Thursday, August 27, 2009


I'm looking at old photos again in my role as family archivist. I've discovered lots of interesting stuff, but I was puzzled for a while by images like these:

The mystery was cleared up as I realized that these were pictures of the famous Hudson River Crossing. My father worked for Consolidated Edison in New York and as near as I can figure, he spent most of his working life on the several transmission towers that cross the Hudson River for ConEd. According to a contemporary press release from Henkels & McCoy, one of the contractors on the job, "This wire crossing is the longest and heaviest crossing yet attempted in the East, demanding technical expertise and ingenuity to link Orange and Rockland utilities with Con Edison." My father may, or may not, have provided some of the ingenuity to accomplish the job. I'm not sure about that. But one thing is certain: no Con Ed employee ate more lunches at Lüchows in support of the project than my Dad. He tested, evaluated and ultimately purchased insulators, cable and other hardware for the crossings and salesmen attempted to sway his decision by plying him with the excellent German food and drink served at Lüchow's, a Manhattan legend since 1882.

Lüchow's was just two short blocks south of Irving Place where the big Con Ed building was. An easy walk for Con Ed employees and even easier when someone else was picking up the check. During the 1960's Lüchow's was owned by Jan Mitchell, a Swede who bought the place from the original owner, Herr August Lüchow. His only change to the landmark eatery was to install air conditioning. The original oil paintings, including a Van Dyke and a Goya, remained in place and the kitchen continued to serve the excellent Wienerschnitzel, Sauerbraten, pigs knuckles and Schlemmerschnitte that made the place famous. In the 1970's, Lüchow's moved uptown to the Broadway area and it closed for good in 1982, one hundred years after it's opening.

I imagine interest in heavy German food must have waned in the face of a lot of nonsense about cholesterol and so forth. Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, a quiet renaissance in traditional cuisine is taking place today. When I first lived in Germany in 1994, I asked my downstairs neighbor if he could recommend a nice German place in the area. He turned his head in thought and after a while said tentatively, "There's a good pizza place on the corner..." I asked if maybe there was a place that served German food, as opposed to Italian food prepared in Germany, but ultimately he couldn't help me. I came to find that he wasn't alone in his ignorance about his own national cuisine. German food had a bad rep in those days. It was the butt of insider jokes at parties. People under 30 were surprised to learn it even existed.

On my most recent trip, that situation had changed. At homes where in the early 90's the talk was only of the finest olive oil, roasted egg plant and sun dried tomatoes, suddenly I was being served Rouladen and Schweinebraten. These were foods that for many years, people associated with the Nazi past and they were avoided. Now, it turns out, German food is good, and you don't have to be a Fascist to appreciate it. Social Democrats, Greens, members of the of the Christian Union; they can all sit down to a plate of Salzkartoffeln mit Spargel und Schinken and enjoy it.

Lüchow's is gone, an NYU dormitory stands on the site at 112 East 14th Street. As far as I know, the only place you can buy German food in America is Wienerwald, a fast food joint where the food isn't necessarily authentic. I'm glad I got to eat in Lüchow's in the old days and I'm looking forward to learning more about the secrets of Knödel next time I'm back in Germany. Until then, I'll focus on the roasted egg plant and have to be satisfied with an occasional German pilsner from our state liquor store.

Friday, August 21, 2009

From Bauhaus to my house

Every year I teach a course at Utah State University about the Bauhaus. It's a pretty idiosyncratic course since it's based on my own personal interests. I'm not an art historian, so I can't claim the course has any real academic rigor. What it does have going for it is that I teach it as a part of a study abroad experience and have access to all kinds of primary sources that would be out of the question for an on-campus course. There are some readings for the course and I do require written assignments as well, but the bulk of the class happens in casual conversations in museums, over dinner or traveling on the Straßenbahn. I try to relate the artifacts of the Bauhaus to political history, to the particularities of German culture and to our own current attitudes about design. A best case scenario for how the course works: while under way to a museum somewhere in the Ruhrgebiet, I tell the student group that I need to stop into a bank for a minute and they should wait for me in the lobby. I leave them for a while and inevitably a sharp eyed student notices that the lobby furniture is vaguely familiar and says, "Hey, isn't that like... a Marcel Breuer chair?" When I return, discussion is underway and they have a million questions for me. There's no better way to drive home the point that the Bauhaus was about developing products for mass production, not painting and drawing.

This year is the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar and cities around Germany are celebrating with some fabulous exhibitions. I find the situation ironic, since after a full year in Germany with lots of travel and museum experiences, I didn't see even one of the exhibitions that are getting so much press now. Now that I'm back in the US, I'm trying to figure out how that happened.

