Presidential Real Estate

“Presidents Day” weekend has rolled around again. Late last week I managed to make professional use of my slight knowledge of the presidency — or more exactly, the various U.S. presidents — to write an article about a selection of their houses. The final title: “The Fabulous Real Estate (And A Few Modest Digs) Of Past Presidents.”

It was a fun article to write. I didn’t want to make it overly long, so of course most of the presidents were left out. But I did have a nice selection from different eras: Madison, Jackson, Van Buren, Wm. Henry Harrison, Lincoln, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Hoover and Lyndon Johnson.

My sources included my own visits in some cases, online information, and two books that I own. One is the bare-bones Presidents, subtitled “Birthplaces, Homes, and Burial Sites,” by Rachel M. Kochman. I can’t quite remember where I got, but it’s the kind of book that sells in national park or national monument or national historic site bookstores. Acquired sometime in the late 1990s probably, since it’s the 1996 edition, with the most recent president covered being Bill Clinton.

Bare bones because while extensively illustrated, all the photos and drawings are black and white. That’s no problem, really, but it’s set in an ugly sans serif. That makes what should be a browsing book less pleasant to browse. Still, the book includes a lot of information on presidential sites.

I also have a coffee table book called Homes of the Presidents by Bill Harris, 1997, so it too ends with Clinton. A remainder table find. The text is a little uneven, but not bad. The pictures are the thing, of course, and they are well selected.

Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

On Friday morning, I noticed that I could have watched the opening ceremony to the Winter Olympics via live streaming if I’d gotten up at 5 a.m. Ha, ha. I was busy about then enjoying a dream about something or other. Then I forgot to watch any of the replay on regular TV, maybe because NBC’s treatment is always tiresome.

Considering that today is Lincoln’s birthday, it’s fitting that I picked up a book about him — partly about him — on Saturday at a resale shop, and started reading it as soon as I got home. But I wasn’t thinking about that coincidence when I bought the book. It didn’t occur to me until this morning.

The book is Manhunt, subtitled “The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” by James L. Swanson (2006). I liked it from the beginning, namely “A Note to the Reader,” on page viii.

“This story is true. All the characters are real and were alive during the great manhunt of April 1865. Their words are authentic. Indeed, all text appearing within quotation marks comes from original sources: letters, manuscripts, affidavits, trial transcripts, newspapers, government reports, pamphlets, books, memoirs, and other documents. What happened in Washington, DC, in the spring of 1865, and in the swamps and rivers, and the forests and fields, of Maryland and Virginia during the next twelve days, is far too incredible to have ever been made up.”

In a case like this, I’d guess a surfeit of information and sources would be the writer’s challenge, rather than missing puzzle pieces. Among 19th-century crimes, Lincoln’s murder might well be the best documented.

So far Swanson seems up to the challenge. Even though I know a fair amount of the story, and have read other books about the assassination (e.g., The Day Lincoln Was Shot by James Bishop), Manhunt is a page-turner. I spent a fair amount of Saturday night and Sunday morning turning those pages.

Though the book hews close to the facts, that doesn’t keep Swanson from occasional interesting counterfactual musings. Such as a paragraph about what might have happened had Booth’s shot missed — his derringer had only one shot, after all.

“Had Booth missed, Lincoln could have risen from his chair to confront the assassin. At that moment, the president, cornered, with not only his own life in danger but also Mary’s, would almost certainly have fought back. If he did, Booth would have found himself outmatched, facing not kindly Father Abraham, but the aroused fury of the Mississippi River flatboatman who fought off a gang of murderous river pirates in the dead of night, the champion wrestler who, years before, humbled the Clary’s Grove boys in New Salem in a still legendary match, or even the fifty-six-year-old president who could still pick up a long, splitting-axe by his fingertips, raise it, extend his arm out parallel with the ground, and suspend the axe in midair. Lincoln could have choked the life out of the five-foot-eight-inch, 150-pound thespian, or wrestled him over the side of the box, launching Booth on a crippling dive to the stage almost twelve feet below.”

Also intriguing are the walk-on characters. Walk-on from the point of view of the main story, since no one is a walk-on in his or her own life. Such as “John Peanut,” the man — or teen — who worked as a menial at Ford’s Theatre and who held John Wilkes Booth’s horse in the alley behind the theater while the actor went off to become an assassin. Booth had asked Ford’s Theatre carpenter Ned Spangler to do so, but he fobbed the job off on “John Peanut,” who might have been named John or Joseph Burroughs or Burrows.

