Projects: Madden Road Music Hall

Whenever I’m back in my home state of Ohio I try to visit The Building, as my family has always called it. It’s a two-story brick building at a crossroads in Mutual, Ohio, once a thriving little hang-out for local farmers and now just a random collection of residences and a few empty commercial buildings.

Music Hall: trunk & chair

My mom has an antiques shop on the first floor of The Building, and a few years ago the family came together to clean up the upstairs for use as a music hall. The upstairs has seen a lot of action; it was even used as a basketball court when the place was, very briefly, a school. Before those giant windows were boarded up and the place was used for decades of storage (and a home for generations of birds, which proved to be disgusting beyond words), it was a function hall, as they say here in New England. Rumor has it that one hundred or so years ago, things got pretty wild in Mutual. So wild, in fact, that the deed to the building contains the clause that no alcohol can be served on the premises, ever and in perpetuity.

I was in Ohio a few weeks ago and took some photos of what is now the Madden Road Music Hall in repose, with just the faintest echo of loud music, basketball games and wild farmer parties.

Obsessions: One Rock at a Time

The fact is: most of us will enter and leave this world without making much of a mark beyond the circle of our immediate friends and family. In light of this, it is startling to drive to a nondescript street in Springfield, Ohio — the city where my brother lives with his family — and wander around the backyard of 1905 Russel Avenue, the former home of Ben Hartman, who died in 1944, and see the mark this foundry worker made, which has now outlasted the span of his lifetime by several decades.

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Laid off from his job in 1932, Ben Hartman began fiddling with building things from cement and small stones in his backyard to keep busy. Even after he went back to work in 1937, he kept building and building and building, extending his scope from the original project of a cement fishing pond to creating dozens of structures and little figures with patriotism, religion, historical events and historical places as his themes. After Ben Hartman died his wife Mary tended the rock garden, which also included extensive flower beds, for the next 53 years. Mary encouraged visitors to stroll along Ben’s concrete paths — many of which he embedded with messages spelled out in small stones — just outside her back door. Mary passed away in 1997 and the rock garden began to fall into disrepair until 2008, when the amazing Kohler Foundation stepped in and restored the gardens, transferring ownership to the non-profit Friends of the Hartman Rock Garden, now responsible for maintaining the site.

One of the many great aspects of the Kohler Foundation’s restoration is that they kept the spirit of the garden intact, offering interpretive materials for anyone who wants them, but avoiding the sense that this is some sort of rarified museum experience and clobbering the viewer with the site’s significance. The Hartman Rock Garden is true folk art, which by definition means it exists outside of the Academy, and what a relief that is, at least in this case.

The Garden gives the same feeling to a visitor today that it offered to someone strolling through the site decades ago: the strange, almost eerie sensation of stumbling onto a tiny plot in a random place that somehow manages to contain a world of beauty, sadness and moral certainty — an entire world created by a single man, one rock at a time.

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Sun setting behind the garden

The Cathedral

A depiction of a store in Springfield

Fort Dearborn in tiny stones

Tiny rock garden cemetary

a huge wall built of tiny stones

Door to the Cathedral

classical architecture in the backyard

Sidewalk words, buried by the snow

Noah's Ark

Cupola in the snow

Hart. Man.

the garden at sunset

God. Country. Church.

I visited the Hartman Rock Garden after a snowfall, which gave everything a monochromatic quality, heightening the almost universal grayness of the world in winter. In another season the garden, like the world itself, is a much more colorful place, and I plan to view it again in a different light altogether.  For more extensive information on the Hartman Rock Garden, photos of Ben Hartman and more, check out the garden’s website, hartmanrockgarden.org

Events: Madden Road MusicFest

I grew up in Ohio, one of six kids (number five, for those of you who believe birth order holds significance). My family sang together. At home, in the car, at church. These days my siblings are scattered from Mumbai, India to Mutual, Ohio — with a brother in Berlin along the way — so opportunities to make music together are few and far between. A few members of my family decided to put together the Madden Road MusicFest over the Labor Day weekend, giving the rest of us a little musical incentive to come home again. My brother, along with his band (composed of my nephews and niece) are the family members making music these days. So it makes sense that they host the festival, headlining the evening with their set of folk and Americana tunes, all of which were original songs written by my brother, except for his cover of Paradise County, a John Prine song that still makes me want to cry no matter how many times I hear it. The rest of the music at the festival was provided by a roster of talented singer-songwriters and bands, with a lineup that ranged from bluegrass to delta blues to indie rock to gospel.

