a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Friday, November 30, 2007

The original embedded photographer

Mathew Brady became the father of photojournalism in the United States for the large collection of horrific battlefield images that he amassed during the Civil War.

Among the most gruesome were those that were captured by two of his photographers who were dispatched to the Battle of Antietam, following the Sept. 17, 1862, fighting that became known as the bloodiest single day of the war.

The photos were later displayed at Brady’s New York studio. A line of people stretched around the block to see the them, and many walked away shocked and dismayed by their first view of dead bodies scattered about a battlefield. The nation had been used to just seeing glorious woodcuts of battle scenes that tended to romanticize the war. For the first time, Americans began to look at photography as something other than staged portraits. It was almost as if Brady had dropped off the corpses at the front door of American houses, The New York Times reported. While Brady didn't shoot most of the shots, he "brought home to us the terrible reality and earnestness of war," the newspaper suggested.

Brady, who also photographed President Abraham Lincoln, thought there was money to be made in the project that cost him nearly $100,000 but left him penniless. The photos were just too hard to digest at the time. But Brady didn't regret his decision to document the war.

“I had to go. A spirit in my feet said ‘Go,’ and I went,” Brady has been quoted as saying.

Eventually, the Brady collection was purchased for $25,000 by the U.S. government. It is now considered to be a priceless account of the war.

This story is among many included in an audio tour of Antietam Battlefield, a beautifully manicured National Park just outside of Sharpsburg. For $20, you can purchase a self-guided tour at the gift shop, pop a CD into your car’s CD player and drive around park at your leisure. The Travel Brains tour comes with a hand-held field guide and sound affects like canon fire and actors with different accents to add to the drama. While I prefer to interact with real-time tour guides, this is a great alternative, especially if you want to duck out early and listen to the story on the way home. Besides, a personal tour of the battlefield comes at a price of $50 at the gift shop.

The park, unlike Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, hasn’t changed much since the battle waged by 40,000 Southern troops and 87,000 federal soldiers that killed 23,110 men. Unlike Gettysburg, there are no McDonald’s arches on the horizon. With the Brady photos in hand, it’s not hard to imagine the fighting, especially along the hotly contested Sunken Road where nearly 5,000 soldiers met their deaths during four hours of fighting.

The north was victorious in what was the first of two efforts by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee to fight the war on northern soil. Before the photographers went to work at Antietam, one general who was there took the time to pen the following observations:

“In the time that I am writing every stalk of corn in the northern and greater part of the field was cut as closely as could have been done with a knife, and the slain lay in rows precisely as they had stood in their ranks a few moments before,” Major Gen. Joseph Hooker of the Union Army of the Potomac noted in his journal. “It was never my fortune to witness a more bloody, dismal battlefield.”

(Captions: Mathew Brady, top, and one of his battle scenes from Antietam, photos that are in the public domain. The Sunken Road as it appears today in a photo by Scott Beveridge)

Monday, November 26, 2007

Those funny balloons

The creative staff at The Warhol in Pittsburgh has been doing some redecorating.

The small gallery on the first floor now has a cool timeline that walks visitors through the interesting life of Andy Warhol, from his 1928 birth into a working-class Rusyn immigrant family to his untimely death from heart failure in 1987.

The condensed biography running the length and height of four walls, however, leaves out the motive for a shooting that nearly left Warhol for dead in his studio. For those with inquiring minds, Valerie Solanas, a founder of the Society for Cutting up Men (SCUM) who also acted in a Warhol film, shot him in 1968 after she was turned away from the his studio, The Factory. (I'd have slammed my door in her face, too, for coming up with such a group)

The artwork that used to hang there can be found scattered among The Warhol’s vast collection that consumes seven floors of an old building at 117 Sandusky St., the largest museum in the world for a single artist.

Thankfully, they didn’t mess with the Silver Clouds Installation, a replica of a 1966 exhibit of helium filled balloons that dance with the wind from forced air. Warhol, it seemed, was put off by stuffy museums where visitors were not allowed to touch the art. Today, people can’t help themselves from smiling or letting loose and acting like a kid inside the room.

Through the end of the year, a collection of minimalist paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe is on display. The seven watercolors were completed in the 1970s when the artist was going blind in her 80s.

