One last 2010 memory

I had just picked up a pizza and was heading home at about 8:15 tonight. It was snowing a little and some of the streets were pretty slippery because we had some thawing temperatures over the past few days followed by a quick freeze today. There were waste-high piles of frozen snow lining the road.

I was driving down a pretty busy street when I saw somebody standing in the intersection ahead waving their arms. It looked like he or she was wearing a large parka and facing away from me. As I got closer, I saw that the person was facing me, but the hood of the jacket was buttoned completely up over their face. Then I realized that the person didn’t need to see anything, because I could also now see the cane waving in the air.

I stopped in the middle of the intersection and asked if I could help. A man’s voice said, “Yes, could you please tell me where I am and help me find the sidewalk?” I asked him if he wanted to hop in and I’d drive him to where he was going. He told me the address, which was about a block and a half away, around the corner. As I drove him there he told me he had ridden the bus to a friend’s house, but the driver had just dropped him in the middle of the intersection. “How the fuck does a bus driver drop a blind man in the middle of the street?”, he said. “When I asked him to tell me how to get to the sidewalk, he just closed the door and drove away.”

I didn’t know what to say. I told him I was sorry that had happened to him. I asked him if that kind of thing happens very often. He said, “Yeah, unfortunately, from time to time”. Maybe it was just a day in the life for him. But a moment of panic raced through me as I pictured myself in the middle of Penn Avenue and 51st Street, not being able to see where I was going.

I walked him up to the door of his friend’s house. The street and sidewalk were slick and uneven from the re-freeze. It was dangerous to walk even with the two of us hanging on to each other.

He thanked me. I didn’t ask his name and he didn’t ask mine. I never did see his face.

For a brief moment I caught myself having a silly thought. For some reason, I thought, “I wish I could make him see”.

Then I realized how ridiculous that was.

On New Year’s Eve of all nights, a man standing in the middle of a slippery street wearing a black parka . . . .

I hope everyone drives carefully tonight, and doesn’t get behind the wheel at all if they’ve had a few. I’ve had my share of nights when I didn’t drive responsibly. I’m thankful tonight wasn’t one of them.

As for the bus driver — “How the fuck do you let a blind man off in the middle of the street” and not even help him find the sidewalk on a night like this, indeed.

Happy New Year. Be safe.

Congrats to Norman Vladimir from a sentimental old sap

I watched the Kennedy Center Honors last night for (I think) the first time in my life. It’s the kind of show I haven’t tended to pay much attention to over the years.

Norman Vladimir - a photo from his website, where you can hear some of his songs http://normanvladimir.com/

But my daughter Emily’s good friend Norman Vladimir was singing with the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Dance Company and I wanted to see him.

Emily has known Norman since her first year of college, when he was Norman Vladimir Smith, from a small town in Tennessee. I last saw Norman a little over a year ago at Emily’s wedding. He’s a great guy, currently making his way in the music scene in New York.

Norman and Maya dancing at Emily & Kyle's wedding.


This appearance in front of President and Mrs. Obama, Oprah, Paul McCartney, Merle Haggard, Jerry Herman, a crowd containing seemingly every celebrity in the U.S. — plus a national TV audience — is a big break for Norman. Judging by his Facebook comments about the evening, he’s ecstatic about the experience and I couldn’t be happier for him. He’s a wonderful singer and a great friend to Emily. I’ve only met him a few times over the years, but he’s the kind of guy whose laugh and smile brighten every room he’s in. He seems like an old friend the first time you meet him. I was thrilled and proud to see him as part of this big event.


But my reaction to Norman’s appearance was not the “sentimental sap” part — that was straight up admiration.

What I didn’t expect was how much I enjoyed the rest of the show. Seeing people like Merle Haggard and Paul McCartney — aging entertainment giants for my generation — genuinely moved by the tributes, is what got to me. I’m not a big Broadway musical kind of guy, but even I got a little verklempt when Chita Rivera, Angela Lansbury and Carol Channing sang together to a trembling, glassy-eyed Jerry Herman in the balcony.

