Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Excuse Me Mr. Kubrick, I'm 10 Years Old and Real Confused

For a number of years, as a child and teenager, I made my pocket money as a newspaper boy. While my mother was working her way through college one of her part time jobs was as a "den mother" to a group of us. My fellow newsboys would gather at our house each day to collect and fold their papers before setting out to deliver them. She would study at our kitchen table in the breakfast nook, which overlooked the back yard, thereby being accessible to us should the need arise. One of her responsibilities was to take us out one evening each week to canvas neighborhoods for new subscriptions. In this area of the business I was particularly successful. I was tiny, with red hair, freckles and large blue eyes. I was difficult to say no to. There were prizes awarded for the number of  subscriptions we were able to collect. Over time I won, among other things, several trips to Disneyland, we lived an hour away, and a small black and white t.v. This I used for over ten years, keeping it with me when I moved out of my parents home. At one point we were awarded tickets to a movie at a fancy Hollywood theatre. The movie was Stanley Kubrick's "2001, A Space Odyssey".

Although the movies remarkable visual effects impressed me, the film's non linear storytelling style left a bunch of pre teen paperboys standing in the lobby afterward scratching their heads in puzzlement. What's with those apes in the beginning? What about the old man and the baby at the end? And, WHAT THE HELL WAS THAT BIG BLACK THING THAT KEPT SHOWING UP??????????? Another of the "den mothers", who had driven us to the theatre, on the way home was left with the unenviable task of attempting to explain this confounding movie to a bunch of 10 year olds.

I am several decades older now and recognize Stanley Kubrick as a true master of his craft. He did not play by the rules. If he had his work would not be near as interesting or carry the extraordinary level of gravity which it does. There is "Spartacus", with it's homoerotic undertones, so controversial in their day that they were edited out of the movie upon it's initial theatrical release. He demanded that Dalton Trumbo be given screenwriting credit for this film, even though Trumbo was blacklisted at the time. "Barry Lydon" is a visual marvel due to his creation of a film making technique which allowed him to shoot scenes in candlelight. "Clockwork Orange", again controversial due to it depictions of sex and violence is a remarkable piece of storytelling, a wonderfully imaginative vision of a future gone haywire. "Paths of Glory" contains some of the most affecting battle scenes I have ever viewed. It manages to show the horrors of the battlefield without resorting to scenes of graphic gore. "Dr. Strangelove" is a satirical classic which masterfully skewers the foolishness and utter nonsense of the decades long cold war.

But back to "2001". In order to lend the film realism he paid AT&T and the Hilton Corp. to use their names and logos in it. This is particularly ironic in that today companies pay film's producers to have their products and logos depicted in them. Perhaps the film is best described as "open to interpretation". In my case at least, this interpretation seems to change with each viewing. This being said, I am always enthralled by it's spectacular visuals, lush classical score and Keir Dullea's thick thighs in his tiny tight shorts as he jogs around the spaceship shadowboxing.

The only time the movie has ever made complete sense to me was one night watching it on t.v. with my stepfather as we smoked a substantial quantity of hash. As the movie progressed our conversation regarding it resulted in great insight and clarity. The following morning however, the hash had worn off and I remained as frustrated and confounded by it as ever.

Mr. Kubrick, may you rest in peace, but I am now 55 and real confused!

Saturday, September 15, 2012

St. Louis - The Trip Home

I remarked during my trip, to an extremely helpful bus driver, how gracious and friendly people had been to me in St. Louis. I enjoyed my visits to the two museums, particularly enthusiastic about their excellent art museum. I was quite taken by the park in which the museums were housed and wish I had had better weather and more time to explore it. From the brief glimpse I received, it appears the neighborhood around the park is also deserving of more exploration. I was underwhelmed by the segment of gay life I witnessed, but nowhere, even in my beloved hometown of Chicago, is that what it once was.

Early Monday morning arrived and I boarded the Amtrak train for my return trip. Having ridden on the left hand side of the train going south I realized I would also have to sit on the left hand side of the train going north to see the sights I had not seen as opposed to seeing what I had seen only backwards! I was allowed a better view of the Capitol building and the well preserved historic center of Joliet, including the beautifully renovated train station. Having to pull off to a siding to allow another train to pass we were treated to a bucolic vista of late summer wildflowers and due to the recent rains, somewhat replenished wetlands. A friend of mine, when I returned, mentioned how boring the drive is from Chicago to St. Louis. Upon learning that I had traveled by train he agreed that it would be a much more enjoyable and interesting trip. It is a mode of travel I highly recommend Perhaps, choosing to ride the train, if parents are lucky, "are we there yet" would turn into "are we there already".