Click here for a related story...
(FYI - that's my incredibly talented niece Casey Beveridge in the photograph)

Saturday, November 24, 2007


The Romanian Room in the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh is among many ornate ethnic classrooms that can be found on the first two floors of the landmark. The rooms are especially interesting to see during the holidays when volunteers dress them according to holiday traditions that are celebrated in the countries that funded their construction. Here is a story pulled from the archives of the Observer-Reporter newspaper in Washington, Pa.:

OAKLAND, Pa. – The knoll was little more than a scrappy plot of land where circuses set up camp during the summer when it caught the attention of a former University of Pittsburgh chancellor.

As the school’s 10th leader in 1921, John Gabbert Bowman envisioned a building so grand on the hill that it would inspire young men to remove their hats upon entering its doors. He then went looking for wealthy benefactors to underwrite his plan, many of whom thought he was out of his mind.

“The Mellons said: ‘We’ll buy the plot, but don’t ever mention the tower,” said E. Maxine Bruhns, director of the Nationality Rooms at what became a monumental Gothic building named the Cathedral of Learning.
Storm over Pitt
The high-style rooms, which have been decorated each December according to the appropriate Christmas, New Year’s or Jewish holiday traditions since they opened, have helped to make the university famous around the globe, Bruhns said. But to build the cathedral, Bowman was forced to turn to working families for the money. He realized that the sweat of immigrant workers had built Pittsburgh into an industrial giant of his era.

“Once they have a room here, they will stay and go to school here,” Bruhns said, quoting the chancellor.

The different ethnic communities responded with remarkable determination to find the money to afford only the best adornments to show off their heritage. The host of the Sunday afternoon Ukrainian radio program on WPIT put out a call for listeners to send money to honor their ancestors when the Ukraine room was being designed in the 1980s. Nearly $15,000 in donations poured in the first day, with many from women wearing babushkas, or kerchiefs, on their heads, Bruhns said.

“These mothers would cry in their kitchens with their Ukrainian music on the radios,” she said.

An artist was sent to Ukraine for a month to study how ceramic tiles were crafted to cover the stove and chimney of a nobleman’s reception room. Re-created on the third floor of the 42-story cathedral, the richly paneled Ukraine room boasts sculpted copper panels that tell the story of how the country’s culture was developed.

Eventually there would be 26 Nationality Rooms in the 535-foot tower, which took a decade to build with money coming from 17,000 adults and 97,000 schoolchildren who gave the university as little as a dime. Local industries provided the steel, heating and plumbing, concrete, glass and elevators for the steel building covered in Indiana limestone that turns 80 next year.

The rooms continue to serve as working classrooms, where visitors might encounter a cranky professor if they knock on a door and interrupt a lecture.

Typically, it takes a decade to plan and complete one room at a cost, today, of nearly $500,000. While the rooms are ornate, the holiday decorations in them are kept to a minimum and must represent traditions true to the culture.

And, while the Greeks do not mark Christmas, they honor St. Nicholas, and housewives typically bake bread at this time of year and cover it with frosted decorations that represent the family’s occupation. In the marble Greek room, a loaf of bread decorated with seashells sits on a table beside the celebrated patron saint of seaman.

Ukrainian families put candles in the loaves of bread and set them by windows as a sign that wayfaring strangers – like Joseph and Mary – are welcome in their homes.
While nearly 40,000 people tour the rooms a year, tourism promoters have called the building one of Pittsburgh’s best-kept secrets.

“We’re known abroad more than we’re known here,” Bruhns said. “People in Paris don’t go to the Eiffel Tower.”

She said new visitors with strong ethnic ties are grateful that there is someplace in the world that “perpetuates, authentically” their culture.

“It’s important to the people who grew up with the traditions,” she said.

Following is a sampling of the traditions across the globe that are celebrated in the Nationality Rooms at Pitt:

In Japan, it’s customary to place evergreen sprigs and bamboo, or kadomatsu, at the gates to homes at New Year’s. The arrangements were believed to serve as temporary shelters for the deity Kami who delivers longevity and wealth at the start of each year.

Germany claims to have started the tradition of celebrating the holidays around a Christmas tree. It began in the 720s after St. Boniface decided to take on pagan rituals by chopping down a large oak tree where people worshipped Thor, the god of thunder. It was Christmas Eve and the eldest son of a chieftain was to be sacrificed. The saint invoked a miracle by causing the oak to fall with one stroke of an ax. He pointed to a nearby evergreen and bid the hostile tribesmen to take one home as a symbol to the Christ child. He claimed the branches represented endless life.

In Scotland, it’s considered back luck to fall asleep before midnight on Christmas Eve. According to legend, people also are warned to keep a fire alive all night to keep elves from sweeping down the chimney and dancing in the ashes. To this day, most churches perpetuate the tradition by holding watch-night services on Christmas Eve.

