Derby Lane, St. Petersburg

Perfect Break At Derby Lane St. Petersburg

The starting box doors flip up, and the greyhounds burst toward the rail where the remote-controlled lure–a white fake rabbit appropriately named Hareson–zips around the turn. The dogs gallop full speed in pursuit around the dirt oval, which measures 1,320 feet long and 21 feet wide. They complete about a lap and a half before Hareson is halted and jerked out of the dogs’ reach just before they catch up to it. They stop running and seem disappointed, but their mood buoys at the sight of their handlers, who come onto the track to corral the dogs and return them to the paddock. This scene has been repeated thousands of times in Derby Lane’s 89-year history, but it’s unknown how many more times it will be repeated at the landmark, considered the oldest of its kind in continuous operation.

Greyhound racing is called the sport of queens, but it’s more like the sport of queens’ servants. It traces its roots to the 17th century English pastime of coursing, in which two greyhounds chase after a rabbit. Greyhounds can reach speeds of 45 mph, so they were well bred for the game. A coursing judge scrutinized the hounds not for how fast they killed the rabbit, but by the amount of athleticism they exhibited in the process. 

Americans sometimes offered their own take on coursing. For example, in Kansas and other Great Plains states, it was practiced more to eradicate jackrabbits and coyotes than for sport. Owen Patrick Smith is credited with pioneering modern greyhound racing when he invented the mechanical lure in 1909. Greyhounds, Smith proved, would chase anything–even if it wasn’t alive. The first greyhound track opened in Emeryville, California, in 1919, and the pastime spread across the country.

Dog tracks were particularly popular in Florida, which was undergoing rapid development at the time. Promoters played up Florida as an Eden where all life’s fancies could be enjoyed. They billed dog racing as a classy affair on par with thoroughbred horse racing. But racegoers were not Vanderbilts, Astors, or Rockefellers; they were working-class, hence why dog races were held at night and why admission was much cheaper than the horse track. Associations with mobsters like Al Capone gave dog racing a shady reputation.

Derby Lane was a product of greyhound racing’s initial swell in popularity. It was established in 1923 when a group of businessmen bought acreage northwest of St. Petersburg along Gandy Boulevard from lumberman T.L. Weaver and his brother-in-law John Loughridge. The pine scrub land was desolate, but it was near the recently completed Gandy Bridge, the first to link Tampa and St. Pete via automobile.

The consortium had a sand track, grandstand, and clubhouse built. But the group took a financial hit, and the property reverted back to Weaver when they couldn’t pay their bills. It has remained in the family since. The first dogs raced at what was known as the St. Petersburg Kennel Club before a crowd of 4,000 people on January 3, 1925.

Those early years were wild. Cars sometimes dashed around the track. When there was dog racing, monkeys dressed as jockeys rode on the backs of the greyhounds. Neither animal enjoyed the experience, because the monkeys were known to freak out and bite the greyhounds. Betting wasn’t legal, so the proprietors got around it by selling shares in the dogs. Even losing tickets returned a nickel.

Florida legalized parimutuel wagering in 1931, and Derby Lane flourished. There were a few down years during World War II when racing was banned. Then a season was lost when a few years after the war when the  dog owners went on strike. But, for the most part, Derby Lane was consistently a top attraction in the region, and attendance sometimes topped 10,000 for a card. Regarded as the Churchill Downs of dog tracks, famous patrons included baseball superstars in the area for spring training such as Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and–no surprise here–Pete Rose.

Everything changed in 1988 when the Florida Lottery debuted. Up until then, parimutels were the only legal places in the state to bet. But, with the introduction of the lottery, gamblers only had to schlep down to their nearest convenience store to get their fix. Derby Lane’s attendance collapsed. The Weavers slashed costs. Gift shop? Gone. Band and band shell next to the odds board? Gone. In-house bar? Gone. To counter, they expanded the race season from four to six months. They introduced simulcast wagering and broadcast races over the Internet for the first time. They even opened a lottery ticket window at the track. The Weavers also attempted to convert the Plaza Building into a nightclub, but that didn’t work out. The giant edifice now sits mothballed. 

