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Write it down

April 2, 2020

Do you keep a journal (whether online or on paper)? We’re living through history during this COVID-19 pandemic. (I can’t get the Hamilton song “The Schuyler Sisters” out of my head, with its recurrent line “History is happening.”)

That’s my first diary, pictured at right. I thought it was only for very special events. The first entry I wrote in it: “A dog came to our hows today.” about a stray that stopped by. (A big deal when you are a little kid living in a small town in Maine!) Due to this “only special things” approach, this diary lasted me a long, long time and gradually the events became less and less special and the book filled and was eventually replaced with other books.

In these strange times, are you writing down things — special or not?

Philadelphia’s Library Company, with its extensive archive of materials relating to American society and culture from the 17th through the 19th centuries, recently posted this suggestion of starting a journal. Your day to day activities now are/will be part of history!


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In the historical record, when we see notes about the weather, a shopping list, records of births, marriages, and deaths—the mundane details of a past human life— they can jolt us out of our present moment, fire up our imaginations, and bring forth new meaning and perspective. When future beings look to the records of our lived experiences to help understand their own present, similarly mundane details are likely to become poignant testimony about our lived reality. Consider the potential future significance of journals and diaries created in the present moment, while we live under quarantine during the global pandemic COVID-19. We invite you to create your own written record of some aspect of your life during the COVID-19 pandemic. It can be as simple or elaborate as you want: Note the weather from the window that you look out of every day. Keep track of your Zoom appointments and school work. Track your daily activities like workouts, books you are reading, or TV shows you are watching. Write out your grocery lists: What do you need? Was the toilet paper sold out? Like to draw? Make a sketch. Like to cut and glue? Make a scrapbook. Anything goes! To read Andrea Krupp's full post about diaries and journals, find some inspiration from our collections, and download instructions on how to make your own pocket notebook, follow the #linkinbio. If you choose to share some pages from your journal on social media, please tag us @librarycompany and #notetofutureself, we’d love to see what you do. Poor Will’s pocket almanack, for the year 1828. [Philadelphia]: Kimber & Sharpless, [1827] with manuscript notes of Mary Robinson Morton. #BensLibrary #CoronaDiaries #StayInside #lcponline

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Have a Spooky Weekend!

October 31, 2017

Turning the pages of The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury and decided to share this bit with you old house fans:

“There,” he whispered.  “There’s the only house in town worth visiting on Halloween!  There!

“Yeah!” said everyone.

For it was true.  The house was special and fine and tall and dark.  There must have been a thousand windows in its sides, all shimmering with cold stars.  It looked as if it had been cut out of black marble instead of timbers, and inside?  Who could guess how many rooms, halls, breezeways, attics.  Superior and inferior attics, some higher than others, some filled with dust and webs and ancient leaves or gold buried above the ground in the sky but lost away so high that no ladder in town could take you there.

The house beckoned with its towers, invited with its gummed-shut doors.  Pirate ships are a tonic.  Ancient forts are a boon.  But a house, a haunted house, on All Hallow’s Eve?  Eight small hearts beat up an absolute storm of glory and approbation.

“Come on.”

But they were already crowding up the path.  Until they stood at last by a crumbling wall, looking up and up and still farther up to the great tombyard on top of the old house.  For that’s what it seemed.  The high mountain peak of the mansion was littered with what looked like black bones or iron rods, and enough chimneys to choke out smoke signals from three dozen fires on sooty hearths hidden far below in the dim bowels of this monster place.  With so many chimneys, the roof seemed a vast cemetery,  each chimney signifying the burial place of some old god of fire or enchantress of steam, smoke and firefly spark.  Even as they watched a kind of bleak exhalation of soot breathed up out of some four dozen flues, darkening the sky still more and putting out some few stars.

“Boy,” said Tom Skelton.  “Pipkin sure knew what he was talking about!”

“Boy,” said all, agreeing.

They crept along the weed-infested path toward the crumpled front porch.

Tom Skelton alone itched his boney foot on the first porch step.  The others gasped at his bravery.  So, now, finally in a mob, a compact mass of sweating boys moved up on the porch amid fierce cries of planks underfoot, and shudderings of their bodies.  Each wished to pull back, swivel about, run, but found himself trapped against the boy behind, or  in front, or to the side.  So with a pseudopod thrust out here or there, the amoebic form, the large perspiration of boys leaned and made a run and a stop to the front door of the house which was as tall as a coffin and twice as thin.

