Saturday, April 08, 2006

Not exactly paradise, but it wasn't bad — till they paved it over and put up a parking lot.

When Joannie Mitchell started writing "Big Yellow Taxi" in 1967, she must have been channeling the future, in more ways than one. Madison Central High School graduated its last class not long after, and in 1986 the building was razed, the site was paved over and a parking lot took the place of what once had been Madison's only high school. In fact, they even put up a hotel across the street, though it wasn't pink (the Madison Concourse Hotel, shown in the background).

Now the "Central Arch" is all that remains of the school that graduated its first class (from this building, which replaced an earlier one on the same site) in 1909. When it was built, it was one of the more notable buildings in the state, but by the time it closed it was just another under-utilized inner city school in a suburban world. Now the arch tops what seems to be a stairway to nowhere, but is actually a walkway over the parking lot. Kind of seems like a metaphor for life, especially for those of us whose former homerooms now exist only in memory (or as invisible GPS coordinates hovering somewhere above the parked cars).

Here's what it looked like originally (click on the photo to enlarge). The picture is in Nadine's Madison Central High School History blog, a labor of love and a rich and growing resource of information about the school. If you attended Central, or even if you've just wondered about that odd arch above the parking lot a block from the Capitol, check it out. You'll find stories about its history, teachers and alumni — who include, believe it or not, the winners of three Nobel Prize awards in physics. As Nadine notes, Nobel laureates come from all over, but she hasn't heard of a single high school whose graduates picked up three physics awards.
Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, and Marie Curie are all Nobel Prize laureates in physics. So are two graduates of Madison Central High School. Perhaps there's another high school that can boast its alumni have been awarded not one, not two, but three Nobel Prizes in Physics, but I'm still waiting to hear its name.
Nadine's story about them is here. She doesn't seem to have written yet about one of my favorite alums, Oregon senator Wayne Morse. On August 7, 1964, he became one of only two senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. I always liked the idea that this feisty maverick — who grew up in the Robert M. LaFollette era of progressive Wisconsin politics — had attended my high school. I admired his moral stamina in opposing the war (we could have used some Morse clones in 2003). But I never knew until recently how much sheer physical stamina it took for him to get to Central from his family's farm near Verona.
He escaped the one-room schoolhouse that educated most denizens of rural Wisconsin by riding on horseback a 22-mile circuit from the Morse farm to Madison each day.
The man who designed the high school the young horseback commuter attended would soon become one of America's nation's most famous architects. Cass Gilbert won lasting fame as the architect of the first real skyscraper, New York's Woolworth Building, completed in 1913. Nadine has a story about Gilbert with additional links at her other blog, the one about her own class, Madison Central High School Class of 1965. Gilbert went on to design the U.S. Supreme Court Building and several state capitols.

Given Central High School's place in local history and the reputation of its architect, it could have been designated a landmark, but it wasn't. It should come as no surprise that Madison would hardly think twice about tearing it down. After all, this is the city that couldn't bring itself to honor Wisconsin native son Frank Lloyd Wright in his lifetime. Why would we preserve the work of some out-of-town architect who died long ago? And let's face it, parking downtown is hard to find.

Friday, April 07, 2006

If you sue a writer, don’t get on the wrong side of the judge — especially if you’re another writer or artist

In rejecting the plaintiffs’ claim of copyright violation in the Dan Brown case, the judge appeared to reject their work as well.
In issuing his judgment, Justice Peter Smith said that Mr. Brown did indeed rely on the earlier work, "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" in writing a section of "The Da Vinci Code." But he said that two of "Holy Blood's" authors, Michael Baigent and Richard Leigh, had failed to define the central theme of their book and thus failed to prove their accusation that Mr. Brown had lifted it from them.

In fact, the judge said, the earlier book "does not have a central theme as contended by the claimants: it was an artificial creation for the purposes of the litigation working back from 'The Da Vinci Code.' "
Ouch! If a book of nonfiction doesn’t have a central theme, what does it have? And to have the absence officially noted in a legal ruling by a judge — that must hurt. (Financially as well, since under British law the plaintiffs are liable for the defendant’s legal bills, which ran to the millions.)

Now Baigent and Leigh know how James McNeill Whistler must felt after “winning” another transatlantic legal battle — his 1878 libel suit in London against British critic John Ruskin. The aging writer had written some very nasty things about "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket," including his famous crack about its American painter —
"I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face."
In ruling in Whistler’s favor, the judge contemptuously awarded Whistler damages of one farthing. That’s one-quarter of a penny. The outcome was emotionally and financially devastating to Whistler, who spent a fortune on the trial, much like Baigent and Leigh.

