06 January 2010

Architecture of the open places

Bone Cabin, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Nebraska

You have to feel sorry for Gene, or admire his patience. There he is, respectably birding away on the back roads, in pursuit of a good sighting, when I unexpectedly fling the maps and notebook in all directions and yell "Stop!" for something that isn't a bird. Isn't even anything biological. Isn't what we came out to do. And often isn't even easy to see or get to. To his credit, he stops for that beauty-shot minute when and where he can, unless it means losing the bird or putting ourselves in harm's way from traffic or bison or whatever is in the area. (No, I'm not joking about the bison.) 

The fact is, I am in love with the tiny, often abandoned buildings--cabins, one-room schoolhouses, little chapels, barns and sheds--that we see up here on our back-road travels. I have online photo albums filling up steadily with images of these little gems.

I know them when I see them. They are the weatherbeaten survivors on the horizon. They are quietly beautiful in spite of their years and occasional damage. They survive even when they have obviously been neglected for years, or decades. Theirs is a beauty unrelated to paint or other trappings. Many times it's clear that they were never intended to be beautiful, just sturdily functional, yet something in their design and placement shines through.

Rules? Well, I never trespass. (This is a healthy course of action to follow in the West in any case.) I tend to avoid houses or cabins that appear to be occupied for fear of violating anyone's privacy. (Also a good way to avoid projectile lead poisoning.) These images represent what anyone could see from a public road up here. I am seldom looking at something that could be considered a formal architectural style, except for the one-room churches and schoolhouses (often, as a friend has pointed out, these were one and the same up here). They were built to last, to serve a critical need, not to be attention-grabbers...and yet they draw my eye and fascinate me as much as any Washington marble monument.

None of these buildings could have been easy to put together. On the prairie proper, there is a limited supply of lumber-worthy trees. Everything had to be brought in from some distance. The stone cabin may be an exception. It's not far from a river with good water-washed cobble stones. Still, building it must have been back-breaking work. I wonder if it ever had glass in those windows, or if that was too much of a luxury, as it often was. It has stood strong against the winds for a long time now.

Painted buildings are generally fiercely faded. The original paint colors tend to be brown, red or white. The palette expanded in town, but out on the prairie the options were more limited. That does not mean that they are unattractive. On the contrary, the weathered colors look as if they have always been there, part of the landscape. I always wonder who loved these buildings, what they meant to the people in the area, why they are empty now.

Sometimes I include structures that have a more public identity, a better provenance, an actual name, a continuing role, such as the Little Brown Church on the Prairie. This is a lovely structure on the road to Pierre, a road that itself parallels deep wagon ruts from the old Deadwood to Pierre line. This time I was driving and Gene was manning the camera. I love this for the light as much as the architecture. From this point, the horizon is sweeping and endless.

The railway depot in Sturgis was an unexpected find on the recent Christmas Bird Count. We may have found more buildings than birds this year--wherever the birds may have been, they were avoiding the town of Sturgis. But the depot is a treasure, looking over the town calmly, built to serve the needs of trains and passengers that are now gone.
Sometimes what draws the eye is not exactly architecture per se. I like the aesthetics of the farm equipment and vehicles I occasionally find in the fields by the roads. Some are obviously placed there deliberately; others are simply left there, or abandoned altogether.

Only occasionally do I feel as if they are looking back at me in return.

This is an ongoing project; I happily hope that there is no end to it. I am no architectural historian, just a searcher for traces of the past. My mother is doing a similar project in her own neighborhood. It's not easy to find these individual, idiosyncratic little structures any more; we cherish the ones that still stand.

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