A little more information about this person is here, for what it’s worth. A Lincoln assassination buff named Roger Norton says, “I believe the best Lincoln assassination researchers in the world tried to find out what became of him, but nobody could succeed. The trail ends with his appearance at the trial. Mike Kauffman has suggested that his name was actually Borrows (sp?). Nobody knows his exact age in 1865 as far as I know, but ‘teens’ is a logical assumption.”

So there’s plenty in Manhunt to keep me interested. It’s become an express train blowing by the other books I’m reading at the moment: Trotsky: Fate of a Revolutionary, The Crossing (Cormac McCarthy) and a collection of Orwell’s essays, which is a re-read after a few decades.

Adios, November

Three yawning months of meteorological winter ahead. That’s what counts for winter: December, January and February. Never mind what anyone says about the solstice. But at least no heavy snow or ice is forecast for now.

Back again to posting around December 10.

What did we do to deserve this sunset? A late November event, as seen from our deck.
On Thanksgiving, the girls and I watched Airplane! on demand. What is it about that movie and its rapid-fire, throw the jokes against the wall to see if they’re funny structure? I’ve watched it a number of times since I saw it when it was new, and it’s funny every time.

Unlike another movie I paid good money to see in 1980: The Hollywood Knights. That was a mistake. So much so that sometime afterward I invented my own personal scale of movie quality: The Hollywood Knights Scale, from zero to some unspecified large number, zero being the worst.

The Hollywood Knights comes in at exactly 0 on my idiosyncratic scale. I’ve seen some bad movies in my time, but that ranking is still valid as far as I’m concerned (though I’d have to put, say, Patch Adams at 0.1).

Not familiar with The Hollywood Knights? Wiki gives a pretty good summation: “The ensuing antics include, among other things, a sexual encounter involving premature ejaculation, a punch bowl being spiked with urine, an initiation ceremony involving four pledges who are left in Watts wearing nothing but the car tires they are left to carry, a cheerleader who forgets to put on her underwear before performing at a pep rally, several impromptu drag races, and the lead character of Newbaum Turk (Robert Wuhl) wearing a majordomo outfit and singing a version of ‘Volare’ accompanied by the sounds of flatulence. Mooning also plays a prominent role in the film…”

None of those things necessarily make the movie unfunny. After all, Airplane! includes jokes about drug abuse, pederasty, oral sex, a sick child, and African-American dialect. There are ridiculous visual gags, such as Ted Striker’s drinking problem or pouring lights on the runway. Punning is rampant (don’t call me Shirley). Yet it all works as a comedy. The writing, directing, acting, timing and entire conceit as a spoof of more serious movies are vastly better than anything The Hollywood Knights did.

Speaking of odd things in movies, this is a still from Animal Crackers.

That’s supposed to be part of an outdoor patio of a lavish home on Long Island. The characters, who are not really that important in the scheme of the comedy, are the wealthy homeowner’s daughter and her honest but poor boyfriend. What caught my eye was that structure behind them.

According to the imdb, the uncredited art director for the firm was the German-born Ernst Fegté, who was working in Hollywood by 1925, and who had a busy career. Now what, I can imagine him thinking, would a wealthy Long Island socialite want for her patio? Something — modern.

The movie was made in 1930. Here’s something else from exactly then, a cover of Radio Listener magazine that I saw at the early Soviet art exhibit at the Art Institute last weekend.

It’s a Peakaboo Stalin. Lenin figured in a fair number of the works, but Stalin was only an up-and-coming character during most of the period. A little like Fonzie, though — pretty soon he’s going to take over the show.

One more thing, and naught to do with movies or the Soviet Union. I took Lilly back to UIUC on Sunday, and en route arranged to take a picture of this roadside attraction in Kankakee. Almost literally roadside, since it’s best seen from I-57.
“28 feet tall, Abe stands in front of a heavy equipment rental lot, and holds signs that promote whatever its owner feels strongly about at the moment,” says Roadside America.

I’ve seen him with a sign, but for the moment he holds none. Just as well, I figure. A sign in Honest Abe’s hands is gilding the lily.

