Thursday, October 30, 2008

Garver Feed Mill's air of picturesque decrepitude not likely to change soon

Garver Feed Mill
Someday the old Garver Feed Mill will be more than a sprawling, beautiful ruin that glows warmly in the late afternoon sun north of Olbrich Botanical Gardens. Arts advocates and city planners are pushing for it to become an arts incubator, but that's not likely to happen anytime soon, given today's budget woes and precarious economic situation. The building's future is also tied to expansion plans for Olbrich Gardens, as well as the city's plans for the nearby Olbrich Park softball fields. It's a tangled situation, in which competing interests collide and the Garver Feed Mill has basically become a bargaining chip.

The City Planning Commission addressed these issues earlier this month, and will revisit them in future meetings. Kristin Czubkowski reported on the meeting in the online Capital Times under the headline "Decision on Olbrich Park master plan won't be rushed."
Those speaking in favor of expanding Olbrich Botanical Gardens, however, said the northern expansion was considered less than ideal because of railroad tracks that would separate the two halves of the gardens compared to a bridge east across Starkweather Creek that has already been built because of the Thai Pavilion addition to the gardens. Former Olbrich Botanical Society president Dennis Birke also said that members had disagreed over whether lands to the north should be used for formal gardens or natural landscaping and whether lands to the east were a better alternative for formal gardens.

Members of the Olbrich Botanical Society also reminded commissioners that the society raised about $1 million in the 1990s to purchase the Garver Feed Mill property for the city of Madison in exchange for a promise to allow significant garden expansion. There is currently still a deed restriction on the building for its use for the gardens, said society Secretary Janet Loewi, and the society might hesitate to remove it unless it is guaranteed other land on which to expand. The city is currently planning for the Garver Feed Mill property to be turned into an arts incubator, which would require lifting of the deed restriction.
There's one group that's probably in no hurry to see the issue resolved -- the city's photographers. It's hard to find a good, accessible ruin these days, and the old structure with its air of abandonment makes a great photo subject.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

F. Scott Fitzgerald's (formerly?) fresh, green breast of the new world

The (Formerly?) Fresh,  Green Breast of the New World
. . . gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

-- F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Good endings are rare, and this is one of the best. An ending is a small death, and so it's not surprising that novelists sometimes conclude on a note of elegy. It doesn't always work, but Fitzgerald's elegiac final lines of The Great Gatsby were a masterful evocation of the entire history of the American Dream in the context of one man's broken dreams, symbolized by that unattainable green light.

It's hard not to think of Gatsby these days, when so many people pursued shortcuts toward their own version of the American Dream, only to find the pursuit end in disaster. I'm also reminded of Fitzgerald because Joseph O'Neill's Netherland, which deals with similar themes in a very different setting -- the immigrant community in post-9/11 New York City -- was one of my favorite reads last summer.

(Photograph: Owen Conservation Park, Madison, Wisconsin.)

Monday, October 27, 2008

Short Version of William Goldman's "The Temple of Gold"

The Shorter Version of William Goldman's "The Temple of Gold"
Those tantalizing reflections of the Temple of Gold are an illusion. The leaves are real.

(Photographed in the reflecting pool of the Thai Pavilion at Olbrich Botanical Gardens, Madison, Wisconsin.)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

946 East Main: A tree now obscures a surviving fragment of a vanished past

946 East Main: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi
There's nothing like a tree practically growing out of the front door of an old building to give it an air of abandonment. When I looked more closely at this old brick structure on Madison's East Side, it looked as if it had been built to last, probably early in the last century, and the detailing around the entrance suggested that it once housed a substantial enterprise. I peered through the windows and saw what seemed to be an empty warehouse space inside. I wondered about its history. The building looked abandoned, but it must have known better times. What sort of business used to call this home?

PhoneCo2-smThat's when I looked up through the trees at a different angle and saw the words Wisconsin Telephone Company, capped by a relief sculpture of a bell. As far back as I can remember, "the phone company" was always headquartered in one or another much larger building in downtown Madison, so this clearly dated to an earlier era. I felt a wave of nostalgia for the heyday of a great American institution, back when "Bell Telephone" still meant something; it had an aura of magic about it -- back before it gave way to changing times, antitrust law, technology and deregulation. The pieces of the old AT&T were broken up, recombined, and now our phone company is AT&T again. But there's no "Bell" in it anymore. And absolutely no magic at all.