Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Message in a bottle

There's a Greek word, synechdoche, that refers to the way an ordinary object calls to mind a much bigger picture.

I'll risk semantic impurity here to talk about a synecdoche that yesterday was pulled out of the dirt underneath Brady Hall.

That object is a one-pint bottle of thick glass with a logo featuring a big M and the letters SCDA. It was removed from some exposed dirt in the basement of our beautiful Brady Hall by John Deeb, our assistant director of facilities (who took this picture). Of course, he was down there looking for something else. But as always in archives, we find interesting things when we aren't looking for them.

John thinks it might be a milk or cream bottle. It would take a glass expert to identify its provenance, but let's assume it dates from the early 1930s when Brady Hall was first built and occupied.

What bigger picture does an old pint bottle suggest? For one thing, how did it get there? Until 1939, Mount St. Mary's College was one lonely building atop a steep hill with little more than truck farms between it and Santa Monica. In those days before refrigerated trucks, that little bottle had to travel up two miles of winding dirt road – it wasn’t paved until about 1932. Was there milk delivery or did the Sisters have to buy it down the hill?

Or did a worker bring it in his lunch? Brady went up in 1930 just as the Depression was settling in. An especially wet winter mobilized the fractured slate and shale on the hilltop and cost extra time, worry and money in the midst of construction. There were delays, problems with one of the architects. Did the workers lose pay while they waited this out? Was that bottle of milk "dear," as they used to say?

Or did it come from the Mount kitchen? The whole student body in 1931 numbered fewer than 75 (top photo), but we know students in any era eat enough for an army. We can imagine the Sisters' little truck struggling up Bundy Drive weighted down with groceries. Did a hungry student sneak the bottle from the kitchen and then dispose of the evidence?

The Mount in the early 1930s was a special place to be sure.

I mentioned that John was looking for something else when he came across the bottle yesterday. I had welcomed two visitors to the College Archives who arrived unannounced and on a mission. Many years ago they had befriended Rose Alice Wills Smith '31, who passed away in 2009 in her 90s. Rose Alice, they said, loved to talk about the Mount and spoke often of some "mementos" that the Class of 1931 left behind "in the basement." The two men were curious to see them. Would the mementos be in the archives?

In 1931 there was only one basement – Brady’s – but I’d never heard of any artifacts being preserved. I pinged John, who expressed his doubts. He emailed me that the basements had been in constant use and as far as he knew, nothing of interest was ever found. But added that there were a couple places that were "rather remote" and might yield something. A short while later after a bit of digging (literally) he produced the little bottle. After that stroke of luck, he said hopes to keep digging (figuratively and literally) as time permits.

It's doubtful that the mysterious “mementos” spoken of by Rose Alice would include litter, but in a sense the bottle is a memento of those early days just the same. It's often true in archives and preservation that mundane objects prove more interesting than “important” stuff for what they tell us about daily life in a bygone time -- that's the idea behind a synechdoche.

It's fun to think about a famished coed in her navy-blue uniform, surreptitiously sipping from a bottle of milk, high above and far away from the world. Like I said, it's a special place.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Why keep archives?

Student life in the 1960s -- hair rollers, fluffy bathrobes.
OUR MOTTO, WHICH WE DISPENSE freely around the college, is: "Why keep this stuff if you're not going to use it?" And as a preservation professor, we are also well acquainted with the "precious jewels" mentality of some archives. Hands off. Or wear white cotton cloves. Don't breathe on them, etc.

The question to archivists, Lone Arrangers and otherwise, is always how much access to grant. our philosophy is erring on the side of use. We think it's wise, the best and only policy for the Mount.

Along comes the Kappa Delta Chi alumnae sisterhood this morning, a Saturday, to have fun with their own scrapbooks. The sorority, founded in 1929, is helping to note the 85th anniversary of the college this fall with a display from the collections. We have KDX material going back almost to the beginning, because the members saw fit to turn it over to the College Archives.

Another group of alumnae visitors to the archives is researching 85 years of student life (good grief -- how could those girls sleep in rollers?) we've had a group in to research the history of campus philanthropy, and others doing the nursing program (first baccalaureate in California) and the distinguished history of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, our founders.

To a woman, they gasp with surprise and delight at their encounters with the archival stuff. They see themselves, old friends, respected predecessors -- all of which adds up to a legacy they are very proud of. And that they're reminded of by the encounter.

