Thursday, December 23, 2010

Images of Monrovia from A Land and Life Remembered

The book A Land and Life Remembered, which has been discussed extensively in the last two posts, focuses mainly on the original settler townships in Grand Bassa County (Hartford, Fortsville, and Edina) and the St. Paul River area (White Plains, Millsburg, Clay-Ashland, Crozierville, and Arthington). Monrovia is mentioned only in passing, despite having probably the largest stock of historic architecture in the country.

As mentioned previously, the field trips were taken between 1977 and 1986, and in the best of circumstances it would be reasonable to expect some of the structures featured would be lost, as many of them had nearly collapsed a quarter century ago, and there no historical preservation restrictions even today. This is quite aside from the merciless effects of the war, through outright destruction or decades of neglect and abandonment in the merciless West African climate.

In my last post, I put up some pictures of Robertsport and Buchanan, with some existing houses built in the historical style, even if its unclear as to how historical the houses are themselves. The book does its best to provide information on the name of the family that owns the house, and approximates the date of the house's construction (although extensive remodeling makes this date a bit meaningless).

When it comes to Monrovia, however, a more specific street address would be useful. Arthington and Edina may be nothing more than a cluster of farmsteads, but Monrovia's many streets, as well as the extensive development and destruction of the last three decades, would make more location information helpful.

The book doesn't specify the exact location of the above house, but I don't really need to ask. I am pretty positive that this is the same building, on Front Street where it crosses Randall Street at an overpass:
I apologize for not having a better picture of the structure (one of those times when you assume you have a picture of something you've admired a thousand times, but when you go to find it, you realize you looked at it so much you never bothered to photograph it). The pitch of the roof and the two windows on the top floor are unmistakable; looks like something happened to the front porch. If that didn't give it away, Belcher's photograph shows the beginning of the underpass in the foreground.

Elsewhere in the book's plates is this double feature:
Not too sure about the Parker House, but I am absolutely sure that the Coleman house is on Coleman Hill, at the intersection of Front and Gurley Streets. The first time I encountered it, the weaping, creaking structure still had a waistcoat of gorgeous clay brick and a surprising amount of woodwork on the mansard windows:
This is the same house that I was distraught to suddenly discover raised to a pile of rubble at the beginning of 2010:
A travesty. I call this Monrovia's Penn Station. I asked someone about the house the day that I walked past the rubble and took these rather silly, forlorn shots of the heap of brick. they said it would be a better thing to have a new house there. So much for history.

Lastly, I have never seen this structure, and doubt that it is still standing, but I thought this freestanding kitchen on the old Executive Mansion grounds was pretty cool. I bet this place saw some palm butter in its day!

Doz Way Back Houses Dem (Settler Architecture, 2009)

Aside from generally appreciating the historic architecture of Liberia, I've never conducted my own investigation into the areas which A Land and Life Remembered covers. I've never explored the St. Paul river area; I've never been to Arthington, White Plans, Clay-Ashland, or the other hamlets along the riverbanks from the ocean to Mount Coffee.

I have been to Grand Bassa County, but I hadn't realized that I had been though the towns of Fortsville and Hartford, mentioned in the book, until later. I realized that I must have driven through them on the way to Buchanan last year when I looked at the map. Apart from what is in the architectural tour, I did take some photographs of some old-style houses in Robertsport, Buchanan and what I think is Hartford on my trips around Liberia in 2009. I'm no photographer, even when it comes to architecture, and I tend to like to oversaturate my photos in Liberia to give a sense of the atmospheric intensity:

Buchanan, Grand Bassa, April 2009
Buchanan, Grand Bassa, April 2009

Possibly Hartford, Grand Bassa, April 2009
Possibly Hartford, Grand Bassa, April 2009
Possibly Hartford, Grand Bassa, April 2009
Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount, April 2009
Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount, April 2009
Robertsport, Grand Cape Mount, April 2009

I always admired the antiquity and unique style of these houses, which look remarkable even in their teetering, unkempt state. Of course, its usually really difficult to ascertain just when they were built, and by who. Its also interesting that really no one seems to be building in this fashion now: almost all houses built in Liberia today are ranch-style, and out of concrete, which makes the structures that much more noticeable and remarkable to come across.

What I also find really intriguing, but is not discussed in the book or elsewhere, is the somewhat curious choice of zinc panels for the structures. In some ways, such as resisting rot and security, it might be desirable, but I just imagine that rolled metal would be a difficult building material to come by, especially, say, more than 50 years ago. Maybe these were originally wood-sided constructions (maybe the underlying structures are still wood), but at any point that metal sheeting was incorporated involved importing the material.

