Notre Dame on Good Friday

When the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral went up in flames this week I thought immediately of the book I’ve been reading in the evenings for the past few weeks, J.W. Mackail’s Life of William Morris. Morris was obsessed with Medieval architecture and visited Notre Dame and many other French churches on a trip in 1855. Later in his life Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (which still exists) as a response to the poorly considered renovations of Medieval buildings that grew out, ironically, of a Gothic revival movement during the Victorian era.

Morris’ believed that historical buildings should be kept in good repair and stabilized. As the University of Maryland describes his philosophy,

While the Gothic Revival drew renewed interest to the medieval aesthetic, some architects sought to restore old buildings to an ideal state by removing original detail and adding new construction- trends Ruskin and Morris both found troubling. Morris championed an alternative building preservation model based on retaining all surviving building fabric, no matter how flawed by the passage of time, while employing minimal, non-intrusive reinforcement of the existing infrastructure to prevent future damage. He coined the name, “Anti-Scrape Society” for the SPAB, a humorous shorthand that embodied his philosophy of honoring the artisans who constructed old buildings by preserving their work without alteration.

He would not have liked the 19th century spire that collapsed in the fire this week nor many of the other alterations that took place to Notre Dame in that period. I’m sure he’d also be worried about Macron and his fashion billionaire friends who have some alarming restoration notions. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail. Thankfully, Morris’ forward thinking ideas have become mainstream in the restoration world.

Ship of Theseus


The tragedy of this fire is also a reminder, as Nassim Taleb pointed out, that all building restoration efforts bring up an old philosophical paradox known as the Ship of Theseus. This thought experiment asks the question “If, during a journey, I replace all the planks of a ship do I arrive at my destination on the same ship or a different ship?” Anyone who has worked on an old building faces this weird ontological conundrum all the time. And the law can make this abstract thought experiment a confusing reality. Keep one wall of a building and a municipality will deem what is in reality an entirely new house a cheaper to permit remodeling. This can get absurd as in the flipper palace under construction in my neighborhood, seen in the photo above. It would have made for a much more interesting building had they kept that old wall rather than removing it as soon as the inspectors left.

Part of Morris’ philosophy is keeping earlier modifications intact so as to show the passage of time. Paradoxically that would mean leaving the surviving 19th century modifications to Notre Dame that he, no doubt, hated. Notre Dame has been altered and wrecked so many times that Ship of Theseus questions about how to fix the current damage will provide years of difficult architectural conundrums.

Framing the Frame Blog

Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), Professor Henry Rowland, 1897.

I remember going on a tour of an art museum once when, towards the end of the tour, the docent asked if anyone had any questions. One of the people on the tour, motioned towards the ornate gilded frames and asked about where they came from. The docent grimaced and I could tell that she thought this was a stupid question.

Giovanni Bellini, the Frari Triptych, 1488.

It’s not. It turns out that most artists of the past gave a lot of thought to the frames, often coming up with their own designs or collaborating with highly specialized woodworkers. I know about this though my discovery of a deliriously detailed and meticulously researched jewel of the internet: The Frame Blog. The blog is run by frame historian, Lynn Roberts and has over 45 contributors.

Don’t believe how important frames are? Just look at this post to see what happens when the frames go missing. And Roberts also likes to point out how important it is to include the frames when paintings are reproduced online or in books.

To go meta on this, the post-modernist in me thinks it’s important to look at the frames we put around everything, not just art. And, practically, I’ve been trying to make some of my own frames lately with a table saw jig and Frame Blog has been a source of inspiration (and humility as my frames look like they were made by Fred Flintstone by comparison).

The Frame Blog is one of the few gilded nodes on the internet’s tarnished tubes.

Wallpaper: Like a Tattoo for Your Walls

Root Simple reader Morninglory asked for a closeup of our new wallpaper so here you go.

It’s William Morris’ popular pattern known as “Fruit,” first produced in 1864 and still available in a variety of color combinations. There’s also a version with birds (put a bird on it!), but Kelly thought the bird-less version would look less repetitious.

We also installed Morris’ “Daisy” wallpaper in our breakfast nook. “Daisy” is the first wallpaper that Morris manufactured and it’s inspired by the illustrations in a book in his parent’s library that he thumbed through as a kid, Gerard’s Herbal.

Morris discovered a talent for patterns by way of failing miserably as a painter. While he couldn’t paint a human figure or animal well, he had a talent for patterns that grew out of a lifelong obsession with illuminated manuscripts.

While working on the house last summer we discovered a fragment of the fuddy-duddy wallpaper that covered the walls in the 1920s. Partly inspired by this, Kelly ordered some samples of the Morris papers and when they arrived in the mail I thought they were so striking that we had to install them in spite of my fear of wallpaper and the great expense of the paper itself.

