Sunday Stories: “New Ark in Several Tours”


New Ark in Several Tours
by Abigail Walthausen

A Drive Through Wilmington

After we found ourselves eliminated by the dispersing crowd, recognized frayed nerves in our fellow stragglers, and gathered by the terminal timetable, there was not much else to do than to wait for someone (everyone was playing chicken) to make some dismal quip about reality TV. “We could be on a show,” someone gave in and said.

“It’s the underlying competition. Even just shaking hands with you all, I feel sized up,” said another as we walked towards the minivan that was to collect us.

“Oh.” the first candidate curled her lip, “ I had only meant  like the opening sequence where we all arrive with rolling suitcases, dressed up, meet a moderator. Or the escort or whatever.” She nodded at the driver, who had met us at the train station, signaling himself  by a preordained black cap with the embroidered words: “Lost in Iceland.”

The road towards the museum grounds diverged far from the river to which the Amtrak had cleaved. The town had its hills, so the driver went slowly and the conversation brought quick revelations about who was a curator and who was not. Some people sounded like curators but  others worked at museums in some lesser capacity about which they were reluctant to be more than vague.  One was the early morning duster at Monticello which became clear later in the evening when she revealed her fetish for one alabaster clock. Another only worked a ticket booth, guardian of the floorplans and donor brochures at the Kimbell in Texas. The countryside that led up to the Winterthur Estate began rolling by and the driver interrupted all of our introductions to explain the great properties that sprawled before us: land in all directions had once belonged  to some Dupont or another, before being passed on to the museum. Some goats, sheep and horses were wandering on open fields at the mouth of the winding drive. Since from a distance all scale and size of animal were represented and it was springtime, I imagined that a good portion of the distant creatures were babies just learning from mothers about grass and grazing. They, the mothers, were unaware their job was not so much in eating as in mowing.

When we unloaded at the visitor center, we were given name tags beneath the bus shelter. Current fellows, the winners of years past, took our luggage to a storage closet. On several of the wooden beams that framed the cafeteria’s plate glass windows, there were signs that warned all visitors about the carpenter bees. But why would any individual, any tourist who is made of skin find herself concerned about bees that burrow deep down in wood? How can a warning sign alert the structure of the site? I considered posing these questions to the milling interviewees, but I’m not here to acquire the reputation of some Larry David or Andy Rooney, so I mused to myself: staff, warn yourselves, your preservationists, your exterminators, and all your groundskeepers!


Highlights of the Archives

The library building was sleek compared to the mansion with its wings and additions on all sides. It was nearly as new as the visitor center, though there were no signs for any infestation. The interior was climate controlled by necessity and in the archivist’s room, to greet our group, some books had been laid on foam rubber blocks with angled cradles for their aged spines.

The archivist reminded us that she took no part in the admissions process, so we should feel at liberty to ask any questions we felt like as she showed us a few of her favorites culled from the library. In moments it was clear that half the group had resolved to stick to informed historical questions, while the other half slackened  and began to formulate their jokes on the oddities of the past.

The favorites that the archivist shared were all odd indeed. There were furniture catalogues that were illustrated with elves, and there were books of miniature sample clothing with the doll-sized garments sewn right onto the pages, and there were fancy prints of the most impossible costumes wherein people were dressed as stone hearths and Grecian columns. She showed us a wholesale book of dog collars from the turn of the century and another book of test text and borders for signs. One of them read “WATCH FOR SIGNS” in block letters and she claimed to have enlarged that design to frame and hang in her kitchen. She had plenty of information to respond to the rather technical discussion that  revolved around the “foxing” of the paper and acid damage. The loudest of the group, the one who worked at the textile museum, asked of every image with a person wearing clothing: “now, what would my roommates say if I came home wearing that get-up?”

As the herd moved to the last display table, the librarian was winding down her presentation. She picked up one final leaflet: “This is one of my absolute favorites and one of the first things I picked out to digitize.” She angled the cover around for everyone to see that it read “If They Came Back for Easter Sunday…” and looked over the faces of the group. “Any guesses from anyone about what this means?”

“The troops,” someone blurted, “if the troops came home.”

“But this is meant to sell suits,” she pointed to the store name and season at the bottom of the cover. “It is a catalogue, so they can’t base their sales on bodies who are overseas.”

“Right.” Without saying more, she opened to a first page illustrated with George Washington wearing a sleek grey suit from the Spring 1927 line. “They can base sales on heroes of the past, though.” She turned another page and there was Lincoln in pinstripes. General Grant stood in front of the Flatiron building in a bowler.

