Friday, November 9, 2018

Visiting Montgomery, Part 2

After the lynching memorial, we drove around Montgomery in a bit of shock. The memorial really hits you in the gut. In theory we were trying to find a restaurant, but we didn't do very well on that score.

Instead of eating, we went on to our next planned stop, the First White House of the Confederacy.

I know what you’re thinking, how could you go from the lynching memorial to the First White House of the Confederacy? Yes, it was quite the compare and contrast moment. The lynching memorial represents how we look at our history today. The First White House of the Confederacy shows us how it was done in the past. If you are familiar with the Lost Cause idea of the Confederacy, this is Lost Cause on steroids.  I thought it might be kitschy enough to be fun.

A little history lesson is probably in order. Montgomery was the capital of the Confederacy from February 4 until May 29, 1861. Since Jefferson Davis, its president, wasn’t from Montgomery, he needed a place to live. The Confederate government leased a home for him and his family.

It’s called the First White House of the Confederacy to distinguish it from that other White House of the Confederacy, the one in Richmond. One of the Confederacy’s many failings was the failure to find an original name for its executive residence.

I don’t really know what I was expecting—a docent in a hoopskirt, I think—but I certainly wasn’t expecting to be met by an African American woman—not in a costume—when I pushed open the door. She couldn’t have been friendlier and more welcoming; my guess is that she doesn’t get many customers. She offered bottles of cold water. While I was grateful for it, I thought that food and drink were frowned upon in museums.

Just inside the front door there was a lovely photo montage of the regents of the White House Association. Regent is the term for a woman in fashionable, not sensible shoes, who headed a preservation organization a LONG time ago.

The First White House of the Confederacy was built between 1832 and 1835 by William Sayre, an ancestor of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda. In the late 19th century the newly organized United Daughters of the Confederacy adopted the idea of preserving the house.

In PR speak worthy of rebranding the Civil War as “the recent unpleasantness”, the United Daughters of the Confederacy became “entangled in personal differences” and that effort went nowhere.

Another preservation group, The White House Association, modeled after the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union, eventually picked up the ball (gown) and got the job done.

Mrs. Jefferson Davis was selected as the group’s first Queen Regent. In fact, she was the group’s only Queen Regent. The post has been vacant since Mrs. Davis’ death in 1906.  The group’s current regent is Seibels Lanier Marshall (Mrs. Jim Marshall). At least I think so; the website hasn’t been updated in some time.

The house is not on its original site. It’s been moved to a place of honor across the street from the Alabama State Capitol.

In case you’re wondering, the Lurleen Wallace State Office Building isn’t too far away.

The museum was your standard issue boring house museum.  If you are into 19th century decorative arts, it might be your thing. On the ground floor there was little to ooh and aah over for the true Davis groupie; most of the furniture did not belong to the Davis family. If you are looking for the desk where Varina Davis wrote her husband’s honey-do list (e.g. 1. Defeat Union 2. Have slaves clean gutters 3. Take Jefferson Jr. for haircut), skip the ground floor.

The real mother lode is upstairs in a room chock full of cases filled with relics.

The sacred relics are in cases that look as if they haven’t been freshened since the death of Regent Mrs. Jesse Drew Beale in 1905. Although this wasn’t mentioned at the tour, she was mother-in-law of Edith Ewing Bouvier “Big Edie” Beale and grandmother Edith Bouvier “Little Edie” Beale, relatives of Jackie O made famous in the cult movie Grey Gardens.

One of my favorite artifacts was Mrs. Davis’ lorgnette.

But the coffee cups from the Sultan of Turkey were nice too... was Jefferson Davis' pith helmet...

...and the rosary made by Varina Davis from her daughter's hair.

OK, perhaps the place really is as creepy as Grey Gardens, just without the cats, raccoons, Little Edie singing, and so on.

Interestingly enough the house is closed on June 5 for Jefferson Davis’ birthday.

It’s all kitschy and creepy and for a history geek like me, fun. Even if they don’t mention that Jackie O was Non-Queen Regent Jesse Drew Beale’s people.

So, if kitschy and creepy, old-fashioned Lost Cause house museums are your thing, go. Otherwise, it’s probably ok to move it down to the list of second tier Montgomery attractions.

At the end of our visit the docent was very helpful in pointing us towards the F. Scott Fitzgerald Museum.  It was in a neighborhood not too far from downtown Montgomery.

Literary types know that F. Scott Fitzgerald was from St. Paul, Minnesota, but his wife, the former Zelda Sayre, was from Montgomery. This particular museum (and I use the term lightly) claims to be the only museum dedicated to the Fitzgeralds.

My first clue that something was up was the state of the driveway.

