Monday, March 8, 2010

Come Crashin' Down

This morning I headed out to campus, taking the westerly route through our old neighborhood. As I rounded the corner onto Country Club Blvd, I heard an explosive sound. It sounded like tearing and screeching,so I thought a car had run the stop sign up ahead and hit another car. Mind you, this all happened within a nanosecond. When I looked up, I caught sight of the origin of all that noise. I just hollered out, "Holy Crap!" I could not believe my eyes.

All winter long, as the snow has been piling up on everyone's roof, the ice dam on this house has taken the prize. The weight of the buildup of ice was bending the rain gutter across the front of the porch roof and every time we drove by, one of us would comment on its crushing weight. Well today it all came crashing down. When I looked up, I caught the front left corner falling down into the shrubbery.
The weight of the ice was too heavy for this overhang to carry any longer.

An older couple has lived in the house for as long as I can remember. When we lived on Storm Street around the corner, I always thought this was the most beautiful property in the area. It turns out that this was the home place of the man who put the Landscape Architecture program at Iowa State University on the map nationally. Philip Homer Elwood.

Before I started the program in the Fall of 2007, I spent one summer day up on the 4th floor of Parks Library in Special Collections. I had read his name somewhere and wanted to read more about him and the history of the department. P.H. Elwood was born and raised in upstate New York, but came to Iowa from a prestigious New York City firm to leave his stamp on the Midwest. He wrote a column in the local paper and he had a weekly radio program on WOI-Radio broadcast from ISC campus. He served on numerous campus committees and offered short courses in farmstead design and home garden layout through the Extension Service. He worked for the federal government, the State of Iowa, and consulted for the city of Ames. Saturday I found a beautifully ornate master plan for the Ames Arboretum which he designed. I believe his training was in engineering and when he was in Europe during the war, he designed a military cemetery in France at Argonne.

My favorite stories about this man were those where he would lead his students from the Landscape Architecture building (the old horse barn up until remodeling in the late 30's made it into our program's first stand-alone building) out into the 4th Ward to do field work. His plant walks brought these young people to our neighborhood. They conducted tree inventories for the city and he held sketching class along the tree-lined streets of Lynn, Donald, Knapp, and Ash Avenue, the street where he lived. I came across an article in Horizons, a journal published seasonally by the LA students, describing the annual Sunday afternoon tea hosted by Professor and Mrs. Elwood. One student wrote about the lovely arrangement of the rooms in the house pictured above. They commented on the fine furniture and luxurious rugs upon the floors.

Elwood loved to travel and made regular journeys to the Far East with students in tow to study Asian architecture and landscapes. Several weeks ago I walked over to the intramural field which sits south of the former Elwood home and stood looking over the fence into this garden. PH Elwood's garden after all these 60 or 70 years still reflects this Asian influence.

He also would depart Ames early summer after the end of the term with a carload or two of students and head west. They traveled through the national parks and eventually ended up in California to visit several land arch firms on the west coast. They camped along the way and some of the photos showed tents, camping gear, and all the rag-tag stuff that goes along on these road trips.

Today our program is unique in that it offers the Savanna Studio for 2nd year students. They take off for 3 weeks in September and head north to the Boundary Waters, or north and west to Yellowstone. They return to Ames long enough to do laundry and stock up for another 3 weeks. This time they head south along the Mississippi River, all the way to Texas, Louisiana, and into Mexico. The tradition of Savanna Studio puts these new students out into the landscape sketching, grading, painting, and experiencing landforms with the bottom of their boots. They bond whether they want to or not; fifteen-passenger vans carry these young adults, dirty feet and all, 24/7 for 21 days. They canoe, portage, and camp under the stars, rain, and even snow. It is a life-changing experience and a great beginning into this program of the architecture of landscape.

Too bad about his house.

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