Beginning in the late 1970s, reports on greyhound racing deterred potential new fans. Greyhounds aren’t pets that also race.  They’re bred, born, and raised do one thing: run. Similar to race horses, they are sometimes euthanized when they can’t run anymore–or don’t run well enough. They live in kennels starkly different from the living situations of most dogs in America. Many are fed meat that the FDA considers unsuitable for human consumption. Greyhound racing opposition groups have brought all this to light. And the mass deaths of greyhounds in kennel fires hasn’t exactly boosted the industry’s image. Even Homer Simpson decried the dog track as “sleazy” in the premiere episode of The Simpsons. 

The decline of greyhound racing is a nationwide trend. In 1997, there were 49 dog tracks in 15 states in 1997. Today that number has dwindled to 22 tracks in  seven states. Twelve are in Florida.

Yet Derby Lane retains its post-war grandiosity. Separated from Gandy Boulevard by acres of empty parking spaces, the main entrance in the grandstand is located just under the signs that read “GREYHOUND RACING” and “DERBY LANE.” The original wood grandstand was replaced by a larger concrete and steel cantilevered structure in 1949, about the same time the property became known officially as Derby Lane. The grandstand is flanked by a pair of International style clubhouses, enclosed by expansive glass windows. The Plaza Building to the west was built in 1967; the Derby Club in 1976. The manicured grass infield includes a scenic pond with a boardwalk to the island in the middle. The odds board was erected in 1949, and the paddock went up in 1967.  The track has been in the same spot since the start, though it has been elevated and banked. The track’s retro feel has not gone unnoticed by Hollywood; Brad Pitt and Rob Reiner filmed scenes for Ocean’s 11 there.

While a big race day might draw a couple thousand people, it is nothing like the pre-lottery days when crowds occasionally eclipsed 10,000 at Derby Lane. On a Saturday afternoon in December, a couple hundred people watched the festivities from the grandstand and blacktopped apron. The mixed bag included leathery old men who smelled like aftershave; pasty senior couples likely visiting from the Midwest; and a grungy man who either had Tourette’s or just enjoyed randomly yelling  sounds. Blue-haired old ladies bedecked in pearls stayed away from this menagerie and munched on scallops at dining tables in the air-conditioned clubhouse.

Below them, in the bowels of the clubhouse, the atmosphere was much more serious in Derby Lane’s poker room. The players–mostly men, some of whom donned hats and sunglasses to imitate the highrollers they saw on ESPN–crowded around tables shaped like a race track. They were devoid of emotion as they tossed plastic chips into the pile at the table’s center.

Poker saved Derby Lane. The track introduced cards in 1997, and the move has been profitable. But, to offer poker, the law requires the state’s dog tracks to schedule 90 percent of the numbers of races they ran in 1996, when the rule went into place. Derby Lane holds more races now than ever. It used to only offer a slate during the coldest months, but now it also hosts the meet for Tampa Greyhound Track, which stopped racing in 2007. The Tampa track found a loophole and moved its races to Derby Lane so it could still have on-site poker.

Legislation is currently in the works to decouple the race and poker provision. Greyhound racing is not profitable at most tracks, and they would stop racing if it’s not required. Ironically, both track owners and anti-racing activists support the measure, the former resigned to their fate as poker dens. Dog men, at risk of losing their livelihoods, adamantly oppose. Should the provision pass, Derby Lane intends to keep racing to meet its simulcast demands. How long that will continue is anyone’s guess.

For more information

Gwyneth Anne Thayer wrote a comprehensive book on greyhound racing in the United States titled Going to the Dogs: Greyhound Racing, Animal Activism, and American Popular Culture.

Front Entrance 1925

The original grandstand in 1925. Courtesy Derby Lane

1925. Burgert Brothers. Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System

The lure was on the outside of the track in this 1925 photo. Burgert Brothers. University of South Florida Library. http://usf.sobek.ufl.edu/SFS0024140/00001

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Babe Ruth eyes the cup for booze while Lou Gehrig is blinded by the camera flash. It must have been bright, because the dog’s trainer is covering the joyousvictor’s eyes.

1938. Check out the Art Deco style building at the finish line. University of South Florida Library. http://usf.sobek.ufl.edu/SFS0010918/00001

State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/161640

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At the ripe age of 14, Derby Lane billed itself as the oldest in the world.

