One Night Stand: News from the original “middle of nowhere”

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Driving East on Genesee Road in Western New York State, you pass a lot of large warehouses and truck distribution centers spotted among the residential houses and farms.  There were a number of 18-wheelers rushing by in both directions and, although not exactly rural, the Hull Family House and Farmstead is situated in an in-between landscape. It was certainty not a part of urban Buffalo, NY, but also not an entirely agricultural landscape.  In the great American tradition of progress and development, the vista has an almost non-descript, everywhere quality about it – in a state of transition from one type of landscape moving toward another.  And that is perhaps the most valuable word for this “one-night stand”– MOVING.

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The Hull Family Farmstead is quite noticeably placed dead-center at a T-intersection of two perpendicular roads.  Spending most of my childhood in the rapidly-changing agricultural landscape of North Carolina, my understanding of old farmstead placement was that both houses and farm buildings should be set back away from the street.  You would tend to get a glimpse of them through long rows of bright green tobacco plants.  Reflecting the hot sun, the houses seem to float on the algae-like surface of the tobacco fields.

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In upstate New York, that is not the case.  Almost all the houses hug the roads – as if you could exit the front door of the house and step directly onto the pavement.  I wondered why this was the case.  Weather? Rectilinear parcels? Tradition?  In any case, Hull Farmhouse is no exception – the front door is no more than 30 feet from the road.

Upon arrival, several thoughtful and excited Hull House Board members welcomed me warmly.  After being shown to my bedroom, I given a tour of the house, highlighting the mostly recent restoration work.  The all-volunteer group deserves a great deal of praise for their dedication and high-quality work bringing this site back to a functional and usable condition.  The ongoing work being facilitated by the Hull Family House board is top-notch.  Both their strategic plan and their cultural landscape report indicate close attention paid to the restoration work. Keep an eye on these guys, because once they get formally up and running, they will be the ones to watch.  These accomplishments are in large part due to the consistent and strong leadership of Board President Gary Costello.  In fact, this “one-night stand” wouldn’t have occurred without Greg’s support.

I loved hearing the stories about tons of tires, automobile parts and debris being removed from the site, the clearing away of brush, and the constant surprises they are finding in the family cemetery restoration.  The most obvious question is – why were these piles of tire & car debris here in the first place?

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Sitting in the front parlor, my new friends and I discussed the site’s history, and where they wanted to take it as an historic, public venue.  Having been led to the second floor stair-hall window, one of my hosts pointed to the busy intersection and lamented the house’s proximity to the two very busy thoroughfares, and the resultant traffic noise.  I assumed that the historical narrative of the site had been agricultural, and therefore a selective conceptual “erasure” of the present landscape (noise, visual clutter, and activity) would be preferable in order to better convey the farm narrative.   After this short interaction, not much more was said of the roads.

Continuing to chat, we walked outside of the stone farmhouse and proceeded to visit several nearby spots on the grounds.  We first crept into the Civil War-era barn. From there, we made a beeline to the back of the site to appreciate the recently-cleared, and beautifully restored,  family cemetery. Adjacent to that, the neighboring Victorian House has been repurposed as a visitor’s center.  Outside in the warmth and sun of the visitor center porch, we sat and chatted about possible scenarios for the site.  Being at a distance from the house location was beneficial to this conversation; we could discuss the site from a more removed (physically as well as mentally) perspective.

The discussion narrowed quickly, resting on the frequently polemic topic of what defines a correct period of interpretation.   The selection of a period of interpretation can be both conjectural and arbitrary – and the concomitant debates, anxiety-producing. Without going into details, the present stone house was constructed somewhere between 1810 and 1830.  Personally, I do recognize the value of the 1810 period of interpretation – it is a unique and very solid base for the site’s narrative – and one that no other site in the area is telling.  I get that.

