Portland Observatory

Casco Bay

over the weekend, I went to Maine for the first time. during my day in Portland, I visited the Observatory which sits atop Munjoy Hill in the East End of town. built in 1807, the 86ft tall building is the last remaining maritime signal tower in the United States and operated as a subscription service for merchants operating out of Portland Harbor. they would pay a fee to Lemuel Moody, a long-time captain turned entrepreneur, who kept watch over Casco Bay from the cupola and identified ships as they approached. having advance notice of several hours or even the better part of a day allowed merchants to hire the stevedores necessary to off-load the ships and get cargo moving quickly. ships could also convey messages to merchants, alerting them of damaged goods or other problems that arose during transport. Captain Moody also kept thorough meteorological records and eventually began offering them to the local newspaper for a fee. (our guide was quick to impress upon us the entrepreneurial nature of Moody.)

Portland Observatory from the northeast side

the Observatory served a watchtower during the War of 1812 but the advent of the telegraph and, later, ship-to-shore radios rendered obsolete the original function of the Observatory and in 1923 it ceased operation. the City of Portland came into possession of the tower at that time and they retained it until Greater Portland Landmarks took it over. twice in the last century the structure has undergone renovations — the first as part of the Works Progress Administration (1939), and again in 1994 when an infestation of powder post beetles brought years of seeping water damage to light. despite the near total dismantling and reconstruction of the tower in 1994, much of the original material remains. prior to beginning the 1939 restoration, all original surfaces were painted a mahogany color and, as we stood on the third or fourth level with our tour guide, most of the walls and ceiling were still dark brown in color.

it’s all kinds of landmarked!

the foundation of the structure is perhaps the most unique feature of the Portland Observatory. because a layer of granite lay six inches beneath the topsoil, there was no reasonable way to dig down an appropriate depth to support an 86ft octagonal structure. instead, Moody designed a “ballasted” footing for his tower — 122 tons of rock underneath the floor of the first level keep the building secure. almost immediately after touring the building in 2006, the American Society of Civil Engineers named it a National Civil Engineering Landmark. my guide (Bob) was nice enough to open the trap door on the first floor to let me take a peek at the ballast; it was exactly what I thought it would be — great big rocks stacked all over the floor!

(check out a real-time view of Casco Bay from atop the Observatory)

Iowa City’s Old Capitol Building

Iowa had several different territorial capitals before Des Moines became the permanent site of state governance. this cornerstone for this particular building, the third and final territorial capitol, was laid in 1840. construction did not start off smoothly, however, as the architect resigned a mere nine days into the project, leaving one of the territorial commissioners to oversee the project. the limestone blocks and oak beams used in construction came from around Iowa and the copper covered the original dome. it took two years to complete four rooms in the capitol, two of which housed the legislature.

the territorial legislature met in this building for six years, until Iowa became the 29th state to join the Union (in 1846). Iowa City remained the state capitol for a decade, after which point legislators decided to move the capital to Des Moines due to its location at the center of the state. the building wasn’t completed until after the removal to Des Moines, which occurred shortly after the appropriation of $4,000 to complete the capitol. among other events, the Old Capitol Building saw the drafting of the Iowa state constitution and the inauguration of the first governor (Ansel Briggs), as well as the authorization of the state’s first public university (now the University of Iowa). in January 1857, the State Historical Society of Iowa was founded in the capitol.

when the capital moved to Des Moines in 1857, the Old Capitol became the first permanent structure owned by the University of Iowa (to that point they’d held classes in rented space). until 1863, the entire university fit into the building, though during the 1858-59 academic year financial and organizational problems kept most of the university closed. (the Normal School — now Department of Education — continue to meet and remained in the Capitol building until 1960.) over the next five decades additional appropriation of funds allowed for the construction of four additional buildings, now known collectively as the Pentacrest, which make up the heart of the UI campus.

renovations occurred throughout the 20th century. the first major project came in the early 1920s, when (among other things) a 650-pound crystal and brass chandelier was added to the Senate chamber and the dome was gilded gold leaf. between 1970 and 1976, historical restoration occurred, returning the building closer to its initial Greek Revivalist design. this project also set out to create a “living museum” that included historic furnishings and displays (not unlike the Wisconsin Historical Society building, I imagine). the Capitol reopened on the nation’s bicentennial and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

in 2001, while removing asbestos from under the dome in another renovation project, contractor using open flame torches and heat guns on the gold dome set it on fire. thank to a concrete slab that was installed beneath the dome during the 1920s restoration, damage was contained to the dome, which was completely destroyed. it has since been replaced by a wood dome covered in gold leaf, complete with new bell (the old, mangled bell is now on display inside). as of 2006, the building is once again open to the public.