It's really not so very surprising when I think it through. I've been to the Bauhaus Archiv in Berlin 10 or 20 times. Likewise the Albers Museum in Bottrop and the Museum Für Angewandte Kunst in Berlin. I've visited the Gropius building in Dessau and seen countless works by artists that worked as "Masters of Form" during the Bauhaus 14 year run. I may be a little over saturated by Bauhaus stuff.

I also find it a little paradoxical that my own house in Logan is so much not in keeping with the Bauhaus aesthetic. One could maybe make an argument that it fits into the William Morris "Arts & Crafts" thinking, but honestly, it's just a farm shack with a series of not very well thought out lean-tos. If there's a foundation under that part of the a house that serves as a kitchen, I can't find any real evidence for it. Walls, floors and ceilings meet at something approximating 90 degrees but follow Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle more often than not. Still, I like my house and admire the vernacular wisdom that went into building it. On days when the temperature breaks 100, my house is cool. The ground floor walls are lined with mud-brick and it's oriented in a way that minimizes heat gain in summer.

The "desirable" homes in Logan, built in the last ten years, tend to be in the neighborhoods up on the hillsides. Many are 5000 square foot barns that feature a three story wall of windows facing southwest. Heat gain? No problem, there's a central air conditioner in the back yard. Out in front there's probably a Sport Utility Vehicle with a bumper sticker exhorting readers to reduce their carbon footprint. These kinds of houses win awards from architectural journals, but if I were in charge, their designers would win different kinds of awards. The kind that would involve jail time.

Coincidentally, that's exactly what happened to the students that were still around when the Nazis showed up at the Berlin factory building that housed the Bauhaus on 11 April, 1933. It was just a few weeks after the Reichstag fire and Hitler had been Chancellor for only about three months. The school had been on the decline for several years already but the Berlin police† made it official by arresting about 32 students and searching the school for Bolshevik propaganda and evidence of decadency. As I gaze out at the McMansions from my own back yard, I ask myself, where are the Nazi paramilitary units when you really need them? And I'm comforted to know, that regardless of what some people might think about my house, no one would ever be likely to see it as decadent.

†There was tension between the regular Berlin police and the NSDAP jackboot types and it's the subject of an interesting series of novels by Philip Kerr. I haven't actually read any of them all the way through yet, but I think they're pretty good. They were the subject of a recent NPR piece you can read/listen to here.

Sunday, August 16, 2009


When I was growing up, there was a series of advertisements I often saw in the magazines grown ups read. Each ad featured a man, very well dressed and wearing an eye patch. The eye patch always stood out in a way that made the ads difficult for me to understand. Were they promoting this particular one-eyed guy? If so, who was he? At eight I had better things to think about and didn't waste much time on these ads, but now I know that they were considered by many to be ground breaking. The man who conceived of them, David Ogilvy, has been hailed as the inventor of direct marketing (a dubious distinction) and a trend setting genius. I also know now that the images were shirt advertisements. The model for the series, which became the signature images for Hathaway Shirts, was Baron George Wrangell, emigre nephew of a White Russian general. There was nothing wrong with either of his eyes. The patch was intended to make the ads distinctive, and since I still remember them, I guess it worked.

I was thinking about those ads this morning after viewing the most recent film from Tom Cruise last night. The film, Operation Valkyrie, came out while I was in Germany and got a lot of attention there. There are at least two German films that deal with the same story and in addition to showing them, German television also ran interviews with the daughter of Colonel von Stauffenberg (the character portrayed by Cruise in the film) and some documentaries about the German internal war resistance. Anyhow, I saw the Tom Cruise film last night and it was a real yawn. I went to bed wondering why the film was even made, and woke up convinced that it was all an excuse to get Tom Cruise into an eye patch.

When I was a kid, and the Hathaway ads were running in magazines, any normal kid wanted to be a cowboy. I had cowboy boots, a couple of six guns, holsters, a lariat, and of course, a cowboy hat. Several, in fact. But today everything is pirates. At the store where I do most of my shopping, cutlasses are an impulse purchase. Infants fly the jolly rodger from the seat of their disposable diapers. I don't understand the romance of the pirate, but it's big. I think Mr. Cruise and his agent figured that with all the good pirate roles being grabbed up by Johnny Depp, they needed to look elsewhere for eye patch possibilities. Cruise did look good in the patch, but it wasn't really enough to sustain the film.

