Office Book Club: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

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Over drinks and ‘d’oeuvres at a TriBeCa bistro, the ESKW/A Office Book Club dove into early-20th century Williamsburg through A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. One of our most tenured team members chose it because—for shame—only one of us had actually read it in school, although it was published in 1943. It turns out our coming-of-age would have to come a little later!

Each of us connected with a different aspect of the story. No spoilers here, but themes of hard-working immigrants, authoritarian figureheads, and reversals of fortune resonated most with us.

“It was lovely,” said Lauretta daCruz, our office manager. “Sometimes we have a terrific book but not a great conversation, or a book no one really liked it and a really good discussion. But [that] night was an awesome chat and we all really loved the book. That was nice.”

Betty Smith crafted such an engaging protagonist that many of us felt like Francie’s memories and experiences were our own—as she went to school, found a job, fell in love, and became herself.

“I felt like I knew her!” quipped Carlos Salinas Weber, one of our architects.

If you need a page-turner for a commute or want to get lost in your recliner at home, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn has our recommendation. There are so many hilarious, heartbreaking, tenacious, and trying little moments and connections throughout. And at a solid but smooth 493 pages, each stretch feels like an accomplishment. Reading it was a challenging yet rewarding experience.

Last night’s meetup marked the seventh completed book since the group’s inception in February 2017—a remarkable achievement considering the team’s regular readings and responsibilities related to work and life in general. The growing list includes The Devil and the White City, Telex from Cuba, The Sellout, Ghost Boy, The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos, and Pedro Paramo.

Next up is the recently departed Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. Other authors we’re eyeing include Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, and Tom Wolfe. Give us your recommendations in the comments!

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It’s National Poetry Month and Throwback Thursday!

WhitneyAtHerDeskCirca2009

Whitney at her desk, 2009

In 1996, the Academy of American Poets designated April National Poetry Month to increase awareness and appreciation of the art form. In keeping with that spirit—and in honor of #throwbackthursday—we’re sharing the poetic, aesthetic stylings of our former office manager Whitney Merritt. She dedicated a poem to the office on her 25th anniversary and even abridged it for her retirement 16 years later. It appears below.

Whitney was the glue in this office for many years. She was truly an ESKW original, having joined the team at age 20 in 1965. She retired in 2011 after 40 years keeping this place together. She loved her family and treated each of us like one of her own. Whitney passed away in August 2013 but will always be a part of our legacy.

 

 

 

TO THE OFFICE 

(abridgements italicized)

ESKW/A Office Photo 2008

25 years! Has it been that long?

Remember how I drove you crazy with the old Sinatra song?

After 41 years, most of you have never heard that old Sinatra song (“Strangers in the Night”).

 

In the beginning the copier was in the closet, sitting on a shelf,

And all the typos errors had to be erased—in triplicate—by myself.

Specifications were written with the usual zealous haste,

Then in would come the corrections—I was the queen of cut and paste.

Now the computer prints out the specs and the copier does the collating,

The telephone is much improved, and the fax keeps no man waiting.

25 years! Has it been that long?

After 41 years—and I say this with love:

There is an app for all of the above.

Cut and paste is on the menu while the fax is considered old school,

Because email, Twitter, and Facebook, now the airwaves rule.

 

The office staff used the go fishing, well off to Montauk I sped,

But I didn’t have any sea legs, so my day was spent in the head.

There are some things though in which I am quite steady,

The first that comes to mind— “Anything for Ever Ready” …

I’ve tried to keep up with the times, but often I could scream,

Because I find it disconcerting talking to machines.

Our clients use us repeatedly, that’s what our bid will say,

And I like to think I’ve played a part in making it that way.

25 years! Has it been that long?

After 41 years, I’ve stayed on land and added FedEx as my evening call,

Though sometimes I think nobody hears me at all.

Electronic conversations are still not my best zone,

But some of our clients are glad to hear I’m still manning the phone.

 

We’ve sat around this table, a hundred times or more,

When things were on the up and up, or the wolf was at the door.

We’ve shared our lives in many ways—our hopes, our joys, our sorrows,

So now I’ll just propose a toast to many more tomorrows.

After 41 years these sentiments still ring true,

And even though I’ll miss you all, I’m looking forward to something new.

I’m leaving you my contact info; I’m sure email will be your choice,

But truth be told, I would rather hear your voice.

