269 Lynchburg, VA: Mrs. Scott's House

Lynchburg, Virginia: Mrs. Scott's House

Mrs. Scott's House in Lynchburg has two blocky, wood-sided floors topped by a gable. Ornate iron railwork lines the porch whose floor, ceiling, and sides are otherwise wooden. A Mrs. Scott lived there, but it's not called Mrs. Scott's House.

Mrs. Scott's House in Lynchburg is a modest, beige, stucco-sided house with a quaint dormer over the front door. It was built in 1887 for a founder of an early Lynchburg telephone company. It is actually called just "The Scott House."

Mrs. Scott's House in Lynchburg is a couple of gray, barn-like buildings connected by a one-story hallway and topped by a red roof with two chimneys. It is actually called Mrs. Scott's House, and it exists only in Edward Hopper's painting here, which hung at Randolph Macon Women's College (RMWC) in a museum called the Maier, which locals pronounced like a female horse.

In the painting, bright yellow-green grass angles up a valley between hills topped in salmony seagrass and sunlit buildings. At back, beneath a watery blue sky, white clouds hug the dusky horizon above a set of darkening hills. Jo wrote of the painting, "We feel Mrs. Scott's House is among the 15 or so finest canvases of E. H. ... Late Sept., tall grasses changing colors--pink in light. Hills roll for dear life! … Glorious! ... No weeds grow on Cape Cod, everything that comes out of the ground is beautiful. The house, kept in good repair, is old, it is quite humble, as is the best of this Cape (to our point of view) & doubtlessly built by the people who fished or sailed on its seas, but it is no proud Captain's house."

I asked my question of the only other person in front of the painting, an African American woman with crisp, graying black hair combed straight back over double loop earrings. Gold glasses rested on her flat nose in front of intense brown eyes. Out of her black shirt extended graceful arms dotted with liver spots and small pock marks.

"To me," she answered, "I don't see isolation in these pictures. To me, I see privacy. Because to be isolated, I don't think they would be near a beach. Because peoples gonna come to a beach."

About people in Lynchburg, she ventured, "I don't think they're isolated from one another. We all just a sweet little retirement place. Especially since all our big job places like GE and Lynchburg Foundry, all of those is gone. We don't have a lot of active social life, but we do socialize. It's just not a formal thing; you have gatherings. I've got all my family to my house. And my family and me will go to maybe a friend's house, coworker's house, church member's house.

"The only social thing that we have is the clubs, though the Piedmont Club just closed. But we still have the Oakwood Country Club."

"Are they country clubs or social clubs?" I clarified.

"Private country clubs. They have, during the year, what they call a Night of Elegance. They sell tickets, and you can get all dressed up. We have what they call Friday Cheers. Every Friday night, you go to the community market downtown and you socialize down there. We have what we call the Bateaux [a boat race] is getting ready to start out at Bateaux Landing."

"What about the African American and white communities?" I asked.

"As a whole, we do pretty good together," she said. "We work together, we dine together. The students do pretty good. Its, you know, a little biased. As a matter of fact, my grandson played with the City of Lynchburg Little League, and it's two teams. That has always been segregated. But we live with that. We got our team, and we always beat them. It's bad, but not as bad as it could be.

"I," she continued, "as a fact do not see color, but that's the way my mom raised me. My uncle worked on the neighboring farm. I grew up with white kids. I didn't know they were white. They didn't know I was black. I didn't know that they were rich. They didn't know that I was poor, you know. And so that's the way I grew up.

"My children was raised not to see color. Like I said, I do love people. But I was always a child of God. I'm not quoting 'what would Jesus do?' I hate that statement. But as the Bible teaches, you're supposed to love your neighbors. And if you don't love yourself, we know you don't love your neighbor, and if you don't love your neighbor then you don't love yourself. So you're back to love.