“And was this serious, like a memorial piece? Or was it meant to be humorous even at the time of publication?” asked one of the group.

The archivist opened to another page where Julius Caesar posed with a walking stick. “I think that is for you to decide.”

“This is serious —  some serious zombie suits,” the loudest one said, while I considered those soldiers of the first surmises coming back for Easter Sunday not from Europe or from the North African theatre, but really from the dead, from dirt and from their own personal trenches here and abroad. Finery is what they need, because the ground a damp closet:  people may invent their spells and potions and electrical impulses, but tatters never will revive those ways.


Legacy of an Abolitionist

On the bus ride to dinner at the program director’s house we received a few warnings. The first was that Newark (pronounced, by all who lived there as New Ark, perhaps to differentiate from the blighted New Jersey city) was a bit too much of a college town and that made the traffic and the crowds insufferable. One current student warned us that she had waited 30 minutes through the pick up/ drop off traffic on the campus’ six block stretch.  Another warned us that she was regularly the only girl in one of her classes to wear real pants instead of leggings on a daily basis. I observed, along with my seatmate, that porch after porch along a residential street was filled with indoor furniture, TV’s and overgrown boys drinking beers.

Past the center of Newark, the interior displays thinned and we drove past the coffee shops and head shops, then fast food chains that  were integrated somewhat more naturally than your average drive-through strip, into the existing buildings of the main pedestrian strip. We ended up circling into a small modern dead-end street planted only with bare saplings that looked ill compared to the trees that grew in the small valley below the cul-de-sac. We were greeted by the director’s wife and place cards and a very fine antique punch bowl surrounded by little teacups of which  many people in the room could identify the provenance. More striking in the decor, though, was the bust of William Lloyd Garrison that stood in a central place in the sun room. The famous abolitionist was a forbearer of our proud host, and what better pedigree for an antiques connoisseur than to be a member of an historically significant family.

I stood catty corner to Garrison Sr. on the side of the sunroom that overlooked a small brook. With that view, I talked to the only other students who had no museum connections on their resumes, one a former community activist (laid off) and one current high school teacher (exhausted). There was a sense of desperation between the three of us —  we believed ourselves more passionate about “material culture” than those with art history degrees, and this was the sentiment we used to reassure ourselves about our precarious corners of the applicant pool.

Suddenly, we were interrupted by the gleeful cries of the current students who spotted  a crane and a family of three deer thirty feet down from the window. “You guys are so lucky! For our interview weekend last year, we had a blizzard.”

“It was even before daylight savings time, so we didn’t see any of this view. It was too dark to know what was going on outside.”

“Forget the view —  what is fascinating to me, is that it was a different bust last year.  I swear he changes it for each new interview weekend. Last year, the sculpture showed down to his third shirt button and the details of his watch chain were clearly articulated.”

“There is no way that he has multiple busts of his one ancestor. This is either a different relative, or you are misremembering all of these unimportant details.”

“Unimportant? I swear to you…” At this point, he turned to the competitors, “Take a good long look at this sculpture right now. If it weren’t rude, I would demand that we photograph it. Maybe later when people are more drunk. But next year at this time, when interview weekend comes around, I’ll remember this conversation from whatever far flung place I am working and I will be in touch with whichever ones of you make it into the program and you can tell me if it is or if it is not a different bust that he puts out then.”

“So I think we have to ask now and next year if this is indeed William Lloyd Garrison.”

“I think we know that this is William Lloyd Garrison —  there is no way that there is anyone else important enough for a bust in Richie’s family.”

In the heavy head, how had the sculptor included the brains that distinguish a maker of history from the others who live it or examine it from the flat end?  Perhaps he had been a great artist and put all that genius in molding features, but the face itself looked tampered with and shiny. But still the portrait painter was no creator  —  he had polished a face —  and like us in the room, standing at this cocktail hour, he put more store in the  physical objects of the past than in those moments and people themselves; every little artifact a pack mule burdened with interpretations. The movement of the crane outside was barely perceptible, though when the bird  had reached a one legged stasis we were well prepared to observe. The deer family that darted away quite surely registered no crane at all or believed it to be nothing but a 21st century suburban lawn ornament.


A Run Around the CV

When I was called into the interview room, my very first act in front of the panel was to take a sip from the water goblet that marked my place at the table. The group stared at me. “Oh, is this the water of the last person? Was I not supposed to drink? If it’s just a prop, I’m sorry…” I feared they found me gross and unsanitary. But the water glass was new they assured me.

