I spent much of this fall looking out the left window of my bedroom. I have worked from bed almost every morning since mid-October because I can drink more coffee at home than I can carry to my office. After this semester I find, increasingly, that I need it. From out the left window I can see the sloping black curves of three generations of power lines that run from the transformer at the corner of the lot and parallel along the house, connecting finally to the Tri Delta sorority behind me. Two generations of the power lines no longer operate. They have been subsumed by years of uncut and unchecked grapevines, honeysuckle, wisteria, ivy, and even small patches of clematis virginiana, which bloomed on into September. The scent would travel into my room when I left the window open, and I would close it and still be able to smell it. These vines, truly living up to their name–The Devil’s Hair–grew up into the second-story window through the cracks in the screen and into my room. One lay drooped across the floor the day I moved in. I felt infected.
Even as winter has brushed the leaves away yellow and red through the yard, making my bed an even better location for bird-watching, I feel that these vines are my enemy. As I see it, the ivy, which is the only vine that keeps hold of its leaves through the winter, is my dark malachite foe. There is a low stone wall the runs along the front of my yard, though if you had walked by a month ago you would not have known. I began the battle the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, folding the ivy back across the wall onto itself. It amazed me how much the vines had not just grown over the wall, but through it, its ciliated roots attached to even the small stones in the broken pile that slowly began to resemble a wall. The Saturday after Thanksgiving, my partner and I began ripping it out of the ground and off the choking black locusts that back the perimeter of wall. Now, the front of the yard is ivy-free and the ground is filled with bulbs, a small and likely short-lived victory. I have wounds: swatches of poison ivy across my forearms and legs, scabbed and leathery thighs where I scratched myself bloody. I do not guess that I will win the vine war with this house, though I suppose I won my first battle.
Underneath the tangled mass of flora, we found things. A miraculous collection of treasure: a translucent plate, four pocked golf balls, an entire unbroken wine bottle that once held a fine Barefoot Chardonnay, burned out and down glass candle-holders that once smelled like “Crushed Orange” and “Leaves,” countless beer cans and bottles, an un-decomposed page from the Daily Tar Heel from 2013, a mud-caked plastic wrapper that not so long ago held something called “Lick Smackin’ Pork Scratchin’s,” a bleached and cracked whelk shell, a solved (solved!) Rubik’s cube, an auger shell poking out
of the mud, three plastic wrappings from packets of Nabs, a broken bike lock, a set of stone steps down to Rosemary Street slathered in thick layers of mud, a mysterious and beautiful piece of smooth light blue glass. I really do mean the word treasure, though I did not keep all these things, and ponder them in my heart. Some of these treasures were unexpected, others grossly predictable (I do live cattycorner to a fraternity house, after all). I know the list reads as though I live in a trash dump, and if it helps you follow this narrative along, sure, I do. But each time I pulled back a patch of ivy to find another Rolling Rock beer bottle I found also a kind of archival delight in its uncovering.
My house was built in 1932 by Mrs. Orah Kluttz. Orah, and her husband, Adam Alexander (known to the historical record as A.A.), bought the house behind mine in 1894, a few years after A.A. had set up shop not as a physician–as was his training–but as a merchant. Chapel Hill’s first general store, Kluttz’s, served thousands of University students over the years. William Meade Prince called it “a solid, rock-ribbed institution in Chapel Hill, like the stone walls….a club, a headquarters, a Mecca for everybody.” And A.A. sold everything: candy, books, shoes, jewelry, clothing, medicine, bicycles, snacks, groceries, and anything else you might need. He and Orah had no children, and they filled their house at 407 East Franklin with boarders. A.A. died in 1926, and the Kluttz store passed to other owners. But Orah kept on, becoming house mother of the Chi Omega sorority, keeping the boardinghouse open, and, in 1932, overseeing the construction of my house, in the heyday of the Great Depression, no less! Her interview with the Daily Tar Heel five years later is nothing short of bliss and begins with this quote:
“I know everybody in North Carolina worth knowing and a whole lot that are not.”
I cannot help but carry the most august pride in knowing that Orah Jane Kluttz built my house. She built it, not to live in, of course, but to house more boarders, more renters, and to capitalize on a market of transient professors, in Chapel Hill to teach for a few years and move on.
