VAFers have a great time at Plymouth Conference!

26 Oct 2023 11:26 AM | Michelle Jones (Administrator)

The 2023 Vernacular Architecture Forum Annual Meeting took place in Plymouth, MA and by all accounts it was a great success! From First Period houses to cranberry bogs to Martha’s Vineyard, along with a special banquet that featured delicious lobster, the four-day event had something to please everyone. The conference was only the second one in person after COVID forced the organization to hold into an online versions in 2020 and 2021, and everyone was ready to ride the tour buses to new adventures.

The opening session featured a reception at the Pilgrim Hall Museum (designed by Alexander Parris) followed by a keynote address and the annual awards ceremony at the nineteenth century Church of the Pilgrimage at Town Square.

The next morning, buses headed in three directions bright and early. Members who headed to Martha’s Vineyard with tour leader Myron Stachiw had to take several forms of transportation in addition to the ferry to take in all of the sites, which included maritime, tribal, religious, and agricultural landscapes.

Claire Dempsey and Jeff Klee organized a tour de force worthy of Abbott Lowell Cummings with a tour through a number of early structures between Plymouth and Hingham, including “The Old Ordinary” (aka the Andrews House), Cushing Farmstead, and Old Ship Meetinghouse. Many of these buildings had recent dendrochronology that helped tour-goers  understand the chronology of construction, but all anyone could talk about afterward was the amazing Sampson-White Joiner Shop, a recently discovered treasure that marks “the only 18th-century woodworking shop to survive in the United States on its original site with its early fittings still in place.” There was a lot of excitement in seeing such a workshop still intact!

Sally McMurry wowed everyone on the cranberry bog tour with local interpreters who explained the delicate process of growing a cranberry crop, and she introduced us to a member of a Finnish farming family who switched on an ancient “cranberry bouncer” machine that sorted the good from the bad. In the town of Wareham, we saw a cool 1930s mural of the cranberry harvesting process and the amazing Tremont Nail Works, which was everything an industrial architecture fan could want. The trip ended with a community event in a historic Cape Verdean neighborhood, complete with a tiny gospel tabernacle.

Friday's self-guided tours through Plymouth itself featured many interesting sites. Word quickly spread among those wandering about town that they shouldn’t miss the Harlow House, a quirky Arts and Crafts bungalow with a suitably quirky owner (who could forget the eerie music playing on his piano-roll automatic organ?) and the 17th C Churchill House, where a dozen seamstresses were busy creating a set of modern-day Bayeux Tapestries for the history of Plymouth (don’t ask…). Plymouth town center has many delights, including the tiny Howland House of 1713 and the majestic 1754 home of Edward Winslow, whose career as Royal Collector of Customs ended abruptly with all that fuss around 1776. Many of the houses we toured had well-documented second and third lives after their initial design. A special treat was the Maybury House, which lead conference organizer Ritchie Garrison and his wife have been carefully restoring to its original condition as a mid-nineteenth century middle class abode in a picturesque garden setting.

Even the guidebook was special, thanks to the editing skills of Ian Stephenson – it was delivered in advance and the available PDF format suited many of our members on the move.

Saturday’s paper sessions had many stimulating presentations, including a fascinating plenary event with representatives from local institutions discussing issues of BIPOC architecture and landscape, and a screening of the Buchanan Award-winning documentary about Barry Farm” (see separate article). The unexpected main course of whole lob-stah at the banquet, topped off by Sarah Fayen Scarlett’s wonderful preview of next year’s event in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was the perfect ending of a phenomenal week!

VAF can’t thank the organizers enough for their outstanding work: Ritchie Garrison, Jeff Klee, Sally McMurry, Myron Stachiw, and Ian Stephenson, along with a cast of thousands. And of course, everything was managed by our phenomenal conference coordinator Michelle Jones. It was a memorable VAF conference!

submitted by James Buckley

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