I think the Ho Chi Minh Trail might have been in better shape when it was being pounded daily by bombs dropped by B-52s. Seriously, you could twist an ankle walking up to the front door.

The house is an extra large bungalow. Not something I expected to find in Montgomery, but surprises seemed to be the order of the day.

The front door was dirty and in bad repair. It didn’t need just a little tender loving care, it needed a full work up at the Mayo Clinic.

The Fitzgeralds lived in the house slightly longer than the Davis family lived in the First White House of the Confederacy. Unfortunately for us, they left even less of a mark on their house than the Davis family did.

The interior looked as if someone bought an old fraternity house, took the furniture out, framed issues of old Life magazines, hung those on the walls, and called it a day.

We were subjected to a video (judging by the hairstyles, VHS-era) that we watched with two other tourists/victims and then we were free to walk around and check out the exhibits.

As far as actual Fitzgerald memorabilia, there wasn’t much.  Once again, there is no sacred desk and honey-do list (1. Write the Great American novel (again). 2. Buy booze 3. Buy more booze).

A highlight of the collection was Zelda Fitzgerald’s cigarette holder.

There was also a nice 1920s vintage toaster that didn’t seem to have belonged to anyone in particular. In the immortal words of Dave Barry, I am not making this up.

And what’s worse, Scott and Zelda were in no way related to Jackie O, Jackie Chan, or even Jackie Collins.

After about 10 minutes of looking at copies of newspapers and still photos of the 1974 film version of The Great Gatsby starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, we’d had enough. I thought I might actually detach a retina due to excessive eye rolling.

The rather listless person in charge came around and said that we could go online to pay the admission fee. Yeah, I was going to get right on that.

In short, it was easily the worst “museum” I’ve been to in a very long time.

Somewhat by accident we found a fantastic place for lunch in Montgomery’s outer 'burbs. How could we not stop at a place called Little Donkey?

After a great lunch, we were on our way to Selma and the next stop on our trip.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

Visiting Montgomery, Part 1

The morning after our encounter with Vulcan, we were up and at ‘em early so that we could have breakfast and be on the road to Montgomery.

We walked down the street to the Salem’s Diner, which according to someone someplace, was the number one diner in Alabama.

I’m sort of a strict constructionist when it comes to diners. They are a purpose-built diner (preferably with lots of stainless steel) or a converted railroad car. Something in a strip mall, while it may have many diner-like qualities (Formica booths, a counter, plain food, sassy waitresses) is not a diner.

And so, for me, at least, the Salem’s Diner wasn’t a diner. But it was diner-ish. Formica booths, check; counter, check; plain food, check. But it was so small that there was only one sassy waitress. I think there were four booths and as many stools at the counter.

What it lacked in size, it made up in character. The walls were covered, salon style, with vintage sports memorabilia, including someone’s golf score card. As the architect Robert Venturi said, “less is a bore” and this was far from boring.

If there was a blank spot on the wall, someone pounded a nail into it and hung a picture there.

What I know about Alabama and Auburn sports you can put in a thimble, but Salem’s Diner seemed like a good place to be if you were a fan. The owner’s father was the late (as of 2001) Ed Salem, a big deal on the University of Alabama’s 1950 football team. He went on to play for a year for the Washington Redskins and in the Canadian Football League.

Interestingly enough, the place is famous for Philly cheesesteaks. As a Pennsylvanian, I scoffed. And now that I’m back home in Pennsylvania, I’m still scoffing. This would be like a restaurant in Lancaster, Pennsylvania being famous for its grits.

Cheesesteak claims aside, I loved the atmosphere, in large part due to the gaggle of jolly, aging jocks that seemed to fill every booth and stool in the place.

Our waitress was great too, just the right combo of friendly and sassy.

Bruce and I had eggs, and they were quite good.

Martha’s pancakes, on the other hand, were cold.

I hope that it was just an off day. In theory at least, there are days when neither Alabama nor Auburn wins. Martha’s day breakfast wise, this was one of those days.

After breakfast we fired up the GPS and pointed our rental car towards Montgomery.

We had tickets to see the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

The memorial is located on a six-acre site on a hill overlooking the city.

Designed by MASS Design Group in conjunction with the staff of the Equal Justice Initiative, the work is a powerful reminder of America’s sordid record of lynching and racial relations.

When the staff member at the Memorial scanned our tickets, she told us not to take selfies with, or pose with the sculptures. I’m glad that she thought we were young enough to even consider taking a selfie.

Shortly after entering the memorial, visitors come to a sculptural group by Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, an artist from Ghana. It’s of a group of young Africans, nearly naked and straining at shackles, their faces wracked with fear and horror. I thought it was supposed to represent people being sold into slavery. It’s a powerful and disturbing piece, but I wasn’t expecting it since so much of the press I’ve seen is about the larger, abstract portion of the memorial.

