faded letters painted
on a brick wall: head to foot
men women children
I tag along while John drives a group of visiting Chinese parents on a field trip to Pella, Iowa. Pella was founded by Dutch immigrants and the town has lovingly maintained the tradition of everything Dutch: windmills, wooden shoes, pastries, lace and architecture. Even the newer stores are built in the traditional Dutch style.
After lunch in a local cafe, packed with tourists as well as local people, we wander around the town square. I stop to admire the pastries displayed in a window, traditional ones shaped like the letter S as well as round ones filled with raspberry jam.
While the others go shopping, I hurry back to THE WALL on the side of an old brick building that now houses Smokey Row restaurant. I spotted it when John parked the bus and now I spend the next two hours happily taking close-up photographs.
During the hour drive from Fairfield to Pella, while the visitors jabber away in Chinese in the back of the bus and the translator nods off, I read a book called Understanding Close-up Photography by Bryan Peterson. In one of the chapters, Bryan talks about variations on a theme and his love of letters. Over the years, he says he has put together five complete alphabets, with each letter in each alphabet being entirely different. Being a writer, I also love letters, and as a photographer, I'm fascinated by anything small. So when we pull into the parking space and I am faced with this wall, I feel like Bryan just handed me an assignment.
I start with individual letters at eye level and lower. The words on the wall were painted a long time ago, before the building became a restaurant, and now the paint is faded and peeling. But this is what I can make out: HEAD to FOOT, and below that, MEN, WOMEN & CHILDREN. Much higher up, I can read: YOU. But the next row down is too obscure. While I'm moving from letter to letter with my camera on a tripod, a woman stops, curious as to what I'm doing. She confirms what I suspected, that Smokey Row used to house a pharmacy and general store, perhaps Van Spanckeren's general store.
After I run out of big letters, I notice the small letters imprinted on many of the bricks. I finally figure out that they say: DRAIN TILE CO. PELLA, IOWA. Later, I come across information on the Pella Opera House website, about the construction of the Opera House, rebuilt in 1900, as well as the general store.
The [Opera House] building was designed by Architect Stanley De Gooyer and was built and largely financed by Herman Rietveld, owner of the Pella Drain and Tile company. The Pella Advertiser of Nov. 8, 1900 says that Mr. Rietveld has done more for the building interests of Pella than any other man in our city. The building in which Smokey Row is located is another building constructed of bricks from his company. He also built several buildings and in Harvey and Monroe, the hometown of his first wife Frances Ota Livingston. A business man with many interests, he was involved in banking, newspaper publishing, various manufacturing businesses and farming.
Five years later, this ad appears in The Drainage Journal, Vol 24:
$20,000 Brick and Tile Plant.
60 Double Deck Dryer Cars.
10 Acres, 5 Kilns, good market.
Having gone into banking and building
business can use product as part pay.
Write Pella Drain Co., Pella, Iowa.
Today, Pella is well known for Pella Corporation, founded in 1925, one of the largest window manufacturers in the US, but the corporate headquarters are made of, you guessed it, bricks.
The building built by Herman Rietveld on the corner of Main Street could be at least a century old, yet the bricks, if not the paint, are still in fairly good condition.
The cast iron fire escape running up the exterior of the wall to an upper floor door casts lozenges of light on the wall through the holes in the risers.
While I'm taking a photo of the light patterns falling across the orange bricks, a yellow leaf lands at the bottom of the wall. I've been focusing on inanimate bricks for over an hour and suddenly this bit of organic matter literally blows in. What a beautiful spot of color and contrast. But as quickly as it arrived, it flutters away.
In Bryan Peterson's book he says, "I'm a big believer in 'moving' my subject, or adding or taking away an element or two, if it means getting a better shot --as long as it does not change the truth of the photograph." Remembering this advice, I retrieve the leaf, apply a little saliva on the back, and stick it onto the wall below the purple brick, where I feel it does make a better shot.
On the wall to the right, I notice more lettering and back up to the street to figure out what it says: it's the real thing. Of course, it's the well-known jingo for Pepsi-Cola, but the Pepsi logo has long since faded away.
On this section of the wall I really get as close as I can focus, and some amazing abstract paintings appear in my viewfinder.
Many people pass by while I'm peering at the wall. I imagine it might look strange to take photos of peeling paint, but no one seems to pay any attention.
Until one woman stops and waits until I finish a shot.
"I've always thought this wall needed to be repainted," she says, smiling.
"Oh, no!" I exclaim. "This wall is a work of art!"
"Look at this." And I show her some of my close-up photos on the view screen.
"Oh my," she says. "You've opened my eyes. I'll never look at this old wall the same way ever again!"
As I pack up my gear to leave, some kids on bikes come wheeling up the sidewalk. All four of them jump off their bikes and dump them on the sidewalk, not even bothering with the kickstands, and dash into Smokey Row. The red, white and blue bikes lie in a circle sprinkled with sunspots, below a sign in the window that says SUNSHINE. Obviously, no one worries about bike theft in this small en-light-ened Midwestern town.