Back to the Blues, Part I

Last week folklorist Bill Ferris gave a lecture at the Library of Congress in support of his new book, Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues (2009, The University of North Carolina Press). I hadn’t really thought about how much of an influence a brief 1988 meeting with Bill in his University of Mississippi office had on my career until after his lecture ended. In the summer of 1988 I was documenting folk artists in Arkansas and my background research for the project included meeting with folks who had worked there and regionally before my arrival. Bill Ferris was one of the people and Jim O’Neal, founding editor of Living Blues magazine, was another.

I ultimately didn’t get around to documenting a whole lot of artists before leaving Arkansas to return to grad school at Penn, but I did get to do some incredible fieldwork that exposed me to Delta blues culture. I went on to write about blues culture and heritage tourism in a 1992 article, “The Helena Blues: African-American Folk Music and Cultural Tourism in Helena, Arkansas” (Southern Folklore 49, no. 2: 133-46). I also found a way to help pay for school by writing about blues (and other) musicians for several newspapers and magazines. I wrote about zydeco musician Chubby Carrier for Living Blues magazine and did interviews for the Charlotte Observer, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Great contacts with Knight-Ridder newspaper chain entertainment editors provided me with a pipeline to the chain’s wire service and my articles were picked up by newspapers from New York City to Chicago to Portland.

In the meantime I was still trying to finish my doctoral program in Folklore and Folklife at Penn. In addition to the courses tied to my area of concentration, material culture and vernacular architecture, I took ethnomusicology classes and worked as a research assistant for an ethnomusicologist writing on the history of African American spirituals. In 1992 I decided to write a class paper on the body of legends that grew up around guitarist Robert Johnson (1911-1938). I didn’t want to confine my research to the library so I called up some musicians who knew Johnson some younger artists who were influenced by his music and I interviewed them for the paper. I also could draw on interviews I had done with artists who knew Johnson but who had died prior to 1992 (see Back to the Blues, Part II).

Bill Ferris’s lecture and book got me thinking about all of the old analog recordings I have lying around. I decided to try and take some of the recordings — some were done in crowded bars,  backstage at performances, and by phone for newspaper articles to be run in advance of gigs — and find some new life for them on the Web. My first effort, the Ziggy’s Blues Web site, was up from 1995 through 2006 and it had the copy from several of my newspaper articles. Ziggy’s Blues used to be available at the Internet Archive until aftermarket domain name thieves entrepreneurs got a hold of my old domain because I let the registration lapse. Ziggy’s Blues was listed in early books documenting blues on the Web and I’d like to think it was how New York Times writer Jon Pareles found my interview with John Lee Hooker to quote in Hooker’s 2001 obituary.

My latest effort is to try and combine photos I shot in the field and on assignment with the recordings to create media for distribution on the Web. First out of the can are excerpts from my 1991 interviews with B.B. King which were done in Atlanta, Georgia. The clip is available at my Facebook page:!/video/video.php?v=1365878913118&ref=nf.

Historic Preservation in Montgomery County

Although I am no longer chairman of the Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission (as of Tuesday 23 February 2010), I can still help folks understand the benefits and costs of historic preservation in their local communities. Back in 2008 while I was the HPC vice-chair I wrote an article for my neighborhood’s civic association newsletter detailing how the County’s historic preservation law works. The link to the PDF is here:  How MoCo’s Historic Preservation Program Works <>. The PDF is free to distribute.

Montgomery County’s Historic Preservation Program
David S. Rotenstein

First things first: The Montgomery County Historic Preservation Commission does not have the authority to tell people who own properties designated as historic under county law what color to paint their walls or where their living room furniture may be placed. Since 1979 Montgomery County has had a law on the books – codified under Chapter 24A for those brave enough to navigate the legalese – defining the legal standards for what may be determined historic, the process by which a property is designated, and the regulatory framework for ensuring the protection of designated properties. The historic preservation ordinance created the Historic Preservation Commission and paved the way for staffing units in the Planning and Parks departments housed in the Maryland National Capital Parks and Planning Commission who document and ensure the protection of the county’s archaeological, architectural, and cultural landscapes that make Montgomery County unique.

Montgomery County’s historic preservation program is like hundreds of others throughout the nation at the county and municipal level. It is based on federal historic preservation programs administered by the National Park Service. The National Park Service administers the nation’s honorific inventory of important historic and prehistoric places known as the National Register of Historic Places. To be listed in the National Register a building, site, structure, or object (e.g., a statue or a historic ship) must meet one or more criteria. Properties may be listed because of their association with significant individuals; they may be important because they reflect important periods in history or an important event occurred there; they may be architecturally significant; or, they may have archaeological significance. Maryland also has its own inventory program known as the Maryland Inventory of Historic Properties.

County law establishes two basic categories of historical significance: historical and cultural significance and architectural and design significance. Montgomery County’s inventory of historic properties is known as the Master Plan for Historic Preservation. To be listed in the Master Plan (or in an intermediate classification known as the Locational Atlas and Index of Historic Sites), an individual property or a district of related properties must be evaluated against the county’s criteria. This evaluation process involves the completion of an inventory form that includes historical information about the property as well as detailed descriptions of its architecture and environmental setting. Anyone – a property owner or a third party – can nominate a property to be designated in Montgomery County.