The von Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler failed as we all know, and anyone who's read Tolstoy knows that virtually ALL military operations go to hell in a hand basket as soon as things get rolling. In that way, they're a little like sabbaticals, or like my sabbaticals anyhow, in which my best intentions and plans fall to pieces in the first weeks I'm gone. This time around I had problems with banking, credit cards, Internet access and a home phone, which I never managed to get installed. But on my return to Utah, I discovered that even our mail was completely fouled up. I, of course, filed a change of address card, and I had one person lined up to check any mail that got through that. A second person started forwarding my mail around December and ultimately the very helpful tenant who was renting my house began opening anything that looked like a bill in order to keep us out of debtor's prison.

Still, when we arrived home last week, one of the first things we did was open a stack of Christmas cards from 2008. Most of them were not the kind of commercial cards that feature a snow covered cottage or a smiling Santa, but rather personal photographs of the sender's family. In fact, most of them were photographs of only the children of the family, none of whom were wearing pirate regalia. Does this signify a return to the true meaning of the holiday? Who knows. I'll just say Frohe Weihnachten and try to get on top of my own holiday greetings in 2009.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


When I taught at the Universität Gesamthochschule Essen back in 1994 I was immediately struck by the contrasts between the German and American university systems. During the year that I was there my understanding of and consequent insight into the German system grew and ultimately I came to feel the two systems were far more alike than I had realized, but initially I was confused to say the least. As I sit in my office now, trying to write a syllabus for a course I haven't taught in over ten years, I'm more than a little nostalgic for that first Grundübungen: Zeichnen course I taught. With no real "registration," students could (and did) show up or not as they pleased. In the US I'm expected to develop a curriculum with a logical progression. Each week's activities should extend and develop concepts discussed in the previous week. But back in Essen in 1994 there was no expectation that the students present today would have any knowledge of what happened last week. Each week's activities had to stand alone and the students were responsible for putting it all together in an order that made sense. It completely eliminated the need for planning on my part. I was a very popular instructor and most weeks curious students overflowed into two, sometimes, three, classrooms. If I could find a chair for each student, my Learning Objectives Assessment Rubric was fully satisfied.

Chairs won't be a problem when classes begin here in a little over a week, but the need for a syllabus for my Drawing I section has my brain fully engaged. I know intuitively why drawing is important, but explaining its significance concisely is a real puzzle. I believe strongly that defining objectives makes me a better teacher, but at home we haven't located the silverware yet. It would be nice if I could wing it just this once.

I really need a few solid weeks of undisturbed unpacking to get my life back on track, but the needs of the job are distracting me in a variety of ways. Last night for example, after less than 36 hours in Logan, I was already attending an opening reception for an exhibition featuring the work of two visiting scholars here at Utah State. Having been a visiting scholar myself several times, I know how important it is to make visitors feel welcome, so I put aside the search for knives and forks and attended the opening for two Korea artists, vowing to myself that I would not stay long. Five hours and a couple of bottles of soju later, I was performing "Beyond the Sea" in the basement of a local Korean restaurant. I thought I did a pretty good job, but the Karaoke machine has an automated scoring system and my younger, less experienced colleague beat me, hands down. Clearly I need a copy of the Karaoke Objectives Assessment Grid.

Sunday, August 9, 2009


I imagine it goes without saying that I enjoy spending time in Europe in general and in Germany in particular. There are a lot of things I like about being there that I'm already missing now that I've been in the States for about two weeks. But there is at least one thing that I DON"T like about Germany. They don't have good Mexican food there. There are Mexican restaurants, but they are laughable. The cooks are mostly from Sri Lanka and can't tell a taco from a tamale. I intend no slur on the fine people of Sri Lanka. Presumably they are fine chefs when it comes to cooking Sri Lankan specialties.

When I landed two weeks ago at JFK, I was disoriented, jet lagged and hungry. I had to drive my giant black Jeep Liberty to Connecticut through intense NY rush hour traffic and the whole way I was thinking of what I could eat. I made it to Hamden and found my hotel, then drove to the closest restaurant: Andale. It featured a mouse with a large sombrero on the light-up sign and there was plenty of parking. The building was a converted residence. I entered and ahead of me was a long bar with two young men nursing Buds and a barmaid who looked about twelve. Her response to everything I said to her was, "No problem." But the place was completely empty of diners. I imagined the underage barmaid thawing my dinner in a microwave.

When the barmaid turned waitress approached our table with two glasses of water, my wife asked her if the Chile Rellenos were fresh. My scornful laughter at the question was cut short by the waitress, "Yes, our cook makes everything from scratch. It's no problem." Wow! A cook. This required a complete reevaluation of the menu. I decided to try the Enchiladas de Mole and was not disappointed. By accident we had discovered surely the finest Mexican restaurant in New England, disguised as a rundown roadhouse. We arranged our return trip to enable us to visit Andale again last night. Again it was empty and again the food was fabulous.

