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patterns of ink

How fruitless to be ever thinking yet never embrace a thought... to have the power to believe and believe it's all for naught. I, too, have reckoned time and truth (content to wonder if not think) in metaphors and meaning and endless patterns of ink. Perhaps a few may find their way to the world where others live, sharing not just thoughts I've gathered but those I wish to give. Tom Kapanka

Monday, August 20, 2007

Bringing Home the Duncan Phyfe: Chapter 6-B

I could share some details we children gleaned from my parents' DC honeymoon tale, but they fall in that category of “facts of life” my parents eventually told their married children (later in life when we were all home for holidays). That satiated hour between a delicious home-cooked meal and dessert (when the children are off playing with their cousins) is when the best laugh-out-loud stories and whispered confessions come to light. I'll summarize as Mom often did:

“We didn’t know anything about anything," She'd laugh. "You kids were lucky. By the time you got married, there were good books that talked about it as God intended. We had nothing, and our parents never sat around like this and talked about these things—not even when they should have. I’d ask my mom a question and she’d just wince like she had a toothache and tell me to talk to Grandma Collinge, and then Grandma would just say, 'It'll all be fine, Bev, don't worry. You'll figure it out.'" And then meaning no insult to my dad, she'd add, "It was years—I mean years before your Dad and I knew what in the world we were doing. Isn't that right, Don.”

Dad would just tilt his head and shrug, and mutter with a smile, “Couldn't've been that bad. We had all you kids didn’t we.”

"That's not what I mean and you know it," Mom would laugh.

As she once put it while talking with my aunt, “Most of the children in this world were conceived in a moment when the wife could very well slip and say, ‘We gotta do something about that crack in the ceiling.’”

So there you have it. No more talk about those nervous nights. This story line is going to momentarily shift gears from the honeymoon to the Duncan Phyfe, so let's fast forward to Washington DC.

When my parents finally got to Washington, DC, they saw all the sights they wanted to see. All that is except the White House, which looked like this from the outside from 1948 to 1952.

Here is a little bit of history that many people do not know or have forgotten: Through the period of the Great Depression and WWII, White House maintenance had been put on the back burner. The story goes that one day the piano leg of President Truman's grand piano went right through the floor, and it was determined that the structure of the 150 year old White House was so bad that the whole thing was condemned and closed to the public from 1948 to 1952. The Trumans moved across the street to Blair House and lived there for nearly his entire second term. He had little choice in the matter since the photo below shows what inside of the White House looked like while the exterior appeared to be getting a modest face lift. ..[Right click to enlarge]

By the time Truman moved back in (just a few months before Eisenhower took office), the White House was a virtual bunker. All the original wooden frame was replaced by steel beams and concrete walls and floors. Two basements and a bunker were built far below the foundation. When you consider the fact that this was the beginning of what would later be called the "Cold War" with its nuclear arms race, it seems unlikely that this "extreme home makeover" had anything to do with a weak floor board under President Truman's piano.

Because of this, my parents never saw the inside of the White House.
I did three times: in 1971 with my church youth group; again in 1982 with my wife's parents and siblings; and the third time just two summers ago with my own family.
Getting into the White House is much harder than it used to be. The last time it required a favor from my acquaintance, Congressman Pete Hoekstra. Other than that, the public tour of the White house has not changed much in 35 years.
On that first tour in 1971, as we went through the Green Room, the Secret Service tour guide explained that the room contains many samples of Duncan Phyfe furnishings. My ears perked up when I heard this.
“We have a Duncan Phyfe table at our house,” I whispered to a friend.

“What’s a Duncan Phyfe?” he asked. "A piccolo & coffee?"

“No. It’s a table like that one there." I pointed at the one on the right side of the photo above. "See how the legs come down and then spread out like a wooden banana peel underneath? That's a Duncan Phyfe."

We looked around the room and saw that almost every table had that characteristic banana peel pedestal (as far as I know that is not the technically correct term for this feature).

I did not know at the time that Duncan Phyfe was a Scottish cabinet maker who became famous in the early 19th Century for his elegant but functional designs. I knew only that we had a similar table at home, and I was impressed to have this in common with the President.