They stood there for a long moment, various hands reaching out like the legs of an immense spider as if to twist that cold knob or reach for the knocker on that front door.  Meanwhile, the wooden floorings of the porch sank and wallowed beneath their weight, threatening at every shift of proportion to give way and fling them into some cockroach abyss beneath.  The planks, each tuned to an A, or an F, or a C rang out their uncanny music as heavy shoes scraped on them.  And if there had been time and it were noon, they mght have danced a cadaver’s tune or a skeleton’s rigadoon, for who can resist an ancient porch which, like a gigantic xylophone, only wants to be jumped on to make music?

But they were not thinking this.

Henry-Hank Smith (for that’s who it was) hidden inside his black witch’s costume, cried:  “Look!”

And all looked at the knocker on the front door.  Tom’s hand trembled out to touch it.

“A Marley knocker!”


“You know, Scrooge and Marley?  A Christmas Carol?” whispered Tom.

And indeed the face that made up the knocker on the door was the face of a man with a dread toothache, his jaw bandaged, his hair askew, his teeth prolapsed, his eyes wild.  Dead-as-a-doornail Marley, friend to Scrooge, inhabitor of lands beyond the grave, doomed to walk this eearth forever until…

“Knock,” said Henry-Hank.

Tom Skelton took hold of Marley’s cold and grizzly jaw, lifted it, and let it fall.

All jumped at the concussion!

The entire house shook.

Its bones bound to ground together.  Shades snap-furled up so that windows blinked wide their ghastly eyes.  Tom Skelton cat-leaped to the porch rail, staring up.  On the rooftop, weird weathercocks spun.  Two-headed roosters whirled in the sneezed wind.  A gargoyle on the western rim of the house erupted with twin snorts of rain-funnel dust.  And down the long shaking serpentine rainspouts of the house, after the sneeze had died and the weathercocks ceased spinning, vagrant whisps of autumn leaf and cobweb fell gusting out onto the dark grass.

Tom whirled to look at the faintly shuddering windows.  Moonlit reflections trembled in the glass like schools of disturbed silver minnows.  Then the front door gave a shake, a twist of its knob, a grimace of its Marley knocker and flung itself wide.  The wind made by the suddenly opened door almost knocked the boys off the porch.  They seized one another’s elbows, yelling.  Then the darkness within the house inhaled.  A wind sucked throughthe gaping hole.  It pulled at the boys, dragging them across the porch.  They had to lean back so as not to be snatched into the deep, dark hall.  They struggled, shouted, clutched the porch rails.  But then the wind ceased.

Darkness moved within darkness.

Photo by me, of Henry Mercer’s concrete mansion, Fonthill in Doylestown, PA (and then I waved my magic wand and transformed it into the ultimate spookhouse!)

I’d like to give thanks, and you should too

November 27, 2014

Preservation (or conservation, or celebration of built heritage, or whatever you want to call it) is often such a long, quiet process that we fail to fully recognize or appreciate our successes.  It is one thing to breathe a sigh of relief when the 250 year old Georgian mansion is saved from the wrecking ball.  Thank our lucky stars and all those picket signs, well, yes, sure.

But let’s remember to give thanks to the little cogs in the wheel that keep things from getting to those dire straits.

Lets give thanks to those who maintain their old houses and donate cash or time to historic sites and societies they care about and believe in.

Thanks to the contractors who know what they are doing and help wonderful old buildings survive another few decades.  (And thanks to the legislators who advocate for tax credits that help property owners pay those contractors for repairs and renovations.)

Thanks to the historical society folks who doggedly pursue a their mission to preserve one-of-a-kind historical materials and especially to those making an effort to digitize collections and make them available via the internet where the information can be accessed and appreciated by a wider audience of all ages.  

Thanks to volunteers everywhere who give of their time and knowledge to file, photograph, educate and assist in handing our inheritance along to the following generations.

I give thanks to those who have seen a neighborhood literally falling apart and took the long view, one-step-at-a-time toward putting things back together again.

Thanks to those who have the vision and energy to pursue long-term goals — no matter how overwhelming the odds.  We seem to live in a short-term world; a real challenge to preservationists whose prime objective is all about the concept of “long term.”  

Dana Discovery Center

Charles A. Dana Discovery Center on the edge of Central Park's Harlem Meer, photo taken November 2003

I’ve had the pleasure of watching one of these visions unfold over decades, having volunteered with the Central Park Conservancy for several years beginning shortly after its inception 25 years ago.

Above is the Harlem Meer in the northern end of Central Park as it appeared about five years ago.  Just beyond that playground fence is 110th Street.  To the right is the Charles A. Dana Discovery Center, a beautiful “Victorian Gothic” information center and host to numerous events (workshops for children, environmental education, fishing, music, exhibits) that draw people to the glories of the “wilderness” of the north end of the park.

