Summer Writing Resident Anne Henochowicz: Touchstone

Anne Henochowicz is the fourth writer of the Summer 2022 cohort to spend a week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.


Read on for a peek into Anne's experience below. You can also read more about Anne and her fellow residents (past and current) here.

 

On the three days that Woodlawn was closed to the public I worked at the scuffed desk of Loren Pope, the reporter who commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to build his family a home in 1939. You could say that the Pope-Leighey House is the antithesis of the Woodlawn mansion: One is a a grand estate dependent on slave labor to keep it running; the other uses clever design and modern technology to obviate much of that labor.


Woodlawn sits at the top of a hill, looming above the mowed slope. Its ample brick makes it perfectly suited to Virginia’s famously mild summers. In one hall hangs a convex “servant’s mirror,” a panopticon designed for the lady of the house to keep watch on the “lucky” people who were enslaved indoors. They were spared from the hard labor of the fields in exchange for their every waking moment. Their every sleeping moment, too: such people often slept in the same room as the master and lady, so that they could be called on at any hour. The Lewises lead a life of luxury, such as it was in 1805: built on captive labor, housed in a brick oven, financed by cash crop (tobacco) that was no longer viable on Virginia’s depleted soil, where half of their children died before reaching adulthood.



Light on the floor of the children's room


Frank Lloyd Wright built his homes into hills, not on them. Pope-Leighey is no exception, though it is currently situated on its third site, its original location now under Route 66 and its second on unstable land that threatened the foundation. It is airy but economical, with windows that look out onto outdoor “rooms” and floor-to-ceiling windowed doors spanning the wall of the dining area and the screened patio across from it, so that when fully opened both patio and terrace become extensions of the house, reminiscent of the sliding screen walls of a Japanese country estate. Patterned clerestory windows, sited just under the ceiling, open to let out hot air and let in a “light show” that dances across the floor, shifting through the dapple of trees and the movement of the sun.


English thyme growing right outside the kitchen window


Pope-Leighey House isn’t without its drawbacks. Wright clearly never took a Thanksgiving turkey out of the oven, because the aisle between it and the kitchen sink is so narrow that you can only open the oven while standing to one side. And what about ventilation? There’s a beautifully tall window but no vent over the stove or channel connecting to the flue above the fireplace on the opposite side of the wall. Wright did sometimes sacrifice form for function, consciously or not. He was also notoriously dictatorial when it came to interior design, but he did allow the Popes to put screens on the large, low-slung windows in the children’s room, perfectly positioned for curious hands to open and curious bodies to fall out of.


But still, I love this house. I flipped through the typewriting manuals on the desk. I changed the date on the mechanical perpetual calendar. I answered the rotary phone when it shockingly rang one afternoon—it was a spam call, something about my IRS payment. I picked thyme from the herb planter outside the kitchen window. This house was built to perfectly suit the needs of the Pope family. It certainly wasn’t built for me. But I see how life fits so well into it.


Light glows over the eaves


“Pope-Leighey House” is a mouthful. Wright had thought of another name for this early example of Usonian architecture: “Touchstone.” Meaning proof-of-concept, point-of-reference, quintessence; the stone against which you streak gold to test its authenticity. Pope-Leighey is a touchstone. Woodlawn is, too.



Excerpt:


I. Light Show (quoting Frank Lloyd Wright, An Autobiography, 1943, pp. 490-91)


Dead-center in the parallelogram

of my heart I know it’s true:


Wood best preserves itself.

Also, furniture is unnecessary.


Also pictures and bric-a-brac.

All you need are well-oiled walls and


as many windows as you can manage.

A picture never changes, a view always.


Today a squirrel circles the sapling tree stump.

They cleared the forest but it just keeps coming back,


unstoppable. The man who dreamed this house was born before

the lightbulb and died after Sputnik.


When I die it will be after

the glaciers. When my heart


shifts it leans backwards but even upright

it will never be a perfect square.


Only the floor mat of concrete needs waxing.

Slavery made obsolete by science. Better Living


Through Chemistry. Better than any yeoman-

farmer could have dreamed of. He wouldn’t have


needed bars on his windows to keep his property

from killing him in his sleep, as one man thought


he did in Baltimore. Slavery is over,

but what about five-dollar T-shirts?


If George Washington had known that satellites would be launched into orbit

I bet he would have freed his slaves sooner.


Trouble is, no one knew about the satellites till

they were already sending back pictures, round little marbles of Earth.

 

Anne Henochowicz is a writer, translator, and teacher from the D.C. area. She has served as Translations Editor at China Digital Times and the China Channel at the Los Angeles Review of Books. Her translations of poetry and creative non-fiction have appeared in Cha, Mānoa, the Beltway Poetry Quarterly, and the Washington Post. She finds inspiration in the garden and the woods.