When I got home I told Mom I saw her Duncan Phyfe in the White House Green Room.
"I never got to see the inside," she reminded, "but of course, even if we had seen the Green Room, I didn’t have my Duncan Phyfe yet. We didn’t get it until I was expecting Kathy in ’52. I remember that because our landlord didn’t allow babies and we had to move before she was born, but it was that little upstairs apartment we first had it. Did I ever tell you the story about us bringing home the Duncan Phyfe?”

“No, Mom, I must have missed that one. Is it a long one?

“Depends on where I start. We’ve got two hours before supper.”

“Might as well start at the beginning,” I suggested without thinking.

I was fifteen, and did not mind setting the kitchen table as Mom worked her magic with four pots on the stove, talking as she cooked. Every now and then she’d pause to laugh and brush back her hair with the back of her wrist, but the story flowed in the rhythms of all the tales I'd come to love of life and learning in that corner of the world we called home.


Blogger Dr.John said...

Well at last I know what a Duncan Phyfe is but you still haven't brought it home.

20/8/07 5:50 PM  
Blogger Cris said...

I think a light bulb went on in my head as I finally found out for the first time what a Duncan Phyfe is. LOL.

BTW, don't go to the old link for my blog. It isn't mine anymore. I've had to delete the old one and create a new one for certain reasons. The old link is taken by something that is definitely not me just in case you've been back there. But you can just go through this profile and go to my new blog from there. :P

I can't wait to hear the rest of the story.

20/8/07 6:55 PM  
Blogger SusieQ said...

I, for one, am going to miss all that talk about "those nervous nights." :-)

It is interesting how you are tying in your folks' personal experiences on their honeymoon with what was happening historically at the time.

I did not know that the White House was in such a mess during Truman's terms. It goes a long way toward explaining why he and Bess spent so much of their time at the Little White House in Key West, FL.

My husband and I toured the Little White House a few years ago when we were in the Keys during a short winter vacation. The dining room, where dignitaries from all over the world dined as guests of the Trumans, is not much larger than our own dining room. And the desk at which Truman signed so many important documents is smaller than the one we have in our den. My, how things have changed in DC since those modest days.

I do not know what to call those table legs either. Banana peel seems pretty accurate a description. I happen to have a replica of that kind of table with those banana peel legs.

And now for the rest of the story. Looking forward to it.

20/8/07 9:32 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

OK now that you spilled the beans I am going to admit that I googled Duncan Phyfe, but decided it was a better name for the best Scot bagpiper to have ever lived.


21/8/07 4:24 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

I'm sure you slept better last night knowing at least what it was. I hope I can do the "bringing it home part justice." I have a draft of it written but it's not ready to post. Thank you for your faithful prodding. =)

I would not know the name if it weren't for this story, but I grew up seeing them all the time. Glad you got your blog thing sorted out. That can be awkward.

There is one part of the honeymoon I wish I had included. Maybe there is still a way. It's the third night when Mom wanted to call home and Dad let her. There's more to it than that, of course, but I do think it's an important detail. School is about to start for me and I feel a little "pressure" to complete this tale so I jumped that chapter.
I was shocked to see those pictures of the inside of the White House. It was important to "maintain the image" that this was the same historic building--and parts of it are--but it was completely transformed into a "cold war" station in that era.
I read about the Florida site while researching this chapter. I love the anecdotal aspects of history.

Thanks for keeping the secret. I suspect Dr. John was doing the same. My friend was in marching band; that's why he went with piccolo, but your guess was also a good one. =)
Hey, you'll be interested in this. My family is about to head over to your area. We're going to explore downtown Detroit and go to tonight's Tiger game against Cleaveland.

21/8/07 7:08 AM  
Blogger J_G said...

I think I've got a Duncan Phyfe Tom. It's a just a small hallway table good enought for a flower vase or picture frame. It was my Grandmother's. An old black rotary dial Bell telephone sat on it for many years and that's about all it would fit except a pen and paper to take messages.

I read the story about gutting the White House and completely rebuilding it a couple of years ago and had forgotten about it. Then I was on my excercise machine one morning not too long ago while I was watching the History channel They did the whole story of the White House. It was very interesting and it sure took my mind off of killing myself on a torture machine designed by CIA agents.

21/8/07 11:25 AM  
Blogger the walking man said...

Well when you guys pass the Moross rd exit, turn to the west and wave I'll be about two miles or so down the road. Enjoy, that part of the city really had been fairly well rebuilt and there are things to see and do so come a little early. Bring jackets it's going to be cool tonight.



