USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘architecture’
Legends

Halcyon House (Washington, D.C) Albert Clemens

Transcription: “A couple generations later, the house was bought Samuel Clemens’ (Mark Twain) nephew, Albert Clemens. He owned it in the late 1800s. Albert believed that as long as the kept building the house, he wouldn’t die. He built stairways to nowhere, doors that open into nothing, and rooms within rooms. He was adamantly opposed to electricity. He didn’t let anyone bring anything electric into his house. They say that to this day, people will walk into the house and their phones will stop working or light bulbs will burst. When he died, he wanted the coroner to put a pick-ax in his heart to make sure he was dead.”

The same informant who works for a Washington D.C. tour company told me another story involving the Halcyon House. Several decades later, the house was owned by Samuel Clemens’ nephew, Albert Clemens. I did not realize the historical significance of Samuel Clemens until my informant told me I would recognize his pen name, Mark Twain. Therefore, the Halcyon house is not only connected with American history, but American culture.

I do not know much about Samuel Clemens or his nephew, but according to my informant, Albert suffered from mental health problems. Albert convinced himself that he would not die as long as he continued to build and renovate the Halcyon property. Albert likely attached some spiritual significant to the house or associated it with his life purpose. In hopes of postponing his death, Albert built designs that would inhibit the completion of the house. He built stairways to nowhere, doors that open to a wall, and rooms within rooms. He believed these paradoxes of design held the key to his immortality. Albert’s superstitions were not limited to structural design and immortality. He also was opposed to electricity and had a fear of being buried alive. His rejection of electricity could be explained as a fear of progress and technology.

This story combines multiple genres of folklore since it documents the superstitions of an individual, includes a legendary figure, and the history lives on today in the form of a ghost story.

 

Legends

Brunelleschi and The Egg

BACKGROUND:

There is an old architecture legend about famed Italian architect Filippo Brunelleschi trying to convince the city of Florence that he was the most qualified to build the Cathedral of Florence. The story goes that after being rejected due to his long absence in Germany, Brunelleschi attempted to show that not only did he have the artistic eye, but also the wit and intelligence to solve any problem. To do this, Brunelleschi handed each of the chosen architects an egg and asked them to stand it up on its end and have it stay there. After none of the architects were able to do it, Brunelleschi crushes one end, creating a surface that can be stood up on the table. According to the legend, this is what convinced the city that he was truly the smartest of the bunch.

INTERVIEW:

My interview with my source, T, is as follows:

T: So when Brunelleschi was telling his idea to the city, he literally didn’t tell them anything he was going to do. He’s like, “Guys, I know how to do this, I know you have this problem, I’m going to build your building” and they’re like “uhh… you were gone for like 10 years, we don’t even know if you’re capable of this.” And he’s like “You’re gonna give me the job and here’s why.” So he gives them all eggs and says “Make the egg stand on its end. If one of you can do it then you don’t have to hire me.” And none of them could do it so he walks up to the table and says, “You want me to show you why I have more knowledge than you?” and he smashes the end of the egg on the table so it stands up on its end. They gave him the job.

MY THOUGHTS:

I think this is a very clever legend. In all honesty the likelihood of this display of intelligence being the only driving factor behind Brunelleschi being hired is highly unlikely. The story, however, is a great way of conveying just how dedicated and clever Brunelleschi actually was, regardless of whether this event actually took place or not.

Legends

Building of the Pyramids Through Canals

BACKGROUND:

Not much is known about how the Great Pyramids of Giza were built. Often viewed as something that simply shouldn’t have been possible, many struggle to figure out how exactly materials were transported. One legend tells a story of the Egyptians architects instructing the laborers to build canals that would transport materials to the site via boats and rafts. Though probably not the most practical of solutions, the free cost of slave labor made things as impractical as canal building, completely possible.

MY THOUGHTS:

When first hearing this legend, I was skeptical. While the Egyptians are famous for their ingenuity, I couldn’t help but feel like building canals simply to transport materials. It wasn’t until my source explained that the slave labor at the time meant that there was virtually no risks in doing things that required that much more effort.

Folk Beliefs

Ancient Chinese Architecture Folk Belief

So basically, in Chinese – in ancient Chinese architecture, the roofs are – each tile is curved – and the roof is built in a jagged way, so that it’s uneven. And the point of that is to keep the demons from sitting on your house, because if your roof is slanted or flat, the demon will be comfortable there.

My informant also told me that many roofs today are still built with curves and slants. Even people who are really impoverished and live in shanty houses, will build their roofs with several pieces of tin or wood to make sure that there is still a slant. My informant said that when her family moved into an apartment complex, her mother believed that the “place was fucked” (as my informant put it) and that misfortune would befall those who lived there because the roofs were all flat. Buddhists believed that curved roofs would ward off evil spirits believed to manifest as straight lines. So the ideas of traditional Chinese architecture have been passed down and people still hold deep beliefs concerning them.

more information can be found here: http://library.thinkquest.org/10098/china1.htm

Folk Beliefs
Magic
Material
Protection

Chinese Architectural Superstition

“A house that has a staircase that leads directly to the front door is a cursed house.”

 

My informant first heard about this superstition from her friend Mrs. Jin.  Mrs. Jin had been boasting about how she had been able to rent a beautiful house in Irvine for the cheap price of $1100 when it should have been $1700.  She told my informant that the owner of the house who rented it to her was a Chinese man.  He was aware of the old Chinese superstition that a house with a staircase that runs into the front door is cursed, leading to inevitable death.  Mrs. Jin and my informant laughed about that notion because they were at church function at the time, so as Christians they found the superstition preposterous.  Eerily, Mrs. Jin that same week went in for a bypass surgery that should have been simple enough, but she died from complications.  Now she is uneasy about the superstition.

Mrs. Jin’s death and her renting the “cursed” house could have been a mere coincidence.  A front door that connects directly to the staircase can cause uneasiness because good fortune can fly out the door easily, or perhaps death can easily find you since the stairs are a direct pathway to your room.  I am a Christian, so I should not pay attention to such superstitions about death, but to be on the safe side, I myself would never live in a house like that, especially after hearing about what happened to Mrs. Jin.

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