We say that the Madden Road MusicFest is a micro-festival. It’s not intended to be a big operation — the Music Hall above my mom’s antique shop, the site of the festival, can only hold 120 people or so — and it’s not intended to be slick and polished. Madden Road MusicFest is designed to be a family gathering at heart, with an open invitation for likeminded souls to join us for a day of good food and good music. Not to sound overly sentimental, but the plan for creating a music-centered extended family reunion worked, with cousins from Virginia, Chicago and Washington D.C. making the trek to our little shindig. Even our 96-year-old grandma stopped by for a few songs and a piece of apple pie from the Screen Door Bakery. Which was the name we gave to the old screen door we used as a backdrop for a vintage bakery rack (stolen from my mom’s antiques shop) packed with homemade cookies and pie. There was other food on offer as well, provided by my sister Amy and her family, who ran the Madden Road MusicFest food booth, serving up homemade grilled pizzas topped with vegetables that Amy grew on the family farm, just a mile up the road. And Amy also managed to put together a produce stand with her butternut squash, zucchini and pumpkins with MRMF in raised letters, carved right into the surface.

The day was long, and hot — if the intermittent rain didn’t get you wet, the sweat making rivulets down your face would do the job — but no one complained. Everyone was too busy recalling just how good it is to pry ourselves from our screens and earphones and take some time to eat real food while listening to real people make music, all of us part of the same family, if only for a day.

All photos courtesy of Adam Caouette.

For more on the bands pictured — Daniel Dye & the Miller Road Band, Todd the Fox & Lisa Bunny, William the Accountant — along with the rest of the festival musicians, check out the links on the festival website: www.maddenroadmusic.com.

Better to Have Loved & Lost. I Guess.

Spotted in Elle Decor: an image (shown above) of antique maps hanging in a bathroom. My heart skipped a beat. It was like seeing a long lost love. A love that has moved beyond you and is now tripping happily along in a new, perfect life, a life in which even the bathroom looks amazing.

I used to have an antique map just like the ones in the picture. It was incredibly cool, a topographical map published in 1888, made of papier mache, with mountain ranges depicted as tiny sculptures, and set in a carved wood frame. The frame had a groove on one side and a lip on the other — the maps were intended to be mounted in a series, each one attached to the next, lining the walls of a school room where 19th century students most likely failed to fully appreciate the craftsmanship of these sepia-toned pieces.

I bought the map at a church rummage sale, when I was 12 years old. Two maps were in the parking lot of the church, mixed in with the usual jumble of cast-off clothes and plastic toys. One map depicted the continent of Africa and another the United States. As I was one of those income-free 12-year-olds (in the old days, before our current era of pre-adolescent internet entrepreneurs), I could scrape together just 10 dollars, the cost of one of the maps. I remember standing there agonizing between the two and for years I felt guilty leaving one behind, as though I had separated siblings. In the end I chose the map of the U.S., as not only did this make sense geographically speaking, it was manufactured in the days before the West was fully tamed. An entire region of the map was simply called “Indian Territory”. How compelling is that to a 12-year-old? And the map became the centerpiece of my bedroom, for a full decade at least, until we had a house fire.