In Ukraine, people decorate their windows with homemade spider webs. The tradition stems, in part, from the belief that the first thing the Christ child saw when he woke up in the manger were bits of dew collected on spider webs. It was his welcome to the world, according to the myth. They also decorate with didukh, or a sheaves of oats or wheat shaped with four legs to symbolize prosperity for the new year.

After Christmas Eve dinner in Sweden, the Tomte, or Christmas gnome, appears dressed like Santa Clause. The Tomte supposedly lives under the floorboards and rides a straw goat named Julbok. He passes out gifts to the well-behaved children while the goat bumps the bad kids.

In Lithuania on Christmas Eve, the house must be painstakingly cleaned before the evening meal. Fine hay is spread across the table as a reminder of the manger and it is covered with a fine white tablecloth. After dinner, the children take turns pulling out a strand of the hay. The child with the shortest straw will be the first to marry, while the sibling with the longest will enjoy a long life. The Christmas tree also is decorated with simple ornaments woven with straw.

In ancient Ireland, a winter wren was driven from a bush, killed and its body hung on a holly bush over beliefs its song betrayed a Christian hiding from his persecutors. Today, boys dance to homes carrying a stuffed wren and sing for Christmas treats.

(The German Room)

Friday, November 16, 2007

D.C. from behind bars

There is a way to an awesome birds-eye view of the nation’s capitol without having to wait in long lines at the beloved Washington Monument.

First, duck into the basement of the Old Post Office Pavilion, where a glass elevator departs every five minutes for free tours of a giant tower, which makes the building the third largest in the city.

“It’s kind of like a hidden gem with a great view of D.C.,” National Park Service ranger George McHugh said on a chilly Dec. 12 afternoon when there were just three people on the top deck of the 315 stone tower.

The massive building stands on Pennsylvania Avenue about halfway between the U.S. Capitol and White House. It was constructed between 1892 and 1899 in the Richardsonian Romanesque style of architecture, which was popular at the time in American cities. But 15 years later, the post office with a massive glass-covered central courtyard had become obsolete because the volume of mail in the United States had increased at a rapid rate.
The last postal workers were relocated from the building in 1934 and it was quickly abandoned prior to its pending demolition, a plan that was stalled as the government fell short of money heading into the Great Depression.

For decades, the landmark fell into disrepair while preservationists debated the building’s fate with those who considered it an eyesore and wanted it erased from the landscape.

Lawmakers eventually earmarked money for demolition in the 1970s but their plan drew protest marchers to the sidewalks in a movement to save it from the wrecking ball. The publicity helped to spur restorations on what is now considered a classic downtown monument worthy of exploration.

The elevator, which offers a dizzying view of the offices and street-level mall, lets off passengers on the ninth floor.

Signs guide them around a tiny museum and a room where volunteers periodically ring the The Congress Bells, which were a bicentennial gift from Britian. They ring out a pitch and tone similar to bells in Westminster Abbey in London.

A second elevator whisks visitors to the observation deck on the 12th floor that overlooks office buildings with lush rooftop patio gardens, the Washington Monument and the city’s sprawling blocks of buildings, none of which are taller than 120 feet. City official in 1910 limited the height of buildings because the fire department’s ladders were no taller than 120 feet.

The 555-foot Washington Monument is the tallest structure in D.C. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception is just 16 feet taller than the old post office.

The pavilion tower, meanwhile, is enclosed in bars of thin cables and plexiglass to keep the pigeons out and “the people in,” McHugh said, while thanking the visitors for stopping buy.

Nancy Hawks, the woman who led the 1970s protest to save the old post office, said it best, “Old buildings are like old friends … They encourage people to dream about their cities, to think before they build, to consider alternatives before they tear down.”

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Sunday, November 11, 2007

They still cry at the wall

WASHINGTON, DC – The walk downhill to the foot of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial takes you 10 feet below ground to a place heavy with grief.

The Wall, at its base, has become the Vietnam generation’s symbol of great sorrow for the 58,256 veterans who were killed or missing in the war.

It’s a special place for the people who go down there, a tour guide said Sunday to a handful of tourists who were about to take that walk on Veterans Day. By design, the walk back to the surface offers a chance for them to bury their sadness in something akin to a tomb.

Hundreds of thousands of people tried that Sunday when the nation marked the 25th anniversary of the black granite monument. By nightfall, there were nearly as many mementos leaning against the list of war dead, everything from flowers to heartfelt poems.