St. Louis - The Courthouse and Dred Scott

While admiring the Arch I struck up a short conversation with a man wearing a faded Cubs tee shirt. He also was visiting from Chicago with two other friends over the long weekend. I seem to have a habit of running into Chicagoans when traveling. I have met them gazing at a waterfall in Ohio, strolling down the street in Key West and met people born in the suburbs in Palm Springs and Yellowstone. At the street corner he went his way and I started across another small park towards the historic St. Louis Courthouse.

I had initially intended to just walk by the Courthouse assuming, it being Sunday, that it would be closed. It was covered by scaffolding undergoing renovation. This is something else I seem to have a habit of running into. The Doumo in Florence, main cathedral in Mexico City, even the 18th century courthouse on St. Martin, it's cornice topped by a carved wooden pineapple, have all been at least partially covered by scaffolding or netting during my visits. I was delighted to discover that the courthouse was open and climbed the steps to it's entrance.

Inside rooms contain historical displays. There is a plexiglas model in one of these rooms showing the original structure and how it had been expanded over the years. The soaring, beautifully painted rotunda and dome were festooned with patriotic stars and stripes banners.

The sign outside had said that two of the courtrooms had been restored to their original 19th century appearance. I stepped into the gift shop to ask where they were located. A Park Ranger, who had been visiting with the woman behind the counter, escorted me out into the main hall to direct me to them, filling me in on the history of the building. A remarkable history it was. This was the site of the Dred Scott hearing. Dred Scott, born into slavery, was owned by an army officer. He accompanied the officer to several of his posts. He eventually sued his master for his freedom, his argument being that, since some of the posts had been in free states, when he set foot in them he became a free man, regardless of where he currently resided. The court's decision was that, as he was born into slavery he was not a citizen and therefore had no legal right to sue. His suit was declared invalid. The suit and decision were more complicated than this, involving appeals and questions of protection of property.  Legally Dred Scott was viewed as his master's property. The decision inflamed passions on both sides of the issue. It influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln which eventually led to the civil war.

By 1860 more free blacks than slaves resided in St. Louis. A resident's license for a free black, however, required the posting of a $1000 bond, which was a considerable amount at the time.

The courtroom where the Dred Scott decision was heard no longer stands as it once did. A sagging ceiling required building two supporting walls to shore it up, cutting the space up into two courtrooms on either side of a corridor.

On the second floor of the Courthouse are the two restored courtrooms. The second floor is accessed by cast iron steps with filigree risers which date from 1851. The Park Ranger pointed out that the staircase has no vertical support, instead it is anchored to the wall.

Back outside I wandered the downtown streets back to where I would catch the bus to the guesthouse. It being Sunday the streets were almost eerily quiet. Although the majority of the structures in the downtown area are modern, besides the Courthouse a few historic buildings still stand. The city hall is a baroque beauty under it's coating of grime. It is badly in need of some TLC as in it's present state it appears almost abandoned. Across the street from it is a court building. On it's upper floors classical columns hold up a stepped pyramid roof. Unfortunately  between downtown and the neighborhoods to the south several blocks on the edge of the downtown area appear to have been razed to construct elevated highways and off ramps. This has created a desolate, almost war torn looking landscape. From the few buildings that remain it looks as if this area may, at one time, have been historic in nature.

St. Louis is by no means alone in this form of destruction. Throughout the U.S. cities have destroyed their heritage, often to accommodate this countries addiction to the private car. Once this history is gone it cannot be regained. We owe it to future generations to restore and preserve history. The knowledge of where we are cannot be fully understood or appreciated without the knowledge of how we arrived there.

St. Louis - The Arch

On a still gray, cloudy and rainy Sunday morning I left the guesthouse for my trip to the iconic landmark the St. Louis Arch, an almost mandatory visit on a trip to the city. The bus service on Sundays is somewhat sporadic so I chose my departure time carefully and got to the stop with plenty of time to spare. A misstep here could mean on hour long wait until the next bus came along.

I settled in and observed the Sunday morning goings on. An elderly couple carefully picked their way across the rain slick street heading towards the church next to the stop. Bicyclists in their skin tight lycra outfits, their aerodynamic helmets making them resemble some odd form of insect, pedaled hard in an effort to successfully navigate the hilly terrain in the area. Bells rang in the distance announcing the start of Sunday services elsewhere in the area.

After a short ride that I was beginning to become familiar with, I transferred to a train and was soon at the park surrounding the St. Louis Arch. A nationwide design competition was held in 1947 for a new National Monument. Eero Saarinen's design of the Arch was chosen and construction began in 1963. Unfortunately, Saarinen died prior to the completion of the structure in 1965. Weighing 43,000 tons, at 630 feet it is the nation's tallest National Monument. Although from photos one might assume that the base of each side of the Arch is square, they are actually trapezoids, which gives the massive structure a surprisingly graceful silhouette. Small signs lead you through the pleasant park to the underground entrance and visitor's center.