People take selfies with this? I shook my head.

After the sculptural group, a gravel path leads up a gentle slope to the memorial. The right side of the path borders a tall concrete wall.

It’s punctuated by five very large text panels that tell the Readers’ Digest version of the story of the lynching of African-Americans in the United States in the years after the Civil War.

The central portion of the memorial is a large, open, rectangular structure. Seemingly hundreds (I didn’t count) of COR-TEN steel boxes are suspended equidistant from the ceiling. 

Each box is incised with a state name, county name, and the names and dates of all the men, women, and children who were lynched in that county.

The boxes are arranged in rings, in alphabetical order. Alabama is on the outermost ring, Virginia and West Virginia are on the innermost ring.

The floor of the memorial is a gently sloping ramp so that as audience members walk through the memorial, the first boxes you come to are at eye level and the final ones are hanging well above visitors’ heads.

On the third leg of the memorial, there are a series of plaques telling the most basic stories of lynchings. They’re grim.

Really grim.

If you’ve somehow missed our country’s difficult racial past, it’s going to hit you here.

A bench has been built into the wall in case you want to sit and reflect.

When you get to the end, visitors are invited to walk up the small grass hill that’s at the center of the memorial. The docent explained to me that instead of the lynching victim being at the center of the crowd, now the viewer would be in that spot, surrounded by the steel memorials to all the lynching victims. It’s another solemn moment.

As you leave the central portion of the memorial, the docent explains that the steel boxes lined up outside the memorial are duplicates of the hanging boxes. Starting next year, the memorial plans to start sending them, as sites are prepared, to the counties where the lynchings took place. It’s a way to bring the piece to a much wider audience.

It's a short walk from this large conceptual work to a slightly larger than life sculpture of three women by Dana King, marking  the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-1956.

Before reaching the exit, visitors walk by an abstract sculptural work by Hank Willis Thomas and a stone slab bearing the poem Invocation by Elizabeth Alexander.

The central portion memorial is quite powerful, but I think it would have been more so if the sculptural works outside the main body of the memorial had been erected at a different site. I was reminded of Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial and how Ross Perot and others insisted on adding some representational statuary to the ensemble. The abstract work is quite capable of standing alone.

After visiting the Memorial, we went to the EJI Museum which is a short drive away in downtown Montgomery. I was glad that we had purchased tickets in advance. It was crowded. The ticket taker asked for our zip codes and remarked that most of their visitors aren’t from the local area. She reminded us that we weren’t to take photos inside the museum.

The museum is mostly text panels and some video installation, very slick and au courant. I don’t recall that there were lots of works of art or original documents.

The ban on photos had to be about ensuring a good visitor experience when there is a large crowd. (Thank you Google for the photos!) The place was packed. The story the museum told about slavery, the Jim Crow era, and today’s civil rights struggle is shocking at times. I thought I was well versed and informed on the topic, but I was wrong.

We read and see videos about atrocities committed by ISIS or the Taliban or some other group of people and tend to think, oh, we’re not like that. Unfortunately, we are just like that.

Before going the memorial, I read about a lynching that look place in Charlottesville in 1898, just down the road from my old apartment. As horrible as it was, it pales in comparison to the story of Mary Turner, lynched in Georgia in 1918. As the cartoonist Walt Kelly said, I have met the enemy and he is us. 

On the way to the car, I made a brief stop at the bookstore. I know I’ve never been to a museum store with merch so attractively priced. The Equal Justice Initiative really wants visitors to buy its books, mugs, t-shirts, and to share its story. Its hope is that we learn from our troubled racial past (and present). I couldn't agree more.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Alabama Bound: Vulcan, Man of Iron, Not Irony

After the Hertz parking lot debacle, the we didn’t stop until we came to the Alabama Welcome Center, just after we crossed from Georgia into Alabama. State welcome centers are always good stops for free road maps, clean bathrooms, and picking up brochures for places that you didn’t know existed.

This one had a big monument of the Alabama state motto out front. Yikes.  While Alabama was admitted to the Union in 1919, it didn't adopt this state motto until 1939.

As state mottoes go it’s not quite as violent as New Hampshire’s Live Free or Die, or doesn’t require a knowledge of rudimentary Latin like Virginia’s Sic Semper Tyrannis. However, in the all around oomph department, it doesn’t even come close to New Jersey’s Not Only Toxic Waste But Also No Self Serve Gas.

Oh well, at least it wasn’t a monument celebrating the Ten Commandments.

Officially welcomed and with map and rack cards for the Paul W. Bryant (no relation) Museum and the Bates Turkey Farm and Restaurant in hand, we set out for Birmingham. I'm still sorry that we couldn't fit the Bates' place into our itinerary.

