His First Book at 85

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.

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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.

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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.”  

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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…

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… 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!

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Building Skills for Building Stuff

For four years now I have been hosting Airbnb guests at the cottage that Bradley and Beth built on my property.

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As a kid Bradley always loved to build things in the shop – I remember when he was a teenager and I prayed he would be careful with dangerous power equipment. He was, and he taught himself many aspects of carpentry that he later incorporated into the cottage, such as the coffered ceilings, cherry tongue-and-groove floors, all the custom-made windows,

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and the beautiful railings in the loft.

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During the building process, he and Beth worked tirelessly at full-time jobs and the work on the cottage.

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I worked too, but mainly many hours at my job at the hotel. I paid the bills, made food and talked through material and design decisions with them.

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Here and there I contributed actual labor, but as anyone in their 50s knows, there is a big difference energy-wise in what you can do in your 50s compared to what you can do in your 20s. I marveled at their energy! I wanted to help! But plain and simple I was too tired, emotionally and physically, by the end of the day. It was their amazing project.

During a few of the cottage-building years, my son Lincoln and his wife Julia lived nearby. Lincoln worked at a woodworking shop in Richmond, honing the skills he himself had been developing. He and Bradley together built not only the original chicken coop, but also skillfully remade the base of my antique dining room table using solid mahogany – they designed and built graceful, perfect legs and gave new life to a family heirloom.

If I had been more present during those years, how much I could have learned from them both! I remember thinking this, remember admiring them, remember longing to work alongside, remember sitting exhausted in a chair…

Lincoln and Julia moved to Vermont in 2013 and Brad and Beth left for Seattle in August of 2014. The decision to try hosting through Airbnb, to “share” this gem of a cottage with others who might appreciate it, seemed reasonable. It took till early October 2014 to get everything ready, but from the get-go, literally within hours of posting the details of my cottage on their site, I had my first guests, and it has been great guns ever since. For two years I managed both the cottage and my job at the hotel (a bit of a juggling act). Then in a good-sized leap of faith in October 2016, hoping that I could get by with just the cottage, I resigned my position at the hotel.

Now I have time and energy for building things! Or unbuilding things, as the case may be. Sandy handed me the drill and up I went on the roof of the old chicken coop run to unscrew the metal panels in order to clean them and put them back on a rebuilt frame.

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Filling holes with concrete? I can do this.

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I can also dig out earth to make a level place for a deck to connect the old and new chicken coops.

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And build the coop deck’s framework with scrap 4x4s and 4x6s in rows to support the decking boards.

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I worked with my Uncle Ernie to make a bench for that deck, getting a little more comfortable with the chop saw. I still don’t like using the table saw.

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And once that all was finished (and huge thanks to Sandy for doing the lion’s share of the work) — oh, how beautiful it looks to me on this rainy November morning —

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we turned our attention to the house foundation

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and front porch project. I’m the grunt labor, I know this. Sandy is the energizer bunny, working for endless hours, bringing skill and ideas, and has way more confidence in my capabilities than I do. And Joe and Samuel have been invaluable in this getting so much of this work done so quickly.

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A few years ago, I assure you I did not envision myself nailing in joist hangers!

What happened? Yes, I now have more time, and yes, I am not so sapped of energy as in the past. But there is something else. Actually two somethings.

  1. I have always admired the things people accomplish when using their hands/bodies together with their brains, but in my world it was the men who were building and fixing things. My hat is off to all of them evermore, but while Bradley and Beth still lived here, my friend Peggy one time gave him some of the tools she didn’t need any more that she herself had used for years for woodworking and for fixing things! She is the first woman I knew who was not intimidated by machines or carpentry. I expect she has no idea how I marveled at her, how I admired that aspect of her great character. She also gave Bradley a SHOP sign that he proudly affixed to the shop door. I think of her every time I see it. Thank you, Peggy!

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2. I was always intrigued by the concept that you are never too old to learn something new. Back in the homeschooling days, I read a lot of John Holt’s work. I paraphrase here a story he told of someone who wanted to learn to play the violin but was 50 years old. “I’ll be 55 by the time I can play it decently,” the person said. “Yes,” he replied, “but in five years you’ll be 55 anyway, so wouldn’t it be better to have learned to play the violin during those years?”

In five years you’ll be 55 anyway.

That phrase stuck with me. I stretched it to not only:

I’m x-years old now. I want to learn [pick a skill]. In five years I’ll be x+5 years old anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to have learned that skill in those five years – even if not to the master level – than to get to x+5 years old and still be wishing I could do that thing?

But also to:

I’m x-years old now. I struggle with [pick a subject]. In five years I’ll be x+5 years old anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to find a way to make some strides in that area in those five years than to get to x+5 years old and still be struggling in the same way with that thing?

So here I am, cutting decking boards on a chop saw, knowing the difference between a rim joist and a sill plate and a ledger board, toenailing deck joists in place to hold them until it’s time to screw in the hangers. In a conversation with my son Lincoln the other day, he said, “It’s very cool to see you learning how accessible and simple all this building stuff is. Not just some magic that you have to ask some pro woodworker to do every time. Measure, mark, cut, secure, repeat!” I told him I have my limitations: I am not very strong and I am scared of some of the equipment. He said, “Well you should be scared of those tools! Every safe woodworker is.”

Today I am grateful for all the people I’ve known who have woodworking skills, all the encouragement I’ve received from people I love (in ways they are probably not aware of) and all the enthusiasm of friends and family who cheer on these projects. All of this has developed in me a greater interest in the craft and a hunger to learn more. One of these days I might do more than the grunt work, but if I don’t, that’s okay. I’m having fun and there’s a wonderful result!

Here we are now, with temporary steps on the side! For the first time in almost a month, we can go in and out through the front door 😊

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