The New Oldest President

This came to my attention the other day. Last Friday, George H. W. Bush became the longest-lived president in U.S. history, at 93 years, 166 days. He bested Gerald Ford — who isn’t getting any older — that day, and topped Ronald Reagan about a month and a half ago. Reagan had the longest-lived distinction for a few years in the early 21st century, and more recently, for about the last 10 years, Ford was the oldest.

Presidential longevity is reaching new heights here in the 21st century. For a very long time, about 175 years, John Adams was the longest-lived president. He famously died on July 4, 1826, aged 90 years, 247 days. Reagan passed him only in 2001.

Now each of the four presidents who followed Richard Nixon have lived to be at least 93, with the elder Bush and Jimmy Carter currently gunning for 94. To reach 93, George W. Bush and Donald Trump would both need to live to 2039; Bill Clinton, to 2040; and Barack Obama, to 2054.

His Final Battle

One thing I forgot to link to yesterday: Famous Balloon Movies, Chapter 2, a scene from CasaBalloona.

Watching Casablanca must have put me in a mood to read about the ’40s, because at the library today I saw a copy of His Final Battle, subtitled “The Last Months of Franklin Roosevelt,” by Joseph Lelyveld (2016). I picked it up at once and checked it out. About time I read some more presidential books anyway.

The cover features the well-known photo of FDR hoisting his hat over a clutch of radio microphones. That’s from a 1944 campaign appearance in Chicago, at Soldier Field. The image is fuzzy, but the president looks worn out indeed.

He was born much too early to benefit from the polio vaccine, but only a little too early to benefit from blood pressure medication. Turning at random to a page (p. 91), I found the following:

“The conclusion [about FDR’s death] that comes closest to known facts was propounded in lectures and articles by Marvin Moser, a retired Columbia University medical professor: ‘Roosevelt represents a textbook case of untreated hypertension progressing to [likely] organ failure and death from stroke.’ In the medical literature, such hypertension is sometimes called ‘malignant hypertension.’

“…Safe and effective drugs to lower high blood pressure and prevent clots didn’t begin to become available for more than ten years after Roosevelt’s death. In the 1940s, only commonplace aspirin was widely recommended for purpose.”

More Vincennes

At Grouseland in Vincennes, during the tour, our guide pointed out a sizable crack in the wall of one of the upstairs bedrooms. She said that was the only damage to the interior walls that the long-time modern owners of the property, the Daughters of the American Revolution, decided not to repair. That’s because the 1811-12 New Madrid earthquakes make the crack. That crack might be the only visible relic anywhere of that long-ago event. Historic damage preservation, you might call it.

Outside of the Harrison mansion are a few memorials, one of which is homely indeed.
Two blocks south of this marker on March 6, 1814, was born Sarah Knox Taylor, daughter of Capt. and Mrs. Zachary Taylor.

Miss Taylor married Lieut. Jefferson Davis at Louisville, Kentucky on July 17, 1835 and died in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, on September 15 of that same year.

Zachary Taylor subsequently became the twelfth President of the United States, and Jefferson Davis the first and only President of the Confederate States of America.

Erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy 1964

A Confederate memorial, sort of, but somehow I doubt that memorial revisionists are going to be flustered by it.

Grouseland has a small gift shop. You can buy William Henry Harrison Pez dispensers there. I did.

William Henry Harrison PezWHH Pez is now going to keep company with my Franklin Pierce bobblehead.

At the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park gift shop, you can buy a flag I’ve never seen anywhere else: the George Rogers Clark Flag. I got one of those, too.
George Rogers Clark FlagThe Clark flag is now going to keep company with my Come And Take It flag that flies on our deck during the warm months.

Apparently Clark’s men didn’t carry the flag at the Battle of Vincennes, but it was around — a previous American commander at Sackville, before the British took the fort, might have used it. Clark got his name attached to it anyway. Also, it isn’t clear why red and green were its colors. Never mind, all that mystery adds interest. It’s distinctive, and you can find it displayed with more conventional flags at the National Historical Park.
George Rogers Clark Memorial flagsVisible from the George Rogers Clark National Historical Park is the Lincoln Memorial Bridge across the Wabash (US 50), the border at that place between Indiana and Illinois. An elegant bridge.
Lincoln Memorial Bridge, Vincennes, IndianaThis was where a young Abraham Lincoln (age 21) and his family is thought to have crossed into Illinois for the first time in 1830. On the Illinois side of the river, that event is marked with a memorial.
Lincoln at 21 memorial, entering IllinoisProbably the Lincolns crossed the river on a ferry. Crossed the river, checked out the memorial, and then when on their way. I admit, that sounds like a scene from a Mel Brooks movie, but it’s something I thought of while looking at the memorial.

