Tuesday, February 14, 2012


What does Llewellyn Park, New Jersey have to do with Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz trumpeter?   They are connected, if only through my web meandering yesterday. Maybe everything is connected at some level but I thought I might share with you the path of my meanderings as an example of what you can learn along the way.

I was looking at a book that is a chronology of automobile events. In the chapter on pre-automobile events, I found this entry:

Alexander Jackson Davis designs Llewellyn Park, New Jersey, the first suburban subdivision in the United States. Planned in the romantic style with curving, non-gridiron streets.
That got me curious about both Llewellyn Park and Alexander Jackson Davis, which sent me off to Wikipedia. Today, Llewellyn Park is home to perhaps a few hundred extremely wealthy individuals. From the beginning, the community was planned to provide beautiful mountainside vistas to the residents. Estates varied in size from a couple of acres to ten acres, all nestled within the woods and highly-planned landscaping for a suburban Eden. The development was the brainchild of Llewellyn Solomon Haskell, a prominent New York City businessman who asked the architect, Alexander Jackson Pope to design his new suburban community. When it was built, Llewellyn Park was as close to downtown Manhattan as was Central Park. Thomas Edison built his palatial estate, Glenmont, in Llewellyn Park.
Glenmont, Edison's Estate

U.S Customs House, New York City
Not to belabor Llewellyn, I started to look at what else Alexander Jackson Davis had designed. Davis was one of the preeminent architects of the first half of the 19th century. He was famous for both his Greek Revival designs (like the New York Custom's House) and his Italianate homes.  One of those homes was the Blandwood Mansion in Greensboro, North Carolina - within an hour of my home. The Blandwood Mansion was the home of Governor John Motley Morehead. The home was originally constructed in 1795 but Morehead had the house redesigned by Davis in 1844 in the Italianate style. Davis had never been to Italy but the pictures he saw inspired him to design many grand homes in the style. Blandwood was the furthest south of all of Davis's designs.

Blandwood Mansion
Governor Morehead's family lived in the mansion until around 1900. in 1907, Blandwood was sold to Col. William H. Osborne to be the location of the North Carolina franchise of the Keeley Institute.  The Keeley Institute was based in Dwight, Illinois.

The Keeley Institute was probably the first U.S. institution to treat alcohol and drug addiction as a disease, rather than a moral failing. The founders of the Institute were Leslie E. Keeley, a doctor in Dwight, John R. Oughton, a local druggist, and a Fargo, N.D. merchant named Curtis Judd. The treatment they devised was an injectable concoction that they termed "bi-chlorides of gold".

The first Keeley Institute was opened in Dwight, Ill in 1879 with the slogan, "Drunkenness is a disease and I can cure it." The treatment which consisted of four injections a day plus other remedies plus rest became known as the "Keeley Cure". The Cure turned out to be a huge moneymaker for Dr. Keeley and his compatriots. They built a complex of buildings consisting of offices, laboratories, and a hotel to house their patients. By sheer coincidence, I had come across  a Detroit Photographic Company image of the Keeley office building a while back in Dwight - a magnificent Richardsonian structure with an enormous portal - taken sometime before 1902 when the building complex burned in a fire.

Keeley Institute Office circa 1902
The buildings were rebuilt and the facade of the office building was reused - albeit in a heavily modified design. The Keeley Institute itself stayed in operation until 1965. The treatments were controversial as to their effectiveness but at least they treated alcoholism as a disease. The Institute was sort of the Betty Ford Center of its day. Many thousands of people passed through its portals including many celebrities.

Bix Beiderbecke
And finally, this brings us to Bix Beiderbecke, the young jazz trumpeter of the 1920s who played in Paul Whitman's Orchestra. Beiderbecke was never healthy but seemingly he was bent on self destruction through drug and alcohol abuse. In 1929, when he was only in his mid-20s, he went to Dwight to the Keeley Institute to dry out. He was there a month and seemed in good shape when he left. But the Depression left him without much work in his native Midwest and he returned to New York City with all of its temptations. He died of his alcohol addiction in 1931 at the age of 28 .

And so that is how Llewellyn Park is connected to Bix Beiderbecke. It is a connection built on links between seemingly-unrelated subjects. Yet, the world is connected through just such random links. I love the internet but I sometimes hate it when I get off on one of these tangents. Nonetheless, I learned a lot for just one day.  May you be so blessed (or cursed).

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Serpent and the Telegraph

It's interesting how connections sometimes come about. I am on an email list for the Library of Congress and there was a post on their blog about Hans Christian Andersen (yes, the same Andersen of fairy tale fame). The blog post was announcing that an American family had donated some letters between one of their family members and Andersen that were written in the 1860s and 1870s. The blog mentioned that some of Andersen's stories, including "The Great Sea Serpent", had first appeared in english language publications such as Scribner's magazine.  The "Serpent" appeared in the January, 1872 issue.

"The Great Sea Serpent" is a fairy tale of how the fishes and sea creatures reacted to the laying of the Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable in 1866.  In the story, the cable is thought to be some great sea serpent that originated from the creatures on the surface. The fish were trying to decide whether to bite it in two because they despised its presence in their world. The wise ones among them advised the more adversarial fish to leave it alone. The story ended with this paragraph:

Good for nothing!” said all the creatures in the sea, and held fast to the sea-cow’s opinion, so as to have an opinion. The little fish had its own thoughts. “That exceedingly long, thin serpent is perhaps the most wonderful fish in the ocean. I have a feeling it is.

The very most wonderful,” say we human folks, and say it with knowledge and assurance. It is the great sea-serpent, long ago the theme of song and story. It was born and nourished and sprang forth from men’s cunning and was laid upon the bottom of the sea, stretching from the Eastern to the Western land, bearing messages, quick as light flashes to our earth. It grows in might and in length, grows year by year through all seas, round the world, beneath the stormy waves and the lucid waters, where the skipper looks down as if he sailed through the transparent air, and sees the swarming fish, brilliant fireworks of color. Down, far down, stretches the serpent, Midgard’s snake, that bites its own tail as it encircles the earth. Fish and shell beat upon it with their heads—they understand not the thing—it is from above. Men’s thoughts in all languages course through it noiselessly. “The serpent of science for good and evil, Midgard’s snake, the most wonderful of all the ocean’s wonders, our—GREAT SEA-SERPENT!

I always find it interesting when technology intersects with art and literature. Who would have thought that something like the Trans-Atlantic Telegraph Cable would inspire a fairy tale? And yet, through the form of the fairy tale, we see Andersen revering the cable as one of mankind's greatest achievements. He was not alone.  The cable of 1866 (there had been an earlier attempt that failed in the 1850s) would connect the continents and that connection would never again be broken.

Now, of course, the telegraph looks so terribly antiquated.  We can hardly imagine that messages would have taken two weeks to travel in letters from England to America before the advent of the Trans-Atlantic telegraph. I wonder if Hans Christian Andersen was alive today, would he write a fairy tale about the internet? Would we have something like "The Great Spider Web of Communications"?  It would be nice to think so - but somehow I doubt it.