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Rendering of the current grandstand. Courtesy Derby Lane

After the grandstand was built in 1949. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/161641

 State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/163049

Thrilling Finish of Greyhound Races at Derby Lane St. Petersburg

1950 aerial. Courtesy Derby Lane

1950 aerial. Courtesy Derby Lane

Night crowd. Ca. 1950. Courtesy Derby Lane

Night crowd. Ca. 1950. Courtesy Derby Lane

Ca. 1950. Courtesy Derby Lane

Ca. 1950. Courtesy Derby Lane

It's getting bigger. Ca. 1970.

It’s getting bigger. Ca. 1970.

Packed house in 1976. State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/59083

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Grandstand entrance.

Photo by Joshua C. Sackett

Courtesy Joshua C. Sackett

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This amazing neon sign was added during filming for Ocean’s 11.

Grandstand

Grandstand.

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Apron, infield, and odds board.

Introductions

Introductions.

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The handlers have a race of their own after the dogs go into the starting box.

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And they’re off.

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Hareson leads the way.

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Simulcast wagerers.

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Foods of New York Tours: Central Greenwich Village

MacDougal Street in New York City's Greenwich Village.

Former tenements on MacDougal Street in New York City’s Greenwich Village.

The tone for the tour was set at our meeting location, Monte’s Trattoria. The entrance, below a vintage neon sign, led to the basement of the 3-bay wide brick apartment building. The low-ceilinged space was cramped yet cozy. The men’s bathroom was about the size of an airplane’s. Minimalist chairs and tables were arranged to allow just enough passing room for the staff–men nearing retirement age who spoke with Italian accents. The lighting along the walls was dim, and the white table clothes and napkins provided a hint of urbanity. Framed paintings and photos of Italy hung on the wall.

Monte’s, established in 1918, is one of approximately seven stops on the Foods of New York Tours‘ foray in Central Greenwich Village. Each of the past two years at Christmastime, my gracious in-laws have taken us on one. We did the Original Greenwich Village Tour in 2012 year, and–despite the frigid December weather–were so impressed, we went again in December. 

New York City is all about the newest trends, so it’s easy for some of its more traditional places to fall to the wayside. The Foods of New York Tours showcase dining spots that don’t necessarily sell cronuts, Ramen burgers, or kale smoothies. The jaunts also double as history and architectural walking tours. Like Monte’s, most of the eateries have been in the neighborhood for decades, and almost all are located in old spaces that retain a lot of historic fabric. Along the way, our excellent guide, Barri, provided historical context and pointed out locales important to the neighborhood’s history, such as the 1960s home of Bob Dylan, Beat Generation hangouts, and the hanging tree in Washington Square Park.

At $52, the tour may seem expensive , but the quality and quantity of food, combined with the historic insight into the surroundings, made it worthwhile.

Once outside of Monte's, we walked past this sign to mark the location of the famed San Remo Cafe.

Once outside of Monte’s, we walked past this sign to mark the location of the famed San Remo Cafe.

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Greenwich Village’s take on Rainbow Row. The burnt red double row house was owned by Bob Dylan in the 1960s.

Cafe Dante at 79 MacDougal Street has been around since 1915. The coffeehouse was a hangout for the Beat Generation in the 1950s and the folk singers of the 1960s.

Caffe Dante at 79 MacDougal Street has been around since 1915. The coffeehouse was a hangout for the Beat Generation in the 1950s and the folk singers of the 1960s. It has since closed temporarily as it transitions to a restaurant. We tasted a sandwich there.

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Masala Times, an Indian food counter at 194 Bleeker Street, provided us with a wrap

Masala Times, a casual Indian restaurant at 194 Bleeker Street, provided us with a wrap and a yogurty drink. It was the best food on the tour.

This weathered doorway next to Masala Times included a nuclear fallout shelter sign above.

This weathered doorway next to Masala Times has a Cold War remnant above the door.

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Porto Rico Importing has existed since 1907 and been in the same family since 1958.

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Crooked Minetta Street follows the course of a stream that still flows beneath it. The street was developed in the 1840s.

