Sam Burnham, Curator
So I had this dream the other night. I’m not sure which part is the weirdest but I think I found a message in it. Let me tell the story, don’t try to get too partisan in the analysis until we get to the message part. Just enjoy the weird story.
I’m sitting in an airport terminal. I’m pretty sure it was in Atlanta but I’m not sure. It was far nicer than Philadelphia but not as cool as Denver. It could have been anywhere else, I guess. Let’s just say Atlanta. Don’t get distracted.
Anyway, I’m sitting there with one of my sons. I’m not sure why it was just the two of us waiting to board a plane for Hawaii. There’s really no reason for the two of us to be going to Hawaii without any other family members. Hey, you’re getting distracted again. Pay attention here because it’s about to get weirder.
So I’m looking out the window at the vacant jetway waiting for the plane to arrive. Of all people, Barrack Obama walks up and sits down next to me. We just start talking. No introductions, no greetings. We’ve known each other for years, so it seems. In reality I don’t know him from Adam and he sure doesn’t know me. We agree on almost nothing politically but he’s a cool enough guy and were just shooting the breeze. We’re talking about simple stuff, regular people conversation stuff, common ground stuff. Don’t get distracted by specifics.
Then it hits me. My old pal Barry here grew up in Hawaii. It’s like home to him. He’s not going to Hawaii. He’s just sitting here hanging out with my son and I while we wait on our plane. He’s got nothing better to do and his Secret Service detail can get him through the TSA checkpoint. So I ask if he wants me to bring him something back. Yes, I know he’s got a lot more money than me and if he wants something from Hawaii he can jump on a plane and go get it. That’s not the point. I’m going. He ain’t. If he wants a fresh pineapple or one of those dancing hula girls that you sit on your dashboard, I’ll bring him one.
The dream trailed off as he chuckled humbly the way you do when you’re declining an offer to bring back a gift that you really want. I’ll find him something. It’ll be nice but it won’t be Hula Bowl tickets. Maybe a tiki head penny bank.
Anyway, that’s the story. So here’s the message. The outcome of this election is political. Our everyday lives shouldn’t be. If we can’t carry on conversations and even friendships with people we disagree with politically, then we need to take some emotional and intellectual inventory. We need to think about the weight we put on things. Politics should absolutely divide us ideologically. Politics should never divide us personally. If I can bring Barrack Obama back an ashtray shaped like Diamond Head, you can be civil to folks across the aisle from you.
Take the election outcomes for what they are. Live your life regardless of them. It’s ok to be a decent human if your candidate loses. This is my 7th presidential election. The candidate I voted for has won twice so far. I have yet to resort to violence over it. It’s not the end of the world. We don’t have to become savages. We can watch Magnum P.I. Reruns and pretend we’re in Hawaii souvenir shopping. We can talk to old friends. We can make new friends. They can disagree with us. We can disagree with them.
Oh, and Aloha, y’all.
Sam Burnham, Curator
A weathered old barn sits across a field. The structure is easily visible from the highway. Despite the impact from decades of soaking rain and blistering sun, “See Rock City Today” is still visible on the tin roof. The locals pass by with hardly a thought of it. To them it’s just part of the landscape that is home, no different than anything else along a barely changing roadside.
But this scene is becoming more rare. In places where shopping centers and subdivisions have replaced family farms this scene seems either idyllic or obsolete. It all depends on who you ask.
For those embracing the idea that progress means development the field and barn offer opportunity, potential, and an open door to the future. Land has a monetary value and the right plans can maximize the return on investment. The numbers shift with considerations for commercial, industrial, or residential development. Under the right circumstances a landowner could become a multimillionaire overnight. That’s a hard offer to pass up in exchange for an old farmhouse, a weathered barn, and some odd acres of dirt.
That’s how developments like Gwinnett Place and Town Center forever changed the culture of their respective communities. Skyrocketing real estate prices and encroaching development caused small homesteads and farms to fall like dominoes. The land became much more economically productive. Thousands of jobs were created in shopping centers and freestanding stores, restaurants, and bars. A single family home or a stand of trees would be foolish on such valuable land. There’s a lesson there on the power of markets but that’s for another day.
Back at the barn we have that hint of nostalgia. Oh to return to a time when barns were plentiful! But the barn wasn’t built for aesthetics. It had a purpose. Perhaps it still serves its purpose. Barns house livestock, feed, equipment...it all depends on the farmer, the farm, and the barn. Such a versatile structure added some more income when Garnet Carter paid for advertising space on it and Clark Byers covered them in messages.