The inventory forms are submitted to the Planning Department’s Historic Preservation Section for review. Once an application has been found to be complete it is then brought before the Historic Preservation Commission – a nine-member volunteer board appointed by the County Executive composed of experts in architecture, history, and archaeology, as well as community representatives – which votes on whether the property meets one or more of the criteria for designation. While the County Council has the final say on whether a property is designated or not, the Planning Board votes whether to forward the designation to the Council with a recommendation to add a property to the Master Plan.

Once a property is listed in the Master Plan, it is subject to the regulatory oversight of the HPC and it becomes eligible for state and county tax credits for qualifying rehabilitation and restoration work. To make significant changes to a designated property, e.g., putting on a new roof, an addition, replacing windows, or demolishing an outbuilding, property owners must submit a Historic Area Work Permit that details the proposed work. The HPC then determines if the HAWP meets the standards established under county law and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. It is this process that is the least understood and most feared by communities. Generally speaking, the standards work to maintain community character by preventing teardowns and McMansionization; property values remain stable or increase in historic areas; and, contrary to popular belief, the rules for designated historic properties are significantly less restrictive than most homeowners assocations which dictate paint color, and landscaping among other things.

In our community there is one property that is designated in the Master Plan for Historic Preservation. Holly View, an antebellum vernacular farmhouse at 130 Kinsman View Circle, was designated in 1979. Nearby, just south of University Boulevard, is the county’s smallest historic district. The Polychrome Houses Historic District consists of five Art Deco-style houses fronting Colesville and Sutherland roads. Built between 1934 and 1936, this district is also listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

Before 1996, there also were several properties in the Four Corners area that were listed in the Locational Atlas. The former William Read house at 507 Dennis Avenue, a frame house built in 1904, was found to have been significantly altered and the HPC and Planning Board recommended removing it from the Locational Atlas.

There currently are about twenty historic districts and four hundred individually-designated Master Plan historic properties. These include properties such as Bethesda’s Riley Farm (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) and Silver Spring’s Jesup Blair House, both of which are county-owned. There are many properties that have historical and architectural significance in Montgomery County have not yet been evaluated. Among these are properties in the North Four Corners area, including early homes in the Northwood Park subdivision (1936-1939) and perhaps even the 1950s faux log cabin recreation building in North Four Corners Park.

Montgomery County’s historic preservation program relies on active public involvement by individual citizens and community groups. For more information on how the program works and to view an interactive map with the entire inventory of the county’s designated properties, go to the Historic Preservation Web site at:

Confronting the Covenants: Hidden Racism at Home

NPR’s Morning Edition this past Sunday included a segment on racially restrictive deed covenants <>. NPR noted that the covenants were not legally enforceable and that they were widespread throughout the United States.

Robert Fogelson, author of Bourgeois Nightmares: Suburbia, 1870-1930, discussed restrictive covenants at length. Other authors on the history and sociology of American suburbs also have written on restrictive covenants. In my work over the past 25 years I have done projects in quintessential American suburbs that involved primary documents research, including land records (deeds, etc.). These communities include Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Chevy Chase (Maryland and the District of Columbia).

I live and work in Silver Spring, a Washington suburb. My subdivision, Northwood Park, was created in 1936 and my home was built in the subdivision’s first year of existence. When we bought the house in 2002 our deed contained all the expected legalese, along with the clause, “Subject to covenants and restrictions of record.” It wasn’t until I began doing some research on the history of our subdivision that I discovered that some of those covenants and restrictions prohibited anyone of a “race whose death rate is at a higher rate than that of the White or Caucasian race.” Put in place in a stand-alone document recorded in Montgomery County land records, they were executed, “For the purposes of sanitation and health, and to prevent irreparable injury to Waldo M. Ward [the majority landowner] … and the owners of adjacent real estate.” Garden Homes, the company selling the lots and homes, executed the covenants almost six months after the first sales and signatories to the covenants included all of the people who had bought property up to that point.

Northwood Park is the subject of my paper in progress, “ The Greatest Publicity Stunt Available to Developers”: Washington’s 1939 World’s Fair Home.”

1936 Restrictive Covenants filed for Northwood Park (click to enlarge).

Marketing Modernism in the D.C. Suburbs

Images from "The Greatest Publicity Stunt Available to Developers’

The Vernacular Architecture Forum’s 2010 Washington conference is taking shape and the paper sessions have  been announced. My paper,  “The Greatest Publicity Stunt Available to Developers”: Washington’s 1939 World’s Fair Home, is scheduled for the 10:30 session, “Marketing Modernism”. This post has more historical and contemporary images of the 1939 World’s Fair Home built in Silver Spring, just north of the D.C. line.

From the paper abstract: By 1939 suburban subdivisions were a familiar element in the American landscape. The spurious suburb created in the 1939 New York World’s Fair Town of Tomorrow offered visitors a sampler of tradition and innovation packaged for consumers just beginning to emerge from the depths of economic depression. Shortly before the Fair opened in the spring of 1939 Washington, D.C., subdivider and developer Garden Homes, Inc., secured the rights to use the Fair Corporation’s name and the plans to one of the 15 demonstration homes from the Town of Tomorrow. Designed by New York architects Godwin, Thompson and Patterson and sponsored by the Johns-Manville Corporation, House No. 15, the Long Island Colonial Home, became Garden Homes’ 1939 marketing centerpiece in Northwood Park, the Silver Spring, Maryland, subdivision located less than three miles north of the District of Columbia.