Times being what they are, and this being a National Monument, security at the entrance is tight. All bags are x rayed, jackets must be removed and all visitors must pass through a metal detector. They let you keep your shoes on! Due to the limited number of elevators and somewhat small observation area at the top of the Arch, to maintain crowd control tickets to the top are sold for a particular time. Arriving relatively early in the day the line was short and I only had to wait 20 minutes before my reservation. I browsed in the gift shop, I noticed two women in colorful African dress. One was about to take a photo of the other. I offered to photograph the two of them together as I crossed the lobby to my place in line for the elevator. These women plus the mix of languages and accents around me let me know that this monument is truly internationally known.

Prior to my visit friends asked me how the elevators worked. Did they turn sideways at the top requiring you to climb out of them like a space capsule? To a certain degree I wondered how they would work myself. In fact the elevators, 8 on each side of the Arch, are small, pod like affairs which seat 5 people each, in theory. If one member of the party is particularly large or tall this could make the space rather tight. Fortunately there were well behaved children in my orb going both up and down so the 4 minute ride was as comfortable as it could be, considering. As the pod elevators resemble eggs I began to relate to the feelings that an unhatched chicken might have. Glass doors keep at bay any claustrophobia and give a fascinating view of the inner construction of the Arch. Short steps lead you to the observation deck from the elevator area. Small windows from the observation area look out on the Mississippi river on one side and the St. Louis cityscape on the other. This vantage point provided me with a clear view of the layout of the downtown area allowing me to better plan my walk through it after I left the Arch. After peering out the windows and snapping a few photos I was done and returned to the elevator banks for the ride down.

I was to share the pod with a couple and their two young daughters, who were in town for the birthday of the girl's cousin. The wife was sweet and related her memories of visiting the Arch when she was young. The husband was silent and almost unbearably hot with his shaved head and wide receiver's physique. I had heard that the Arch was designed to withstand winds by having been built with a certain ability to sway, up to 18" if winds were to ever reach 150 mph, 2" on 20 mph winds. Although I did not perceive this movement in the observation area, I did waiting for the elevator. The sway that day was not enough to be nausea inducing, just ever so slightly disconcerting. Once back outside I lingered for a few moments in the park admiring the simple beauty of the monument. I marveled at the technical skill involved in it's construction, particularly in a era prior to computerized measurements and construction techniques. Standing on the banks of the legendary Mississippi it elegantly symbolizes the "Gateway to the West".

Friday, September 14, 2012

St. Louis - It Rained, Then Stopped, Then Rained Anew!

The rains from the tropical storm came and went, and then came again. The challenge was to be inside when the skies opened. As the showers were completely unpredictable this was a rather tricky dance. The showers ranged from flash flood inducing deluges to mists barely worthy of the term rain.

While sitting in a bar Saturday afternoon one of the more violent storms passed over, carrying with it strong powerful rain. Patrons that had just left came running back in. I chose a spot that afforded me a view through the open door and watched the poor souls caught outside during the downpour. Two girls ran by, both soaked to the skin. One carried her flip flops apparently deciding that wet bare feet would give her more traction than her rubber footwear on the rain slick brick sidewalk. A man walking across the street seemed resigned to his sodden state as he plodded along.

Later that evening I left the guesthouse to find a place for dinner. The first venue suggested was dark, loud and not to my liking. The Mexican restaurant next door to it, also suggested as a possibility, had a wait of 45 minutes. Beginning to despair, and being quite hungry by this time, I happened to see a small pizzeria, set back away from the sidewalk,  just off the main street. Entering, I found a small space awash in wonderful smells. There was only one party there when I first arrived. A group of 6 people, most quite heavy, loudly discussing politics and the upcoming election. One woman continually stated her opinion that Republicans wanted to take the vote away from women and furthermore "Put women back in Burkas!" I found this odd as I was unaware that American women had ever worn Burkas. Inexplicably, as I was in Missouri, the USC game was playing silently on the t.v., as it had been in several other places that day. I found a window table, ordered and observed the people coming and going through the restaurant door.

 A family entered, a man with his wife, who was another extremely heavy woman, and several daughters of various ages. I got the notion that he had never won a single argument in this house full of women. Perhaps he gave up trying long ago.

A heavily tattooed, emaciated young man came in. His felt porkpie hat had several feathers tucked in it's band. Against all odds it seemed to have fared rather well in the inclement weather that day. The chain attached to his wallet was long and thick. It's weight seemed to put a strain on his pipecleaner thin physique. He picked up his "to go" order and stepped out the door, striding up the street in his heavy Doc Martens.

I had ordered chicken wings. One of the hallmarks of good chicken wings is how messy they are. These were good, and very messy. One was so slick that it slipped from my fingers and landed under the table. As inconspicuously as possible I attempted to slide it back with my foot, then bend down to pick it up and deposit it among the bones of the ones I had already devoured. After finishing the wings I used the accompanying order of garlic bread to soak up the remaining sauce.