"Most peoples know if you genuine. Most peoples know that you got love in your heart. And if you ain't got it, they're not going to mess with you. And my momma always taught us: 'I don't care how much money you have. If you've got good manners, that will get you further then anything in the world. You treat people the way they treat you.' And so this is why I got so much mouth, because if you talk to me I'm going to talk back to you. You see, you shouldn't have asked me."

"No," I blurted, "I should have. I definitely should have."

"The only isolation that I can really see," she reconsidered, "is in the churches. Each group has its own church. The churches are starting to intermingle now, and you might have maybe three or four families in a white church of maybe three or four hundred families. But it comes down to that: race. You know we haven't broke through the religious barrier yet. We haven't faced the fact that, if we all die and go to heaven, which one of us is going to leave if the other is there?"

The Maier was a small museum and nearly deserted, so the statuesque woman behind the front reception desk listening to our conversation stepped forward when she heard my question about blacks and whites. Her long face was haloed by dozens of fine dreadlocks.

"My husband is white," she informed me and primly clasped her hands in front of modest, full-length white blouse. "We don't have any problems. My in-laws are from up North. They're from the Tiffanys of New York. They treat me fine. And in Lynchburg, as we move around, should anyone have a problem, they don't face us with it. We don't hear a lot of remarks. I was raised Baptist, and my husband was raised Baptist. Actually, there are two or three churches that are inter-denominational, blacks and whites attend. We attend those churches. Because the children, they're all blacks and whites."

The National Gallery of Art constructed the Maier in 1952 to store its most valuable works in case of national emergency. I assumed that there was a bunker in the hill upon which it sat. One thing that I found in its vaults were the handwritten letters to the Maier from Jo Hopper. They were written on odd-colored pumpkin and green paper--faded to even odder colors. Given Ed and Jo's frugality, these might have been the cheapest in the stationery store--or even paper they scavenged for free. Jo wrote the museum, "That foreground of tall grass would wring the heart of anyone who feels strongly about this Indian part of the Cape." Added in tiny script at the bottom of the page was, "Quite on my own I add - that picture surely is destined to outlive much of the dense fog of ignorance + arrogance that has ["come"] to gain ground in our day. You will do well to guard a relic of the spiritual, yet unobtrusive whose value belongs to time + history." On a separate line, she added, "You have a responsibility." And on another separate line for even further emphasis, she added, "And do not change frames."

In another letter in the files, a Lynchburg woman described her run-in with Edward. "On one of my trips to Boston years ago I attended a Hopper exhibit at the Boston Museum. I do not remember the year. [It was probably 1950.] When I stopped in front of the painting Mrs. Scott's House, I found a man had pulled up a seat and was intently studying the painting. In typical Southern fashion I volunteered that Mrs. Scott's House was a favorite of mine from the collection at a college where I lived. The man replied, 'it is a favorite of mine too. I am Edward Hopper.'"

Randolph-Macon Women's College (RMWC) was founded in 1891, when Randolph-Macon College in nearby Ashland refused to admit women. RMWC's most famous alumna might be Nobel Prize-winning author of The Good Earth Pearl S. Buck. She wrote, "We were very proud of our College. We still exulted when I was there in the knowledge that we were being taught what men were taught... We came out ready to use our heads and accustomed to work. I have always been glad of that." However, as a relic of her era, she is billed in school publications as "Mrs. Richard J. Walsh" (still better than her given name of Pearl Sydenstricker, with which she graduated in 1914).

RMWC's total enrollment was a mere 721. Fewer than 1.5% of females attend women's colleges, but one-third of the female board members of Fortune 1000 companies, and one-fifth of the women serving in the U.S. Congress, are graduates of women's colleges. The 2002 Princeton Review Guide ranked RMWC 20th for "Beautiful Campus." The complex of 18 NeoGothic or Georgian Colonial buildings on 100 acres of lawns and groves overlooks the James River and commands a distant view of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Covered walkways dubbed "trolleys" connect the buildings.