There were many such emotional moments — cutaways to Bill T. Jones channeling each movement of his dancers, Merle Haggard’s lips barely perceptively singing along with his own songs – eyes occasionally looking upward, Oprah reaching behind her head for Steadman’s hands during Jennifer Hudson’s performance from “The Color Purple”. Whatever you think of Oprah, this moment was genuine and sweet, and she deserves the honor.

But there was more to it than just watching these stars react to the accolades. I loved the way the honorees represented a variety of genres and the way they all genuinely seemed appreciative of and happy for each other. The audience also seemed to “get it”. We saw white country music fans (let’s admit it – not the usual African American ballet crowd) transfixed by the Bill T. Jones dancers, black people (let’s admit it – not the usual country music crowd) joyfully clapping along with Vince Gill and Brad Paisley doing “Working Man Blues”, Oprah knowing and singing the words to Haggard’s “Silver Wings” — and the big finale with Mavis Staples walking on stage to pick up McCartney’s “Let it Be” from James Taylor and sing the hell out it while Sir Paul teared up, probably thinking about his mother, who inspired the song.

Maybe it was seeing Norman have a brief moment as a part of all of this that got me in the right mood. Maybe it was seeing some of the aging icons of my life reacting to this kind of a tribute in such a genuine, emotional way — humbly watching, not being full of themselves — and being thankful. Maybe it was the realization that the old stars in the balcony were once young, struggling artists like Norman and many of the other performers on stage — and that the torch was being passed. Whatever the reason, I found myself enjoying the show very much.

Go ahead — call me a cornball.

Norman and Maya ham it up at Emily and Kyle's wedding (photo by Kyle Cedermark)

Way to go Norman! I’m proud to know you. Thank you for being such a good friend for Emily and Kyle.


This dream you’re living has come about because of the talent you have, the passion you’ve found, and most importantly, all the hard work you’ve put into it. My hat is off to you. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for you.

Emily, Kyle & Norman

Dogsitting gets you outdoors

Emily and Kyle’s dog Peet has been staying with us for a few days while they were out of town. Peet’s a wonderful dog and we love having him in the house. I’ve never been a dog person, but I love this guy — and not just because he’s my first grandchild.

I’ve actually come to see some benefits (I already knew the downside) of taking him outside several times a day to take care of his needs. The first walk of the morning on a cold day is the one I never thought I’d enjoy, but I have to admit that there is something about the dark, the quiet, the crisp air, the big steaming turd in the snow on a winter morning. After living in Minnesota all my life, Peet has taught me to appreciate cold!

Peet

Just for the record, we will not be getting a dog. And I won’t take care of your dog. But I will gladly and eagerly take care of Peet any time they ask.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that it’s also because of Peet that I saw some beautiful winter scenery this morning. I would not have been out driving around southeastern Minnesota had Emily and I not agreed to meet in Cannon Falls, the half-way point between my house and hers, to return Peet to his Mom.

I’m glad I had my camera along, because the conditions were right for one of those morning frosty fogs that whitens all the trees and makes the whole landscape look like a greeting card. I had heard about fog warnings earlier, so I had an inkling that it would be beautiful when the sun came out.

When I saw this funky sunrise over the Mendota Bridge, I knew it was going to be interesting.

So after we said our sad goodbyes to other daughter, Lauren at the airport for her flight back to Chicago, Peet and I set off across the prairie. I had a nice breakfast in Cannon Falls with Emily, while Peet napped in the car. On the way back I got my camera out, took a couple of little side detours from U.S. 52, and shot some photos. Here are a few of them.

That’s all. Nothing more to report.

I love Peet.

I like going outside with him (usually).

When I do, I see stuff I wouldn’t otherwise see.

I miss him already.

And to paraphrase Robert Duvall as Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in Apocalypse Now — “I love the smell of steaming turds in the morning. It smells like victory!”

An ice Christmas is a nice Christmas

A while back, when we all used to all try to get together for Christmas, one person announced that his family wouldn’t be attending any more because they were “starting their own tradition”. At the time, I thought “what a jerk — you can’t even drive a couple of miles and spend an hour or two with the rest of us?” I actually pretty much still think that, but his statement did get me thinking. You can start a tradition? Very cool. I hadn’t realized that. Now, a few years later, I’ve come to embrace his philosophy.