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Cafe Wha? has hosted everyone from the Velvet Underground to Kool and Gang. It also was the scene of Bob Dylan’s first New York City club performance.

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We traveled back to Monte’s, our meeting spot, for a sit-down pasta tasting.

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This basement was the Gaslight Cafe, a legendary poetry and folk club from 1958 to 1971. Jack Kerouac, Bob Dylan, Bill Cosby, and Bruce Springsteen all graced the stage. It was re-created in the movie “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

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The three rowhouses at 127-131 MacDougal Street were built in 1829. Sources say they were built by Vice President Aaron Burr, but that is incorrect.

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The row houses along Washington Square North were built in 1833.

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Stanford White designed the Washington Square Park Arch, and it was dedicated in  1895. The arch is the centerpiece of the Washington Square Park, which was once a potter’s cemetery.

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We went inside to try a chicken and rice dish at Negril, a Caribbean-themed restaurant at 70 W. 3rd Street.

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The Sullivan Street Tea and Spice Company at 208 Sullivan St. is housed in a former mob hangout, the Triangle Civic Improvement Association. My, how the neighborhood has changed.

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It has lovely terrazzo floors.

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I believe the mural on the wall is from the 1950s, before it was a Mafia hangout.

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Lookout in a door inside the shop.

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Our last stop was in Soho at Once Upon a Tart, a French bakery at 135 Sullivan Street.

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For outstanding macaroons.

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Until next year.

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Cortez, Florida

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Cortez’ waterfront includes battered work boats and a restored net camp.

Snow-haired drivers in vehicles that sport Michigan and New York license plates creep down the shady streets of Cortez. These visitors are seeking one of the historic fishing village’s seafood restaurants, but first they must pass the timeworn single-family homes, their yards decorated with crab traps, floats, and decayed wooden boats.

Near the water, they pass chain-smoking fishermen in white rubber galoshes yucking it up as refrigerated trucks are loaded with their morning catch. These men carry on a tradition stretching back to the 1880s, when Cortez was settled by North Carolina fishermen on Hunter’s Point, a peninsula where Sarasota Bay meets Palma Sola Bay. Today the fish are fewer and the regulations are stronger–the gill net ban in 1995 was particularly devastating to the industry–but Cortez remarkably still remains an active commercial fishing community.

Thanks to the fishing families that still inhabit their ancestral homes and the artists who find inspiration in the atmosphere, a pocket of Cortez has managed to thwart much of the post World War II development that has transformed Florida’s waterfront into homogenized mansions, condos, and hotels. Cortez’ connection to the past and proximity to the Gulf of Mexico has made it a popular destination for those seeking an old Florida experience, evidenced by its packed restaurants and annual fishing festival, which draws tens of thousands over a weekend in February.

But Cortez’ popularity has also eroded its quaintness. Some of the nearly century-old frame cottages have been replaced by significantly larger buildings. A 50-acre patch of the village south of Cortez Road is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but this distinction does nothing to prevent destruction of historic homes.

So what is Cortez’ future? It’s unlikely to remain a commercial fishing haven much longer; it has already transitioned to a tourism and recreational economy, and those areas will only expand. But for now it remains a base for a few rugged individuals to ply their trade.

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A working waterfront.

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They filmed scenes for the 1998 version of “Great Expectations” in Cortez.

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The Florida Maritime Museum is located in the ca. 1912 schoolhouse.

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The Pillsbury boatworks was moved to the museum’s grounds.

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Cortez’ older homes are modest.

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A board and batten example.

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Limestone cottage.

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Charlie’s Cottages. Click here to see what they look like inside.

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A new house in Cortez.

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And another. Regulations require the homes be elevated at least one story.

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Work boats, floats, and a Volvo. Add the models and you have a Ralph Lauren ad.

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One of the village’s seafood restaurants.

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A  ca. 1960 Tropicana ghost sign on a fish packing house.

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Crab traps.

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Trucks load the fresh catch.

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This is the view of the draw bridge to Anna Maria Island from the mobile home park at Cortez’ west end. Plans to replace the bridge with a fixed span have met resistance for decades.

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Artists have been drawn to Cortez’ unique character and live in a few of the former fishing families’ homes.