21/8/07 2:00 PM  
Blogger HeiressChild said...

hi tom, like the others, at last i know what a duncan phyfe is too. *lol*

i never knew the white house had been renovated a second time. i remember the first time after the fire. well, remember it from reading; i wasn't there. quite a difference from then to now.

i've enjoyed reading this story, even the innocent honeymoon parts. *lol*

21/8/07 10:19 PM  
Blogger the walking man said...

off topic comment ...but it bothers me when I see all of the repo'ed empty houses in my neighborhood and now have an idea of what kind of living conditions the leader of this administration has after the tour buses have stopped for the day.

Maybe they should move the white house to a neighborhood like mine or some other one like it in just about any major city.



22/8/07 6:28 AM  
Blogger patterns of ink said...

You are such a history buff. It's funny, as a student I didn't get into history that much. Now I eat it up. I was at the top of Detroit's RenCen yesterday, and from 72 stories up I could see the five "spokes" of the wheel Woodward designed back before the War of 1812. Later in the day, I walked across Gratiot Avenue on my way to the Tiger ballgame and thought of all that stuff I'd written about between chapter 2 and chapter 3.
The piece of furniture you describe sounds like its from the right era, like my mom's and the one SQ mentioned, Duncan Phyfes (replicas from various manufacturers not likely originals) had re-gained popularity 100 years after the Federalist Period of furniture and architecture when the originals were produced, which is roughly in the years between the Presidencies of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln (after which "Victorian" became the style). This "second surge in popularity" faded after WWII as everything from cars to couches to kitchen tables [Formica and chrome] began taken on the "modern look."

Thanks for reading and leaving thoughtful comments. I remembered learning about the original White House fire, too. I think it was toward the end of the War of 1812 when the Brits took over Detroit. Isn't it strange how we became such close allies with Britain 100 years after being mortal enemies?

We had a great visit to The Motor City. You're right, they have done a lot of rebuilding since the last time I spent a day enjoying the area. I took Julie there on a date back in 1979. We went to the then-new RenCen. It is hard to believe we had not been back since. (We've driven through on I-94 countless times, but I mean spend a day walking and taking in the Guardian Building, Greek Town, Theater District, Grand Circus Park, and new Riverfront Walk. I actually thought of you when we were on the River front looking south to the Ambassador Bridge and north to Belle Isle. Hey, the Bob-Lo Boat was parked at its old dock!
Anyway, I thought of how much you would enjoy that view. Here's a plan... you and your wife find a way down to the curent RenCen parking lots (only $12.00 for the entire day). From there, you can get on the People Mover (no comment) and for 50 cents you can go in the big loop to see all the improvements. In that 15-20 minute ride you'll see towering derelict buildings, abandoned and hidden behind draping banner billboards as well as impressive new construction like the Compuware Building. I really think Detroit, as a city, is on a rebound. Sad that it had to go through all that it has since the 1967 riots and the more recent woes of the American auto industry.
I know you know that Detroit’s decline over the last 40 years has had more to do with local than national politics. The White House is a civilian-military outpost disguised as a museum of American history. I’m okay with that, but I do understand your contrast between neglected residential areas and the posh living conditions of elected officials on both sides of the aisle (don't forget the Kennedy’s, John Kerry, John Edwards, Clintons, Al Gore [whose mansion in the rolling hills of Tennessee with 8 bathrooms ) heated by natural gas. Add on a pool ( and a pool house) and a separate guest house. In one month this residence consumes more energy than the average American household does in a year. The average bill for electricity and natural gas runs over $2400. In natural gas alone, this property consumes more than 20 times the national average for an American home. That seems sort of like an “inconvenient truth” for him.] etc.--it's not just the Bushes =).... but let's not get into politics.
Hey, the Tigers won last night!

22/8/07 10:08 AM  
Blogger J_G said...

The story of the White house was on again last night on the History Channel. Harry Truman took direct supervision of the rebuild project, he told the contractors the outside walls were sacrosanct and could not be altered. One day he saw some workman standing in a doorway at the basement level and they were about to remove the doorway to get a dumptruck and bulldozer into the basement. Truman said "no way" that would violate his order about the outside walls. The contractors had to take the truck and bulldozer apart and reassemble them inside of the walls in order to use them to do their jobs.

24/8/07 11:01 AM  

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