Tuesday, April 24, 2007

We got a warning on Monday morning's news that there was an extremely high danger of brush fire in the area. I wouldn't have believed it given the torrential rains that had flooded us just recently, and the continued drizzle and showers that hung on all last week. But I believed it big time when our building began to fill with choking white smoke and a burning leaf smell.

I came down the stairs from my office and ran into a colleague who was taking a five gallon bucket of water out the front door.

"What's burning?"

"The garden next door."

I ran to my paint floor and took the largest buckets I had into the janitor's closet and started filling them. As the first one topped off, I set another one and got outside with the filled one. The little vest-pocket park that was built in place of the demolished building looked like one of Dante's circles of hell. Two extensive planted beds on either side of a little terrace with wooden benches were producing clouds of the white smoke with occasional flare-ups of flame. There were no plants yet, it was the mulch that was combusting. The heat was intense in the already hot afternoon (we set a record for the day in the high 80s).

As we unloaded a bucket and heard the hissing of extinguished coals, the fire would simply flare up elsewhere in the bed. Our administrative assistant joined us with another bucket, having delayed long enough to call the fire department. The three of us kept making the trip back and forth but we seemed to be making little progress--only containing the worst of it and preventing the benches from catching fire.

A single fire engine rushed in moments later and knocked the fire down pretty quickly. My colleague M thought the intense dry heat had set the mulch on fire spontaneously but I pointed out that the same mulch lay in big circles around the six trees and none of them had ignited. The firemen said it was almost certainly a cigarette butt or a match someone had tossed into the mulch. We'll have to see if we get anything out of the flower beds this spring--at the moment they look very bad.

The sudden coming of spring and even summer temperatures has caused trees, bulbs and ornamental shrubs all over Boston to burst immediately into flower. The famous Commonwealth Avenue magnolias, the inspiration of a Back Bay resident named Laura Dwight in the mid-1960s, are in full, spectacular bloom.
No matter the extreme dryness of what's on top of the soil, the ground itself here is almost saturated, so we're going to have a lush spring. For those coming to view my house, the forsythia hedge around the property is brilliant and my crocus and daffodils are popping all at once. The iris won't be long at this rate. I asked my realtor if a listing of all the plantings on the property would help as a selling point and he thought it a great idea, something he could include along with the flyer he had printed up to distribute to anyone who comes to see the place. Here it is:

Trees and Shrubs
2 apple trees
1 flowering crab apple
1 silver maple
1 old fashioned rambler rose
3 Japanese andromeda bushes
1 “bridal bouquet” bush
4 forsythia bushes and a forsythia hedge around both sides of the property
that face a street
2 rhododendron bushes
2 holly bushes, 1 male, 1 female to guarantee a heavy crop of berries
2 blueberry bushes
2 gooseberry bushes
1 flowering mock orange

1 deep purple lilac
1 grape arbor with heavily bearing grape vines

Perennials, bulbs
Several groupings of day lilies, various colors
Grape hyacinth
Many daffodils
Many crocus
Large beds of English ivy
Beds of lily of the valley and pachysandra
Many iris
Spring violets
1 vigorous rhubarb
Herbs, primarily mint

So, on to the Old House/New House news. It was a busy day and for about seven minutes we seemed to have a viable purchase offer on my house.

When I got into the office, there was an email from my realtor that the husband and wife architects had made an offer. I wasn't surprised because of their obvious interest in the house, and I waited with anticipation for the actual offer to come in.

Total letdown--they were looking to purchase at a give-away price and, as a further kick in the gut, their "offer" included my paying them twelve thousand dollars to cover their fees and expenses, whatever those might be. End of offer, end of excitement, end of those potential buyers.


I was putting my class materials together when I got a call from one of the two potential general contractors. P announced his withdrawal from the project. We've had a couple of delays this spring, the main one being when the structural engineer mistakenly took two weeks to review a project that he was supposed to do AFTER mine. In that time, P's firm got a huge job in New York State; told me that he wouldn't be able to have his framing crew work on my house until late September or early October. That meant that the house wouldn't be finished until sometime next spring which simply isn't acceptable. He was very complimentary to the detailed structural drawings M had submitted for the bidding process, said he knew the other candidate to be an excellent builder so I would be assured of good work, and then he said good-bye and that was that.

M, Fritz, R (the other general contractor who is no longer a "candidate" but is now our GC), and I will meet Friday morning to review everything and seal the deal.

After the class was over, I spent some time making a finished layout drawing of the kitchen cabinetry based on preliminary work Fritz and I had done over the weekend. We now have a complete order list for the base and wall cabinets and for the two cabinets I'll combine on a rolling base to make a work station island we can spot around the kitchen wherever we need extra work space. Working on this project in a primary way has been one of the great pleasures of the whole process.


Of course, some architects get to work on projects a great deal bigger than my little house set into a hillside in the woods. Santiago Calatrava, whose elegant sculptural designs are turning up in highly visible locations all over the world, presented the latest version of his condominium tower for Chicago's lakefront to the city's Planning Council. The "Chicago Spire" will stand two fifths of a mile high at 2000 feet, a whopping 550 feet higher than the city's Sears Tower.

Chicago Spire will contain 1200 condos on 150 floors, each floor turned two degrees from the one below, creating a full three hundred sixty degree twist in the building from ground level to the top of its pointed spiral crown. In the new version of the building Calatrava just presented, there's an underground parking facility and the architect agrees to redesign a section of waterfront park for the city, creating a proper platform for the soaring structure in the process.

The design seems almost impossible to me given the violent winds to which Chicago can be subjected, and I do wonder how many people will be able to live at, say 1850 feet looking out over a vast abyss every time they approach their windows. It would take someone far more tolerant of the swaying I know the building will do in high winds than I to live there. But I do think it's a very beautiful thing, rising like a monumental unicorn's horn from the ground straight up into the sky.

Oh, and if you know Calatrava's iconic white bridge over the Guadalquivir in Seville, Spain, it looks like Chicago's going to get one of his bridges into the bargain, its graceful curved pylon directing your attention upward to the spiral skyscraper.

I am sorry for all your house woes; you are not alone in the house slump.
That new Chicago building looks like a Vibrator from "Good Vibrations".
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