I very briefly considered installing the paper myself but then read some how-to directions that made my head hurt while, simultaneously, discovering Eric of Garden Fork’s video, “I’m Hanging Wallpaper, What Could Go Wrong?” It turns out a lot went wrong and when I wrote Eric he told me to hire someone. Hanging your own wallpaper is like doing your own root canal.

Finding a qualified wallpaper hanger proved difficult until a friend, April, gave me the contact info for Jan of Busy Bee Wallpaper. Jan did a phenomenal job and, unlike the rest of the folks I attempted to contact, set a date and stuck to it. I enjoyed watching her deftly cut around fussy window molding and uneven and out of square walls. She made it look easy which it ain’t.

The Closing of the Open Concept?

The ultimate open floor plan house designed by Shigeru Ban.

A big thanks to Professor Nic for alerting me to the Boston Globe’s coverage of one of my pet issues, “People in open-concept homes are realizing the walls were there for a reason.” Apparently, “the pendulum is swinging back” towards the old fashioned concept of walls. There’s even a hashtag, #OpenConceptRemorse.

Kate Wagner of McMansion Hell covered the history of the open concept in a City Lab article from last year, “The Case for Rooms.” As Wagner points out in her article, bungalows like the one we live in often had an open living room/dining room arrangement.

Last year I restored our two front rooms to their previous, 1920s openness. At some point in the drywall era the opening was plugged up to make another bedroom.

Here’s the before pic above.

The dusty during pic.

And what our house looks like now.

Wagner also points out that while some bungalows had two open front rooms there were still plenty of walls. The kitchen was always walled off.

On a related note, I need to devote a future post to the mysterious disappearance of molding. For now let’s just say it’s so easy to spit out with a table saw that I don’t know why the house flippers hate on it so much.

Shoe Fail!

Wednesday’s catastrophic shoe fail, that resulted in a knee injury for Duke University star basketball player Zion Williamson, gives me the perfect pretense to update my three year long experiment in wearing only minimal shoes.

You can read more about the details of Williamson’s exploding Nike in the New York Times. The article reports on how shoe companies bribe universities to feature their products. Athletes have to wear the company’s shoes but receive none of the sponsorship dollars except for a few free shoes that they have to wear unless they get a medical excuse from . . . doctors working for the shoe company. On the bright side the athletes get a great lesson in neoliberal economics that clearly debunks the commonly held myth that the “free hand” of the market leads to some sort of Edenic meritocracy.

They also get a lesson in how our culture likes to think of its technological products–such as those “high tech” athletic shoes–as based on some kind of engineering magic when in reality they are just poorly made plastic crap festooned with magical brand sigils. As Harvard’s Daniel Lieberman has shown, modern athletic shoes have no peer reviewed evidence behind them. What little thought goes into them suffers from a basic logical error known as survivorship bias. Shoe companies address weaknesses in our feet by adding more and more cushioning which, ironically, leads to weaker feet muscles. Like a dog chasing its own tail, these springy, mattress-soft shoes leads, in sports like basketball, to higher and higher jumps and bigger and faster athletes which, in turn, leads to more injuries which leads to more cushioning in a never ending cycle propelled by advertising dollars and Wall Street investors. Though I have no evidence, I’m willing to bet that basketball players had fewer injuries in the days of the more basic Chuck Taylor shoes of the early 20th century.

An Update
So how is my minimal shoe experiment going? In short, great. Not only have I had no return of the dreaded plantar fasciitis, but I’ve also saved a lot of money. It turns out that without any cushioning to lose its spring, a minimal shoe lasts a lot longer than those giant Nike atrocities. I’m three years into my barefoot running shoes and it’s just about time to replace them. Root Simple has no shoe sponsorship, but I will say that I was able to switch my running shoes, dress and casual shoes all to minimal versions made by the same company: Vivo. Kelly tried a competing company Lems and reports the same good results. There definitely was a few months of getting used to not having any support and learning to walk as mother nature intended us to walk. I’ve even proven that you can fence, a sport that requires a considerable amount of bouncing and jumping, in minimal shoes.

This is also a perfect opportunity to clarify that I’m not one of those barefoot conspiracy theorists. Thanks to the News From Nowhere podcast of journalist Corey Pein, I discovered that there’s a strange world of folks who hold that there’s a vast conspiracy against walking barefoot. Pein talked to Brandon Sutton (Chad Vigorous) of @th3discourse about the barefoot conspiracy theory community, who make the flat earth/pizzagate folks seem grounded, so to speak. While I love a good Sasquatch story I just want to make clear that I don’t see the universe through the prism of bearing one’s sole. It’s funny that these kooky ideas obscure an actual conspiracy of shoe companies that really do bribe colleges and podiatrists to push their injurious products.