Another fierce storm began. I watched out the window as 3 small children giggled and screamed as they chased each other around in the pouring rain.

The Missouri History Museum - Underneath it All

An extremely interesting and entertaining exhibit currently at the Missouri History Museum is entitled "Underneath it All". It's focus is on the history of women's foundation pieces from the 18th century to the present day. Mannequins are positioned side by side. One is dressed as a woman would be seen on the street, the other shows what was worn under the outer garments. It is a fascinating display of hoops, corsets, stays and various types of padding necessary to give the woman's dress the proper silhouette. Some of the more restrictive items made me wonder how women were able to move about at all, or perform a basic action such as simply sitting down. The accompanying notes make the point that the restrictive clothes women wore reflected and reinforced their restrictive roles in society. A corset, making her body conform to an unnatural ideal, or hoop skirt made it impossible for her to perform any type of physical labor. In some cases she would not have even been able to dress without assistance due to the elaborate combinations of laces, buckles and fastenings needed to don these garments. It was the western world's version of the Chinese custom of binding feet.

At the turn of the 20th century women began to demand emancipation and greater participation in society. These ideas influenced women's dress and foundation garments. Fashions became more comfortable and easy to wear. A woman's body was allowed to appear more natural. Foundations were relegated to providing support and protecting the outer garments as well as providing modesty. The days of the corset, hoop and bustle were behind her. The First World War forced many more women into the workplace which in turn forced more comfort and practicality into women's fashion.

As the 1920's dawned, hemlines rose. Women's undergarments became more fun as color, albeit soft pastels, began to be introduced. The downside, some more well endowed women had to bind their breasts to achieve the newly popular boyish look. Some of the thin strapped, bias cut dresses of the 1930's demanded that, for the first time, women would need to forgo upper body foundations. The war effort of the 40's meant that the fabrics that had been used for undergarments, primarily cotton and silk, would have to be substituted as these fabrics were being used heavily for military functions. Acetate and nylon were developed as stand ins.

The 1950's brought a return to more form altering foundations. Crinoline petticoats and new styles of bras, which occasionally made breasts look like atomic weapons, come into vogue. As I stood in front of a display of bullet bras, two in black lace, I heard an extremely elderly woman behind me exclaim "I never did buy a black bra!" All of us standing within earshot managed to keep a straight face, although it took some effort.

The exhibit continues through the "natural" braless look of the 60's and the disco era of the 70's, when skintight fashions required thin, sometimes almost nonexistent underwear. It then covers the 1980's, or as I like to refer to them, "the shoulder pad years", to today.

In the center of the exhibit is a rack with various styles, hoop skirts etc, which can be tired on to get a first hand feel of the pieces displayed (before you even ask, no I did not!)

One last case, also in the center of the room, displays the type of corset worn through much of the 19th and even early 20th century by the woman that was pregnant, or, to use the vernacular of the time, "expecting", to attempt to disguise or downplay her "condition". Today actresses parade down red carpets proudly displaying their "baby bumps" in clinging jersey gowns. You've come a long way baby. My how times have changed.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Two Museums in a Day - The Missouri History Museum

A talkative woman from Kentucky was waiting at the stop for the park bus with me. I attempted to be polite, however, she was none too bright and decidedly uninteresting. I became a little edgy, praying for the bus to come so I could be relieved of this conversation. My saviour arrived and I boarded to ride to the History Museum at the front of the park. The park, the site of the 1904 World's Fair, is much larger than it appears on the maps I consulted prior to my trip. A full day, if not more, could be spent exploring it. The inclement weather, unfortunately, kept my personal explorations limited to those that could be accomplished from inside the bus.

The entrance to the Missouri History Museum, like the Art Museum is also classical in style. Large columns support a portico over it's doors. An addition has been added to the original structure. The frieze of the first building, constructed in 1913 using proceeds from the 1904 Fair, was located at what was the main entrance to the fairgrounds and is preserved inside the newer building. A copy of Lindbergh's plane, The Spirit of St. Louis, is suspended from the ceiling.

An exhibit is focused on the fair. It includes extensive historical information not only of the fair itself but also of the construction methods, some of them quite innovative in their time, used to create the buildings and grounds. It contains photographs, fair souvenirs and reproductions of several employee I.D. cards of the workers, accompanied by short bios on each of them. There are displays of items exhibited at the fair. It was the first World's Fair in which China participated which caused a great deal of excitement at the time. People eagerly anticipated a chance to explore a small piece of this exotic locale. On display is an ornate desk, featuring more drawers than traditional Asian furnishings, designed to appeal to the western market by an enterprising Chinese craftsman.