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Links

Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage

Florida Maritime Museum

Sarasota Magazine article

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What to Buy a Preservationist

Matt Armstrong, a fellow graduate of the University of Florida’s historic preservation master’s program, wrote the following gift guide for the preservationists and architects on your Christmas list. Matt is the project manager for UF’s Government House Digital Preservation Center, volunteers for the Tolomato Cemetery Preservation Association  in St. Augustine, and grows a mean beard.

News flash for all you gentiles out there: As of post time there are exactly two weeks until Christmas day.  That’s 10 business days.  With the seasonal increase in orders and shipping, it can take up to 5 days to receive an online purchase, assuming you don’t pony up the cost of expedited shipping.  This means you now have 5 days to get your online Christmas shopping done.  This post is here to help.  Grandma: Yankee Candle.  Dad: Hillshire Farms Sausage and Cheese Pack.  Uncle Frank: novelty beer koozie.  See, we’re moving right along here!  But what about that hard-to-buy for preservationist or architect on your list? (hint: this might be YOU on someone else’s list)  I give you, the 2014 Gift Giving Guide for the Preservationist and Architecturally-Inclined.  This list (organized into 5 separate categories) is by no means comprehensive, but I hope it helps in the very least to inspire and point you in the right direction.  Help the list grow by adding a comment with some suggestions!

Patronage

  •  This one is first on the list for a reason: everyone involved benefits.  An annual pass to our National Parks is a great gift for those who travel.  Florida residents, with 161 state parks under our belt, definitely get the most bang for our buck with a FL State Parks Pass.  $60 a year for unlimited access?  Nice.
  • How about membership to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, or a state chapter?  Most of these will include a subscription to a magazine, journal, or some other publication.
  • For those looking to spend a little more money: a ticket to a conference (or even just a couple sessions) may seem boring to outsiders, but trust me, it’s a winner.  Many national conferences are a bit cost prohibitive when you include travel cost (this year’s National Trust conference was in Indianapolis, 2014’s will be in Savannah, GA), a place to stay, and the fees for the conference itself, so getting a ticket is really helping to relieve some of that burden.  The best part?  The money spent on any of the above is going directly toward the organizations to ensure they can keep doing what they do best: protecting our natural and historic resources.

Toys

  • LEGOs have been a great gift since time immemorial (1958), and being a “grown-up” shouldn’t have to change that.  Check out the LEGO Architecture series.  One of the coolest things about this collection is the building instructions – they include period photographs, history, and interesting construction factoids as you go along.
  • A board game where you use architecture to wage a territory war in a medieval city?  Yes please.  Cathedral the game delivers.
  • Medieval city?  Get with the times grandpa!  Aren’t there any games out there about modern architecture?  Enter The Modern Architecture Game.
  • Paper Town is more for the urban planner out there (or at least the person who wishes they could leave up the Christmas Village year-round), but the graphics are beautiful and it’s made from recycled material to boot.

Books

The books, my God, the books.  This whole post could have been about books, but I will defer to other more comprehensive lists to save some space.

  • Meghan Drueding over at Preservation magazine put together a wonderful list entitled Beautiful Architecture Books on the PreservationNation blog back in November.  These books definitely provide some great eye-candy, and will surely be curled up with in the armchair time and time again.
  • Maybe you are looking for some nitty-gritty preservation reads, or want to help a preservationist build their essential library – check out The Essential Preservation Reading List that Emily Potter put together for PreservationNation last year.  This is a very comprehensive list and contains links to other external resources.
  • Get ready to put your child’s graham cracker/milk carton gingerbread house to shame.  The Gingerbread Architect: Recipes and Blueprints for Twelve Classic American Homes is sure to please (reviews suggest that these designs are pretty involved, but I’m sure you architects out there can handle it).  Bonus: if you build all twelve and keep them for 50 years, you can nominate your village as a historic district.
  • The architecture selection from Dover Publications is also a treasure trove.  They have coffee table books, collections of floor plans, classic re-prints, and more.  To quote their website: “From Vitruvius to Frank Lloyd Wright, castles to Manhattan luxury apartments, these books present the fascinating panorama of architecture down through the ages.”  Enough said!
  • The Lost America books (Vol. I and II) are incredible books: well researched and packed with historic photographs.  The most incredible thing?  Every building photographed no longer exists.  The description of each building includes what occupies the site in the present day (Spoiler Alert!  Most are parking lots).

