Tuesday, March 29, 2016


I was going around today thinking of
what was my favorite house. Dumb
self-question, nearly stupid, and with 
nothing to go on. What caught my 
attention was, in strolling along College 
Avenue, Rutgers, by the Alexander
Library, I saw a few Mansard Roof'd
houses still in good use and grand
repair. The Mansard Roof has, these 
last 5 decades, been considered dour, and
sour too. An architectural monstrosity
to be avoided at all costs. To me, it 
never came across so badly  -  Lewis 
Mumford's book, 'The Brown Decades' 
has always been one of my favorites. 
It  -  the Mansard Roof, I mean  -  
always looked separated enough 
from the regular duty of ordinary 
life as to make it, if not attractive, 
then desirable. I'd love to live in 
a nice one  -  garret-high, southern 
light, all that. I researched them once 
and was surprised to find a large part 
of their history had to do with stealth
and illegality. Bad tactics by landlords 
to get around things, taxes mostly. 
Real estate taxes. Seems like, a long 
time back, it being illegal to house 
people in upstairs attics and the 
aforementioned garrets and
studios, there began a mad rush
to the 'falsified' look of the Mansard
Roof window casements so that those
attics and things would begin to appear 
as rooms and extra levels, which they 
were not. But, I still think, people 
must have somehow been pretty 
stupid to think that sleeping twenty 
people on an unfinished attic floor
would be concealed (and also, how this
would save the 'tax' money of showing
extra floor) by the addition of pleasant-
enough looking outcrops and dormers. 
It's still all pretty confusing to me, but 
the intentional (or not) look of the 
Mansard Roof continues to please 
my Brown Decades eye. So, walking
along College Avenue (the Alexander
Library is right along there, plenty of
old-time New York and New Jersey
collection books about the early days)
today, I just carefully gazed at the 
housetops that I saw : a few already
taken away and being replaced by the
'modern', and another few in a now
progressive state of disrepair. Still,
a few shone on, and stood out.
It's funny to me how, over the years,
housing design has deteriorated, even 
as people have grown more wealthy and
wealth-orientated, making sums unheard
of to me before. Flying off to Europe on
whims, for vacation, homes at the shore,
living like kings and queens in most
every other aspect. The world has 
certainly taken off from its more 
humble beginnings, at least around 
here. But the diminishment of taste  
-  in the other direction  -  has proceeded 
with precipitous speed. In fact, we live 
amidst, now, a real overflow of bad 
taste. There are entire towns (Elizabeth,
New Jersey comes most immediately
to mind) where the rows of older 
homes, having been done over now 
probably two or three times, in two
or three different ethnic tastes and 
variations now too, are simply
outrageously poorly done and as a
not at all enticing visual nightmare:
Porch after porch either redone and 
mismatched, with no regard for quality
or fit, varied forms of sidings put on,
sometimes glaringly offensive and one
right over the other, iron and scrollwork
with pink masonry or stucco, or brick,
work. The clash of a Portuguese taste
ringing up now against a South Asian 
taste, where once before it had been
a Puerto Rican, Spanish, or Black taste,
and before that Italian or Hungarian.
Lingering arches and scalloped moldings
and beams, all haphazard and without
reason. Ostentatious entryways and 
really, really bad front door treatments. 
It's all really rough, and wherever you
do perhaps find some older, original
structure, it's sadly neglected and falling 
in. Inhabited by people barely hanging
on. Many of the once grand and broad
American places have now been taken 
from us. A lot of these houses were
waterway houses  -  think of that. The 
days when one's comfort and wealth,
from trade and commerce, say, could 
be given evidence by your stately home
facing the river, the river traffic, and the
wide expanse of waterfront  -  your cupola
and 'widow's watch'  -  are all gone now.
The rivers have no use at all. Roadways
and interstates ring them, and separate the
people from their proper settings. No one
knows the rights or the values of water and
water traffic any more. All is clogged by
highway and traffic. Even today, on College
Avenue, the steady stream (no pun) of
campus buses and autos just ran by. The
campus of Rutgers is now so far flung  -  
with the urban New Brunswick part of 
it being only a small fraction  -  that there
is need for streams of buses to keep taking
students to and back from the outlying
'suburban' area expanses of 'drive-to'
campus on what was, until 1990, give 
or take, farmland. It's a car-campus
college now, this 'Rutgers'. Why it 
has any, in fact, reputation now, is
beyond me  -  it seems a drone school
for teaching nothing but drone habits;  
a real no-consequence mess just barely
pretending to act at educating people.
It's a grind-mill, New Jersey's very 
own. The old, downtown part is 
nothing now, more an adjunct to the
car-campuses of varied sites out in the
once-woods. The old observatory 
telescope, in its little, rounded, building
is probably the best thing there now, and
I'd bet it too is not long for this world.
There is a great silence, most of the time,
around me, and it's one I'm happy with. It
allows though and it allows a certain other
level of 'communication' with the broader,
interior world, the world which better 
understands some of all this : the mysterious
villains of the unseen and invisible, the secret
spaces, between words, even as they
are being spun. 
So, where does any of this leave me?
I don't know. In flux, always, I guess.
Somebody like myself, I suppose, is
always, needs always to be, in flux. Seeing. 
Observing. Sort of 'renegotiating' the world.
I sometimes swear that everything is in 
constant motion and only stops dead, the
 entire picture stops, when the eye hits it. It's a 
world in motion and all that motion undergoes 
constant change until the next 'stop' moment, when 
the viewers' (alone or en masse) presumptions 
and predelictions and ideas have all changed 
again, still more, and the resultant 'new' frozen 
picture of the world  reflects all that. At only that 
instant, and then it's all off  to crazy-land again 
until the next stop. That's how public opinion
shifts, and paradigm changes and new gestalts 
take effect. That's what Thoreau and those 
Transcendentalist guys meant by saying
'consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.' 
They meant that you simply cannot just 
always be of one mind about things  - everything 
is always underway, on to course somewhere, 
undergoing changing. When we go to sleep
and all those strange rudiments of 'Dream' begin
hitting us, that's exactly what's going on  -  
the world, in flux, re-arranging, trying on different 
guises, trying to make sense of a no-sense deal. 
Hiding twenty people in that attic upstairs, 
behind those false-front
Mansard Roofs.

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