Friday, April 29, 2011

Something is Fishy at the Athens Central Market

This is the first of a series of articles featuring Greece. The Greeks have occupied their rocky, rugged peninsula for four millennia, and they know a bit about decay and rebirth. Athens is the modern capital, a bustling, frenetic city of over four million. The historic heart of Athens is the Acropolis hill, around which there has been human habitation since the Neolithic period. The commercial center of modern Athens is Omonia square, about a kilometer and a half to the north. Connecting the two is Athinas Street, along which you will find tool and hardware shops, banks, bakeries, coffee stalls, bargain clothing emporiums, and the famous Central Market. If you like visiting markets when you travel, this is a great example. It's in a decent part of town, the butchers and vendors are used to tourists, it's colorful and noisy, and it's not too smelly, even in summer. Thousands of tourists wander through, so although any American will stand out, the locals have seen much odder visitors. The market was built in the 1870s. According to a Smithsonian article, the mayor of Athens, Panagis Kyriakos, initiated the project in 1875. Construction continued for ten years, with the arched glass roof finally being completed in 1886. The roof you see in the photograph above is a new one. The market was renovated, painted, cleaned, and "sanitized" about a decade ago. In my files I have photographs of the older, scruffy-looking market, which I will try to scan. I am sure entry into the EU forced the administrators to make changes to comply with EU sanitary standards. This grand hall reminds me of similar 1800s arcades in other cities. In particular, one in Providence, Rhode Island, is said to be America's first enclosed mall. The overall market is in the shape of a large central rectangle with a "U"-shape area surrounding it. The fish vendors occupy the central rectangle, while the meat vendors occupy what was formerly the streets or alleys surrounding the 1870s market building. The streets have been roofed over, so that you think you are in one complicated enclosed building. You can buy almost any sort of seafood here (well, maybe not puffer fish), but all common Mediterranean species. Cod fish and herring come from the North Atlantic, and even a decade ago, I saw boxes labeled "Product of Iceland". Don't forget to pick up some octopus or a squid or two. For fans of Bizarre Foods, Andrew Zimmern visited the Central Market in 2010. This episode aired on May 10, 2011. There are several modest restaurants in the market. I suggest a light meal of grilled sardines, fried potatoes, horta (greens), and crusty, chewy, delicious bread (likely to be better than almost any bread you find in the USA). Wash it down with a beer or glass of retsina (or two or three glasses). Your fellow diners will be a friendly cast of characters. They will be glad to take your picture or pose. You can read more in the market in the Smithsonian article:


Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Strand Theatre, Vicksburg, Mississippi

Vicksburg once had as many as four downtown theaters (cinemas). Some of my coworkers remember how they saw a show at least weekly, often on Saturday night. One of these was the Saenger Theater at 1203 Walnut Street, whose roof was blown off in the 1953 tornado. A number of children were killed. A dramatic post-storm photograph is at this web page: Saenger
The subject of this post is the Strand Theater, located in the Adolph Rose Building at 717 Clay Street. The Adolph Rose is the handsome gold-colored building in the undated postcard, from the Cooper postcard collection at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
The theater operated from 1932-1963 and afterwards housed a Civil War slide and sound show called "The Vanishing Glory." Glory closed about 2005 and the space has been unused since then. The photograph above shows the configuration when Vanishing Glory used it. The screen was mounted in front of a partition that split the original long seating area, leaving an unused area behind. Originally, this would have been an unusually long, skinny venue to show movies.
The prominent local merchant, Adolph Rose, built the handsome Victorian Romanesque building about 1890 for his goods company (Vicksburg Post, 12 June 2011). At that time, it did not contain a theater. Around 1930, it was sold to Feld Furniture, and the ground floor was renovated to house two long thin commercial establishments, a store on the left (now an antique store), and the theater on the right. The seating area extended most of the way from the lobby to the stage at the rear of the building. It must have been a rather odd tunnel-like geometry where the front patrons were practically under the screen and the rear patrons a long way off. The photograph above shows the original stage at the back of the building. This is the area that Vanishing glory closed off and was unused after 1963.
When the theater was retrofitted into the Adolph Rose building, the walls were made of painted press-board. The fitting was skillful, and you can see how the panels curved at the edges of the ceiling. I suppose press-board was selected because it absorbs sound. The sound came from a huge RCA speaker behind the screen. The box is still present, but the speaker units are gone.
The second floor is rather interesting. The little storage room with the racks was for storing film reels. A trap door on the floor opened and a large fan in the wall drew up air though the room and across the reels. Before about 1940, most commercial film was nitrate-based and could spontaneously ignite when it degassed. Theater designers then knew that the film had to be ventilated to reduce the danger of fire. (As an aside, that is why modern photo film has "Safety Film" printed on the edge: it is Ester or Polyester-base and does not ignite spontaneously.) Archivists now store historic movie reels in refrigerated rooms. 
This is the projection booth. It is lined with steel, again to reduce the danger of a fire burning down the rest of the building. The projectors (long gone) were mounted on the floor and projected out small openings to the screen far away. So much heat was generated, the projectors were vented to metal flue pipes that went up to the roof. The earliest projectors may have used carbide lamps. The booth windows were equipped with guillotine-style sliding panels. The panels were held up with steel wires equipped with a lead plug. If a fire broke out, the plug melted and the guillotine door popped down abruptly, cutting off the air supply.
Here are some papers and remains on a shelf in the projection room, including IRS instructions for tax year 1966.
This is the balcony, where "colored" people had to sit in the old days. When I lived in Asia in the 1950s, we white Europeans sat in the balcony.
The lobby area was extensively changed by Vanishing Glory, but a few remnants from the movie era remain.