A large silver foil sculpture of a deer was among the many wreaths that stood attention on the lawn opposite the memorial. It was the work of Joel “Artist Bohmeal” Paplham, who calls himself a compassionate non-veteran from West Allis. Wis.

Someone else took the time to put together a framed collage of photographs and other such images associated with the war as a marijuana leaf and peace sign. A portrait of President Bush with red drops of paint across his forehead was even included in the design.

Vietnam War veterans, some wearing old war uniforms, stared silently into the names, only to see their reflections between the letters. The mirror affect makes it impossible to look at the names without reflecting on your own thoughts about war, the tour guide said. The experience sends a chill down the spine, tightens the muscles around the throat and puts a tear in the eye of most who make the journey.

Anyone who was alive and paying attention when Maya Ling Lin’s design was chosen for the $9 million memorial would remember the public outcry over her being a daughter of Chinese refugees living in America. People were angry because her family came from a land whose government had backed the enemy North Vietnamese Army.

Regardless, Linn has given us something incredibly special in our nation’s capitol, an honor roll that still brings together our collective sadness about what happened in Vietnam. But the guide was dreaming today when he suggested that the Vietnam generation has been able to drop off its pain over the war at the base of a wall.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Mr. Stewart, your table is waiting

Actor and regular nice guy Jimmy Stewart preferred this table at Chasen’s, the once-popular celebrity hideout in Beverly Hills. It’s not immediately known, however, if this was where the lanky star sat during his bachelor party in 1949 when two midgets dressed in diapers entertained the crowd.

But the booth where Stewart and his wife, the former Gloria Hatrick, regularly dined on Thursday evenings can be found in a museum dedicated to the late movie star in his hometown of Indiana, Pa. To add to its collection of everything Jimmy, The Jimmy Stewart Museum purchased the booth after the restaurant closed in 1995.

Located on the fourth floor of Indiana’s public library, the museum has a fantastic collection of black-and-white photographs that were shot on the sets of some of his films in a career that spanned seven decades. One especially cool photo shows a young Stewart wearing a suit with a loosen tie from the 1939 movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” about a junior senator who tries to clean up corruption in the nation’s capitol. The gray, sweat-stained hat Mr. Stewart wore in seven films, including “The Man from Laramie,” is so special that it is kept in a Plexiglass box.

Also on display is a granite stone that marks the May 20, 1908, birthplace of James Maitland Stewart. The museum was given the marker when it was recovered years after it was stolen from the actual site where the Stewart family home once stood about a block down Philadelphia Street, Indiana’s main drag. “There’s another one there now,” my tour guide said today.

Stewart is still cool 10 years after his death, especially in the town otherwise famous for having Indiana University of Pennsylvania. So much so that nearly 10,000 stop by his museum each year.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Light to lower bills

A better light bulb has been replacing those old standard bulbs by the millions as American households grow greener.

The bulb otherwise known as a compact fluorescent lamp has become the darling of the environmental movement because of its energy efficiency, and a favorite of consumers who want to save money.

“There are very few people who will argue about cutting down on their electric bill with no real sacrifice,” said Jeff Schmidt, director of Pennsylvania’s chapter of the Sierra Club.

It seems that, almost overnight, consumers have become turned on by greener products as more and more people buy into arguments for global warming, he said.
Homeowners now want organic solutions to beautify their lawns or clean the scum off the kitchen counter. Some people in exclusive neighborhoods have even taken to using old-fashioned clotheslines to do their part to lower greenhouse gases.
Better Homes and Gardens magazine announced Friday that it will embark on a 15-city tour in March to promote the launch of Green Works, a new line of household cleaners made from plant-based ingredients.

“Our customers are passionate about … everyday practices for living green,” Gayle Butler, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, stated in a news release.
Anyone who has walked down the lighting department at big-box retail centers can’t help but notice the growing assortment of fluorescent bulbs on the shelves.
“Call your local Home Depot and ask them to compare their sales,” Schmidt said.

The compact lamp was actually developed at General Electric during the oil crisis in the early 1970s. But the product was kept secret for a time because of the high cost of production. Other manufacturers began in the 1980s to market the lamp, but consumers didn’t buy them in great numbers because they didn’t emit a lot of light and were too bulky for most lighting fixtures. In the past year or so, the bulbs have become more compact to the point where they are about the same size as the traditional incandescent lamp, technology that dates to the 1800s.

The fluorescent lamp is particularly attractive to consumers because it lasts longer, and just one bulb can reduce the average electric bill by more than $30 over five years. But the growing greener movement doesn’t end with one light bulb.
California University of Pennsylvania has been recognized by the state for its energy management program that has gone as far to require switches in dorm rooms that turn off the air conditioning if a student opens a window.

