a newspaper man adjusts his pen

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Great ideas sometimes blow in the wind

Harry F. Fischer of Midway, Pa., used recycled objects to create his whirligigs.  (Observer-Reporter photo)

By Scott Beveridge

A snooty lover of fine sculpture would probably cringe at the sight of the tacky whirligig perched atop an old tomato stake driven into my front yard.

The same thought strikes me when I see houses with too many flowering plants around their foundations. Drab houses surrounded in too many daisies, rose bushes, azaleas, geraniums and petunias tend to look like caskets surrounded by mismatched floral arrangements.

But it wouldn't bother me if someone said my whirligig in the shape of a cardinal would be suited for a trailer park. That same person has probably seen one there beside a plastic sunflower with a smiley face and a pickup truck dotted with flat, brown primer paint hiding rusted fenders.

Mine stirs a more endearing mental picture in my head.

The whirligig reminds me of my grandfather, whose thick, patient fingers spent hours in his basement creating such wooden objects that flutter with the wind.  Some of his looked like lumberjacks that chopped away at wood piles when the wind hit them in the right direction.

He needed something interesting to brighten his ugly lawn, which had been stripped of its grass by pollution from a steel and zinc mill in Donora, Pa., before pollution standards came along. Fancy architecture was not on his creative mind when he lived in what was once the armpit of America's industrial heartland.

Whirligigs among dead blossoms are nothing compared to the lengths others have gone to make their houses stand out from rest.

For example, the zany Mexican artist Armando Munoz Garcia made his house out of concrete and steel and shaped like a 50-foot statue of a nude woman named La Dona (The Doll). His family dined in its stomach, slept in its breasts and used a bathroom tucked inside the buttocks, according to a 2002 issue of Preservation Magazine.

Toys became one woman's inspiration for a funky bathroom featured in the book, "Pad: The Guide to Ultra-Living." She plastered plastic dolls over nearly every inch of its walls and door to cover ugly yellow paint. The book also shows a man's blue bedroom lined from the floor to ceiling with junked hubcaps.

Meanwhile, rifle heiress Sarah L. Winchester went on a four-decades building spree, expanding her Victorian house in San Jose, Calif.,  to include 160 rooms, 47 fireplaces, 40 bedrooms, 52 skylights and 950 doors. It has been widely reported that she was tormented to remodel like a mad woman to ward off the evil spirits of those killed by guns her family manufactured.

Someone wanting a time-tested design might turn to the theories of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, who is regarded as the most popular and imitated builder in history.

His rules were strict. Every front door must be centered on the first floor of a building in perfect symmetry with its surroundings. If there were to be three windows to the left of that door, three windows of identical size and shape must be to its right. All of the windows on the second floor must correspond directly above to maintain prefect balance.

Houses were ugly beyond belief, Palladio believed, if they sat in dark, damp valleys and couldn't be seen from a distance. Too much shade in a residence, he thought, made their occupants as dumb and unsightly as their houses.

The revered 20th century master architect Frank Lloyd Wright took everything he learned from Palladio and tossed it out the window. Wright preferred buildings with low lines that appeared to sprout from the landscape. The front doors to his houses were hard to find.

Wright likely hesitated to suggest a swimming pool for his most-famous house, Fallingwater, which was built over a waterfall in Fayette County, because he thought they looked like glorified bathtubs.

However, he did see something pretty in old, rubber toilet tank floats, and incorporated them in a weather vane for Taliesin East, his summer home in Wisconsin.

The guy who designed my whirligig was a genius of a different sort. It offers direction to the wind, too, when it spins around a ten-penny nail that holds it in place. Recycled objects were selected for its design by Harry F. Fischer of Midway, Pa., who built and sold these contraptions to offset the cost of his health care.

Fischer, before he died, fashioned its wings from discarded gray vinyl siding because its fake wood grain reminded him of bird feathers.

I hope some of his whirligigs were handed down to his 11 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren, and that they also recognize the beauty in his creations.

1 comment:

Pam Stewart said...

This is the kind of story I love, and also this is a great picture. Thanks, Scott.