Rochester, Minnesota is having an ice Christmas this year


This time of year is rough for a lot of people. Sometimes it has to do with things either not being the “way they used to be” or not being the way they “should be”. If a lot of energy is put into wanting a holiday to play out exactly the same way each year, or to match some mythical standard of a perfect Christmas of our youth, it’s a set-up for disappointment. First of all the math doesn’t work. Over the years there will be people added and people subtracted from the equation. Then there’s the issue of morphing, evolving families. Kids grow up and have in-laws. People can’t be in two places at one time, even when both sets of parents live in the same town. Add in a divorce here, separation there and you’ve got a recipe for unhappiness — unless your “traditions” have some flexibility.

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Since our daughter Emily married Kyle a little before Christmas last year, the tradition landscape has changed at our house. Kyle’s family lives 1200 miles away, so it’s probably going to be different every year. E & K were flying to the east coast a couple of evenings ago, so Emily invited us to have Christmas at their house in Rochester during the day before their flight left. I know that families do this kind of thing all the time, but this was a first for us — and you know what? It was pretty nice.

The day even included a miracle. When I was dispatched to the grocery store for a missing hot pepper, I saw something I thought I’d never see. Driving in front of me down Civic Center Drive in Rochester was a copy of the first NEW car I ever owned — a Dodge Omni! We bought one of the first ones the year they came out — 1978. I had only owned old beaters before that and this little $2,500 beauty was a dream come true.

I'm dreaming of a Dodge Omni. Just like the one I used to own . . . Ours was gray, but this sighting in Rochester sure brought back some memories

. . . . and the winner is -- this handsome 15-foot kid-destoyer in Rochester. Makes for an ice Christmas indeed.

After a few years, the car turned out to be a piece of crap, but it was my first new-car feeling and I still remember the day we bought it. I hadn’t seen one on the road for at least a dozen years and thought I’d never see one again — until this December 23rd miracle.

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Still reeling from the Omni sighting, I took an icicle-viewing walk with Lauren through Emily’s neighborhood. We had seen some impressive stalactites on the way into town and wanted to capture some of them with our cameras.

Then Kyle came home from work at noon and it was time for the Christmas lunch. Sandy had brought a delicious tomatillo chicken soup and Emily made tacos al pastor that were equally tasty.

Emily was enjoying the meal -- finger gesture directed at the photographer notwithstanding.


We opened gifts. Peet enjoyed his very much. I think he’s solidly on board with celebrating Christmas.

Two Jersey boys have now adopted Minnesota sports teams.


Soon it was time to take the “Datermarks” to the airport. It made me very happy that they would be able to spend Christmas with Kyle’s family. Kyle’s parents and brothers have hardly seen him since he and Emily moved to Minnesota six months ago. It’s tough (and will continue to be) for them to have Kyle so far away and I hope they can at least have a lot of holiday family gatherings during the years they live in Minnesota as well as a few other visits now and then.

Emily and Kyle do their best to deal with the holiday rush to check in at the Rochester airport. They landed safely in Scranton later that night for their Christmas in the Poconos.


So we still have Lauren and Peet. Who could ask for more than that?

Visions of sugar plums -- Lauren tells Peet that Santa's coming soon.


On Christmas Eve the three of us (Peet had a little down time) went to see True Grit and then had a very nice dinner at a Thai restaurant. This afternoon we’re doing the second go-round of a tradition we started last year — going bowling with the Powells, who are our neighbors and good friends (and happen to be Jewish). Now that’s one Christmas tradition I’d like to see continue.

This was taken on Christmas day last year. Here' a fun activity for you. See if you can pick out the Jews!


So that’s how we’re celebrating this year. It’s very nice and I’m extremely thankful for it. One of the things I like most about Christmas is that it’s different every year.

Peet wishes you all the best in this holiday season!


Whatever you’re doing today, I hope your day is merry and bright. I hope your traditions are happy, light-hearted and flexible — and don’t be afraid to start a new one.

Merry Christmas!

Have a Holly Jolly Solstice – a Christmas wish from a heathen

This is an important time of the year for most of us. But what’s the true reason for the season? It depends on who you ask.

