So, About King George . . .

1774 was a pretty big year for George Washington. He co-authored a call for the recognition of the fundamental rights of colonial British citizens in the midst of fallout from the Boston tea party. He did some important Continental Congressing. And he built a pretty fantastic porch onto his ever-expanding house.

That’s a great porch. Mount Vernon.
By Martin Falbisoner – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28359040

Washington designed the two-story piazza at Mount Vernon to look out over the Potomac and catch a breeze off the river on a hot Virginia summer day. It’s where he often welcomed guests and served lemonade to friends seated in Windsor chairs, while grumbling about King George III.

The piazza was not an entirely unique structure. The iconic columns were based on the designs of Englishman Batty Langley, and the idea of an expansive outdoor space connected to a home has roots in Ancient Greece. But prior to Washington’s porch addition, such an expansive space was uncommon in America. It inspired some copycats.

The popularity of the porch has waxed and waned a bit throughout the history of the United States, reaching its height between 1880 and through the 1920s, when people sat in the evening to catch a cool breeze, wave hello to a neighbor strolling by, or even invite a friend to sit for a spell and enjoy a glass of lemonade while the kids played together in the front yard.

Another great porch!
Image by Gretta Blankenship from Pixabay

Then as the family began to gather in the evenings around the radio and later the television, porches began to sit empty a little more often. Pretty soon, house designs became less likely to feature a front porch, or at least certainly not a wide one with columns and a porch swing, or even a collection of simple Windsor chairs. Still, although we may have gotten a little distracted, I don’t think the appeal of the front porch has ever really gone away.

I have an embarrassing confession to make. I love watching real estate shows on HGTV. I’m sure you know the ones. I heard them described once as those shows where people want to buy a house and then they do. There are a lot of versions—House Hunters, Tiny House Hunters, Hunters Off the Grid, My First Place, Lakefront Bargain Hunt, House Hunters on Vacation, etc.

I have to assume the show just fails to mention that at least one of the buyers is also the sole heir to the fortune of his elderly Uncle Moneybags. I hope. photo credit: Gino Barista via photopin (license)photo credit: Gino Barista via photopin (license)

I love them all, from the introduction in which we’re told that she’s a preschool teacher and he’s a part-time barista at Starbucks and that they have a budget of $4.7 million for their second home in Southern California, to the moment this couple with highly questionable financial judgement makes the wrong choice.

I love seeing the houses and thinking about the priorities of the buyers. I appreciate seeing how home considerations vary in different parts of the world. And though I’m happy with my home, I like dreaming about what I might be looking for in a house several years from now when my family enters a different phase of life.

I’ve noticed one thing that remains fairly consistent in the episodes. The majority of these home buyers, regardless of budget or location, are looking for great views, outdoor space, and a gathering spot. In all the episodes I’ve watched (a truly embarrassing number), not once have I seen a potential home buyer make a negative comment about a porch. In fact, they are overwhelmingly positive about such spaces and often spin dreams of hosting friends and neighbors on mild summer evenings with glasses of lemonade while the kids play together in the front yard.

I could go for some of that.
Image by graywendya from Pixabay

My current house doesn’t have much of a front porch, but many of the homes in my neighborhood do, and over the last many months of pandemic and social distancing, I’ve seen more neighbors sitting on them, waving hello to passersby.

The front porch seems to be experiencing a resurgence, I think probably because we humans miss each other. Social distance, that has at times felt more like isolation, has made us realize that even if we don’t always agree or sometimes get annoyed by one another, we really benefit from face-to-face interaction.

And outdoor spaces remain some of the safest places to spend time with others. A great big, expansive porch with simple, individual Windsor chairs will fit the bill. So, grab a glass of lemonade and sit on the porch with me. We probably still can’t share a swing, but we’ll catch a breeze and chat. We might even complain about King George and that ridiculously catchy song from Hamilton that’s been stuck in our heads for months.

Everybody . . .

