Monday, February 17, 2014


The other day I was eating breakfast at a cozy little diner called Sam’s Log Cabin, not far from where I live. The place is pretty much what its name suggests--a rustic little box of a building with log siding and a hipped roof. The inside is just as spartan as the outside: there’s no proper ceiling, and the roof rafters are plainly exposed to view. 

I was savoring my pancakes and bacon, idly regarding the unusual construction, when my eyes came upon a curious thing. Apparently the person who’d framed the roof made a whopping mistake and ended it in the wrong location. You could see where the angled hip rafters were framed in, as if the carpenter thought he’d reached the end of the building, and where additional rafters had been appended to continue the roof another eight feet or so. It was clear that this had happened at one time, because the next stage of the work--the boards covering the roof--plainly continued onto the patched-on part.

The intriguing thing wasn’t the error itself--in construction, mistakes happen all the time. Rather, it was that the evidence was still right there in front of everybody, frozen in time, so vivid and immediate that you could practically still hear the expletives bouncing off the rafters.

Compelling architecture, whether magnificent or mundane, seems to have a common property--an ability to record and reflect the traces of human presence. In a great Gothic cathedral, for instance, the original builders may speak to us through a skillful piece of joinery, a beautiful carving, a radiant expanse of stained glass. What’s more, we sense the presence of all those who’ve entered--the generations whose passage has worn a stairstep smooth, or whose grip has polished a bronze handle to a brilliant patina. 

But magnificent buildings aren’t the only ones with this property. Humble ones--a barracks, a barn, or a quirky little restaurant--can have it as well. And sometimes, the thing that engages us is nothing more remarkable than a plain old mistake.

That, after all, is what lured me from my pancakes into a reverie about what happened on the day that nameless carpenter framed the roof of Sam’s Log Cabin. Did he have something else on his mind--a sick child at home, an argument with a friend, an overdue rent payment? Or did he just down a few too many for lunch? 

We’ll never know for sure, but in any case, the exact hows and whys don’t matter. What matters is the momentary kinship with that person-- perhaps long gone--who was probably not so very different from us, and who has reached across time to give us a metaphorical nod of recognition. Sometimes that person touches us with beauty, and sometimes, as in this case, through a personal foible of the kind we’ve all experienced. Either way, the inert matter of architecture has briefly assumed the power to remind us of what it means to be human. Two pancakes, two eggs, two strips of bacon, and a quick lesson in humanity--not bad for $6.95. 

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