Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cypress at the Source

I had the pleasure of vacationing with my family in New Orleans last week. The city, though still bearing the undeniable trauma of Katrina, is a must-see, replete with a rich, unique culture and history, great food, incredible music, and genuine, southern hospitality. New Orleans almost has it all - except one thing: no Wright buildings.

It was an interesting exercise to imagine what Wright might have designed amidst the picturesque, 18th and
19th century galleried buildings of the French Quarter. The only thing that came to mind was something akin to his Masieri Memorial, an unbuilt 1953 design for the Grand Canal in Venice.

But despite the lack of Wright buildings to distract me from my hiatus (and likely annoy my family), I did find a Martin House connection in an unlikely place: the Honey Island Swamp, northeast of New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain. There, on a boat tour of the swamp, we saw ancient cypress trees in their natural
setting - trees of the sort that were harvested in the early twentieth century, some destined to become millwork in the Martin House complex. Cypresses have a natural waterproofing - an oil called cypressene - which allows them to grow in semi-aquatic environments such as the Swamp. The same quality makes cypress stock a good choice for applications such as the warm, humid Martin conservatory. Martin House Lead Cabinetmaker Steve Oubre explained recently that the wood used in the reconstructed conservatory trim is actually period-specific, as it was sawn from century-old "sinker" cypress - logs that have been salvaged from the bottoms of Louisiana and Florida waterways and re-sawn for contemporary use.

One particular cypress in the Honey Island Swamp - which our Cajun guide indicated may be more than 600 years old - has been dubbed the "moonshine tree" by locals. Legend has it that once served as a gathering point for local distillers who would congregate by boat to swap and sample one another's moonshine. Our guide said that this tree was spared from the axe a century ago because it had a disease which produced its gnarled trunk and branches. Hung with Spanish moss, it's definitely an icon of Louisiana swamp-gothic.

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