“It says here that you recently made an installation art project.”

“Scrimshaw Satyagraha” I said and nodded.

“I was going to ask you to spend a minute describing the project, but in light of our current exhibit on the Campbell’s soup tureen collection, I was wondering whether you might give us some insight on how your work might inform your thoughts about tureens and how you might present such an exhibit yourself, given your artistic background.”

“The tureens exhibit, I would probably focus on the vessels, whether they were representational or whether they were design-oriented. So many are animals, and why an animal form would be appealing to people to eat soup from. But, wait, let me begin with the question? My installation had to do with containers too, bowls. What I had was a dozen crystal bowls, the sort that you have in a yoga studio, that you play by running a tool around the rims. So in the bottom of each one, I etched the pattern of a ship’s bottom, the stern, the boards. This was a very interactive exhibit, and I had out pots of weak dye, watered down india ink and the wands that you use to play the bowls, and people would have to paint the ships, fill in these faint line drawings with the ink, but only by playing the rims with the wand soaked in ink. The ink had to be used lightly and it would trickle through the etchings and show the images I had made. It would get darker as the day went on, but lighten up when the ink dried, since it was so watered down. So with soup tureens,” I paused hoping for a real connection, one that was appropriate for the general public and museum display, “ I would want to study what sort of designs were inside of the vessel, and get people to think about how that sort of design interacted with food. Nourishment in these negative spaces.” They continued to stare, giving me the feeling that the question was far from answered. “Also, the convergence of Eastern and Western culture is a big theme in my work, so this is something that is very influential in European decorative art like these tureens.”

For some reason, I thought that interview went well, and I am still not sure how I could have made a real answer to a question like that. I am sure I would love to study soup tureens, just like I would any great collected category of object, but in light of the bad news I received from the director of admissions on the following Monday morning, I am sure that those grand serving dishes will haunt me for a long time to come.


New Thoughts of the DuPonts

The tour started in the atrium of faux houses. The facades themselves were real, salvaged from true historic houses in New England, but none of them had a single wall that was independent of the mansion’s structure. These installations were made in DuPont’s badminton courtyard and they had begun the transformation of house into museum, a move  that would nudge his opulent estate outside the bounds of the New Deal’s tax codes. There were cobblestones for realism and the fellows who were guiding us described the artificial snow that they scatter there every Christmas. There were sprays of false foliage that were scheduled to change with the seasons. Most of the galleries that lay off the courtyard were not currently open to the public. They were made to look like rooms, but rooms that were over cluttered each according sometimes to a specific period, sometimes to a specific theme. The mazes of rooms were the lockers of the museum, but set up and dusted always because neither space nor labour for DuPont presented any problem. At the turn in one hallway, there was a door that led into a very bright space and one of our tour guides beckoned us over to say, “This is one of my favorite objects in the collection. Do any of you guys have any idea what this is?”

At the center of a tiny oblong room, lit by skylight, was a half-sized statue of George Washington with a toga draped across his torso.  He stood on a high pedestal as an overgrown toy soldier of white painted cast iron. The statue looked like a memorial marker to something that was and was not George Washington and the effect of the room was of a tiny plant-less courtyard or an in-house mausoleum. The whiteness and the folds that cascaded from Washington’s outstretched arm added to the ghostly effect.  Benches were built into the walls all about three feet from the figure and no one answered the initial question.

“This is called a dumb stove. It is hollow and connected to the flue below, so it’s a passive heat source. People could sit around this to get warm —  I love the symbolism of the founding father as like a beacon, emanating heat and security.”

“Which might be undercut by the fact that it is called a dumb stove, no?” replied the other guide. And how it is hollow, I thought, and full of warm air and a grey tangle of smoke.

When they weren’t trying to answer our competitive questions or showing us personal favorites from the collection, they had horror stories for us. One who had once worked at Monticello told me all about how a woman on a tour once asked if the topic of slavery could be avoided since it made her uncomfortable. They had stories about children touching things and about adults hopping over velvet ropes. They revealed the household secret —  that there were airsick bags scattered throughout the house in the event that a tourist grew ill above some fine textile. They revealed that once in a while, the descendants of the DuPonts  anonymously joined a tour.