RANT WARNING AND DISCLAIMER: The following RANT has nothing to do with the Hull Family House restorations in particular – rather my discussions with the group brought up one of my consistently reoccurring concerns about historic site management.  By now, you may know this about me – I see the specificity of dates as a smokescreen for larger, more latent cultural narratives. Often it feels to me that we are simply trying to bolster our intuition and conjecture with historic facts and dates, thereby validating the larger choices. More honestly speaking, I don’t much care whether the construction date is 1810 or 1820 and I don’t think that most visitors make a distinction between 10 years.  My rant is not at all about WHEN a house was built, but more about the overemphasis of a specific period of interpretation to the exclusion of everything else.   RANT COMPLETED

As the conversation continued, I started to ask questions regarding the curious placement of the house, and the possible relation to when the roads were built. Was it a random coincidence that the house was centered on these two perpendicular roads? – I had assumed at least one of the roads came in after the house was built – a kind of “if you build it, they will come” mentality.  I thought the house acted like a magnet for growth.  I was wrong.

As it turns out, both of the roads were constructed before the house was built. Interesting.

The house’s placement was a conscious choice on the part of the Hulls.  In fact, the footprint of the house straddles two distinct parcels of land.  The Hulls had purchased both parcels and built directly on the property line. As a crazy museum anarchist, my mind starting running amuck with questions and conjectural thoughts.

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It was then mentioned that some believe (although others disagree) that the house served as a small tavern for stagecoach travelers between Buffalo and cities East.  A side door into a large room with two smaller rooms adjoining may suggest a stagecoach traveler’s rest stop.  The “Old Line Mail” road ran North of the new Genesee Road (onto which the Hull House abuts) and was long considered a very difficult road to traverse via stagecoach.  The new Genesee Road held great promise of faster and less stressful passage.

Genesee Road was in many ways, the edge of European-American settlement in the very early 1800’s. In 1810, very little settlement had occurred in this part of New York State and the Hull Farmhouse was literally, as I was told by New York State Historian, “in the middle of nowhere”.  By the 1830’s settlement increased dramatically and the “middle of nowhere shifted further west”.

All this new information I had garnered, really piqued my curiosity and interest, and was putting everything in a new light.  The house was purposely built at the intersection of two roads (one the single primary passage to Buffalo), it may (or may not) have been used as a tavern, the house’s architecture and layout are similar to other taverns, and it is one of the very few residential buildings built out of stone in the area (another indication that it was perhaps of a more commercial quality). However, there were still some pieces of the puzzle that hadn’t quite come together… yet.

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Following our porch discussion, we continued to perambulate.  I felt compelled to go into the barn and requested permission to snap some “ruin porn” pictures.  The barn dates back to around the civil war.  There was a strong debate among my hosts as to whether the barn should be moved, as it does not adhere to the 1810-20 period of interpretation.  Though I had opted not to weigh in at that moment, I had still decided the barn itself was a very cool structure.  We walked around the barn and then up to the upper floor. There I was shown where a previous owner had constructed a dwelling inside.  So he had moved out of the solid stone house to live inside of his barn. Odd, I thought – but I am sure he had his reasons.  We exited the second floor of the barn, out of the upper large doors that opened up directly to the street.  With this passage, I began to get a sense of connection to the street that I hadn’t when I entered from the back lower level.  The lower level opened up to the farmland and felt very agricultural, but when I got upstairs, it felt very commercial – almost industrial.

Once I exited the barn’s second floor and stood on the flat ground leading out to the main street, I started to have more thoughts about the odd placement of all of these buildings.  Then, the final puzzle piece came into place!  While pointing to a barely noticeable rectilinear concrete slab abutting the road, my hosts told me that one of the previous owners had placed a one pump gas station & retail snack building up at the road.  I asked when this might have been built – they answered maybe around the 1920-30’s.

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Things started to make sense to me.

With trucks and cars roaring by, I stood and listened to my hosts discuss the site’s gas station era. They remarked that it was clearly outside of the 1810’s period of interpretation, and for that reason, the foundation remnants should be removed.  But yet, the more I thought about it, there was also something highly compelling about the role of transportation with this stone house’s story – why not integrate it into the narrative?

My hosts suggested we part company so I could have time on my own to explore and fully experience the house and site.  Wandering throughout the house, I noticed the odd little rooms on the conjecturally tavern side of the house. I opened windows and doors, letting the air and the sun become a part of my experience.  I also invited the traffic noise into the party.  Instead of trying to restrict it to the outside, I embraced it.  I wanted to honestly feel how the two busy streets effect on the house.