Whether you happen to be gearing up to celebrate the the birth of Jesus or not, remember that many cultures around the world — particularly those with indigenous or ancient ties — mark the days around the longest night of the year with some sort of observance. There is evidence that neolithic cultures noted and celebrated the solstice at least 10,000 years ago. (my apologies to “young earthers”, but this is the first of several sacrilegious statements in this post, so be warned)

I think even most Christians understand that there’s very little chance that Jesus was actually born on December 25th — or even in December at all. Go ahead and give me some heat on this if you’d like, but even biblical references point to a spring or autumn date, with the fall harvest time (September – October) being the most likely.

Christians began celebrating the current date of December 25th in the 4th century A.D. There are a lot of theories about why this date was chosen, but it’s pretty likely that it had something to do with the solstice. More specifically, it had to do with using an existing Roman holiday, called Saturnalia, as a recruiting tool for converting people to Christianity. Saturnalia was a raucous, drunken, event that began as a one-day celebration on December 17, but over the years evolved into a week-long (think spring break without a warm beach) kind of orgy of excessive eating, drinking and debauchery — even involving role-reversal of slaves and owners. Early Christians saw the end of this week as the perfect time to piggy-back with their message of the birth of the savior — so they decided that Jesus was born during the massive hangover right after this Roman celebration.

What does bringing a tree into my house have to do with the birth of Jesus? Nothing, as far as I can tell.

I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on ancient religious practices and there are tons of books and websites out there that provide the background for the Solstice / Pagan / Christmas connections. I do know that many, if not most current Christmas customs have ties to solstice-related celebrations dating back to the time before Jesus. The Christmas tree, holly, mistletoe, ivy, the yule log, the hanging of wreaths, feasting, even gift-giving and the lighting of candles were all well established solstice-related customs before the date for the birth of the the messiah was changed to the same week. I also know that while some (but relatively very few) modern-day Christians eschew these symbols and practices, the vast majority of Christmas celebrators hang on to at least some of them. How many Christian households don’t have a tree, light some candles (or hang outdoor lights) or have a little holly around the house? Pagan, pagan and more pagan!

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Because solstice celebrations go back thousands of years, Christians are relative newcomers to celebrating this time of year with lights, candles, gift-giving and good cheer — and they’ve pretty much stolen these traditions and claimed them as their own. If you’ve been to a shopping mall or watched TV ads recently, you may not like what they’ve done with all of it.

The Christmas holiday is celebrated differently by people everywhere and it has evolved greatly through the centuries. In Europe, it was a considered a time to party to excess, mirroring the Saturnalia festival — nothing like the quiet, family time we now espouse — until the mid 1600s, when Oliver Cromwell came to power with his puritan beliefs in England and put a stop to all the craziness. In the new world, the Pilgrims did not celebrate Christmas at all. Even after Boston became a city, celebrating Christmas was against the law from 1659 to 1681.

A hundred years later during the revolution, English customs were falling out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Congress was in session on Christmas day of 1789. And it was ANOTHER 81 years before Christmas was declared a national holiday in 1870. So much for nostalgia about Christmas in early America.

Christmas in America began to gain importance in the late 1800s. As a writer on the History Channel website puts it,

“As Americans began to embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday, old customs were unearthed. People looked toward recent immigrants and Catholic and Episcopalian churches to see how the day should be celebrated. In the next 100 years, Americans built a Christmas tradition all their own that included pieces of many other customs, including decorating trees, sending holiday cards, and gift-giving. Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.”

PeeWee Herman has as much business atop the tree as anything or anyone. Have you seen his Christmas Special? -- a classic.


I happen to think this time of year has a spiritual quality all its own. It doesn’t need commercial embellishing, manipulated date changes, mythological overlays or the belief that God will make the sun go away if we don’t pray enough.

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We live in an age when science explains why the days are short. We know exactly when the northern hemisphere is tipped away from the sun’s rays the most — this year it’s 5:38 PM on December 21. But that doesn’t take anything away from its importance. It’s still a profound event and a metaphor for the rhythms of our lives. As the days get short, cold, and quiet, it’s a great time to slow down, think, appreciate, reflect, pray — whatever it is you do. It’s a time to contemplate the year that’s ending and anticipate the new one coming. Many people have some time off work this week. How many will spend it quietly and peacefully? How many will be frantic and frustrated?

This is what it looks like at 4:30 PM where I live. I hope the sun comes back.