Technology

  • I haven’t had much time to play around with this app, but it seems to have a lot of potential.  MagicPlan lets you create a floor plan for a room or map out a site by identifying the corners or site boundaries on your screen and then comes the “magic” part – it gives you accurate measurements.  The app itself is free, but it costs $2.99 to obtain a copy of the plan you create (PDF, JPG, HTML and DXF formats).  A monthly subscription, which can be purchased at 3 plans per month, 6 plans per month, or unlimited, would make a great gift.
  • Honor the preservation efforts of the group that brought historic preservation to the forefront of popular culture in 1985 in Back to the Future with this smart phone case.  Save the clock tower!

Sundries

  • For home decor items that represents general goods and merchandise from the colonial times you can always take a trip to Colonial Williamsburg, or you could save on gas and just shop the Williamsburg Marketplace website.  Purchases benefit the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
  • Ties are a classic, practical gift.  These may look like ordinary ties, but the learned eye will recognize designs and patterns by some of history’s most influential architects.  Appearing in this collection are designs by Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Antoni Gaudi, and Charles Voysey with some work by Art Nouveau, Modernist, and Bauhaus artists thrown in for good measure.  (Check out their architecture t-shirt section too!)
  • I have always enjoyed the paper goods from Rifle Paper Co., and the 2014 calendars are no exception.  For the world traveler: the Flip Around the World Calendar.  For those who’d rather not deal with the hassle of exchange rates: the Travel America Calendar.
  • Adopted by the Preservation Society of Charleston, SC from the Nantucket Preservation Trust, the “Gut Fish, Not Houses” sticker is a “must-have” for preservationists, and would you look at that!…It fits perfectly in a stocking.
  • For those that are looking to help save the old ways doing things, or “intangible heritage”, as some might say, I suggest you check out the American Craftsman Project.  The website highlights American small businesses that are still doing things the way grandpa used to.  The site will direct you to online shops for each craftsman/craftswoman and you will end up with a quality, hand-made product while helping out a small business during tough economic times.  Double-whammy.

That about wraps up the 2014 Gift Giving Guide for the Preservationist and Architecturally-Inclined.  Don’t forget to leave a comment with some more suggestions for the list, and to all a good night!

Matt Armstrong

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Golden Gate Bridge Suicides

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The Golden Gate Bridge facing northwest. Fort Point is in the foreground.

The historic Golden Gate Bridge is San Francisco’s most recognizable landmark and the most iconic bridge in the world. But the bridge has an imperfection that must be corrected.

Every day, more than 100,000 people cross the Art Deco style masterpiece via foot, bike, or vehicle. But an average of two people per month never make it to the other side alive. At least 1,600 people have died after leaping from the bridge, making it the top suicide location in the world.  At just 4-foot tall, the railing along the bridge’s walkways doesn’t do much to stop jumpers from taking the 220 foot plunge into the chilly San Francisco Bay waters below. (The story goes that the railings were originally supposed to be 5.5 feet tall, but chief engineer Joseph Strauss was 5-foot, 3-inches tall and wanted to be able to peer over the top.) Trained crisis officers do patrol the bridge to talk down potential jumpers, and they have prevented a number of deaths. But they can’t watch every inch of the bridge 24/7.

I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge by bicycle for the first time a couple months ago and was surprised at how easy it would be to fall off. It was a weekday in the early afternoon, so all pedestrians and cyclists were crammed on to the east (bayside) walkway, which is only 10 feet wide in most places. It appeared easy for a biker to crash in to an oblivious picture-snapping tourist or get hit by a blast of wind and careen over the short railing. No doubt the low rail is a draw to those seeking a simple death.

The suicidal often are often attracted to landmark structures, because they provide them with the notoriety in death they may have lacked in life. Few people jump from the Bay Bridge, which links San Francisco to Oakland, because it’s not nearly as famous as the nearby Golden Gate. Similarly, recognizable landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, and the Notre Dame Cathedral all have been scenes of a considerable number of suicides. These victims could have chosen more accessible ways to end their lives, but they were fixated on those landmarks.