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Having opened the front door, I brought out a parlor chair, and sat out in the sun to read my Rem Koolhaas book “Preservation is Overtaking Us”.  From where I was sitting, the road lay just beyond a patch of rich green grass with dandelions.  As if on a stage – there I was, dead smack at this T-intersection of two major roads.  Large traffic lights were hanging on wires practically above my head. I wondered, at what point, the intersection became so busy that it required a stoplight?  After a while, the sun dipped down, and I moved back inside.  Every room hummed with the sounds of cars and trucks passing just outside the stone house.  My considerate hosts had placed me in the back bedroom so outside street noise wouldn’t compromise my sleep, yet despite that, I could still clearly hear the traffic, interspersed with the sounds of birds chirping.  Oddly enough, the mixture of sounds was comforting, letting me know I was not completely alone.

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A bit later, my new friends came back over and we were all in the basement dining room. They had brought a simple yet fantastic dinner (ham, green beans, carrots, mashed potatoes) and topped it off with a delicious cobbler. Over dinner and wine, the historic setting seemed to recede and fade into the background. We discussed everyday items, like families and work – and a variety of current political topics including the election, and the legalization of marijuana.  Of course, I had to have seconds of this great meal.  Afterwards, while helping to clean the dishes, I was able to chat a bit more with one of my hosts, Donna – and also express my gratitude for the person who had not only polished the silver and set the table, but prepared the entire meal. Over the drying of dishes, we spoke about our pets, love lives and politics – I knew I was in “Trump Country”- 65% of the Republicans voters there had voted for Trump – it was nice to talk about meaty contemporary issues and not only interpretive history.

The sun was setting and I wanted to walk around the site one last time before dark.  Grabbing my camera, I set out of the house and visited the family cemetery. From there, I went into the barn again, and back out around the property.  All the while, you could hear the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) sounds of passing trucks and cars.  The din of all these vehicular sounds simply refused to be ignored.  It then dawned on me that this constant “intrusion” was actually a message of sorts – a call not only to be recognized – but asking visitors to ponder the reasons for its very existence.  Those siren calls from the road, it t occurred to me, might just be the very thing that makes the Hull family House and Farmstead unique.

Personally, I have never appreciated the step back in time mentality of a lot of historians, who appear to be romanticizing a perceived “golden age”. To that I say, the golden age is now, stop looking only to the past – meld today’s experiences with those of the past and form a new understanding.  The past cannot inform our future choices if all we do is think of it as a set of facts and figures, historic documents and dead people.  We have to make these connections – as historic site stewards, we have to seek out these overlaps, even if they run contrary to our strategic plan or museum “best practices”.

Walking back to the house, as the sun set, I was able to get a glimpse of the stone structure, perched practically on top of the highway, acting almost as a retaining wall for the traffic.  The front façade of the house seemed very public, formal and two-dimensional, while the back of the house looked informal and familiar.  This house and farm site had much to say to me about the complexity of settling in unchartered territories.  It was hard to fully appreciate how this street (now full of traffic) was at one time considered to be the edge of civilization.  The Hulls were Western settlers, pushing the limits of occupation and habitation.  This road was the conduit through which safety, supplies, comradery, and revenue was transported.  Of course you would hug this road – It was the artery through which the life blood of your existence would flow. Siting this remote house back from the road would have meant further isolation.

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Having retired to the back bedroom, I prepared myself for what I hoped would be a night of blissful slumber.  The windows were still open and the breeze was blowing the thin draperies into the room … and then sucking them back out – the lungs of the house seemed happy that I was using it.  The sounds of the street never fully abated, but they were comforting reminders that I was a part of a larger whole – a comradery.

Using a kerosene lamp and candles as my light source, I began to figure out the best way to sleep on a hay filled matrass.  Getting in and out of the bed was a bit of a challenge, once you are in it – all is well.  The hay was dense like a futon.  With each turn in bed, I would hear the sounds of the hay rubbing together – then they would quiet down.  The simplicity of the room, its furnishings and the bare plaster walls all united to form a magical spot.  I have slept in other “one night stands” where the architecture was so strongly felt that the experience was defined by the building.  That was not the case at the Hull Family Homestead.  The bedroom felt like a secure stone barrier to the outside world. It was not least bit spooky or uncomfortable.