Today I board a flight to Salt Lake City and I'm preparing myself mentally to get back to work on campus: teaching, organizing my office and studio, dealing with the seemingly unending budget cuts from the legislature. It's not a particularly happy time. But I'm trying to focus on the benefits of living in the Intermountain West. Eating good food from those huge white platters that are an inch thick and scratched as though they were dragged behind a pickup half way across the Baja peninsula, for example. Food brought to you with serious asbestos gloves. Carnitas. Frijoles. Corn Tortillas. Life is good. And I've got some time now to plan for my next sabbatical.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Hurricane of '38

On September 21, 1938, Winston Churchill condemned the coming annexation of Sudetenland by Adolf Hitler's Nazi government in Germany. This area in what was then Czechoslovakia was primarily German-speaking, but had been denied Germany in the reshuffling of Europe after WWI. Hitler's move to annex was a big story internationally, but on this side of the Atlantic the story was quickly pushed aside as a late summer hurricane moved north at previously unheard of speed and made landfall on eastern Long Island, with its far western edge just brushing NYC.

A loyal Forschungsjahr reader recently left a comment and a question asking if I could report on the 1938 New England Hurricane. Can I ever. One of my earliest memories is of my father's stories of the Hurricane of '38. One story involved a double date with a couple of gals from Brooklyn on the night of the storm. My dad was working in Manhattan and after a movie (presumably on 42nd St.) it was decided that the group of young revelers should take a drive out to Jones Beach. It was a silly night to take such a drive. Even though NY City didn't get the full force of the hurricane, they were still driving in a blinding rain and trees were down on the way to the huge public beach on Long Island's south shore. My father described how he pulled into the parking lot, disoriented by the wind, rain and darkness. He saw lights and commotion ahead of him, stopped the car, and one of the gals (I'm reasonably sure she would have been named Doris) opened a door and stepped out. Into ankle deep water.

Record hide tides drove water inland all over New England and most older buildings in towns like Providence, Bridgeport and New London have brass plaques showing how high it went. The 1938 Hurricane may be nameless to this day, but its presence is still very real to New Englanders and to Rhode Islanders in particular. About 600 people died in the hurricane, and most of them died in Rhode Island. My wife recently met an older man at the hardware store here in town whose sister died in what may well be the most tragic event of the '38 Hurricane. It took place at Mackerel Cove in Jamestown on the afternoon of the 21st. Mackerel Cove is a narrow strip of sand that connects the main part of the island to the southern Beavertail chunk where I live. I ride over this strip every day and yesterday I stopped to photograph the 1938 highwater markers that have recently been placed on all the telephone poles along the road. On the afternoon the hurricane hit, a school bus tried to cross here to Beavertail, bringing a group of kids home, some of whom lived at the light house. The bus stalled in the waves and the kids held hands as they tried to cross to safety in the rising waves. Seven of them drowned that day including the sister of the man my wife spoke to. The bodies were washed up on shore all along Narragansett Bay.

The destruction from the storm was so wide spread that even into the fifties, after the results of Hitler's move into the Sudetenland had played out fully and Germany was well into the Wirtschaftswunder period, some damage could still be seen around New England. More often though, towns and people rebuilt. My dad went back the next summer to Lamphier's Cove and rebuilt the family summer dwelling. Lamphier's Cove was a community of New Haven residents who moved to the shore for the summer months. Property owners all pooled their tiny plots and created a resident association, sharing a spring for fresh water and some communal outhouses. It all sounds vaguely socialist to me, hard to reconcile with the fact that, as far as I know, my father voted for Nixon every time he got the chance. But every summer the Terry family moved to the end of the trolley line in Branford and lived in a tent on Lamphier's Cove.

It was the tent and the wooden platform it rested on that went north with the hurricane and in the summer of 1939, my father worked with his brothers and my grandfather to rebuild. In its second incarnation, the tent became a two room cottage where I spent a lot of summer weekend days myself, alternately pulling eels out of the questionable waters of the cove, or avoiding the attention of my two maiden aunts who lived there with my grandmother. These two aunts were well-meaning, but in an effort to appear "with it" they often used the expression "Super!" Imagine my surprise when I landed in Germany thirty years later to find that "Super!" was a completely standard expression, having no undercurrent of dorkiness associated with it. Some people use the alternate, "Supi!" but I never hear either expression without thinking of Harriet and Dottie and those filthy eels at Lamphier's Cove.