ESKWA Whitney Randy Andrew 2012

Whitney with Randy and Andrew

Her heartfelt words meant the world to those who worked with her. Though perhaps less poetic, here are some of our own about her:

  • “I was amazed that someone who had been working at the same company for so many years would take such care to do everything perfectly. Besides being someone we could all rely on, she was a great entertainer. Whoever sat at the desk next to her could count on some fun. Once she told us that on her day off she would spend time at Orchard Beach in the Bronx and do some people-watching. She had us in stitches telling stories of people she had seen and doing some imitations.” (Lucille, bookkeeper)
  • “When I was hired as the new office manager, it did not take me long to realize that Whitney was a treasure and that I would have very big shoes to fill. She knew everything about the company, and she played an integral part in making it the successful firm it is today. Whitney had a love of life and even though she was strongly opposed to “modern machinery” her curiosity and interest in everything around her made her a wonderful person to spend time with. As she sang and laughed her way through her day at ESKW/A, she imparted knowledge and wisdom that helped me transition into my new role.” (Lauretta, office manager)
  • “With her high spirit and strength, Whitney had a way of making me feel closer to home although I was thousands of miles away from my family. I loved her old-fashioned way of doing everything, from typing on her electronic type writer placed in front of her computer, ordering items from JCP catalog, and calling internet the intraweb. She always had a needle and thread to patch something and anti-static spray for skirts! She was truly a special lady.” (Tatjana, former project manager)
  • “I feel like she will always be nearby.” (Daughtry, senior architect)
ESKWA Halloween Whitney

Whitney at Halloween

Office Book Club: Devil in the White City

By Michael Kowalchuk

Last week marked the beginning of ESKW/A’s newest tradition: office book club. Four intrepid readers gathered to discuss Erik Larson’s compelling work of true crime history, The Devil in the White City. Larson’s book, though meticulously researched and faithful to fact, reads like a novel. A 2003 New York Times bestseller, the book is especially relevant for architects due to its treatment of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition as a backdrop for Dr. H.H. Holmes’s grisly murders. Even though some of us have already read the book, we chose it for our first book club because of its juicy merging of crime drama and architecture.

Palace of Mechanic Arts

The book details the planning, design and construction of the fair as Holmes commits his crime spree. It was interesting to compare the design culture of the late 1890’s with that of today. We find our working relationship with engineers and landscape architects as collaborative, while the fair seemed rife with rivalries. The nineteenth century inflated egos of the extremely male-dominated profession are happily diminishing in modern practice. One theme that persists in many practices is the perceived dichotomy between the architect as artiste and the architect as businessperson.

The World’s Columbian Exposition (also known as the Chicago World’s Fair) was fascinating for many reasons: the clash between tradition and modernity was almost palpable, the fair saw the largest gathering of people (during peacetime) in world history and it was one of the first times the United States flexed its muscles on a global stage. The fact that the fair was held in Chicago, “America’s second city,” proved that even places once considered provincial backwaters could pull off an event as stunning as those held in Paris, London or New York.

Larson made clear that darker forces animate the human Ferris Wheel psyche as well. In addition to Holmes’s 12+ confirmed murders (the highest estimates were around 200), the story shed light on the underbelly of Chicago which the fair tried so hard to obscure. Both Holmes and the lead architect, Daniel Burnham, exploited their laborers, though obviously to different ends. Workplace injuries or deaths were common, the eight-hour workday was a dream, and unions were only just beginning to learn their true strength. While the fair’s buildings may have been spray-painted a glimmering white, garbage was thrown down the same staircases used by guests and visitors died in accidents caused by shoddy oversight and a general lack of safety standards. On top of all that, the fair was financed by the city’s ill begotten slaughterhouse wealth and unsavory business practices that put the 2008 crisis to shame.

At the end of the day, however, the human spirit triumphed. Holmes was discovered, first as a fraud and then as a serial killer, thanks to the dedication of a persistent detective and concerned citizens. While the fair wasn’t perfect, it introduced dozens of new concepts, values and products (including PBR!) to the general public. The Ferris wheel was unveiled for the first time, allowing regular people to see the world in a previously-unthinkable way. The so-called White City lives on in the City Beautiful Movement’s neoclassical civic buildings that dot virtually every small town across the country.

World Trade Center Transportation HubOne thing we lamented was the lack of a contemporary event as impactful as the World’s Columbian Exposition. Yes, we have our biennales and dazzling new structures that defy gravity like Calatrava’s transportation hub but it seems like the next analogous experience will exist with the help of the virtual, not the built environment. Pokémon Go was just a small taste of what is possible with augmented reality and future endeavors have the potential to greatly affect millions of lives without corresponding changes to the physical world. We also lamented the lack of comprehensive documentation of the Chicago World’s Fair, as Burnham forbade amateur photography to control the way his masterpiece was viewed by the world.

Most importantly, we had a great time and found yet another reason to socialize out outside of office hours. Up next is Rachel Kushner’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba, a fictional account that chronicles the lives of Americans living in a United Fruit Company enclave on the eve of the Cuban Revolution.

ESKW/A Inaugural Office Book Club

ESKW/A Inaugural Office Book Club