Which the map survived. I managed to save it, not from the flames, which never came near it, but from the truly alarming amounts of water our enthusiastic volunteer fire brigade poured on whatever was left of the house. Months passed and finally, the day came when my parents moved back in the rebuilt house. I was living in an off-campus apartment at the time, in a place too temporary to deserve the map, so I brought it back, to that worthiest of habitations: the family home. I was carrying the map inside when I set it on the new porch, intending to do so just for a moment while I figured out just where to put it. I had entered that decorative limbo of early adulthood: my mom doesn’t want my stuff, I don’t have anywhere to put my stuff, so where does my stuff go? I went inside the freshly drywalled house, got a drink of water, took a nap, had a bout of self-pity — no, I don’t know what I did, but I do know that I left the map outside long enough for it to be destroyed, not by fire, or water, or any other element, but by a litter of 8-week-old puppies. Puppies who were now capable of making their charming way from the barn to the porch, and capable of descending on an antique map in a sort of feeding frenzy. Puppies can achieve a shocking level of destruction, as anyone who has left a lonely young dog home alone with upholstery has realized. A whole pack of them provides a sort of epic annihilation.

It was bizarre to come outside and see pieces of the map, chewed into bits, some parts half-digested and strewn over several feet, and feel such intense sorrow.  For me, the weight of the loss of this single item seemed to bear the burden of the loss of what had been an entire house, which either means I’m extremely self-centered or hadn’t yet connected with the reality of losing most of my childhood home, and, for that matter, the childhood home of members of my family extending all the way back into the 19th century. Before my map was even created, when a term like Indian Territory carried real meaning.

Old things are both a solid link to the past and utterly ephemeral, just like us. Like the people who carry those same things from place to place, house to house, attempting to save them from destruction and always, in the end, failing. I’m glad I had that map, if only for a little while, and I’m glad I couldn’t afford to buy both of the maps I saw that day at the rummage sale. It comforts me to think that the other antique map lives on, in a happier place, where the bathrooms are large and the all-consuming forces of flames and puppies are held at bay, if only for a little while longer.

Fresh Discoveries in a Familiar Place

You know how you think you know a place? Then you discover that the place you thought you had a handle on is full of surprises, unexpected turns that cover never-before-seen territory. This happened to me as I wandered through the town of Urbana, Ohio, a place 6 miles up the road from the house where I grew up. I went to school in Urbana, to church there, to Kmart before it was squashed by the behemoth that is Walmart. And when Walmart came to town, I (reluctantly) went to Walmart in Urbana. We went downtown regularly and witnessed, along with every other small town American, its demise, store by store — except for the hearty few which managed to hang on. So I thought I knew the town by heart.

When I visited my family in Ohio in August, my mom said “We have to go to Urbana”. Sure, I thought. I could always use a trip to Walmart. But my mom didn’t intend to head into that particular den of iniquity; she actually wanted to go to downtown Urbana. Urbana has many of the ingredients that make up the ideal of small town middle class life, one of which is a cinema downtown still plugging away (which feels like a minor miracle). Still, it has struggled to find an identity, a way to set itself apart from every other place in rural America that suffers from the malaise of the car. Meaning: to the rural American with an automobile, there is always a better place to go, just a little further up the road. Every small town that used to be an entire, humming, economic engine is now just a place you drive through on the way to the mall.

But downtown Urbana is finding its way, and maybe its identity (besides being a generally great place to live), its new economic engine, will be driven by visitors coming in droves to check out all the stores selling antiques and vintage pieces. Where once there were two, now there are…I don’t know, I lost count. There were several great shops. The store I would personally spend the most cash in is called Fruit Salad Antiques, and it was just my kind of happy jumble, full of all sorts of fascinating odds & ends. One could go there three times a week and come away with something unexpected each time.