“A friend I had from last year’s class told me that she took DuPont’s daughter on one of the tours without having the slightest idea who she was. It wasn’t until this little old lady sat herself down on the silk cushion of one of the Rhode Island fan-back Windsor side chairs and she freaked out that the woman said who she was. My friend was like ‘no, no, if you are tired I’ll bring you back to the visitor’s atrium, but you can not sit on the antiques!’ and Mrs. DuPont goes ‘Darling, I will buy you a new one…’ She would have been so nervous giving her spiel if she knew she was talking to someone who had actually lived in the house!”

One time when I was much younger and worked in a bagel store we were warned about Ghost shoppers. And the day that one did come, the man was not the least bit subtle. He asked questions about the price and the ingredients of every single sandwich combo that the menu had to offer. He asked about the rules and regulations of the refillable coffee cup. He asked questions relating to every food allergy possible, including caffeine intolerance, even though he had just coached the other clerk through a calculation of price per ounce for all four coffee cup sizes. Because she was flustered and upset, as a trick question he asked for straight cold milk (too expensive) in his refillable travel mug. The Heiress haunted the house and hoped for certain answers too, I am sure, but thank goodness that she did not harness them into a checklist, because the checklist is the most skeletal and least ghostly art form ever to exist.


Open Air Tour Bus

As though we hadn’t spent enough time shuttling around on a bus during our stay, on the final day of our interview weekend, it was recommended that we take a short open air bus ride around the grounds of the mansion. It was just before lunch and it was drizzling enough that I thought the bus driver would roll down the clear vinyl flaps that that were attached to the side of the bus expressly for this weather. He did not, but I was squeezed into the middle of the second to last row, so the rain didn’t wet me at all, though I was tangled for the ride in the arms of people extending cameras in all directions. Somehow, all competition now seemed to be about the quality of the souvenir photograph and people were clicking away at every grove of trees and flower bed and from every rolling vista. And these competitors who had softened into future friends and colleagues  had thoughtfully offered to email me their best shots since I had brought no camera.

The bus was equipped with speakers “…and when these trees bloom in May, can you guess what color they will be?” asked the bus driver. “You guessed it. It is DuPont’s favorite color combo again: white and yellow and purple.” The rhetoric of the DuPonts’ preferences was practiced apparently in every corner of the estate, from the seasonally rotating curtains and carpets of his wife, to the favored silhouettes of trees and farm animals.

“Most of the property was a golf course, you know. No limits to where those 18 holes were here, and no carts to get from spot to spot. But the beauty of the course itself if not the only way that DuPont chose to improve upon the traditional golf course. He wasn’t crazy about the look of sand traps. And who would be, when you go to all this trouble to get lush grass growing on every inch of your property, who wants bald spots all over, here and there? Anybody see the sand traps?”

There was more reaching across my lap, but this time not of hands with cameras, but with heads and eyes. The ground near and far was surveyed, but no one had an answer. “You don’t think he had some sort of insane trap door, do you?” whispered one of my neighbors.

“Like a cartoon booby-trap, covered with leaves!” added another. “But then again, the farm animals and the neo-serfs could fall in.”

“Replaceable, replaceable,” said the first with a click of his tongue.

The bus driver’s voice boomed again, building to his punchline. “Now it seems like nobody was able to find what was right in front of your eyes. If you will look all around you, I’d ask you to take notice of the patches of taller darker grasses that you see all around. What you see right there is not taller grasses, but in fact, beds of early daffodils. DuPont just didn’t like the look of the bare ground for his hazards, so he went with planting thousands of daffodil bulbs instead.”

“How would he get the ball back when the flowers were full grown?” asked a vacationer in one of the front rows.

“He was not one to bother with the details like that —  losing a ball or two, when he could fill his game of golf with one of his three favorite colors…” he waited for his audience to fill in the word “yellow” and continued. “So, if you want to see what DuPont’s golf game looked like when it was in full bloom, at his favorite time of the year, you might want to come back right around Easter Sunday. At that time of the spring, just exactly around Easter, you see bright yellow patches everywhere.”

For surveyors and sportsmen, the traditional sand trap is a small-scale sahara with all the visibility needed for a quick rescue, not a lush limbo in which to last out the season.  A desert, even small, is ahistoric with no past and no future and an urgent present that preserves material integrity, frank history, and zero sum. These special hazards have a friendly aspect —  they interrupt no grazing and blend until whatever holiday first flowers pick.

Abigail Walthausen is a writer and high-school teacher in Brooklyn. Follow her blog at EdTech Pentameter. “New Ark in Several Tours” is the last in a series of stories about docents at historic houses and sites of interest.

Image: “Wilmington DE 1956”

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