The ad campaign combined with a love of the past and fond memories make these particular barns more than ordinary. Really, any old wooden barn will bring those emotions. The Rock City (or Ruby Falls, Sequoyah Caverns, etc) barns seem to carry an extra punch.
The imagery broadcasts to our emotions. We think of human scale, simpler times, dirty hands, clean money, rugged individualism, self-sufficiency. Those are the qualities that built the aesthetic. We see a surviving barn and we think of it as loyal, reliable, industrious, thrifty - all good characteristics. They are the traits we hope to see in ourselves. But are we really looking for those traits? Has the aesthetic become so strong that it’s enough to admire the barn without expecting to live up to the traits themselves?
I’m asking these questions as on a clipboard rather than a chalkboard. I ask as a learner rather than a teacher. Over the past few months I’ve asked myself many of these questions. 2020 has given perspective. I want to grow from that. It’s a chance to build an aesthetic like the barns have. If we really believe in the principles, embracing them fully should be a natural reaction.
What drives the aesthetic? How do we get there ourselves? Will this help us preserve the people, places, things, and ideas that we love?
Sam Burnham, Curator
In our modern times there is a tendency to oversimplify the archetype of the Southern gentry. It goes without saying that two of the most pivotal founders fit in this category. Interestingly, these two men were very different. They offer a contrast that suggests a diversity of thought, of personality, of philosophy within that archetype.
The contrast between Washington and Jefferson can be seen in their estates. Mount Vernon and Monticello give us a physical edifice as a tribute to each man. There are obviously similarities: agriculture, slavery, Virginia, and both men being among the Founding Fathers. But the many differences is where we really see the men themselves.
George Washington’s manor sits high upon a bluff overlooking the Potomac River near the inland limits of the Virginia Tidewater. It might not seem enormous by today’s obscene standards for mansions, but with 21 rooms, this is an imposing home.
Construction started on Mount Vernon in 1734. Augustus Washington, George’s father, started the house as a structure of a story and a half in height. After Augustus Washington died the home passed to Lawrence Washington, George’s elder half brother. Lawrence Washington also served as a father figure for George. Washington came into possession of Mount Vernon after Lawrence’s death and eventually became the owner of the estate.
George Washington made his own changes and additions to the home until it became the structure we see today. A soldier and frontier surveyor, Washington is thought of as a powerful and successful man. Mount Vernon reflects that. The location is beautiful in its own right but the house is central as it stands as a monument on the landscape.
Mount Vernon reflects the power of its owner. It stands high and visible. A ship on the river cowers under the gaze of the cupola-topped mansion. To this day, visitors sit on the porch and gaze out on the river.
Washington was a stickler for order and etiquette. His Rules for Civility remains a guide for proper conduct in social and professional situations. He kept a tight schedule, particularly for dining and his many and frequent guests were expected to adhere to the schedule. There’s a certain formality to Mount Vernon that reflects Washington’s sense of the appropriate.
Monticello, on the other hand, it situated in Virginia’s piedmont region. Jefferson designed and constructed his home atop his “little mountain.” While the estate was a working plantation, Jefferson’s main pursuits were philosophy, science, and the arts.
The design of the home is deceptive. You can stand in front of the house and wonder if that is really all there is. The structure sits low on the landscape rather than towering as other homes of its day. Once inside the house seems to expand and it is hard to believe how large that same house actually is. With wings built below grade off of each end of the home’s rear, a substantial portion of Monticello is hidden from view upon arrival. Monticello’s location concealed it from much of the world. The view from the home is majestic. The view of the home is purely local. Monticello balances with the landscape rather than dominating it.
Monticello is obviously an impressive and comfortable home but it is custom built for Jefferson’s personality. The house has no grand staircases as Jefferson saw them as a waste of space. Much of the main floor is dedicated to Jefferson’s personal space: his library, his office, and his bedchamber. Writing, reading, experimenting, and learning all took precedence in the design. This extended to the garden, the lawns, literally every aspect of the estate.
While Washington and Jefferson had overlapping interests and traits, their unique identities weee reflected in their homes. It’s not a matter of right or wrong as it is matching specific individuals.
Thankfully we have both estates fully intact. Researchers, curators, and historians continue to learn more about these men, their families, and the enslaved people who worked there. Each estate is supported by foundations that see to repairs and maintenance, conduct programs, and raise funds. No tax dollars are spent on either estate. I can’t imagine that either man would have it any other way.
Historian, self-proclaimed gentleman, agrarian-at-heart, & curator extraordinaire