The season means something different to all of us, but for most of us it does have meaning.

For me, (after I get my shopping and wrapping and some house cleaning done) I hope to find a little time to slow down and think. To appreciate and be grateful. To spend a little time with my family and friends. Life can be a treadmill, and cold, short, days are a good time to stop running and hop off for a few hours here and there.

The darkness helps us appreciate the light. As our ancestors knew, the sun is a good thing. We notice when it goes away and we’re thankful when it comes back.

I’m thankful for another day, another year, another cycle in the rhythm of life.

And for you?

I hope you take time to appreciate the light this week and I hope all is calm, all is bright.

I hope you take time to be quiet.

I hope you take time to do something kind for somebody.

I hope you can spend some time with the people who are important to you.

I hope you find peace and joy.

Top Ten reasons to spend the winter in Minnesota

Kyle helps Lauren build her dream house.

#10. It makes you appreciate NOT spending the winter in Minnesota.

#9. The comforting realization that you could probably live a productive life without fingers, toes, and ears.

#8. If your favorite color is white, it’s a no-brainer.

#7. With a $5 shovel, your driveway can become a work of art.

Hand-sculpted (no snowblower here)


#6. “Hunkering down” is considered an activity.

Emily hunkers down with a cold one.


#5. Ever drive for 45 minutes through a major city and never come to an actual stop? You can do it here!

That red light is just a "suggestion". The driver has to decide whether stopping and possibly getting stuck is worth the risk.


#4. You can make a lot of friends just by pushing cars.

#3. Our new motto. No longer the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, we’re now “Minnesota: Where everything is more difficult”.

#2. You get to say things like, “Anything above 10 degrees ain’t too bad” — and mean it.

#1. Thanks to our handy collapsible stadium, you can get free tickets to see your NFL team play its home games in Detroit!

Our alternative motto could be, "Where dreams come true". Emily has always embraced the winter.

Prairie School gem turns 100 — and we used to own it.

Ever have a tour bus pull up in front of your house with people gawking out the windows at you? This happened occasionally during the 10 years we owned what is known as the Hineline House on Dupont Ave. So. in Minneapolis. Having curious onlookers is an odd, but usually not unpleasant experience. When you find your house listed and pictured in architecture books, it starts to be kind of fun.

I still don’t quite understand how a family like ours ended up as the caretakers of this significant piece of history, art and architecture, but I’m glad it happened.

Page about our house from an article in The Western Architect in 1913. Note the detail of stained glass windows and bookcase doors.

In 1983, after owning a small house for 4 years, my wife, Sandy and I decided to move up to something a little larger. Our daughter, Emily was 2 at the time and we had hopes of having another youngster at some point (Lauren obliged by arriving two years later). Like many home buyers, we started looking within a certain price range, rejected all those possibilities and decided to move up in price and out of the comfort zone.

When we looked at the house at 4920 Dupont Avenue South in Minneapolis for the first time, I remember my initial reaction was that it was run-down and kind of dingy and dirty — ugly and old wallpaper and carpet, the yard was a mess, etc. — why were they asking so much for it? But after a minute or two inside, I started to notice the clean lines, the stained glass and architectural detail and realized this place was something special — and actually priced low, for what it was. But, as one architecture book put it, it had been “unsympathetically maintained”.


Then-reporter, now-Mayor of Minneapolis R.T. Rybak did an article about 3 families buying houses in the summer of 1983. We were one of them. The wide-angle camera lens made the house look a lot bigger than it is. (and it's "Sandra", R.T. -- not "Saundra")

William Gray Purcell and George Grant Elmslie (photo from Minneapolis Institute of Arts - Unified Vision: Architecture and Design of the Prairie School)

William Gray Purcell grew up in Oak Park, Illinois. He worked for a time in Louis Sullivan’s studio, where the Prairie School of architecture – Frank Lloyd Wright being its most notable progeny– began. George Feick, Jr., Purcell’s classmate at Cornell Architecture School also worked for Sullivan. In 1907, Purcell and Feick decided to leave Sullivan and opened a design office in Minneapolis. In 1909, they talked George Grant Elmslie — Sullivan’s chief designer — into coming to Minneapolis to join them.