I knew this part of the park during the Days of Desolation.  A heavy concrete edge, sludge, grafitti and weeds.  I can tell you that the physical condition echoed the dispirited feeling of the neighbors who would walk by as we worked and ask us why we bothered.  We’d chirp about how it was going to make the park a better, safer, more inspiring place.  We were Believers.  Some of them thought we were crazy and wasting our time.  Others found optimism and became believers too.

Me with Alan and Greg at the Gill, L.I.V.E. volunteers, circa 1983, (L.I.V.E. stood for "Learning & Involvement for Volunteers in the Environment"; these days the program goes by the much simpler Green Team), photo by Jennifer C Newman

I give thanks to Betsy Barlow Rogers and others like her around the world who can see a future of promise and endeavor to make it so.  

Thanks to the creative spirits who work hard to excite young imaginations with history and who strive to find new means of expressing old stories.

I am thankful for the amazing array of architectural expression found around the world and the way it makes my soul soar.

Oh, and thanks to you, dear reader, for visiting the Time Machine.  I hope you’ll pause a moment and then leave a comment to share what you are thankful for this year.

Why I like old buildings

November 20, 2014

Though my earliest memories are of a house of relatively modern vintage, that was simply where I lived.  The real world was all about old buildings:

  • the wooden two-room schoolhouse for first and second grades that seemed straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration complete with giant slide (well, it seems giant in memory), seesaws and self-propelled merry-go-round (try finding any of those on a playground these days)
  • the 1879 lighthouse on a rock where my classmate lived
  • the cheerful little seaside commercial strip (circa 1880s – 1920s)
  • York schoolhouse 1971or the revered but well-used historic area full of 18th century buildings, including the intriguingly creepy mannikins portraying colonial education in the one room schoolhouse (at right, postcard from 1971), and the tavern where costumed Colonial Dames (or something like them) served us cinnamon toast and tea in front of a roaring fire.

What is it that I find so appealing about old buildings?



Old buildings have nooks.  There is some cozy animal instinct in us that likes the protection that nooks provide.  I went to a coffee shop situated in a restored 1873 building recently and the only occupied seats were the ones in the nooks.  As soon as someone left a nook, someone else would take up position in the nook.  Old buildings tend toward nooks.

UPDATE: I am back at this same coffee shop in this lovely old building (boasting the first mansard roof built in this city) and can confirm that people still gravitate toward the nooks. All the nooks are full. J’adore le nook.

Victory Building_nooks


While new buildings are redolent with off-gassing carpets and mdf that give off a certain “new house smell” (or, more unfortunately, Chinese wallboard with its own special aroma), I equate old houses with the scent of privet, cinnamon, or mystery – you read that right — the smell of mystery:  notes of musty mixed with a hint of dusty all of which conjure notions of great treasures hidden in the attic or fire the imagination with conjectured conversations from long ago.  (Touring a house built in 1722 that features original finishes, hardware, etc throughout, I began to wonder if it would be possible to find fingerprints from the original Quaker tenants.)

stairway Furness_Fisher Fine Artslooking up_Furness_Fisher Fine Artsfinial stair rail_Fisher Fine Arts_FurnessFurness stair_Fisher Fine Arts-1ELEVATING

Old buildings have grand public spaces that inspire me.  Before elevators and fire codes came along, architects designed grandiose stairways, spaces that made the mundane effort of getting from one place to another into an experience of art and soaring height.  Visit the central stair at the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the main building of the New York City Library (watch the wedding scene in the “Sex & the City Movie” if you can’t go there in person) and you’ll feel that sense of progression as procession.  Those are “statement” stairs.  But even the most common building had spacious, wide, often decorated stairs.  The big, square brick building I attended for sixth grade had wide wooden stairs and I still remember the movement, the sound, the light, the railings.  Going from one level to another had an awareness that walking today’s firestairs lack.  The University of Pennsylvania campus has some wonderful stairs; during grad school I kept my fingers crossed for class assignments in certain buildings and I’d actually avoid the elevator to use the stair every time.  I enjoyed the satisfying clomp, clomp of progress up or down and the social interaction with those going the opposite direction.