Last time the Brit came out on top, this time the American — but really the only winner in either case was free expression.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Is it a fake Norman Rockwell?
Or is it a genuine Don Trachte?

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of authenticity when it comes to art objects. What is it, exactly, that can make one painting worth millions, while another, seemingly identical to all but the most practiced eyes and most likely just as beautiful, is worthless? Usually experts can tell. But not always, as today’s NYT notes.
For several years, museum curators and American painting experts had been troubled by discrepancies between Norman Rockwell's 1954 canvas "Breaking Home Ties" and tear sheets of the legendary Saturday Evening Post cover for which he painted it.

Comparing the two, experts mused that the painting's colors seemed oddly washed out. They conjectured that a zealous conservator had overcleaned the work, which depicts a fresh-faced boy about to leave home for the first time, posed with his dog and his craggy-faced father on the running board of an old truck.
Normally the gold standard in judging authenticity is the provenance of a work of art — that is, the proof of ownership that traces back in an unbroken line to the artist. But sometimes even that breaks down.
The painting's provenance was undisputed: Don Trachte, known as the cartoonist who took over the Sunday edition of the comic strip "Henry" in the 1940's, bought the painting from Rockwell for $900 in 1960. It became his prized possession.

So prized, it seems, that when Mr. Trachte and his wife, Elizabeth, jointly filed for divorce more than a decade later, the cartoonist cooked up a ruse, presumably to ensure keeping the treasure himself, hiding the original in a secret niche behind a wall in his house in Sandgate, Vt. What he and his wife subsequently divvied up — the Rockwell and seven other paintings by other local artists — were therefore copies, presumably made, their children say, by Mr. Trachte himself.
Click on the NYT link above to catch the whole story about how Trachte's sons uncovered the real Rockwell and the other originals. There's also a local connection. Trachte was born here in 1915 and graduated from Central High School and attended the University of Wisconsin. His father Arthur started the company that eventually became Trachte Building Systems, Inc., which the family sold in the late sixties and which is now located in Sun Prairie. Trachte began working for Carl Anderson, the creator of "Henry" here in Madison, in the early thirties. His obituary in the Wisconsin State Journal last year gives some more background about this fascinating man.

Trachte's recreation of his art collection appears to have been less about fraud than about an elaborate prank (the paintings were all going to his kids, in any case) by a man who was known for his playful nature — and who took his secret to his grave when he died last year at the age of 89. What's amazing to me is that for more than 30 years everyone who looked at the painting — family, friends and experts alike — were convinced they were looking at the real Norman Rockwell work (and quite a valuable one at that). Don Trachte must have been a hell of a painter. I'd settle for an original Trachte any day.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Good time for a zen custard

A warm spring day. If I were home it would be a perfect time to wander down to Monroe Street landmark Michael's for a frozen custard. Alas, I'm at work. But a guy can dream, can't he?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Did global warming have something to do with why dinosaurs were so big and we're so small?

Wow. Tornado season got off to a big start yesterday. Can't help but think about global warming — all that extra energy, looking for outlets. Katrina last year, and now a big cyclone season south of the equator —
Cyclone Glenda is the sixth cyclone to threaten the Western Australia coast during this year's cyclone season, which runs from November to April.

Glenda comes just over a week after Category 5 Cyclone Larry battered Queensland state on the east coast with 180 mph winds, devastating farming towns and flattening banana and sugar cane plantations. Insurance claims for Larry have reached $177 million, authorities said Tuesday.
Kind of makes you wonder. Nothing says the breezes on a planet must always be gentle. After all, Venus is buffeted by constant high speed winds, the apparent result of a runaway greenhouse effect. Permanent high velocity winds circle Jupiter, so much so that its most visible feature is a huge hurricane eye. Maybe when Earth was warmer it was windier. Maybe it will be again.

That’s when it struck me. The weather always seems under-imagined in our picture of the Jurrasic. Whether we imagine the dinosaurs snacking on mezoflora or on each other, the climate is always balmy and pleasant. Peaceful. But maybe it was as windy as it was warm — one non-stop hurricane. Maybe the dinosaurs evolved to be as big as they were just so they wouldn’t blow away. Then, when it cooled off and the wind settled down, the hulking creatures became obsolete, and smaller, more nimble but vulnerable mammals were able evolve.

But what if dinosaur weather comes back?