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The grandfather clock, at the top of the stairs right outside my bedroom door, periodically chimed in over the traffic sounds, which continued through night.  Once again, the clock sounds (both the ticking as well as the joyous chimes) were a check-in of sorts.  I was not alone and there was something larger keeping track of my existence.  I fell sleep to the combined orchestration of sounds: crickets, traffic, and the grandfather clock ticking & chiming.

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The following morning, I woke up early to get a ride to the Buffalo airport.  Tidying up the room, I emptied the chamber pot and then got dressed. Every so often, I peered out the window of the second floor stair landing to see if my ride had arrived.  My host drove up the busy street, and then pulled over directly in front of the house’s front door. Before getting into her car, I asked if she would take a photo of me in front of the house –  to which, she happily agreed,  Standing at the side of the busy street next to her car, she snapped this shot.

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Once at the airport, it occurred to me that in that moment – the taking of a photo in front of the house – we had experienced the narrative of the house and the busy roads.  My host didn’t even need to drive into the property, she simply pulled over onto the shoulder and spoke to me from her car.  Imagine that! Her car was so close to the house that I could communicate with her easily and without yelling.  It seemed to me that the relationship of the house to the street was the core component to the Hull Family House Narrative.

The landscape now seemed conscious and not at all forced upon the stone house.  Everything about this site pointed to commerce – in fact, it seemed to me that the Hull Family site had always been fully integrated with the transportation system of its day.   The roads existed before the house, and the Hull’s chose to place it directly where it rests today.  It is not as if the road was placed following the houses construction, perhaps destroying a romantically beautiful agricultural setting – No, the house was always intended to be a part of the greater tapestry of civilization.  Nothing romantic about that.  In fact, rather pragmatic and straightforward.  After all, The Hulls were transplanted Yankees from Connecticut.  The road was a life raft.

Throughout the historical situations that this site has experienced, the one continuous element has been the two roads – the intersection.  The narrative of this site is about the intimate relationship between the lives of its many inhabitants and the roads that gave them sustenance.  Not to be ignored or wished away as some unfortunate byproduct of progress, the roads and traffic were fully integrated into the historic narrative.  From the original Hull family in 1810-20 building directly at the road intersection, to the later Hull descendants who opened a truck farm to supply Buffalo with goods, to the small gas station erected between the stone house and the barn – and even the 10 tons of tire debris – the life of the Hull Farmstead relied heavily on the connections provided by the roads. The Hull Family Farmstead is a story about normal people, working hard, utilizing the resources they have acquired to make the most out of those two little roads.  I like to think that the Hull’s would actually appreciate the sounds and movement of the passing traffic.  It validates all of their original reasons for settling and building a beautiful stone house in the middle of nowhere (that is now somewhere).

+ I would like to thank public historian Jessie Ravage for her guidance in understanding the nuances of New York State urbanism.

The “One-Night Stand” ™ series of blog posts are an attempt at shifting our cultural perceptions of historic house museums away from viewing them solely as public venues and moving toward a more intimate and tactile appreciation of them as places of private, domestic life.  My attempt is to highlight more nuanced and latent understandings of these places as vessels for life, social issues, politics, and habitation – not merely as decorative arts objects and collections artifacts. I spend the night in the historic bedrooms, using the furniture and experiencing the combination of behaviors and interactions with a home in ways that can only be understood as an inhabitant.

Copyright © 2016 Twisted Preservation| “Twisted Preservation”, “One-night Stand”, “Sleeping Around” are trademarks of Franklin D. Vagnone. All rights reserved.

3 thoughts on “One Night Stand: News from the original “middle of nowhere”

  1. Thanks for the post … enjoying your take on historic preservation isues and am in agreement about the pointlessness of trying to stop time at some arbitary point … usually one that interest a particular person or group. I am looking at some of these issues at the moment … donyou have a suggested book list?

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  2. Excellent article, as always, Frank. I really like something you said–I’m paraphrasing here–that museums were locked into this golden age of memories–or something like that. As a Living Historian, I am amused when people (it’s almost always teenage girls) who come up to me & say,”Wouldn’t you just love to live back then?” The answer is a very firm, “No.”

    Why can’t one interpret ALL of the periods of historic houses? Why stick to just one narrow time period?

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