the Cavalier. Enjoy.

1953-spectator-verymerrygentleman

Remembering the fallen of UVA, summer of 1918

wheatley
Plaque given to the memory of Eugene Russell Wheatley, slain aviator and UVa student, as shown in the September 25, 1918 University of Virginia Alumni News

This Memorial Day, I found myself thinking about those who came before, and the ways in which they gave their lives to protect our country. As I went through my archives, one name that came out from the pages of a 1918 issue of the Alumni News was Eugene Russell Wheatley.

“Bus” Wheatley had the misfortune to be the first UVA engineering student to die in the First World War. Like his more well known predecessor James Rogers McConnell, he was an aviator. Unlike McConnell, who flew for the Lafayette Escadrille, Wheatley was a cadet in the Royal Flying Corps, the predecessor to the RAF. Both died for the war effort before the United States officially entered, in April 1917. In fact, Wheatley perished nine days short of a year after McConnell, on March 10, 1918, in the most ironic of accidents: while flying a training mission, his plane caught fire. T.J. Michie Jr. relays what happened next: “Rus managed to sideslip the machine down safely, but landed on a railroad track and was run over by a train, which I think is the worst luck I have heard of in the war.”

But where McConnell is famously memorialized in the Gutzon Borglum statue The Aviator, little save the plaque above brings Wheatley to our remembrance. Perhaps it is a difference in their respective statures at the University; where McConnell was King of the Hot Feet (and, apparently, a Seven), Wheatley was an engineering student, a member of Theta Delta Chi, who otherwise apparently kept to himself. That we remember McConnell is inevitable; we should spare a thought for Wheatley and others like him, who though less sweeping in their heroic gestures still made the ultimate sacrifice.

The Shelton Laurel Massacre

Courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr.
Courtesy Asheville and Buncombe County on Flickr.

The ongoing standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon reminds me of other breakdowns in law and order. With the fundamental question of private property vs. the federal government, it’s not quite as dramatic as the American Civil War, but it’s a dramatic standoff nonetheless.

But the Civil War seems to lurk everywhere I look. The photo above showed up on my Flickr home page today and sent me off to learn about the Shelton Laurel Massacre, in which a Confederate Colonel, Lawrence Allen, from my dad’s home town of Marshall, North Carolina and his lieutenant colonel James A. Keith went hunting for Unionist sympathizers in Shelton Laurel Valley. After torturing local women, including the 85 year old Mrs. Unus Riddle, and burning houses and slaughtering livestock, they rounded up fifteen suspected sympathizers, all related and most with the last name Shelton, and began to march them toward East Tennessee where the Confederate army lay. Along the way two escaped, so Keith ordered the remaining thirteen captives shot, including three boys aged 13, 14 and 17. Keith evaded the law after the war but eventually was tried for the massacre after the war in civilian court, and would have been vindicated by the state superior court had he not escaped two days before the verdict was returned; he was never recaptured.

Learning about the massacre hits home. My great-great-grandfather was a Confederate army deserter who only wanted to plow his fields; it’s likely, had he been in Shelton Laurel rather than in the caves in the hills above Marshall, that he would have been rounded up by Keith’s soldiers as well.

Some more resources on the massacres: a letter by Col. William R. Shelton giving an oral history perspective on the incident; a 2013 blog post in the New York Times providing some historical and legal perspective on the issue; an essay discussing some of the deep divisions in the mountains; an essay by a novelist and a descendant of a possible participant in the massacre; and a recent article discussing other accounts that cast doubt on Keith’s responsibility for the massacre and suggesting that he may have been framed by Augustus Merrimon, who wrote the report on the massacre for Governor Zebulon Vance.

The machinery of slavery

Out of the Box: Virginia Untold: Certificates of Importation. Out of the Box, the blog of the archives of the Library of Virginia, has consistently been one of my favorite reads for the windows it offers into the state – er, commonwealth – of my birth. And, honestly, into the past of our nation. Today’s post, by Greg Crawford, is a good illustration of why.

What is both fascinating and revolting about the history of slavery (and its descendants, white supremacy and institutionalized racism) is the level of legal, statutory, bureaucratic, and judicial machinery required to keep the enslavement of human beings “orderly” and “civil.” The example in this post, certificates of importation, were a bureaucratic invention that sought to ensure compliance with the law barring importation of slaves for sale into Virginia. Said law was enacted in 1778, not for humanitarian reasons, but apparently to ensure that England and British ships would not profit from the slave trade during the Revolutionary War.

(It’s worth noting that the original draft of the bill would have explicitly linked the barring of importation of slaves to the suppression of slavery more broadly. The final language of the bill contained no such linkage.)

An exception in the 1778 law permitted slave owners permanently relocating to Virginia to import their slaves to the commonwealth, provided they swore an oath that they did not intend to sell any of them. The oath became part of a legal document, the certificate of importation, that provided names, ages, and physical descriptions of the slaves, where they were acquired, and from where they were being relocated. The certificate was filed in court. (The Library of Virginia is in the process of digitizing these court documents, and they’ve made a spreadsheet of the digitized records.) If a slave was illegally brought into the commonwealth, they could sue for their freedom; the presence of the certificate of importation was a closed door to a slave seeking to escape an unfair master, but failure to file the paperwork gave the slave grounds to file a freedom suit.

To summarize: slaves imported into Virginia had to have paperwork documented by a local magistrate containing an oath from their owner and filed in their county courthouse so that they were in compliance with a Revolutionary War era law preventing British profiteering, and the absence of such paperwork allowed a slave to sue for freedom. The amount of bureaucracy devoted to the peculiar institution, of which this is only a small piece, must have been completely mindboggling. And it gives me a renewed appreciation for the artifacts of history.

More on the Parker-Morrell-Dana House

Stone building 1865

When I wrote about our most distinguished neighborhood house, the Parker-Morrell-Dana house, I compared a modern day photo to an 1865 one from Lexington’s Cary Library and evinced surprise at the large number of alterations, including changing Doric to Ionic columns and changing the shape of the parapet windows. How, I asked, had the local historic district permitted such alterations?

Of course, they didn’t. The library had mislabled a photo of the Stone Building as being the Parker-Morell-Dana house. In retrospect, the giveaways were obvious, and I probably would have caught it myself if I had used the modern day shot of the Stone Building below, rather than the front facade shot that I used instead.

Stone building 3

But that’s the Stone Building. The Parker-Morrell-Dana House is something else again. Here’s an undated print of the front of the house, courtesy the Cary Library (again).

Dana house

In this picture — probably not from 1865 — you can see all the features that were present in my modern day photo, including the Ionic portico, the conventional square windows, and even the brick sides of the house (if you look very closely. You can also see one of my favorite features: the elongated window frames, made to look as if the facade had triple sashed windows like the ones on Jefferson’s Pavilions at the University of Virginia. But the bottom third inside the frame is just regular siding.

So anyway, that’s the story of how a mislabeled photograph led me astray. As they say, we regret the error.

The historic survey form from the 1970s has more information about the house and its history.

Update: Just heard from the library and they’re correcting the exhibit.