The most compelling store in terms of the setup was called The Boston (a nod to the name of the old department store which originally inhabited the space). While the downstairs was conventional, if quite nice, in its antique mall layout, the upstairs of of the store was the real treat, carved out of the upper floors of two old buildings. And by carved I mean that the space wasn’t really remodeled, rather, the old rooms, which look as though they were part of an rooming house, were kept intact — shredded wallpaper, pocked floors, lathes showing through cracked plaster and all. A series of naked lightbulbs lead you down a hallway which is decked out to look like a reimagined 19th century sidewalk, every room off the hallway has a different theme and every room was over the top. The whole place was imaginative, bizarre, and decidedly un-Midwestern. On the other end of the spectrum in the sense of refinement (though still decidedly un-Midwestern) was a discovery so surprising that I actually felt embarrassed when I walked into the store, so obvious my reaction of blatant amazement. I went into a shop called ben and me only to find a store that would be perfectly comfortable existing in say, New York. I mean New York, New York. It’s as though I was seeing the flattening effects (to make an un-intellectual use of the Thomas Friedman phrase) of globalism in Urbana, Ohio. A store like this one, so design-y, wouldn’t have been imaginable here just a few years ago. I suppose we should thank the Internet, which has made it possible to set up a life anywhere you want, as long as you have a secondary, successful life online (which the owner of ben and me does, as she’s an Interior Designer, with projects beyond Urbana). It was an invigorating, cheerful trip to a beautiful small town that has updated its charm for the 21st century by speaking to the timelessness of antiques and good design.

Apologies in advance for the photos: my camera has moisture in it, which I failed to realize until I took these terrible pictures. Be sure to check out The Boston and ben and me online for a better sense of both shops.

The hallway at The Boston

A room at The Boston, with fragments of the original wallpaper.

Another room, another mood at The Boston

Another view of the hallway at The Boston

Joni, the Interior Designer of the store ben and me interiors.

From New England to Ohio: Everybody Loves a Banjo

Tuning up in between sets in the Madden Road music hall.

It is my deeply held belief, after growing up in Ohio and living much of my adult life in Massachusetts, that New Englanders and Midwesterners have a lot more in common than they realize. Maybe the populations of each respective state go in opposite directions at the voting booth (somebody has to vote for the other guy, right?) or fail to place quite the same premium on organic food, or the same premium on going to church, or…well, you get the picture. But what most of us fail to understand is that most Midwesterners are just New Englanders at heart, a few generations removed. My people, for instance, came from New Hampshire, just over the Massachusetts border, and my own grandfather was as Yankee as it is possible to be, cardigans and all — even though he was, technically-speaking, a born and bred Ohioan. As Midwesterners, our puritanical ways are your puritanical ways, only without the sophisticated veneer that people in New England have developed over the last hundred years or so, a polish on what used to be a hard way of life that involved livestock and growing food and a lot of Bible-reading, the things that occupied yesterday’s New Englanders every bit as much as they are perceived to occupy today’s Ohioans.

So when I go back to Ohio to participate in some sort of down-home activity, like hosting a local music festival, I don’t feel all that far removed from my life in Massachusetts. Everyone in New England loves the banjo as much as anybody back in Ohio — even if they’ve forgotten this fact. Making music, especially making music with acoustic instruments, takes all of us, every one of us, back to another time — a time when we had much more in common than we seem to have now. I realize this sounds overly simplistic, and no doubt it is, but there is an unmistakable ring of truth to it, especially when you feel the power of music in a setting that brings people together of different ages, political persuasions and even musical tastes — which is what happened at the festival in Ohio.

The 2011 Madden Road MusicFest took place on September 3rd in a little crossroads of a town called Mutual. We had a great time hanging out with old friends and strangers who came to make music. A few country touches (sunflowers and straw bales for seats) along with a building that served as a music hall in the perfect state of dereliction — somewhere between poetic and unsafe — made the day feel like it was supposed to feel: a community made of up individuals, usually cocooned inside their houses watching TV, coming together to make music, hang out, and eat grilled cheese sandwiches made with homemade bread, Amish cheese, and garden-fresh tomatoes and basil. And the tomatoes and basil were organic of course. See how much we have in common?

For a great summary of the day, check out this lovely post from the blog Champaign Uncorked.

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Madden Road MusicFest photos courtesy of Allison Marie Photography, Adam Caouette and Tiffany Eckhardt.