Looking through the records–city directories, the one available census, and the newspaper clippings from the Daily Tar Heel–dozens of names slid by. Transience is the narrative of my house. Even though it is situated in between the oldest houses in Chapel Hill, homes that stayed in the families of famed University professors on into the 1960s and 70s, this house has always been one for people who come and then leave. A family first, then a professor here, a graduate student there, another family. Sometime in the 1970s, the house was bifurcated into the small apartments it now holds and undergraduates began living in the house. I admit that this was unsatisfying to discover. Part of the reason I began looking into the history of the house was to figure out what old-time Chapel Hill family lived in it. The Coenen family–Frederich, Susan, and Walter–lived in the house in 1940, but by 1951, at least, other people were living here. Frederich taught German for at least five years at the University. Walter’s name is still on the deed. The plumber who came to fix the kitchen sink told me that, “If Mr. Coenen wants the pipes replaced, I’ll sure as hell do it.” Still, even if the house has been owned by the Coenens since 1940, owning a house is very different from living in it. I guess this is the business of doing local history: looking for the big, the ground-breaking, and finding beer cans.
But, to flagrantly continue with the metaphor, there were also solved Rubik’s cubes and shards of smooth thick light blue glass in the house research: a human named Florus Wijsenbeek (Florus! Wijsenbeek!) asking that anyone interested in creating an all-olympic field hockey team contact him after 5 p.m.; the advertisement in 1935 for an “attractive quiet room in a private home”; the letter to the editor from a student named Ken Howell, who found a previous letter-writer so in the wrong that he wrote to the previous letter-writer as a person so unbelievable that they were, in fact, fictional (Ken would go on to manage the University Pizza Service); a Scottish Terrier named Mr. Cork went missing from his home (if you see him, please return him to Student Party leader, Charlie Long); and a drug-abuse hotline organized by psychology and sociology students, aptly titled Switchboard, ran out of the house for several years until their funding was cut by the University.
The discovery of Florus Wijsenbeek and Switchboard are partially the delight of the inconsequential report in the timeworn newspaper. But more so, they bring the same archival delight of finding a translucent plate under the porch stairs. A hidden thing that you have found, and that only you can care for. From these small stories, though, I can tell a longer story about fluidity: a house tracked through with the grime and dust of a hundred people, maybe more, moving in and out of my house every May, every August. A wood floor splintering under the weight of countless bad parties, spouses fighting over finances, cats and dogs and shit, and books from forty different disciplines. I will live in this house through next August and then I will leave. I do not like thinking about myself as another student specter passing through, another layer of paint to slap on the walls, erasing the marks I have made on the plaster.
I have spent the semester as a research assistant for History 671: Intro to Public History. The culmination of the students’ work was partly a digital visualization of the University’s built landscape. Names In Brick and Stone is a case study in the operations of power and the silencing of the many pasts that are visible on the Chapel Hill landscape, comprised, at least for our purposes, of over 250 University-owned buildings. The stories that are
reflected on the landscape embody the shifting contours of political power in the state. This is why there are twenty-three buildings named for slaveholders on our campus and why there are five buildings named for people of color. This is also why there is only one building that carries the name of a female alumna. These numbers are powerful, and the locations of these buildings in relation to the main thoroughfares of campus are practically etherizing. The narrative the visualization supplements is a wild and damaging bramble of a thing, a harmful and stark reality.
Collecting and sifting through the data students had gathered felt more like pulling up deeply rooted ivy than uncovering the treasures underneath, though seeing the namesakes of our campus’s landscape and knowing where they were from and when they died and what they did for the University all on the spreadsheet, I felt I was again finding the muddy auger shell and Florus Wijsenbeek, both such archival treasures. But seeing the visualization done and through feels much like looking at the new muddy expanse of my front yard. I did good and satisfying work. I helped uncover histories, show that the University’s landscape is deeply racialized, leeched through with white supremacy and patriarchal control. But it’s a terrible thing to look at. The daffodils should come up in my yard in March. But Carolina’s landscape isn’t quite so self-regenerative and requires political action for revival. And, of course, like an archive itself, the landscape accrues new layers, so that is becomes difficult to tell a single narrative about its landscape, like it is to tell about my house.
Yesterday, as I sat on the porch enjoying the guilt of a seventy degree December day, a flash of dark blue caught my eye from the side on the yard where the vines have twisted around the power lines. Another beer can I had missed. I went to the side of the yard to see if I could grab it, trying first one angle into the tangle of vines, then climbing through the neighbor’s side to see if I could penetrate the boscage that way. I endured ten minutes of trying to reach this beer can, Busch written in mocking letters across it, before I gave up and returned to the porch, pulling twigs and grapevine leaves from my hair. This morning, as I laid down a new walkway from the
slick stone steps to the porch, I saw it again, still scoffing in its bold winter tones. I won’t be able to reach it until I win the war against the viney morass in the corner of my lot. But I won’t be able to win. I guess there are some beer cans that don’t end up in the archive. I will never know every person that lived in my house, even if I may know its longer story. I will never know the one story of the University and its landscape, even if I may know about every building and its namesake. But for now, the promise of daffodils in March, the glass shard collection I have growing on the porch, and the question of what to do with a solved Rubik’s cube keep me going on towards answering those questions.