visit here for a virtual tour, or here for more extensive history of rectifying the fire damage.
more info from wikipedia.

the Libertador rises again

apparently immune to accusations of absurdity, Hugo Chavez has had the remains of Simon Bolivar exhumed from the Panteon Nacional in Caracas to determine the precise cause of the Libertador’s death.

since 2008, Chavez has publicly called into question the conclusion that Bolivar died of tuberculosis while in Colombia. the cult of Bolivar is profoundly strong in Venezuela, not unlike that constructed around George Washington in the U.S., and with good reason — he successfully united the people of the Viceroyalty of New Grenada to throw off Spanish colonization and formed the short-lived nation of Gran Colombia (which included parts of what is now Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, Guyana, Ecuador, and Costa Rica). Chavez in is particularly enthralled with Bolivar’s legacy — he pushed to rename the nation the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (the precise meaning of which could be debated at length)  has espoused self-proclaimed Bolivarian ideals from his earliest days in politics, and has gone to lengths to highlight similarities between himself and his nineteenth century idol. (whether Bolivar and his nineteenth century “liberal” ideals would support Chavez’s efforts is another topic for lengthy debate.)

and so, perhaps because his antics haven’t been capturing sufficient international attention of late, and acting upon the inconclusive conclusion that Bolivar’s recorded symptoms could indicate long-term arsenic poisoning, the tomb in the Panteon has been opened and the contents therein will be subjected to further tests.

(again, another quandary: Bolivar died in and was initially interred in Santa Marta, Colombia. twelve years after his death, the then-president of now-Venezuela requested that his remains be returned to Caracas, where Bolivar was born. not so very long ago, the authenticity of the bones resting in state in the Panteon was called into question and, as Bolivar had no direct descendants, verification is even more complicated.)

will science prove some nefarious alternative to the tuberculosis conclusion? I doubt it. what does it matter, 180 years later, how, precisely, the Libertador died? the new information won’t alter the course of the intervening years or how Bolivar is perceived by anyone. mostly, it seems Chavez is interested in dredging up more reasons to rattle a saber in Colombia’s direction, to provide more fodder for verbal attacks if tensions over FARC and cross-border paramilitary incursions lose their ability to agitate.

word from the BBC that the remains were to be exhumed, and an article from 2007 (while I was writing my thesis, in fact) in which Chavez proposed the idea.

Hoover Dam

I’ve been to the Hoover Dam twice, visiting Gabrielle both times, and seen it from two perspectives: as a pedestrian crossing it on foot, and as a passenger on a boat on Lake Mead. far more impressive than the Gavins Point Dam on either account.

the first trip was just before I headed back to Knox for my senior year of college. it was also same week as Katrina, and I’d spent no small part of the week digesting news reports and coming to understand the scope of the devastation wrought on New Orleans. as such, it was nice to get out of the house and into the unrelenting desert sunshine for a view of something so massive and iconic.

initially known as the Boulder Dam (since it was to be constructed in the Boulder Canyon but relocated to Black Canyon), the dam was officially named for then-President Herbert Hoover, who was instrumental in getting the project initiated while Secretary of Commerce under Harding. it had been common practice to name dams after presidents — but not sitting presidents. at the time construction got underway, Hoover had an eye towards using the job-creation associated with the project in conjunction with his reelection bid; after he lost to FDR in 1932, Harold Ickes (the new Secretary of the Interior) admonished members of the project to revert to the Boulder Dam appellation. it wasn’t until a California Congressional representative (Jack Anderson) submitted a resolution to the House of Representatives in 1947 that use of the “official” Hoover name resumed.

construction of the dam began in 1931 and was completed in 1936 (two years ahead of schedule) and although there have been obvious benefits for the lower members of the Colorado River Pact (signed in 1922 to decide how to divide resources associated with said river), the environmental consequences of the Hoover Dam are also quite massive. in the six years following the completion of the dam, as the basin for Lake Mead filled, virtually no water reached the Colorado River Delta. the delta’s saltwater-freshwater zone which, at one time stretched some 40 miles south of the river mouth, turned into an inverse estuary, whereby the salinity at the mouth of the river is actually higher than in the ocean water surrounding it. additionally, the Hoover Dam eliminated the pattern of natural flooding that occurred along the lower portion of the Colorado River which, naturally, profoundly and adversely affected numerous species native to the river. of course, those who benefit from the energy generated by the dam accept the  endangerment of this flora and fauna (whether tacitly or implicitly). of the energy generated by the hydroelectric turbines, 29% goes to the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 23% to the state of Nevada, 19% to the state of Arizona, and fully 15% to the city of Los Angeles. the price for cleaner energy?

(Hoover on wikipedia)