Before even checking into the hotel, we headed for the giant statue of Vulcan that overlooks the city.

Vulcan is a little shorter than the Christ of the Ozarks in Arkansas and Lucy the Margate Elephant in New Jersey, two of my favorite giant statues. But Vulcan is on a 10-story pedestal atop a small mountain overlooking Birmingham, a much better site than his compadres have in a mostly unbuilt Jesus-themed amusement park in the Ozarks, and on a not-very-attractive swatch of the Jersey Shore. What Vulcan lacks in height he makes up in location, location, location.

We bought tickets at a booth at the base of the park and then walked uphill to the Vulcan Museum. It’s a few steps from museum to the actual Vulcan Tower.

The first wow moment at Vulcan occurs when you walk into the museum/visitors’ center. They’ve placed a Louise Nevelson-ish sculpture of cast iron stuff—manholes, radiators, gears, pipes, and whatnots, celebrating Birmingham’s days as the largest industrial center in the south. It’s quite nice, really.

The museum behind the sculpture tells the tale of the statue and gives you a brief glimpse into Birmingham as a manufacturing center. I thought of it as a cousin to the museum at the base of the Hoover Dam, only the blue collar workers in these exhibits were wearing more clothes and lacking in the Tom of Finland-esque je ne sais quoi of the guys in the exhibits in Hoover Dam. This is the Bible Belt, after all.

The park’s website (which is great, btw) tells the story of the statue, which was created by an Italian American sculptor working in New Jersey, Giuseppe Moretti.

The Birmingham Commercial Club commissioned Moretti to sculpt the giant Vulcan in order to showcase Alabama’s industrial might at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. This was in the era when businessmen thought giant statues were a good idea. The Birmingham Steel and Iron Company used molds created by Moretti to cast the statue in 21 separate pieces of iron which were assembled at the Fair. Birmingham's Vulcan is the largest cast iron statue in the world.

Vulcan stands at his anvil, with a hammer in his left hand, holding aloft a rather cartoonish spear in his right hand. He’s wearing apron that droops to expose his heaving-in-a-manly-sort-of-way left pec. He’s sporting an Eddie Haskell-esque hairstyle accompanied by a totally butch and au courant hipster full beard.

He wears non-OSHA approved non-steel toed gladiator sandals. You have to hand it to the guy, he knows the value of statement shoes.

While Mr. Moretti made a valiant attempt, Vulcan’s head seems too large for the rest of the body, and as a result, Vulcan looks like a 56’ tall bobblehead doll.  Interestingly enough, you can buy a Vulcan bobblehead in the gift shop.

After Vulcan’s gig at the World’s Fair—where his prizing wining status makes me wonder about the competition—he was brought back to Birmingham and reassembled—incorrectly—at the Alabama State Fair Grounds. I’m unsure if the knee bone didn’t connect to the thigh bone, or exactly what.

This was the start of Vulcan’s checkered past, and at various points he held up a Coke bottle, a pickle sign, and even a giant ice cream cone. Apparently, the heat from Vulcan’s forge did not melt that particular kind of ice cream.

Vulcan was moved to his current home as part of a WPA project and presumably the museum building dates from this time. Vulcan’s career in advertising wasn’t over however, and in 1946, at the instigation of the Birmingham Jaycees, Vulcan started to hold a green neon beacon that turned red on the days that there was a traffic fatality in Birmingham.

As you can imagine, all those years hanging out at the Alabama State Fair and concentrating on traffic fatalities did a real number on him and he underwent a full restoration in 2003-2004.

Now he’s back to his buff self, and even wears the same size trousers as he would have worn at the 1904 World’s Fair....had he worn trousers there anyway.

Unless you bring a drone—which I didn’t—it’s hard to get a good look at Vulcan. But he has a nice butt and trust me, you can’t say that about all the giant statues.
I took the elevator to the 10th floor outdoor observation deck to see Birmingham spread out before me like the buildings of Plasticville that went with my old Lionel train set.

The floor of the deck is mesh so you can look straight down, always a fun thing if you’re afraid of heights.

When I was on the deck, we could see and hear the University of Alabama at Birmingham marching band on its practice field in the distance. Although they weren’t playing Sweet Home Alabama it was way more festive than the spread of hors d’oeuvres the Birmingham Estate Planning Association was laying on at for a cocktail function in the park as we left.

I minded the signs and did not run down the stair steps, equally impressed by Birmingham’s industrial might and Vulcan’s ageless physique.

1701 Valley View Dr.
Birmingham, AL 35209
Museum open 10:00 am to 6:00 pm most days; Tower 10:00 am until 10:00 pm.