Appropriate fashion for fair attendees is featured. No tank tops, shorts and flip flops for this event! Hats, for both men and women, were a mandatory accessory of the day. Bowlers or straw boaters for men, elaborate feather and floral adorned creations for women. Judging from photos of the era, the "hat wars" among the women were vicious, bloody and brutal affairs. Women's dresses were long and modest. Cool lace and batiste was the order of the day for summer, transitioning to warmer wools as the weather turned cooler later in the year. For men, summer fashion was a sweltering combination of a shirt, featuring a tight, starched, stiff collar and tie, and a, again, mandatory jacket. Some particularly masochistic male fashionistas would add a vest to the already cumbersome and over warm costume. Considering Missouri's midsummer heat, I imagine one's nattily attired profile would last a half hour, tops!

There are maps of the fair, locating the various attractions, and a small section on the Olympics held in St Louis that year in conjunction with it. The first Olympics to be held in the U.S.

After the fair all of the structures, except for the building now housing the art museum, were demolished. Whatever could be reused was recycled and sold. Other items were buried under the park. There is one case devoted to ornamental fragments of some of the buildings that were unearthed in an archaeological dig conducted by local students.

Another room in the museum features a mixture of smaller exhibits. Here a walk through example of the modest home of a free black can be seen. In this area can also be found a fully outfitted, late 60's model VW camper van. It brought back to me memories of summer trips in vans exactly like this. I felt like a child wanting to explain to passersby, this counter lifts up to reveal the sink, the icebox is under it! This is the closet, the pantry is back by the hatchback, the table and seats fold down! That seat makes a double bed, there's storage under this one! The only difference was the smart looking black and red upholstery this car sported. Having four kids required our upholstery to be of a much more mundane and durable material.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Two Museums in a Day - The St. Louis Museum of Art

The collection of the St. Louis Museum of Art is rich. Like a fine wine, it leaves one satisfied yet yearning for the opportunity to experience it again. There is a balance to the collection. It contains a wealth of works spanning eras and art movements from ancient Egypt to the present. No one period or style receives more emphasis than another. Despite the generous size of the collection, over 30,000 pieces, the museum has an intimacy to it which allows one feel a personal attachment to the works. It would be interesting to see if this intimate feeling remains when the expanded galleries, now under construction, are opened. Excellently curated, the galleries are arranged by art movement, subject matter or period, which helps provide focus. For instance, Impressionist landscapes and Impressionist portraits are housed in two separate spaces. The lower level concentrates on furnishings and artifacts, the second level on 17th century through early 20th century painting and sculpture and the third on more modern works. The building, originally constructed for the 1904 World's Fair was moved to it's present site in 1906.

I began on the lower level in the institutions furnishings collection, which  includes two reconstructed period rooms. The collection ranges from opulent 17th century furniture and decorative arts through the Arts and Crafts movement to free form, minimalist designs from the 60's and 70's. Several of the Arts and Crafts pieces are shown in their original settings through the use of period photographs, providing the opportunity to understand how, beautiful in themselves, they were also an integral part of a larger whole. There are galleries of china and silver pieces. Some almost vulgar in their level of ostentation and opulence. Others, like the Wedgewood Jasperwear displayed, familiar and simple in design. One case highlights objects associated with the English tradition of afternoon tea. Medieval armour, and Mesoamerican and ancient Egyptian artifacts are also housed on this floor.

The Egyptian collection is housed in two small rooms, one skylit, which gives a feeling of space to the small gallery. It also allowed me to see the fierce rain which had broken out outside. Three mummy cases are displayed. Two painted with elaborate hieroglyphs, the third a breathtaking example of gold and black lacquer. Xrays of the mummys encased in these are shown on the wall behind them describing the differing methods used for interring them. In one small case figures, meant to assist the dead with tasks in the next world are shown next to a collection of beads used to adorn a shroud. A rare marble figure of a God is juxtaposed with a beautifully simple, elegant bronze sculpture of a cat which bears the wonderful green patina of it's 2000 plus years of existence.

The small Mesoamerican collection has maps on the walls spotlighting the origins of the objects on view. There is a wonderful stone sculpture of a God, a piece of mural from Tenochtitlan, with a detailed explanation of the symbols employed and a well preserved, carved example of the girdle worn by the players in the Mayan's ball court rituals.

I move to the next level and work my way through a grouping of 18th century portraits. Masters of the genre like Gainsborough and Joshua Reynolds hang next to works by other, lesser known, yet remarkably accomplished artists. I marvel at the ability of these painters to capture the light reflecting off the satin fabrics of the extravagant costumes worn by the subjects. The rendering of the delicate lace in the portraits look almost as if you could feel it's texture under your fingertips.

The landscape Impressionist gallery contains works by Van Gogh and Pissarro, as well as a small work by Seurat. A mammoth example of one of Monet's "Waterlily's" dominates the room, filling one wall.