Lincoln crossing into Illinois memorial

Officially, it’s the Lincoln Trail State Memorial, designed by Nellie Verne Walker and erected in 1938.

One more thing in Vincennes: a small museum to a native son. Anyone younger than me (roughly) might have a hard time identifying him.
Red Skelton mural, VincennesThe museum was closed on Sunday, and we didn’t have time for it anyway, but I did tell the girls that Red Skelton was an old vaudevillian, long before my time. I remember him on television, which was essentially televised vaudeville in his case. Who in our time would do comedy that included “The Silent Spot”?

Grouseland

Grouseland is the inelegant name of a more elegant-that-expected house, supposedly named after the plentiful birds in the area, and thought to be the first brick building in Indiana — the Indiana Territory in those days. It was the home of territorial Gov. William Henry Harrison and his family in the early years of the 19th century. Long before Tippecanoe and Tyler too.

Even longer before “We Are the Mediocre Presidents,” though I’d argue that Wm. Henry Harrison was one of the great U.S. presidents. And one of the worst. He didn’t have time to be anything else.

Last Sunday we arrived in Vincennes, Indiana, hard by the Wabash River, and Grouseland was our first stop. Guess I need to add it to my vanity list of presidential sites, which I haven’t updated in more than three years. Maybe next Presidents Day.

Grouseland, Vincennes, Indiana

Patterned after the Harrison manse in Virginia, Grouseland probably would have been no great shakes in the early 19th-century Old Dominion, but out in the wilderness of Indiana, it must have been impressive. It’s still impressive in small-town Vincennes. The exterior walls were built sturdy enough to endure for more than two centuries, but most of the interior is a faithful re-creation, considering that after the Harrisons left, the property was given over the other uses, including a period as a barn.

Grouseland, Vincennes, Indiana“As governor, Harrison saw his principal task as opening lands belonging to the local Indian tribes to white settlement,” the NPS says of Grouseland’s heyday. “He negotiated a series of treaties that provided for the cession of millions of acres of land, but his success generated strong resistance.

“Tecumseh, the famous Shawnee leader, who was trying to recruit other tribes to join him in armed resistance, met with Harrison at Grouseland in 1810 and warned that his people would fight to prevent further white encroachment. Located to the left of the center hall, the ‘Council Chamber,’ is where Harrison held many meetings with Indian leaders and conducted much of his business as governor.”

We got to the house just in time for a guided tour, given by a fetching Vincennes University history major undergrad volunteering for the gig. The campus extends off in the distance from Grouseland. Until I looked it up, I knew nothing about the school except as a spot on the map. (Pretty much the same could be said for Vincennes.)

From its web site: “VU is Indiana’s first college. William Henry Harrison, the ninth U.S. President, founded VU in 1801 while serving as governor of the Indiana Territory. VU was incorporated as Vincennes University on November 29, 1806.”

So that’s another Harrison legacy. Attaboy, William Henry.

The Last Gasp of the Federal Works Agency

Not something you see everyday: a plaque marking a project by the Federal Works Agency. But there it was last weekend for me to see, at the Chicago subway station of the CTA Blue Line (O’Hare-Forest Park).

Federal Works Agency plaque, Chicago StationThe Federal Works Agency only lasted until 1949, but it’s a safe assumption that the subway construction project started under its aegis in the late ’40s, so it was thought fitting to use the name even in 1950. The agency had been created as a part of a major federal government reorganization in 1939, authorized by Congress and overseen by the executive branch.

To quote President Roosevelt, in his message to Congress on the Reorganization Act of 1939: “[The FWA will include] the Bureau of Public Roads, now in the Department of Agriculture; the Public Buildings Branch of the Procurement Division, now in the Treasury Department, and the Branch of Buildings Management of the National Park Service… now in the Department of the Interior; the United States Housing Authority, now in the Department of the Interior; the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works; and the Works Progress Administration, except the functions of the National Youth Administration.”

