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  • Pamela H. Simpson, 1946-2011:An Appreciation
  • Sally McMurry (bio)

I first met Pam Simpson in 1986 at the Hudson River Valley Vernacular Architecture Forum meeting. That encounter is still vivid in my memory. We shared a meal, carefully deconstructing the tiny birds that were served with tiny feet still attached. Pam was just completing the historic task of chairing the committee charged with facilitating Washington and Lee University's transition to coeducation. As she spoke of that experience, I grew more awed by the minute. Here was somebody with a penetrating intellect combined with other qualities rarer in a scholar: leadership talent, competence, dynamism, humor, versatility, generosity. I felt that Pam had "picked" me to befriend, and I knew even at that moment that something special had happened. That was Pam's way with so many people she encountered. It was the beginning of a warm association that continued through years of working together in the VAF, sharing scholarship, and for many VAF meetings, sharing a room.

Pam Simpson's death is thus a deep personal loss, but it is just as great a blow to the VAF. A founding member, Pam brought energy, vision, and leadership to the organization. She played a major role in fostering VAF's proud culture, leading by example to help create an environment where high value is placed on blending intellectual rigor with collegiality, egalitarianism, enthusiasm, and the pure enjoyment of learning together in the field. A committed feminist, she welcomed other women and younger members to the group and served as a model. A respected scholar, she explored new topics in the best vernacular scholarship tradition. A seasoned leader, she guided the organization and helped keep it strong.

Pam Simpson was one of just three founding VAF members who attended every conference from the first meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1980 through Jamaica in 2011. She contributed to the organization in just about every possible capacity. She served as VAF president between 1997 and 1999, and during her tenure the VAF prospered, undertaking several new initiatives that have since borne fruit. Pam's "President's Column" in the Vernacular Architecture Newsletter (VAN) during those years included a incisive retrospective on the field, lavish praise for conference organizers and other active members, and even a sonnet! In the next column, she wryly wrote: "no poetry this time, just a reminder that we are all looking forward to seeing you in Georgia . . . our normal jolly gathering with lots of buildings to stir our interest, good interpretation, and fascinating presentations and discussions." Pam also served VAF as a board member, 1988 Staunton meeting coorganizer, Cummings Prize committee chair, coeditor for volumes 11 and 12 of Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, and managing editor of the 2007 special anniversary edition of PVA. Together with Jan Jennings, Pam served as midwife in a transition that took the organization's flagship publication from a vetted collection of conference papers, published (at least in theory) every other year, to a refereed annual publication open to submissions from any interested scholar. This shift ensured that important scholarship in the field would appear in a timely manner and provided a strong foundation for a further transition to the current twice-yearly Buildings & Landscapes.

Trained as an art historian, Pam possessed a keen eye and a rigorous grounding in painting [End Page ix] and sculpture as well as in architecture. This background, combined with a broad understanding of cultural history, informed her scholarship on vernacular architecture themes. Cheap, Quick, and Easy: Imitative Architectural Materials, 1870-1930 (University of Tennessee Press, 1999) explored industrially created substitutes for "real" wood, brick, stone, or plaster— rockfaced concrete block, linoleum, and pressed metal ceilings, for example. She argued forcefully that these materials democratized architectural ornament, challenged elite aesthetics, and changed the appearance of popular architecture everywhere. She challenged the old concept that these materials represented "servile imitation," maintaining that this was an elitist argument. The middle classes, she showed, did not expect to be "fooled" by imitative substitutes. Ordinary people embraced linoleum, lincrusta, and pressed metal as aesthetic successes on their own terms, as expressions of modernity, and as economical choices. I venture to say that...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-6832
Print ISSN
1936-0886
Pages
pp. ix-xi
Launched on MUSE
2012-07-22
Open Access
No
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