A Dega sculpture of a young ballerina, considered shocking and grotesque in it's time, is housed in a gallery which also contains a work of his depicting women in a hat shop. A charming docent at the front desk tells me that this is a recent, major acquisition.

I linger over Millet's tender work "The Knitting Lesson". I am delighted by the visual assault of a collection of works by the German Expressionist Max Beckmann. In the modern galleries upstairs I discover a Rothko. His soft edged rectangles soothe me while a Lichtenstein sculpture nearby tickles my comic fancy.

There is a unique special exhibit on view during my visit. In the museum's collection is a panorama. These are large, multi-paneled works popular as a form of visual entertainment in the 19th century. Attached to rollers, they were used, accompanied by music and narration to gave an audience a view, often somewhat romanticized, of different destinations and  important historical events. As each event was being described, the accompanying scene would be rolled into view, comparable to a slide show. The rolling, as well as the constant transport of the pieces caused them to deteriorate. The one owned by the St. Louis museum is the only example known to exist depicting scenes and the history of the Mississippi Valley. A true American treasure, it had been in storage for several years due to it's delicate condition. It's paint had flaked badly and the fabric had become creased and wrinkled, causing further distress to the already damaged painted surface. Steam was used to smooth the fabric, the piece was reinstalled on new rollers and a painstaking restoration of the damaged paint was begun. Artist, sometimes resorting to ladders, the piece is quite tall, began filling in the damaged areas. This restoration is done in full view of  museum visitors. In addition to giving the visitor the unique and rare opportunity to see the curators at work first hand, the exhibit also includes photos of all the scenes depicted on the panorama.There is information on the details depicted on them,a history of the piece and an explanation of the work being performed.

The only other place I have seen something similar is at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix. There a window looks into the conservation lab allowing visitors to observe the technicians at work. As preservation and conservation of the priceless works held in museum collections is as important as the exhibition of the holdings, perhaps more museums should develop this type of exhibit. It allows the visitor to view, understand and appreciate the process and work involved in providing them with the uniquely enriching experience of a museum visit.

Since the rain from the tropical storm continues, some downpours being rather heavy, I decided to skip the zoo and continue on to the Missouri History Museum. I did not know of it until I saw it at the front of the park as I waited for the bus. Admission to it, like the Art Museum, is free. The woman at the front desk informs me that she had recently visited Chicago and feel in love with the Art Institute, sending her husband off on other activities so she could linger there. She tells me there is an exhibit at the History Museum, "Underneath it All", which is not to be missed. Armed with this information, I leave to catch the bus to my next destination.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

St. Louis - Breakfast in a Garden

The day dawns gray and overcast. Storms and showers are predicted but, thus far, in spite of the gray skies, the streets are dry. I have planned a trip to the St. Louis Art Museum and weather permitting the zoo. They are located next to one another in a city park. If inclement weather does hit, I resolve to make things up as I go along.

Bits of blue are appearing in the sky as I wait for breakfast in the charming outdoor garden of a restaurant near the guesthouse. A light breeze creates a rustle in the leaves of the trees which shade this tranquil green oasis. The waiter is adorable, friendly, young, dark curly brown hair leading down to retro 60's sideburns. Well built without being overly muscular, his broad shoulders lead down to a tiny waist. He possesses the kind of physique young men often take for granted, before gravity comes along and does it's sinister work. He is an unexpected breakfast treat.

The sun seems to be struggling to burn off the cloud cover. I begin to think I may have to return to the guesthouse to ditch some of the rain gear I packed for the day in an overabundance of caution. The breakfast is delicious, particularly when compared to the rather tepid fair of the previous evening. An omelet composed of eggs, spinach, mushrooms and tomato topped off with three thick slices of creamy brie. The potatoes, mixed with peppers and sweet onion, show that even though St. Louis is called the "Gateway to the West", it also contains a small, slight southern sensibility.

As I am here longer and have become more familiar with the area I begin to notice more of the details which give the neighborhood it's French village feel. The red brick sidewalks and the colored shingles which form diamond shaped designs on some of the mansard roofs. There are the friezes running under the narrow eaves of the roofs created of painted wood or decorative brick. Through a wrought iron security gate you can see an open gallery running the length of one building, front to back. It creates the separation between the two flats on either side of the first floor. It also reveals a staircase leading to the flats of second floor the lush green yard sitting behind the structure. An small, empty lot nearby has been turned into a lovely, tidy garden. Small patches of lawn sit between bright plots of flowers, delineated by  sinuously curving brick borders. A short wrought iron fence with a gate in it's center runs along the sidewalk. At one point, inexplicably, the sidewalk ends in the middle of a block. A rutted dirt path, now muddy due to the recent rain, carries you to the next corner.