Do the files sometimes get out of order? Yes, but they were kind of a mess to begin with. (We Lone Arrangers all have "organize the photos" on our To Do lists.) Do we skim a few years off the life of the object by exposing it in a scanner? Possibly, but otherwise it might not have seen the light of day, ever. Does stuff disappear? Yes -- one of the KDXs alums is believed to borrowed all the scrapbooks from the 1990s and kept them. At least we no longer let stuff out the door.

You may want to argue, but we see this more as a boutique marketplace, a bazaar, of very cool, special information, than the Museum of Priceless Artifacts. Happy patrons are worth giving up a Saturday to help, and we can't wait to see the Founders Week exhibits this October.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Welcome back, uh... students?

Gee, it's been kind of lonely up at the Mount without our undergraduates -- especially for this Lone Arranger, toiling in monastic solitude in the Spearman Room. What do you know, a veritable high school showed up this week, complete with cheerleaders, cool cars and teenage 'tude. It was the cast, crew and marquee (pictured, waiting to be rolled onto a truck) of West Beverly Hills High School, that renowned institution of secondary education featured in "Beverly Hills 90210: The Next Generation."

We've also got a raft of young musicians enjoying the hilltop views -- iPalpiti, or heartbeat in Italian. The group comprises an internationally renowned pool of young talent and is here in Los Angeles for a two-week music festival.

This weekend is Orientation and the signs are up reading "Welcome Class of 2014." Seems impossible, doesn't it?

All of these are a gentle reminder of how quickly time flies when you're having fun (Lone Arrangers always have fun) -- and how the fall semester and the return of our own talented students is just a month away.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ode to safety film

A bottom drawer recently yielded some pictures that don't show up on our legacy inventories and appear to have been gathered by one of the Sisters who resided in the Doheny Mansion at some point in the last 50 years.

We have lots of photos of the mansion, known sometimes as No. 8 for its address on Chester Place. (This photo, taken by me, shows it undergoing a recent facelift.) You L.A. history buffs will know that Chester Place and its score of Victorian-era homes were once the private realm of Estelle Doheny, who lived in No. 8, and whose acreage was deeded to the Los Angeles archdiocese on her death in 1958. It became Mount St. Mary's College's downtown campus in the early 1960s and today remains a little Garden of Eden hard by the glass high-rises, Staples Center madness and urban grit of Figueroa Street.

The mansions--especially No. 8--have been extensively photographed, but most of what we have in the College Archives are either reproductions of turn-of-the-century prints, or pictures of the grounds after they became the college's.

Look, I'm a Lone Arranger, so forgive me if I squeal aloud with delight once in awhile. (No one hears me.) Finding these pictures elicited more of an exultant chortle -- more than a dozen 5" by 7" Kodachrome positives of No. 8 interiors and gardens. I've yet to encounter in our archives any color photographs of Countess Doheny's furnishings while she lived there, yet here were glossy-magazine images of the Great Hall, dining room, and a small reception room, in the rich, glowing colors and fine-grain detail of a really big film positive.

There were just scraps of information with the photos, literally: a torn, black-lined envelope with the date April 1950, and two small bits of paper, one labeled "Madonna/oil painting" and "Gellette [or Gillette?] wedding 1950." I got right on the phone to our local expert, Dr. MaryAnn Bonino, author of the definitive (to date) book on No. 8, The Doheny Mansion: A Biography of a Home. (Los Angeles: Edizioni Casa Animata, 2008).

The pictures, she said, are probably the work of Maynard L. Parker (1901-1976), a renowned architectural photographer whose work graced magazines like House Beautiful. The Huntington Library holds extensive Parker materials, including Doheny Mansion interiors.

I titled this post "Ode to safety film," because when a Lone Arranger comes across old color photographs that have been sitting heaven-knows-where for five decades, disappointment is often the result. Colors fade and emulsion glues itself to the contact surface--and that's if the pictures aren't bent, torn or moldy.

These were pristine, jewel-like, gorgeous. I carefully removed their 60-year-old sheaths, which, in spite of the presence of rips, grease pencil and black masking tape, had barely oxidized. The pictures got new heavy-gauge Mylar envelopes and should be good for another 60 years.

The thoughtful Lone Arranger always pauses to say "thanks" to her anonymous predecessors. Thank you Kodak, for making great safety film. Thank you, Maynard Parker, for your great skill in the darkroom. Thank you Sister, or Sisters, for managing to leave these pictures in a cool, dark, dry place. I hope I can do as well by them as you have.