Landmarks Shaping Me

“We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us.” -Winston Churchill

How many places have played a part with defining moments that shape your life thereafter? It is possibly one that is significant to you, but not necessarily on the National Register of Historic Places (sounds like the National Trust’s This Place Matters campaign). A few weeks ago, fellow preservation blogger, Sabra Smith at My Own Time Machine, followed suit of another blogger and asked and answered the following question:

Can you think of any time or landmarks in your life that can teach you something about yourself that you’ve forgotten? We hold so many stories within the gaps… Find something heart warming and worth honoring about your life today.


(Read Sabra’s post; you’ll enjoy it!) What does this question mean to me? Well, first of all, trying to remember something that I’ve forgotten about myself sounds like a trick question, something along the lines of trying to look up a word in the dictionary that I don’t know how to spell (yea, thanks, Mom for that answer all of these years). I’ve been pondering this question for a while, and I cannot pinpoint just one. Maybe it is because when I think of landmarks in my life, I don’t think of buildings. I think of places, places in which I have spent much time in over the years because I know this was where the best conversations have been with the great people in my life.  To me, landmarks are landscapes, streets, and buildings with the human component. There are a few places that I know have shaped the person I am.

First, I think of Point Lookout, which I’ve written about many times (see this list and here). When I stayed with my grandmother in the summertime I would get up early and walk, run, or ride my bike to the beach, early enough that I had time to sit on the jetty before the lifeguards chased me away (KEEP OFF JETTY, the signs read). The sun would be shining brightly, halfway up the sky, the wind blowing my hair, and the ocean spray just reaching my toes. I loved to walk on the jetty or just sit there, imagining, thinking, dreaming. I might be imagining the lives of historic characters I was reading about (i.e. Laura Ingalls or the American Girl Dolls). Or I might be trying to recall days at the beach when I was much younger, when my dad would stand with me under huge, crashing waves. I know that this beach is deep in my soul and it is the reason I love the ocean as much as I do, and why I have to visit the ocean every time I visit Grandma Jeanne.

Another place that comes to mind is the basement of my parents’ house, before we finished it to the den, computer room, and another bedroom. My three sisters and I would play for hours, making up the best games from animal school, house, Global Guts obstacle courses, anything we could imagine and recreate amongst the workbench, Fisher Price kitchen sets, laundry room, hot water heater and furnace, on roller skates, on furniture dollies, and with our many, many toys. We would play the radio, sing, dance, skate, and to keep warm we turned on the small box electric heater and wear extra socks.  Between the four of us, we had the best imagination. The basement holds so many memories for all four of us, and it is a strong bond between us. The basement serves as a reminder of the importance of sisters and family and just how much fun we had without video games or really expensive toys. I think it kept us grounded and we understand the importance of an imagination and free playing. It shaped our personalities (I may have been the bossy, oldest one, ahem) and I would bet that part of my love for ordinary houses and the need to know the stories of buildings comes from the memories I have in an “insignificant” house.

I must have a thing for basements, because I also think of the basement in Combs Hall at Mary Washington, where I spent many hours studying, drafting, talking, developing into a preservationist and deciding to embark on whatever preservation task came my way. And I think of the basement of Kenmore Plantation in Fredericksburg, VA, where I worked as a restoration intern. And now I think of the basement of Wheeler House at UVM. Actually, why are preservationists always in the basement?

But let’s take a step back in time, before I was studying preservation in basements. Aside from basements, I think of Room 216 in my high school, Mrs. Morahan’s room. She came to be the in-school-mom for my best friends and me. We stored our track bags under a table in her room, gathered there in the mornings before the bell, during free periods, and always after school. My best friend and I had lockers right across the hall, so there was always a reason to go there. My friends and I spent our time with the loving Mrs. Morahan, and we loved her back. We talked about school stress, college choices, boyfriends, siblings, worries, happiness, track, student government, and just about everything that was on our minds. She taught us in the classroom and out of the classroom. It was always, always warm in her room and full of decorations (school related and holiday related), munchkin donuts every Friday, and the best teacher’s chair in the world. Whoever had the worst day got to sit in the chair. Mrs. Morahan remains my favorite teacher, she means so much to us, and I don’t think any of us would have done so well in school without her. Room 216 in the 1971 high school is truly the type of unassuming place that matters. Much of who I am developed in that room and many important decisions were made.

I don’t know that I have answered the question that Sabra asked, as my answers are more shaping who I am, rather than one defining spot. Maybe with more time, I can think of one place and one moment, but for now, I think in terms of connectivity. So instead, I ask the question:

How would you define landmarks of your life? What does that mean to you and what types (and specific) places have made you the person you are today? What do these places teach you about other places?

And, so, we continue the celebration of places and they shape who we are.

4 thoughts on “Landmarks Shaping Me

  1. kvlandau says:

    Thanks Kate, for the post! I must have written some comment on a similar post a while ago…

    I think what’s most interesting about space/place [space being a mathematical function and place being infused with meaning, cf. de Certeau] is exactly as you say: we shape and are shaped by space/place. Conceptions of space/place are thus recursive or dialogic and they are multiscalar. We influence and are influenced by, make and are made by, places at all levels – individual, familial, community, societal, regional, hemispherical, etc. So the group of us who spent a lot time in Mrs. Morahan’s room made that room what it was – gave it its meaning. The room, in turn, shaped our last few years of high school, on an individual and group level as you demonstrate, Kate.

    More challenging is getting at notions of space/place in other cultures (e.g., Japanese mobile [shoji] screens, which act like dividers rather than walls in a house) and how they change (or not) over time and geography. In archaeological contexts for example, concepts of space/place are inferred by referential linguistics (when/if written language exists) or representations of space (i.e., murals and iconography) or settlement patterns and elements of city planning. I would argue that universally, notions of space/place are primarily structured by so-called astronomy as well as the geographic landscape. The movements of the sun, moon and stars from and with the Earth’s perspective is formative. This would do well to explain the similarities – and differences – among creation stories the world over.

    Within archaeology, the subfields of landscape and cognitive archaeology (and more generally British social anthropology) assess critically notions of space/place. For a long term paper this year I am working on explicitly incorporating these two fields with archaeoastronomy – the study of the practice of astronomy in culture. I argue that studying another culture’s astronomy (or astronomIES) will lead us to a better understanding of how they thought about things, how they conceived their landscape and how they made sense of and ordered their universe (i.e., worldview and cosmology). And we would also approach a more refined understanding of concepts of space/place and place-making. This, in response to some who have stated the futility and irrelevancy of archaeoastronomy for anthropology.

    Nevertheless, your points bode well Kate, and it seems like historic preservation and anthropology intersect and can be mutually informative in the realm of space/place.

  2. Sabra Smith says:

    Well, I might say that you did answer the question — take Room 216 for example — the building that was in might be one of your landmarks on the ‘tour” of your life. “Here I transitioned from childhood to adulthood,” you, the tourguide, might say. High school is a period of evolution and that particular room created a home away from home for you — a safety zone where you felt safe in the midst of the turmoil of college and track and exams and whatnot. You and your friends would all mark it with an “X” on a map as a special place.

    And I’m smiling at the totting up you’ve done, discovering how much time you’ve spent in basements! They are tremendously evocative — old-style basements, with the furnace grumbling around a dark corner. Not the spruced up, carpeted over one finds in McMansions today, where anything obejctionable is stashed in a closet. I remember each of my grandparents had a ping-pong table and both my parents would probably tell lots of stories of teen-ager era parties in the basement, spinning 45s and sipping soda. A toast to your basement list!

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