Wapton Toshowna's Wall and Gore Vidal's Mantel
I once worked with a man in Zuni Pueblo named Wapton Toshowna. He was a mason who could quarry, cut, dress and lay the local red sandstone with an understanding of the material that, to the observer, made rock seem malleable. As he costively chipped and shaped he never seemed mindful of where the block would be set, but when he lifted it into place, it was always a perfect fit.
Spending a day with Wapton and some of his more restive, and very much younger, protégés was a day spent mostly in silence. The hammers and chisels rang, to be sure, but there was seldom a word spoken. Instruction was transmitted by a nod of the head, a lifting of the chin or, occasionally, by a quiet visit to the student's dressing stand.
One day while we were working on the Coyote Clan house, the south wall of which had collapsed, a young mason-in-training suggested to Wapton that they, the clan, needed more room and so the wall should be moved out a few feet.
I was on the spot. The money being spent on the clan house had come to Zuni via a federal housing grant that carried certain strictures. In a historic district, and on an important building therein, the basic configuration must comply with standards set by the federal government. I was the heavy with whom the builders were supposed to consult on compliance issues. You will not be surprised to know that I did a very, very poor job.
When I brought up Section 106 of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards and argued that the footprint and elevations of the house needed to remain the same, there followed a short conversation between Wapton and the trainee to which I was not privy as it was in a language I did not understand. When they were through, Wapton approached me and said simply, "Time for a change."
Preservation is change, paradoxically. If a building cannot accommodate its purpose, it becomes a skeleton. Dust to dust, as it were.
In Antigua, Guatemala, there is a house called Casa del Carmen. I know it well because my paternal uncle restored it, in 1946, for his client Gore Vidal. Antigua is a very symmetrical town, seven blocks wide by seven blocks long with straight streets, straight walls, plumb windows and everything built to a right angle. It's delightful, but square.
Pat, my uncle, met Vidal while catting around bars in Guatemala City and the two became friends. Pat, in fact, edited Vidal's first really successful novel The City and the Pillar and appreciatively inscribed a copy to him, which I still have along with part of Gore's typescript and Pat's editing notes. Editing, however was not Pat's job; he was an architect and Vidal retained him to restore and make livable the convent adjacent to the ruins of the colonial church of El Carmen.
In the sala of Casa del Carmen was a fireplace with a typically Antiguan, which is to say flat and straight, mantel. One of the first things Vidal had Pat do was turn the mantle into a rather exuberant curvilinear affair with no flat surfaces upon which could be placed "even a small snapshot of my mother." An architectural tradition centuries long was thus shattered by one man's maternal revulsion.
Gore Vidal's mantel and Wapton Toshowna's wall are, I think, iconic examples of how the layering of idiosyncrasy and use enhance rather than detract from a historic building. The present is, after all, the eventual past.