Those who plan to jump off tall bridges like the Golden Gate envision a quick, pain free death. But that’s not always the case. Some who hit the water at 75 mph survive the plunge with shattered bones and sliced up organs. Incapacitated, they drown. Some bodies are never discovered and are slowly picked apart by marine life–fish, crabs, sharks. Other leapers never make it to the water and slam in to the rocks instead.

There have been a number of movements over the decades to add barriers on the Golden Gate, but, surprisingly, in a region with a reputation as a progressive stronghold, the proposals have been repeatedly shot down . A section of 8-foot-tall curved fencing has been added to the railing above Fort Point, but that was added so people on the bridge can’t throw items on fort visitors below. Opponents say the suicidal are going to find a way to kill themselves no matter how much is spent to dissuade them, and it’s better for them to die quickly and cleanly with little risk to others. But a study on Golden Gate Bridge suicide survivors found that the majority regretted their decisions shortly after falling, and they never try again.  Others coldly argue changes to the bridge will ruin its aesthetics and hinder tourism.

Safety should always take precedent over historic integrity–especially design flaws like the low railing along the Golden Gate Bridge.  The latest proposal calls for a $45 million suicide prevention barrier, but funding remains an issue. Until it is actually installed, it will sit among the countless other failed efforts to deter bridge deaths. Enclosures now surround visitors at the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, and the Notre Dame Cathedral. The obstacles do little to the design and have deterred an unknown number of people from taking their lives. It’s time for the Golden Gate Bridge to follow suit.

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It was completed in 1937.

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Curved fencing lines the bridge above Fort Point, but not along most of the bridge.

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The railing is only this tall in most places.

Links

The New Yorker wrote an excellent article on Golden Gate Bridge jumpers in 2003.

Recent Slate article that supports the suicide prevention barrier.

The Bridge Rail Foundation.

Short film on bridge jumpers.

The “Final Leap” is a book about Golden Gate jumpers.

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Spaulding Wooden Boat Center

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Sausalito.

Sausalito, California, is a scenic waterfront community located just north of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Once a fishing, transportation, and ship-building hub, Sausalito is now known for its trendy boutiques, pricey inns, and experimental eateries. Cutting-edge homes that appear out of the pages of “Architectural Digest” crowd its hillsides, and sleek fiberglass yachts pack the marinas.

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The marina near the boat center. Fiberglass boats abound.

Amid the glamour is the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center. The modest boat shop was established in 1951 by Myron Spaulding, a  violinist who was also a skilled sailor and boat designer and builder. For nearly a half-century, he constructed sailing yachts to his own specifications until his death in 2000 at the age of 94. A couple years later, his wife, Gladys, created the nonprofit Spaulding Wooden Boat Center. In addition to providing repairs and maintenance on wooden boats, the center holds cruises, demonstrations, and youth boat building and sailing programs. Since 2007, the center has also been home to the Arques School of Traditional Boatbuilding, an apprenticeship program that teaches adults wooden boat construction.

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I visited Spaulding the first Wednesday of this month while on my honeymoon in San Francisco. My wife and I biked over the Golden Gate Bridge that day, and I pedaled the extra mile up the Sausalito waterfront to the boat yard. I missed the weekly Wednesday open house by a few hours, but I called the office when I arrived and a cheery gentleman encouraged me to come on in to have a look around.

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Life preservers and a photo of Myron Spaulding.

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The interior of the shop has developed a patina from decades of rugged use. The floorboards creaked. Yellowed posters hung from the walls. Masts leaned in a corner. Antique power and hand tools sat primed for action. Scraps of lumber and rope were splayed throughout. Wood dust coated everything.

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Antique power tools that are still in operation.

Freda rested on one of the two interior berths, beneath a latticework ceiling. The watercraft, built in 1885, is the oldest sailing yacht on the West Coast. She is undergoing a painstaking restoration that included cutting, milling, and drying the same type of wood used originally. So far, the project has cost about half a million dollars.

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Freda was built in 1885 and is undergoing her third restoration.