Various additions and subtractions were made to that list until 1949, when the FWA’s remaining functions were parceled out to other agencies, as well as the newly created General Services Administration. As federal bureaucracies go, the FWA had a fruit-fly lifespan.

With a 10-year run, there couldn’t be that many FWA plaques. Certainly not as many as the GSA — nearly 70 years now — or even the WPA or the CCC, which also had short runs, but were really busy in their heydays. So maybe in the hobby of plaque-spotting the FWA is a nice find.

If there is such a hobby. Surely someone looks for plaques in a more enthusiastic or systematic way than I do. And is Blue Plaque-spotting a thing in the UK, or does this Spectator article merely refer to casually walking by them?

Billy Beer Now Counts as an Antique?

First things first. Remember the Alamo.

Not long ago we visited an antique mall in another northwest suburb that we go to occasionally, though this was the first time in a few years. On the whole it’s a likable place stuffed to the gills with debris from across the decades. I like looking around, just to remind myself how much stuff there is in the manmade world. The establishment frowns on photographing its wares, so I have no images.

The mall’s postcards, unfortunately, tend to be $1 or more each. It has to be a special card for me to pay that much. Got enough of them anyway. Several drawers full of old photographs of random strangers were also available, at a lower cost per item. Many were easily taken 100 years ago. That only goes to prove that for most people, any images older than their grandparents might as well be cave paintings.

The most amusing find: a six pack of Billy Beer, apparently unopened. I don’t ever remember actually seeing any, only hearing about it, as everyone did in 1977. A short history of the risible brand, posted in 2010, is at Mental Floss, whose key line is: “That’s about the best summary of Billy Beer that we can find; it was so noxious that not even Billy Carter would drink it.”

As for later: “Billy Beer perfectly fit the mold for a worthless collectible. It was made in giant quantities. Hordes of people had speculatively saved some. It had no intrinsic value.”

I think the price on the cans was $30. Who knows, maybe Billy Beer’s time as a collectible will come someday, as those giant quantities waste away across the decades. But I’m not going to buy any in hopes of finding out.

Thursday Residuum

Remarkably rainy January so far. Even when it hasn’t been raining these past weeks or so, the skies have looked pregnant with rain. So it’s been a wet January, not an icy one. That was the case at UIUC, as the last of clinging frozen matter thawed, as it might in a normal northern March.

UIUC January 15, 2017

Blame it on climate change? I’d be tempted, but weather isn’t climate. Besides, there’s a blizzard lurking out there in the near future, or at least heavy snow. Winter will not be denied.

A few days ago, I approached a four-way stop to make a left turn. Directly across the intersection another car arrived to make a left turn. To my left, a third car arrived to make a right turn. We all got there at about the same moment. We all made our respective turns concurrently. Can’t remember when that happened before. Had a fourth car to my right wanted to make a right turn, it would have been truly remarkable, but we had to settle for a three-way synch.

At a World Market last week, I saw bottles of Tito’s Handmade Vodka for sale. I couldn’t ever remember actually seeing any before, as opposed to hearing about it, though I don’t go to a lot of liquor stores.

Last month, I heard Tito himself on the radio, pitching his creation. He didn’t quite sound like his high school self, no one would, but it was him all right. I was pretty sure I hadn’t ever heard advertising for Tito’s beyond sponsorships on public radio (the ad I heard was on a commercial station). Maybe Tito’s needed to up his ad budget in the face of competition.

I’m most of my way through the book River of Doubt, about the Roosevelt-Rondon expedition into the deep Brazilian rainforest. Reading it, you think, how did anyone survive that trip? They faced untreatable diseases, looming starvation, dangerous animals, venomous bugs, an extremely hazardous river, a murderer among their crew, and the potential for Indians to attack at any time and wipe them all out. At one point, a very sick Theodore Roosevelt seriously contemplated overdosing on morphine. Not too end his pain, but to avoid being an impediment to the rest of the expedition. His son Kermit wouldn’t allow it.

Amazing how close TR’s bio came to ending with, “Led expedition down the River of Doubt in Brazil, 1914. Never seen again.”