Mcillhenny mansion_Upsal StreetMYSTERIOUS

Old buildings have ghosts.  Especially at this Halloweenish time of year, when the wind whistles through ill-fitting storm windows and the radiators grumble awake with strange creaks in the night, our houses seem to come alive.  I relish a good ghost story from an old house.  My friend gives me goosebumps with the tale of a dream about a doorway that wasn’t there and a little girl looking for her doll; over breakfast she was told about the covered-over door on the landing and historical tale of a girl who lived and died in the house long ago.  There’s the country house tale of the ghost who was fed up listening to the weekend guests goof with the player piano; the next morning all the piano rolls were thrown around the room.  Of course, new houses get their share of ghosts too; just rent “Poltergeist” (and when buying real estate, check maps for old burial grounds….)


Old houses fire the imagination.  Modern panic rooms have nothing on secret passageways and hidden rooms.  (A friend of mine is fortunate enough to spend holidays at the family “camp” in the Adirondacks where amused guests never tire of salacious speculation as to why one of the secret passageways ends at the master bath.)   Even unexplained building features pose a puzzle.  For several years I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of redware saucer/pots embedded in the cellar floors of certain 18th century houses in Southern New Jersey – one per cellar.   In their day, their use was probably so commonplace that there’s no written documentation of what they were for – and now we stand over them staring down at our feet listing possibilities – candle holder?  Cockroach trap?   Mouse trap?  Why fixed and not removable?


Strawbridge & Clothier detail (Photo: Sabra Smith)


The décor of old buildings conveys care.  The really old buildings provide witness to the skill of an individual who learned a trade:  metalwork, carving, working with glass or paint.  The detail evident in later buildings tell me about the exuberance of new industry and the thrill of finding what factories were capable of – mass-produced, yes, but the design has an eagerness to please – cupids, swans, arrows, filigree.   look out the train window at the railing at the newly remodeled commuter station and it is simply utilitarian.


Old buildings are wise.  They can teach us some things about being “green” — like using front porches, window awnings, and cross-ventilation for cool breezes that passed for “energy efficiency” then instead of the modern default to an Energy Star HVAC unit recommended by the power company.

So tell me, why do you like old buildings?

FOTO FRIDAY: What I did on my summer vacation edition

September 5, 2014
neon motel sign

Seen on vacation: Motel Turf & Spa. With mineral spring! Saratoga Springs, to be exact.

Happy Mother’s Day

May 11, 2014
Mynn White and Jim with bike

My stylish, well-traveled grandmother, Mynn Diefenderfer White

“You must not go into the burial places, and look about only for the tall monuments and the titled names.  It is not the starred epitaphs of the Doctors of Divinity, the Generals, the Judges, the Honourables, the Governors, or even of the village notables called esquires, that mark the springs of our successes and the sources of our distinctions.  These are rather effects than causes; the spinning-wheels have done a great deal more than these.”

— Horace Bushnell, “The Age of Homespun,” 1851, quoted in The Age of Homespun:  Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

My family decided to create a scholarship in my grandmother’s name at the college she was graduated from in the 1920s with a degree in teaching.  The college asked the family to submit a bio of my grandmother.  My dad wrote a draft.

And it was all about my grandfather.

Oh, sure, there were some basics:  my grandmother was born and she went to school, but then she got married to my grandfather and other than a mention of children, thereafter it was all about my grandfather — where his job took them and so on.

What is it about women’s lives that gets reduced to “she got married and had children, The End”?

Let’s commit to changing this.

Sit yourself down and give some thought to your mother and her life.  Write her down.  Create the story of her life that shares her with the world with depth and layers.  If someone reads it fifty years from now, what do you want them to know about her?  What was her favorite color?  Did she like to cook?  Did she know how to do a cartwheel?   What did she like to read?  Did she ever make you a Halloween costume?  What made her laugh?

Write her down.  If she’s still here, ask her the questions that intrigue you.  Write her down.  She’s more than “the mother of…”, more than “the wife of…”, more than the cook, she’s a rainbow full of colors, she’s a book waiting to be read.

Women’s history is rich, but could be richer.

Write your mother down.

Foto Friday: Patterns

May 2, 2014
old green garage, brick,

Study this for a moment to fully appreciate all the different patterns in building materials and age. (Photo: Sabra Smith)

Foto Friday: Not exactly mothballed

April 25, 2014
Photo: Sabra Smith

Photo: Sabra Smith

Happy Springtime!

April 20, 2014

1907 Easter postcard sent to my grandfather, Paul M. White. Ben Franklin 1 cent stamp postmarked 1907, Green Lane Penna. Sent to him from his Aunt Bertha. (Her name can be seen at the top left.)

You can read more about White’s Mill, where my grandfather and his sisters were born, in this post.

Foto Friday: Ain’t that America

April 18, 2014

Foto Friday: Aint that America

Seen on a recent field trip. (Photo: Sabra Smith)