A short bus and metro ride, the city's public transit is adequate and easy to navigate, takes me to Forest Park, the site of the 1904 World's Fair. A second bus travels through the large park to ferry passengers to various attractions there. I disembark in front of the classical, colonnaded facade of the St. Louis Museum of Art.

St. Louis - Upon Arrival

Even though, as a result of the hot dry summer, it is well below it's normal level, the Mississippi is broad and stately. A proud, imposing lady worthy of her legendary status. She is a hard working river. Her waters not blue but silt filled, brown and muddy. She is not used for pleasure but for transport. As her waters empty into the Gulf of Mexico, she creates the biologically rich delta which shares her name.

When one arrives at a destination mid afternoon, in this case 3:30, there is often a quandary of how to kill the remainder of the day. After catching the bus to the small guesthouse, my home base for the next two days, I find myself left at odd ends. I take a short walk through the historic neighborhood where the guesthouse is located. My umbrella comes in handy as occasional small showers, the aftermath of the tropical storm, pass over. The streets in the area are lined with late 19th and early 20th century rowhomes. Storefronts occupy the street level of a number of them. They bear a decidedly French influence. On the uppermost floors dormer windows perch on mansard roofs. It is immediately reminiscent to me of Montreal's old city, although a couple of centuries younger that that venerable spot. Large churches loom over the other buildings suggesting the importance of religion in society and the lives of the people at the time this area was developed.

The guesthouse itself is a comfortable yet somewhat ramshackle affair. The handyman is quite talkative and has provided a wealth of information on the building. He has also served a valuable purpose as a conversationalist on this initial day. Due to the weather and the current, still difficult, economic times, I am the only guest here this weekend. The guesthouse dates from 1904 and was originally built as coldwater flats. Some interior woodwork, baseboards and door and window mouldings, are still intact. The exterior steel staircase leading to the second floor rooms is reputed to have been salvaged from the Ferris Wheel featured at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. However, this would be next to impossible to verify. World's Fairs, for the most part, are temporary affairs. The attractions are generally demolished or dismantled after the Fair's run. The look of the stairs does make this assertion, though somewhat questionable, not implausible. The central spoke to the wheel, local legend has it, is buried somewhere in the city. Over the years attempts have been made to locate it in hopes of reconstructing it as a tourist attraction.

A MGM technicolor version of the fair can be seen in the delightful, silly Judy Garland vehicle "Meet Me in St. Louis". The film features her singing "The Trolley Song" and the perennial holiday favorite, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas".  I have seen this movie several times. After all, it does star Judy Garland and I am gay!

As I am about to leave to go to dinner at the gay bar and restaurant next door a powerful thunderstorm hits. I spend time listening to the booming thunder and reading the book I have fortunately had the foresight to bring with me. It is one of Rita Mae Brown's Sneaky Pie Brown murder mysteries. The series is dependably fun and has become a favorite vacation read of my partner and myself. The storm subsides, I reach the end of a chapter and head next door.

Dinner is a mediocre chicken parmesan accompanied buy a generous house salad and an extremely strong cocktail. The crowd seems to be around my age and like many Americans these days, thick around the middle.

Returning to the guesthouse I again meet up with the handyman. We hold another lengthy conversation. I ask about the small metal stars which dot the outside of many buildings in the area. He explains that they are the heads of large screws which join and support the interior floor beams of the structures to the outside brick walls. In this case form and function meet to create a distinctive, attractive and whimsical whole. A soak in the hot tub, my travel tired muscles pulverized and massaged by the extremely strong jets, sends me to bed.

Friday, September 7, 2012

St. Louis - Ridin' the Rails

I love traveling by train. There is a connection with the landscape that is missed when flying or driving down highways which seem to be specifically designed to be faceless. One upside to hard economic times and high gas prices is the apparent surge in the popularity of train travel. This particular route from Chicago to St. Louis takes just 40 minutes longer, and is significantly less expensive, than a similar trip by car. Planned high speed rail between the two cities will make the trip even more efficient that taking to the road. Another advantage to rail is that stations are generally located in the city center, as opposed to airports which usually sit some ways out. Rail travel in Europe is second nature. It is the mode of travel my partner and I have used on our 2 trips abroad. It has provided us with rich glimpses of the life and countryside that lies between the European cities we have been fortunate enough to visit.

Enroute to Joliet, the first major stop, lush foliage envelops the train on both sides. This gives way to a more industrial scene of highway overpasses, junk car lots, an enormous concrete grain silo and large aluminum clad buildings surrounded by the containers deposited there by semi trucks. This in turn surrenders to prairie meadows thick with knee high late summer growth. A small group of overlarge, banal, yet expensive looking homes appear on a hillside before we are treated to a quick trip through the historic section of Lemont.  And so it continues, forest, field, petroleum plants, acres of corn and the 100 year old church steeples and business districts of small towns as we travel through southern Illinois.

