Throughout his life Hank Browne was fascinated with ruins of all kinds: skeletons of houses and churches long since abandoned, roofs falling in, canals overgrown, kilns and forges crumbling by way of one tiny crack at a time, bridges unused and slowly disintegrating, walls and chimneys freestanding – all of which at one time had stood new and coherent and sound. To him the ruins were a testament to the skills, needs, hard work, challenges and creativity of those who came before us. They were a window into time past, a reflection of the power of nature when left to itself. To him they were beautiful.
For thirty years he wanted to tell the world. Four years ago he began earnestly, building a team and developing ideas that would make his book about ruins a reality. Last night we gathered in his living room to celebrate his achievement, his dream come true. Hank and his book, Vanishing History: Ruins in Virginia, were featured on “Charlottesville Inside Out,” a local PBS (WHTJ) show that introduces the community to extraordinary people doing extraordinary things.
Host Terri Allard, in her signature style that both charms and engages, interviewed Hank and his photographer, Kevin MacNutt, at the ruins of Governor James Barbour’s home on the grounds of Barboursville Vineyards. A fire on Christmas day in 1884 destroyed the beautiful home that Thomas Jefferson had designed when the United States was a new nation. It is one of the amazing structures still standing, still speaking of its past, that Hank included in his book, and was therefore a perfect backdrop for the PBS segment.
Hank’s book jacket bio states that his career as an architect included “the challenge of finding technical solutions to the preservation of architectural fabric and integrity.” He also “furthered his professional credentials at the International Center for Restoration of Monuments and Sites in Rome and played a significant role in the restoration of numerous historic buildings including Pearl Buck’s birthplace in Hillsboro, West Virginia; the Executive (Governor’s) Mansion in Richmond, Virginia; ‘Pine Knot,’ Theodore Roosevelt’s Camp in Scottsville, Virginia; and eleven retail and warehouse buildings on Meeting Street in Charleston, South Carolina.”
Even with all that, the writing of a book that was on his mind for 30 years reminds me of the violin story that John Holt tells in Learning All the Time, the one about the guy who was 50 and wanted to learn to play the violin but knew it would take him five years to learn it well and that he’d be 55 by the time he could play proficiently. This may be true, someone said to the man, but in five years you’ll be 55 anyway.
Let us not overlook that Hank was already past 80 when he took the first steps to create his book. He didn’t know how long it would take. Bravo!
With determination that crossed the line into passion, he had reached out to Kevin and traipsed with him through fields, woods, brambles and rain, time and again – hey, are you free next weekend to go shoot some more photos? When they had compiled an impressive photographic sampling of old, falling, crumbling and ruined houses, kilns, forges, canals, locks, train stations (like this one at Pleasant Valley),
bridges, mills, churches, industrial sites, viaducts, tunnels, villages and springs, they began laying out the pages and trying different ways of presenting the accompanying information.
Hank’s goal was not only to show the beauty of the structures – which, granted, is sometimes an eerie beauty – but also to advocate for the care and preservation of what he calls “lonesome evidence of man’s endeavors.” Writing a book has the advantage of allowing you to include what you think particularly pertinent or noteworthy, such as this quote from John Ruskin, a prominent social thinker of the Victorian era:
When we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for; and let us think, as we lay stone upon stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say, as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, “See! This our father did for us.”
My part started about two years ago, pulling all the pieces together to publish this beautiful, full color, hardbound book that was finally in hand last January. It was selected for the 2018 Virginia Festival of the Book and has sold out well more than half of its initial inventory through independent bookstores, Amazon and his website. As we gathered last night to raise a toast, first to Hank and Kevin…
… and then to all the players who formed a part of this marvelous success story, I thought about all the good and necessary pieces of the puzzle – great people, vast experience, outstanding skills, wise use of resources, passion, determination, guts, patience, humor and mutual encouragement, to say nothing of hard work, long days and many miles traveled.
Just as important as what you have (and we all know this) is what you don’t have, or don’t allow, or effectively push away: naysayers, skepticism, lack of confidence, pettiness. These negatives always vie for positioning but they did not get a place at Hank’s table, so to speak.
Everyone else in the room last night – Kevin, Hank’s daughters Leslie and Tracy, Leslie’s husband Clark, friends Georgiana and Michael and me (how lucky am I to count as a friend!) – can vouch for Hank’s can-do spirit, his continual gratitude to those who have walked alongside him, his willingness to use technology (his laptop to type out narratives and sort through Kevin’s photo files, a clicker when giving powerpoint presentations), his unquenchable fascination with all things built with care and expert craftsmanship (especially those that have seen better days), and his steadfast belief that some things (especially those that have seen better days) deserve our attention, our praise, our protection.
And he’s not calling it quits. A book about ruins in Maryland is in the works!
When I am in my 80s (Lord willing, I will get there!), I hope I am eager to brave what is new, to embrace the as-yet-unmet goals in my life, and to forge ahead with the same grace, the same energy, the same fortitude that this wonderful man has shown. And I hope there is someone with an arm around me, saying to me as I say to Hank: Bravo! You did it!