STORIES WITHIN STORIES
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE RESTORATION OF HISTORICALLY IMPORTANT HOMES is an imprecise art. The challenges range from structures that are essentially unchanged since their original use, with all effects and furnishings intact, to buildings whose shells have been salvaged but which have lost all their historically correct detail. In the latter case, those returning the homes to daily use by the public must stage the places with period-correct props, trying to augment a narrative that an empty edifice along could not provide. They act in the same way as set directors on a movie shoot, filling in gaps to, in effect, supplement a big story with a lot of little ones.
Thing is, sometimes not only the devil, but the real interest, is in such details, as with this drafting set I encountered during a recent tour of a grand old summer home built by a millionaire in the Arizona desert of the 1920’s. Nearly every original accent in the house has been artificially placed to suggest real living space, even though its first owners sold the home soon after building it. One nice little tableau in a front-facing room features a copy of the original house blueprint, laid out on a table as if its creator were still poring over it, flanked by a lovely leather-bound kit from the long-forgotten Eugene Dietzgen Company, once one of the country’s premier maker of drafting tools. And therein lies a real tale.
Travelling (and drawing) in some very important circles.
Eugene, born in Germany in 1862, was soon moved by his father to Tsarist Russia, where Papa promptly got himself in hot water for distributing socialist literature critical of the reigning government. In 1881, Joseph Dietzgen sent his son to live in America, both to evade the local military draft and to spirit away some of the writings that had already landed the old man in prison on occasion. Arriving in New York at the age of 19, Eugene Dietzgen began working for a German drafting company, and soon moved to Chicago, where he formed his own tool-making firm in 1881. Applying his father’s progressive ideas in the new world, Eugene provided such exotic amenities for his employees as individual bathrooms for men and women (!) and open window sills inside the factory decorated with flowers. He also continued to promote the writings of his father, a philosopher who counted no less than Karl Marx among his fans. Early in the 20th century, the Dietzgen company soared to the top of its field with a very popularly priced slide rule, and slid into history as the Dietzgen Corporation, which exists to this day.
So, since it wasn’t the property of this historic house’s original designer, how did this elegant kit find its way to the Arizona desert? That’s the fun of diverting one’s attention from the intended purpose of placing the object on this particular table, and using the camera to celebrate the story within the story. This object was someone’s go-to for precision work. How? As a gift? An aspirational investment in a future career? An impulse purchase? As is often the case with a photograph, the picture is a two-way door: things are concealed and revealed, all in the same instant.