Clicking on Memory Icons

Vermont Public Radio Commentary
by Chester H. Liebs

© 2002 by Chester H. Liebs, Aired 3/20/02
Made possible by: The Alma Gibbs Donchian Foundation and the Preservation Trust of Vermont

Computers let me quickly write and polish my work, but there’s another reason I like them. They remind me that the world around us is also a screen filled with icons. If you click your eyes on them, files will open up inside your head.

For example, a couple of years ago I clicked my eyes on an unusual storefront in Bennington. Its two large plate-glass windows angled inward like a funnel to attract my eye to the shop’s narrow entrance. What a clever way to lure customers in!

Also, the plate glass had chic, seamless corners, and the store’s name was done up in elegant metal letters. Here, on a main street in Vermont, I had discovered a rare surviving example of a kind of high-fashion shop-front that was the rage in cities like New York and Chicago in the “roaring twenties.” Its date-stone even read 1929. Unfortunately, when I saw what was once Feinberg’s Department Store, it was empty and covered with “for sale” signs. I wonder what’s happened to it.

Click, click - and the mouse inside my head now highlights a factory building that looks like a tic-tac-toe grid of brown concrete beams filled with large metal windows with lots of little glass panes. With its strong concrete skeleton, and skin of glass, this aging structure must have been quite special.

Concrete was used by the Romans and was reborn in the early twentieth century for building everything from bridges to industrial structures. The building I was looking at reminded me of a concrete and glass factory in Highland Park, Michigan, built by architect Albert Kahn in 1910. It’s where Henry Ford revolutionized automobile mass-production, and it’s now a National Historic Landmark. You’ve probably seen it in old film-clips showing workers attaching motors and bodies to Model T Ford frames whizzing down an assembly line.

Highly influential European architect Le Corbusier called such buildings, in his 1923 manifesto “Towards a New Architecture,” harbingers of an age where beauty and function would be joined as one - words that helped, for better or worse, to change architectural practice around the world. It’s amazing that all this can be conjured up by a nearly forgotten structure in Rutland, built in 1911 by M.C. Tuttle for the Rutland Fire Clay Company.

Vermont’s a treasure trove of similar icons. They not only connect to personal memories and local history, but are gateways to places and ideas from the rest of the world. It’s time for me to shut down my mental computer, but you can power up yours any time and see what you can find.

This is Chester Liebs.

Chester Liebs is Professor Emeritus of History and Historic Preservation at UVM and Visiting Professor in Architectural Conservation at Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music.