Fiberglass boats are so much easier to create and maintain, and they can last indefinitely, so what’s the point of wooden boat shops? It’s because wooden boats are works of art. Compared to a fiberglass boat, a well-built wooden one is like a Jaguar next to a Jeep. But to build one requires skill–just as in painting, sculpting, and glassblowing–that takes years to perfect and then it must be practiced regularly in order to maintain. The continued existence of places like the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center ensure the art of wooden boat construction lives on.

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The deck outside the shop, including the boatwork’s old crane.

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Names of donors are etched on Freda’s planks

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Boatbuilder at work.

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For more information on the Spaulding Wooden Boat Center, see:

http://www.spauldingcenter.org/index.html

http://www.arqueschl.org/

http://www.marinij.com/sausalito/ci_21804037/lib-at-large-restored-matriarch-san-franciso-bay

Or watch:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PH9Ymf9bERY

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WNl4V9LnFrc

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Filed under Boatbuilding, historic preservation

Preservation Hall

Preservation Hall’s facade doesn’t stand out. Source: Wikipedia. Photo by Infrogmation.

It was stifling. One of those humid New Orleans evenings when the sun goes down, but the temperature seems to only go up. The music venue had no AC, and to make matters worse didn’t sell drinks. Maybe that was because it doesn’t have lavatories. The thin, backless bench I sat on was pressed so close to the row in front that the former frat boy seated there nearly touched my knee as he massaged his girlfriend’s butt with his hand. Despite the discomfort, I no doubt will return to Preservation Hall next time I’m in the Crescent City.

I almost didn’t attend. I was in New Orleans for my bachelor party weekend in July. I didn’t have Preservation Hall on my agenda, because I knew it was a big tourist draw, and everyone says Frenchmen Street is so much better. On our last night, one of my friends said he wanted to go, because he had seen the Preservation Hall Jazz Band on one of their recent tours and felt inclined to visit their home base. Another friend had been there just a few months before so didn’t feel the need to return, and the others found Pat O’Brien’s next door more appealing than the $20 required to get into Preservation Hall. I didn’t want my pal to have to go alone, so I went with him.

Crowd waits for the hall to open. Source: Preservation Hall Facebook page. Photo: Shannon Brinkman

Crowd waits for the hall to open. Source: Preservation Hall Facebook page. Photo: Shannon Brinkman

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From the doorway. Source: Preservation Hall Facebook page. Photo: Shannon Brinkman

Source: Preservation Hall Facebook page. Photo by Howard Lambert.

The front wall behind the musicians. Source: Preservation Hall Facebook page. Photo by Howard Lambert.

Preservation Hall opened in 1961 as a forum where traditional New Orleans jazz could be showcased. Founders Allan and Sandra Jaffe feared that the distinctive American art form would be lost should there be no place dedicated to its practice, hence the venue’s name.

I imagined Preservation Hall to be a grand ballroom, but it’s the intimate front room of an early 1800s building. From the outside, it looks like any other other nondescript, patina’d French Quarter edifice, and it’s easy to walk past during the day when it’s folded up and never know its significance. The space can hold about 100 patrons, who can sit on benches, stand in the back, or sit in front of the band on the scarred wood floor. The plaster on the walls is fractured, and the decor timeworn. The lighting is dim, and two ceiling fans provide the only heat relief.

I took this photo before I noticed the sign that said photography and videography are forbidden. Perhaps this is why the clarinetist is giving me the eye.

I took this photo before I noticed the sign that said photography and videography are forbidden. Perhaps this is why the clarinetist is giving me the eye.

Few musical experiences have engaged me more than what I heard at Preservation Hall. I am by no means a jazz aficionado, but when the music started, I felt what Jack Kerouac must have felt at a Charlie Parker concert. Davell Crawford and His Creole Jazz Men played the night I went, and each musician was masterful. They weren’t slogging through a show because they knew the audience was too uninformed–or drunken–to know any better. These were seven guys upholding New Orleans’ rich musical traditions–traditions worth preserving.

Vanity Fair published a feature to mark the hall’s 50th anniversary about its efforts to stay relevant that can be read here.

Go here for a virtual tour of Preservation Hall.

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Filed under New Orleans