Peters Township attempted to copy nature when it built a new $5 million recreation center in 2004 with two wings at the entrance that are supposed to make the building look like a hawk. Fluorescent lighting is used exclusively in the gymnasium, which has windows that help to warm the building and provide enough light so people don’t need to turn on the lights when it’s sunny outside.

“We were looking at it more from the standpoint of cost effectiveness than the green aspect of it,” said Michael Silvestri, township manager in Peters.
But now, he said, township supervisors are in the early stages of developing a broader green program, one that may introduce the use of biofuels for the township’s fleet of vehicles, he said.

There are communities across the nation that are doing far more than Peters to save the planet. As many as 800 municipalities, including Pittsburgh, have joined the Sierra Club’s “cool cities” program, Schmidt said. Westmoreland County, meanwhile, is looking into the concept.

The cool cities make a pledge to purchase some electricity “off the grid” from such sources as wind generators, he said. They also agree to buy hybrid vehicles rather than gasoline-guzzling sport-utility vehicles.

“It’s kind of an alignment of the planets,” Schmidt said.

(Published with permission of the Observer-Reporter)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Trail to a tragic story

People who walk or bike the Yough River Trail through Rostraver Township find themselves surrounded by tranquility along the former Pennsylvania and Lake Erie Railroad.

Many pass through the area near Cedar Creek Park in Westmoreland County without ever knowing that the tunnels under the path are part of an old coal mine with a story that is anything but peaceful.

Nineteen miners were will killed there in a methane gas explosion in June 1901, even though a company boss had posted a danger signal before the disaster. The warning, however, was ripped down by another boss who apparently was more concerned about coal profits than the employees. That boss would also perish inside Port Royal Mine No. 2.

Crowds were kept back from the portal by ropes. Relatives and friends of the missing miners were warned that the gas could set off another explosion that would rock the area like an earthquake, according to a story published at the time in The New York Times.

But that didn’t hold back the Rev. Carroll of nearby Smithton who volunteered to lead a search party into the portal. The company warned him against going into the mine about the same time that a second blast took the lives of 10 or more rescuers, the newspaper reported.

Seven bodies would be recovered before the mine was flooded and sealed four months after the initial explosion. The bodies were found side-by-side in what the reporter referred to as the “death chamber.” Some men were still holding their lamps or mining tools when they died. Other bodies were forever entombed inside the deep mine.

The Rostraver Township Historical Society has erected a new memorial to these mining victims alongside the popular hiking and biking trail. For more information on mining history in Westmoreland, check out Ancestry.com. It just may startle you to find out how many other miners met their deaths there over the years.

(Captions: An unidentified man strolls along the Yough River Trail in the area above the abandoned Port Royal Mine No. 2. A new memorial to the mining disaster in Rostraver Township that has been placed beside the trail. Please note that the Beveridge name was spelled wrong on the honor roll, and that the victim was not related to the author of this blog.)

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Not your MOMA

The art of James Turrell at Pittsburgh’s peculiar Mattress Factory doesn’t contribute much to global warming. Save for a few purple and red lights, the permanent exhibit has visitors feeling their way around several pitch-black rooms to experience “a blurring of the boundary between what is seen outside oneself and what is seen in the mind’s eye,” the museum's brochure guarantees about the installation.

Personally, I would rather gaze at the bold brushstrokes of a Monet or Van Gogh in a well-lit gallery than bump into complete strangers and black walls to experience the Los Angeles-born Turrell’s vision of spiritual awakening. But you have to give the Mattress Factory high marks for creating this brand of hip museum space for a contemporary artist to express himself.

Located in the city’s historic Mexican War Streets district since 1977, the museum in an old Stearns and Foster warehouse was developed as an experiment by a group of rebellious artists. Over the years, the place has earned the respect of art critics from around the world. The latest issue of GQ magazine even included the Factory as a must-see destination along the “Great American Art Drive” through such unlikely rust belt cities as Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.

There are 14 more months to breathe in The Tom Museum in Pittsburgh before it becomes an altogether different hybrid house for a new visiting artist. Pittsburgh puppeteer Tom Sarver, at times, guides people through the colorful and cluttered spaces where he cooks dinner, beds down at night and hangs thought-provoking art that speaks to everyday living. He might even play with miniature boats in an ornamental pond in his basement. And the best part – there is enough light to take in his weird show.

(Caption: The Tom House entrance at Pittsbugh's Mattress Factory)