The good news is that Westside Theatre Foundation, a Vicksburg theater group, is renovating the old Strand and plans to hold live performance there. They have removed the partition wall and will expand the original 1920s stage. Jack Burns generously let me take photographs a few weeks ago. It is an ambitious project and I'm thrilled they have taken it on. They currently hold their productions at the Coral Room in the Vicksburg Hotel, another historic building in Vicksburg that needs its own blog entry.

I took these digital images with with a Sony DSC-R1 digital camera, tripod-mounted.
Update April 2012: Westside is holding stage productions in the Strand and a movie program has begun. The movies are projected from a digital projector, not film as in the old days, but a 16mm projector is available if ever needed. Here is a poster from the famous (infamous?) Reefer Madness.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Impossible Mansions of the Delta, Mount Holly, Lake Washington

Mount Holly, Lake Washington, Mississippi
Lake Washington is a quiet little town on the banks of a lake of the same name, about 20 minutes south of Greenville just west of Hwy. 1. The crescent-shaped oxbow lake is a peaceful, bucolic setting, where cormorants and anhingas sit on branches of cypress trees, and ducks quack in the distance. Drive slowly on Eastside Lake Washington Road past modest one-story houses, and you come across this impossibly grand Italianate mansion sitting on an equally grand lawn. What kind of wealth was there once in the Delta to allow this kind of extravagance? What were the original owners thinking in 1856?
MS Preservation wrote about the history of Mt Holly; recommended reading, as are all the interesting posts dealing with Mississippi's architecture and history.
At first glance, the structure appears to be in reasonably good condition. But look more closely, and you see that it is deteriorating badly. Some of the roof is intact, but trim around the soffits is rotting, and some parts of the roof are failing.
Walk around to the back, and you see broken windows and decay. A gent I met a few houses to the south said someone started repair work a few months ago, and indeed, there is a commercial work-foreman's trailer parked on the front lawn. But the trailer has been vandalized, and little work appears to have been done in many months (or years?). Previous owners used the mansion as a bed and breakfast, and the rear section of the house has a modern kitchen and redecorated rooms. They are now seedy, but at least this was a going concern in the late 1990s or early-2000s.
The front and side porches show the effects of years of neglect.
This porch, on the north side of the house, would have been an inviting place to laze away a hot summer afternoon in the pre-air conditioning era.
As pointed out in the MS Preservation blog, many sections of brick are crumbling. Areas were repointed with modern concrete rather than soft mortar, which would have matched the mortar used in the 1800s. I thought anyone buying a historic house would know enough to not use the wrong mortar, but obviously some people are really stupid.
The drawing rooms were elegant and even today do not look too bad. The windows are intact so far, but vandalism will take a toll if the present owners don't secure the property.
The Susie B. Law home is another fine mansion only a short distance south of Mount Holly. A reader commented that it was built in 1902 for Sidney Law and may have been ordered from Sears, Roebuck & Company (yes, they sold very fine kit homes for decades - why don't we do this now?). I don't know the recent history of this handsome wood house, but the weeds are taking over and it looks unoccupied. 

Please see this post for a 2014 update on the Law House.
See this post for some 2014 black&white film photographs.

Not far south in Chatham is Roy's Store, still thriving, and a fun place to visit.
Also see the Preservation in Mississippi article on Mount Holly.

These are digital images taken with an Olympus E-330 digital camera, tripod-mounted, with the Olympus 14-54 mm ƒ/2.8 lens.

UPDATE June 18, 2015: Mount Holly burned early in the morning on June 17, 2015. The damage is overwhelming. The Lakeport Plantation blog posted photographs of the destruction. I am saddened to see another piece of our heritage so badly damaged that it is unlikely to ever be restored.