Purcell, Elmslie & Feick Studio (photo from Minneapolis Institute of Arts Collection)

Various permutations of the Purcell, Feick & Elmslie team did hundreds of house, churches, banks and other commercial buildings all over the midwest, and eventually, the country. Some of their more well-known buildings are the Merchants Bank in Winona, Minnesota, the Purcell-Cutts House and the E.L. Powers Residence in Minneapolis. For a time, they were the most successful Prairie School architecture firm outside of Chicago.

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According to the book, At Home on the Prairie: The Houses of Purcell & Elmslie, by Dixie Legler and Christian Korab (Chronicle Books, 2006) a man named Burr, who was an associate of a company that had commissioned Purcell, Elmslie & Feick for a commercial project, wanted them to design a house for his daughter and her soon-to-be husband, Harold E. Hineline. “Burr wanted us to do a nice little house for the young couple”, said Purcell.

Legler and Korab write, “The Hinelines’ two-story home was based on a 1908 Purcell and Feick remodeling of a barn into a house for Arthur Jones, ‘a very simple project [that] had a great influence on all my later work’, Purcell said. ‘In this little house I made my first detailed examination of the relation of a building to the size of people and the geography of movements.”

Detail of door, bookcase and dining room cabinet stained glass patterns (photo from University of Minnesota Libraries)


Photo of door depicted in above drawing

This photo of the door sketched in the drawing above is from a great website called Prairie School Traveler , which has quite a few very nice photos of the the interior of the house.

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Even though the asking price for this house was clearly out of our comfort zone, its allure was grew on us as we imagined ourselves living in it and cleaning it up. There was another bidder, but somehow our offer of $104,000 won out and we got the house.

The place really did need a lot of work. An elderly couple had lived there for over 40 years. When they died, their daughter lived there for a time and obviously did not have the means or desire to keep it up. We certainly weren’t the most knowledgeable of owners and we couldn’t afford large-scale restoration, but we did our best to study up on Prairie School architecture and at least stabilize the deterioration, clean it up and improve the decor.

The dining room. One of few photos I can find of the house that doesn't have people in it.

I’ve been going through old photos looking for pictures of architectural detail and realize that I didn’t take many photos of the house itself. The house was just a backdrop for pictures of the family. While we enjoyed living there very much, we often didn’t think about it as a work of art — it was just home.

The leaded glass bookcase is visible, but not the focus of this Christmas photo from the late '80s.

Even though it was a great house in many ways, its limitations and flaws began to become more noticeable as the years went by. One bathroom is fine for a couple with one small child, but as the girls got older, we wanted another one. The kids’ bedrooms were very small and lacked closet space. In 1983 when we moved in, our daughter, Emily, was 2 years old. Ten years later, Emily was 12 and Lauren 8.

By the winter of ’92 – ’93 we were starting to think about looking for a new house. We had mentioned that to a few friends and neighbors, but weren’t all that serious. Then one day in the spring of ’93, a young couple, Beth and Steve rang our doorbell and asked if we’d be interested in selling. We started seriously looking for a new house, worked out a good price with them and that was that.

Lauren flushes away the old house and gets ready for the new as we prepared to move in October of 1993

Beth and Steve lived there for several years and put a lot of time and effort into restoration. They had quite a few stained glass windows replicated, had the sawed-wood ornaments on the front entry recreated and did many other period decorating and style improvements. They invited us over a few years back and it made me happy that they had put so much into it — more than we were able to do during our tenure.

It’s been 17 years now since we moved. I drive by it every few weeks or so. Sure brings back a lot of memories — most are good ones. Our family went through some unhappy times there, but fortunately we came out on the positive side. I liked living there a lot, but the move to our present house was a good one. It was the right time to pass this important house on to others. I’m just glad we had 10 years there and I feel lucky to be a small part of its history.

As for the date of the 100th birthday? Not exactly sure. The blueprints and most books say 1910, but some sources say 1911. Most likely it was designed in one year and construction completed the next. Whatever the day — Happy Birthday to the Hineline House and thank you to Mr. Purcell, Mr. Elmslie and Mr. Feick — wherever you are. Your beautiful designs live on and enrich the lives of everyone who occupies those spaces. I’m a big fan of you guys.