My inclination would be to undertake an exhaustive, multi-county survey to see what still stands, especially those properties featured in Max Belcher's photography. Given the hydra-headed scourge of war, looting, poverty, neglect, abandonment, tropical deterioration, and the complete lack of any sort of historical preservation movement, much less regulated restrictions, it is all the more incredible to come across a "Way Back" House, as my Liberian friends exclaim when we come across them.

I also wonder, given that Belcher's survey did not seem to cover anything north of Tubmanburg or south of Grand Bassa County, that no truly country-wide index of historic architecture has ever been covered. I've read Mississippi In Africa but I don't think I've ever seen a picture of Greenville, in any era. This also reminds me of Glenna's haunting photography from her many trips to Harper, which are not to be missed.

Moved 2 Montreal

Having recently finished my last post about photography of Liberia, in the late 1970s, involving Canada, It really hadn't occurred to me that I could continue posting on such a specific topic.

But then... I decided at the last minute to go to Montreal last weekend. Its obviously quite a different place from Monrovia: its big and built up and it was very, very cold when I was there, with plenty of snow already on the ground and enough still falling to keep the streets covered.

Therefore it was all the more startling to discover this in a wide, snow-blanketed courtyard just west of the skyscrapers of downtown:

The front of the Canadian Centre for Architecture was draped in an enormous black-and-white photograph of an historic house in Arthington, Liberia. It turns out that the museum has included the photo survey of Liberian settler architecture, taken by Max Belcher between 1977 and 1986, as part of its current exhibit, Journeys, on how architecture manifests the journey of ideas across the globe.

Beginning in 1977, Max Belcher journeyed to many of Liberia's historic American settlements, particularly along the St. Paul river and in Grand Bassa County, and photographed the historic homes there. He then traveled across the American South, looking for comparative architecture. He was able to draw a clear parallel in the architectural stylings that the original American settlers brought with them.

This project yielded a book, A Land and Life Remembered: Americo-Liberian Folk Architecture, which was published in 1988, with text by Svend E. Holsoe (one of the world's great Liberianophiles and founder of Friends of Liberia), and Bernard L. Herman. Herman summarized the project for the CCA's exhibition catalog.

The book is not currently in publication, and copies of which are for sale online for as much as $250.

Not only is the book a tremendous resource for the documentation of a rapidly deteriorating stock of historic structures, the timing of the project is rather incredible. The first series of Liberian expeditions took place prior to the Doe coup in 1980, and the entire publication was released in 1988, on the eve of more than a decade of civil war, which of course destroyed the entire country and probably more than a few of the delicate, dilapidated structures that the book documented.

©Max Belcher courtesy CCA.

I'm still not clear if Max Belcher's photographs are just a part of the Journeys exhibition or are actually part of the CCA's archives. From what I can tell, Belcher's photographs are part of his collection which is held by Duke. Either way, this whole project, with its incredible book and haunting, mythic photography is so exactly the kind of thing that I like, and love talking about on this blog, that at one point a momentarily considered scanning the whole book page by page. Instead, I've started expanding on some of the more specific tangents about the project in separate posts to follow soon. In the meantime, I recommend visiting Montreal in general and the Canadian Centre for Architecture in particular, especially between now and March when this exhibit is on and the halls of one gallery feature black-and-white portraits of the grand houses of old Liberia.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Liberia '77

Liberia '77 - 60 sec from liberia '77 on Vimeo.

Liberia '77 is a documentary project by two Canadian brothers, Jeff and Andrew Topham, who grew up in Liberia in the 1970s, and who returned recently, making a film of the story.

This beautiful project is just the sort of work that I geek out on. I was so excited when I happened to discover the site recently, that I have to admit I was almost upset that I hadn't known about it before. I haven't even had a chance to see the documentary yet.

The Liberia '77 website also has a gallery of vintage and contemporary photography, and this is where its really engaging. Some of the older photographs are just arresting-- especially the black-and-white snapshot of two girls running across a smoothly-paved Broad Street, thirty-three years ago (notice that the building on the corner was called the Palm Hotel even back then! KLM sign is also recognizable behind the parked car).

Equally intriguing but far more devastating is the juxtaposition of the family house: on the left, a manicured tropical bungalow, on the right, an overgrown archaeological shell. Same structure, decades apart. It makes me wonder what so many other bombed-out ruins around Monrovia looked like in their prime.

Also, elsewhere on the site, note the Ellen-backed drive to assemble a national photo archive and one of the brothers talking about the regrettable state of the National Museum. So right! Would love to be a part of this, and I hope a lot of others within the Diaspora and among the ex-pat community would be able to assist. There are a lot of other people out there who are not only taking beautiful pictures now, and who care about Liberia's history.

A Request from the President from liberia '77 on Vimeo.

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