In the distance the sky appears increasingly gray as the remnants of the weekend tropical storm move up the Mississippi valley. It has been a summer of record breaking heat and drought. Although the rain will come too late for he burned crops outside the train's windows, perhaps it will replenish the depleted water table for next year. A large wind farm stands among a farmers field. The rotating blades generate energy which is renewable and does not pollute. Seeing these always gives me a sense of hope for our future.

The scene outside had grows increasingly agricultural. The hamlets, beneath their watertowers emblazoned with the town's name, are less picturesque. They are built for utility. Unfortunate examples of the ugly side of form following function.

Farms feed us. The quiet and solitude of the farming life serves some well. It would bore me silly. These same people, well served by farming, find cities loud and chaotic. In discussions with them they find it difficult to imagine how I manage to thrive there. As much as rural life would bore me, I would be even more bored and frustrated if all people were the same. It's the differences in the threads that make the whole cloth interesting.

We pass through Lincoln, Illinois. A once proud county seat grown old and tired. The great dome of the courthouse presides over decaying early 20th century storefront lined streets. The town resembles a man whose cuffs and collar are threadbare, worn completely through in spots. Bent over from the weight of hard times.

A banner, strung across one of the now ubiquitous grain silos, announces the Williamsville Fall Festival. My mid reels as I imagine the scene. Square dances and handicrafts created by the local church women. The teenagers smoking homegrown pot behind the barn while the high school quarterback attempts to seduce the head cheerleader in the back seat of his parent's car.

We stop in Springfield, our state's capitol. It looks quiet and provincial, as state capitals often do. It's placid streets contain some spots of historical value, many of them pertaining to the early years of President Lincoln. We claim him as a native son. Our state license plates proclaim "Land of Lincoln", even though he was born in Kentucky.I catch a glimpse of the capitol building. Inspired by the design of the nation's capital it has a distinct presence. Classical and imposing, it is a structure which states it's importance without reservation or apology. I also see the Frank Lloyd Wright designed home there, it's architectural lines unmistakable, as the train passes by.

The fields grow smaller and the forested patches larger and fuller. Later, during mid autumn, in a mild wet year, this stretch would be beautiful. Ablaze with fall color. This year, this fall, everything will be yellow and brown due to the summer's excessive heat. Some leaves, burned and dry, are already falling from the trees and fluttering by the windows as we continue towards St. Louis. A brief rain shower has popped up. You can almost hear the ground sigh as the moisture hits it. The corn in the fields we pass is a total loss, scorched on the stalk. Occasionally hawks can be seen, floating in the sky hunting for the mice who themselves search for food in the dry fields. Oddly, petaled yellow flowers and purple thistles grow in profusion, seeming immune to this past summers' brutal conditions.

The city's skyline comes into view. As we approach the Mississippi river the vegetation grows lushly among the ruins of abandoned factories. Soon I will be in the city and begin the next chapter of my weekend adventure.    

St. Louis - Hatching a Plan

I was laid off from a job I had held for 7 years in early spring. I spent the next 4 plus months looking for employment. This search was, at various times, arduous, tedious, grueling and occasionally terrifying. Frugality was the order of the day. I had built up a financial cushion of sorts and was receiving unemployment, however I did not know when I would see a regular paycheck again or what economic calamities I might encounter before finding work. I resolved if I were to come out of this in a fiscally solid position I would buy myself a treat.

While unemployed I had an enormous amount of time on my hands and fooling around on the computer came to realize how affordable a trip to St. Louis could be. I have never visited the "Gateway to the West" and made the decision that a short trip there once I was rehired would be my reward. Especially in light of the realization that might be some time before I was able to leave town again.

I, at long last, secured a job. I had 2 weeks or so prior to starting so began to hatch my plan. Labor Day weekend was high, the timing seemed perfect. I would travel by train finding Chicago to St. Louis routes that were both time and cost efficient. Reservations were made at a small gay guesthouse in a historic area. Two gay bars were located nearby, one apparently right next door. Online research revealed that the neighborhood is sometimes referred to as the "French Quarter" of St. Louis due to the number of clubs featuring live music located in the area. My plans were to visit the cities Art Museum and zoo. Both of which are highly regarded, free of charge and located next to one another in a park and accessible by public transit. I also planned to visit the world famous Arch which the gentleman I spoke to on the phone at the guesthouse assured me was walking distance from them.

There was the possibility that tropical storm Issac would rain a bit on my personal parade, however, the radar the morning of my departure suggested that it was moving faster than was expected and could be out of my way, or only a minor annoyance during my trip. The train was scheduled to arrive mid afternoon Friday. My return was planned for early, very early, Monday morning. I packed a gym bag with shorts and tee shirts, this was to be a casual relaxed weekend, and bid adieu to my partner and our spoiled rotten cat.