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  • Research Notes: Understanding the Physical Poetry of a Parallel American Dream
  • Travis McDonald (bio)

Anne Spencer (1882–1975) was an African Ameri can high school librarian in Lynchburg, Virginia, who became nationally known, if not by her own choosing, as a poet of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1920s. The 1903 house Anne built with her husband Edward is now a National Register property and Virginia Landmark house museum, known principally for its personal and eclectic interior and flower garden, which evolved over a sixty-two-year period. This essay considers how to interpret this remarkable yet little-known historic site, which represents an artistic and architectural creation that is inextricably based on, and exhibits, the ephemeral characteristics of flowers and poetry.

Fieldwork at the Anne and Edward Spencer house prompts questions about how and why we record what we record. The site defies typical interpretations, and even the wide-net approaches found in VAF’s Invitation to Vernacular Architecture.1 In this case many of the fields through which architectural history is now studied overlap: ethnicity, gender, class, race, sociology, feminism, and economics. A Venn diagram of intersecting subjects at this site would thicken with the major themes of architecture, art, interior decorating, decorative arts, craftsmanship, material culture, gardening, and poetry. The diversity of new fields and the range of subjects within those fields have led to a broader but more fragmented view of architectural history. Dell Upton characterized architecture as “the art of social story-telling, a means for shaping American society and culture.”2 That is surely the more public macro lens though which to see the Spencer site. Upton also acknowledged that in some cases architecture was “a vehicle of individual aesthetic expression.”3 This is the more challenging and private micro lens through which to see Anne Spencer’s artistic creation. Particularly challenging to confront is how the ephemeral and ever-changing essence of Anne Spencer’s garden found expression both in her poetry and in her interior decorations and furnishings (Figure 1). Anne managed to describe the colors, smells, and textures of flowers in words, writing, “Earth, I thank you / for the pleasure of your language.”4 She effectively used poetry to capture the nuances of nature, but describing the poetry of colors, patterns, and textures of an interior setting, inspired by the same ephemeral beauty of nature, challenges our typical interpretive conventions.

Literary and artistic shrines can evoke the autobiographical nature of a writer’s or artist’s home and garden, yet few have the symbiotic spirit and presence of poetry, flowers, art, and architecture that define the Spencer house and garden. While Anne Spencer’s poetry and gardening have been studied to an extent, the house itself had been minimally documented before I took on what I thought would be the modest task of recording the interior and advising on restoration issues.5 The authenticity of the house rests on the fortunate circumstance that it was left virtually intact as a museum when Anne Spencer died in 1975. In Half My World: The Garden of Anne Spencer, Rebecca Frischkorn and Reuben Rainey describe Anne Spencer’s garden and poetry as “subtle, original, richly nuanced, and carefully crafted.” I soon began to realize that this was equally true [End Page 95] for the architecture, decoration, and furnishings of her house.6 This site and story are even more unusual and significant for the way all these familiar themes are overlain by the filters of social, cultural, educational, political, and racial contexts of an African American family’s pursuit of happiness in a small traditional Southern city in the early twentieth century. The liberating equality and dignity achieved through this family’s accomplishments was private and public, local and national, unique and popular. Understanding this site as an autobiographical domestic creation poses one set of fieldwork questions. Another is how the site fits into a larger social, cultural, and architectural landscape, particularly in terms of race. In other words, how does it reflect the many studies and interpretations of the iconic single-family house in America?

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Figure 1.

Anne Bannister Spencer in a 1901 wedding photograph. Courtesy...


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pp. 95-108
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