More Brains than Any Two Engineers

January 18, 1865 Washington Roebling, a colonel in the Union army and a trained engineer, married his sweetheart Emily Warren. Then when the war ended, the two went on a honeymoon tour of Europe with a slightly nerdy twist.

Emily Roebling
Emily did give birth to the couple’s only son in 1867 so I suppose engineering wasn’t the ONLY thing they did on their honeymoon. Carolus-Duran / Public domain

Washington’s father, John Augustus Roebling, had built a pretty big name for himself in the field of suspension bridge construction and his plan to span the East River between Manhattan and Brooklyn had been given the green light by the State of New York. Washington and his new bride decided that while they were honeymooning, they might as well do some research into the newfangled caissons that were all the rage among European engineers.

In case, like me, you didn’t spend your honeymoon studying engineering, a caisson is a watertight container that allows work to be completed underwater by pumping in compressed air and keeping water out. It’s awfully useful for building the foundation of a bridge over a river.

While the newlyweds picked up some pointers, the elder Roebling worked on finishing up his measurements before construction could begin. Unfortunately, he sustained an injury in the process and required amputation of a foot. And that led to the tetanus infection that quickly killed him.

It also brought an end to a fairytale engineering tour of Europe. Washington rushed home to take his father’s place as head engineer on the Brooklyn Bridge project. He was great at it, too, leading his men by working alongside them, even taking his turn in the caissons, where he soon realized that working in compressed air can prove dangerous.

caisson
Inside views of the East River Bridge caisson, Brooklyn, N.Y. 1870. Miscellaneous Items in High Demand, PPOC, Library of Congress / Public domain

He suffered with what divers, and presumably also those in the bridge construction business, now know as the bends, or decompression sickness, in which your body doesn’t react particularly well to the large amount of nitrogen dissolved in your blood after breathing compressed air for a while.

Decompression sickness can be prevented, now that we know what it is and what causes it, but Washington didn’t have the benefit of that information and wound up partially paralyzed, most likely the victim of multiple strokes, and unable to fulfil his role as lead engineer on the project.

That left only one Roebling, armed with a pretty good education for a woman of her day (which still wasn’t a great deal of education) and what relevant bridge-building knowledge she had managed to pick up on her honeymoon, to take up the charge.

Emily accepted the challenge.

She became the chief engineer, allegedly relaying daily instructions from her husband to the job site, updating and schmoozing with politicians, defending her husband’s position from competing engineers angling to take the project over, and soaking in all the knowledge she could about stress analysis and cable construction.

rooster
Maybe the rooster was a lucky bridge-crossing companion because he already had so much experience crossing the road? via Pixabay

When the Brooklyn Bridge finally opened on May 24, 1883 the first carriage to cross it carried Emily Warren Roebling with a lucky rooster held on her lap. Though she never publicly claimed to be anything more than a mouthpiece for her husband, in a private letter to her son she wrote: “I have more brains, common sense, and know-how generally than any two engineers, civil or uncivil, that I have ever met.”

And she was probably right. In the years following the Brooklyn Bridge project, Emily Roebling earned a law degree and became active in numerous organizations, always seeking ways to promote women’s education and women’s equality.

tacoma bridge
A suspension bridge built by engineers not supervised by Emily Warren Roebling. Tacoma Narrows Bridge failure (1940).

But I came across her while researching the opening location of my novel Smoke Rose to Heaven, which occurs briefly in the shadow of a burgeoning bridge that would become, for a time, the longest structure of its kind in the world. I first met Emily Roebling as the Chief Not-Technically-An-Engineer who successfully completed the project begun by her father-in-law and who now has a street block in Brooklyn named in her honor.

She was my kind of woman—the kind who does what she needs to do to get done what needs to get done and doesn’t bother asking anyone whether or not she can. She’s the kind of woman I want to be and the kind I want to celebrate this upcoming Sunday March 8 when we recognize International Women’s Day. Fortunately, I know a lot of women like her.