I stopped for some lunch at the café nearest the Maier. The place was full, but this worked in my favor, as I had to share a table and therefore had a handy interview subject. I sat beside a large, pleasant-looking young man, weighing about 250 pounds. He had red-skinned jowls, a scab on his upper lip, and short blond hair flipped up into a tiny curl in front. He wore a blue-and-white-striped shirt with three fancy pens in the pocket. He set aside his Washington Post and smiled through small lips as he began answering my question by explaining that he moved here because his wife got a job at a local hospital.

"People here are definitely isolated," he affirmed. "In a socioeconomic way, where you know how much money people have. People will even refer to what zip code they live in here. 'Oh, you live in oh-three.' They feel like they know something about you that way. My wife really likes it here. She thinks everybody is open and they'll talk to you in the store for a long time (which they will)," he conceded. "But I'm more cynical. I think they're just more polite. But it's all like external. Well, there's southern hospitality here; they'll invite you in for a glass of iced tea. When we bought life insurance, it was from a neighbor's friend. That is how things are done here. Everybody here knows one another. Their families are related. They live near each other. They went to school together. People don't go out to dinner here. They entertain in their homes. That's not always a good thing.

"Hopper's isolation is associated with big towns, but I think that small towns are getting more isolated as well. It used to be that a small town like Lynchburg would be a lot more friendly, but now," he shook his head, "everybody stays to themselves."

In the bookstore next to the café, I asked the woman behind the information desk for a request she had never heard before: a recommendation who to interview. "Well, you could interview me," she said, sounding slightly offended. "I live here."

She had bronzed, weathered skin and close-cropped dark hair highlighted with blonde curls, atop which rested her glasses. Her knee-length white dress was dotted with watermelon colors (black, red, and green).

"I've lived here for 32 years," she barreled on. "I don't think it's isolated. There are a lot of people here networking and agencies that are responsible for different people. I'm not religious, but there are a lot of religious organizations in town that look after people and try to get their attention. When I moved here, I was really put off by everyone grabbing at me. I mean, that's the first thing people asked us when we moved to town: our church. And I said, 'Hold on there, cowboy. It's nice to meet you, but keep your hands off me.' Anyway, it's just interesting. I had never been in the South before for one thing. I wasn't used to small towns. Of course, we have a very big influence of the Christian right. Now, after Jerry Falwell, it has grown. He was not here when we moved here. There are several factions, and the one which we adhere to is we are not," she said laughing, "fans of Jerry Falwell. A lot of people are against him."

"If you are looking for RMWC students," she raised an eyebrow, "that lady working at the coffee shop just graduated last year." She pointed to a girl wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the Book Shoppe insignia: book pages in the form of a coffee cup with a wisp of yellow steam rising from the cup. Her hair was tucked under a green kerchief, and her nose looked like it had been broken.

"I think I did a report on the Hopper painting for a Spanish class," the recent grad began, "and I think I wrote about the isolation. Students only know the town if they rent an apartment in it. All my time in school was spent on campus or here at the local strip of businesses. I'm just getting to know the city. I had this job, and my girlfriend's graduating next year. So I thought I'd stay for a year."

"It seems," she went on, "like people [RMWC students] don't realize about the community that exists. People always make fun of it. Everyone has something that they don't like in the city. And most people don't like the city without really exploring it. It happens wherever you are. People will find something to complain about."

Located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains and bordered by the James River, this city of 65,000 was founded in 1757 when 17-year-old Quaker John Lynch established a ferry here. Lynch later renounced his Quaker membership in order to fight in the Revolutionary War. The city's early days were spent making millionaires of those who mined the local hills, and, by 1850, Lynchburg had the second highest per capita income of any city in the U.S.

During the Civil War, Lynchburg was a Confederate transport hub. It was successfully defended in June 1864 but surrendered in April 1865 while serving as the capital of Virginia for the few days between the fall of Richmond and the fall of the Confederacy. (A local book shop had a section titled, "War For Southern Independence.")

Afterwards, Lynchburg became an important tobacco market. (Lynch's renunciation of Quaker religion might have made him rich because Quakers could not own slaves, and tobacco growers needed slaves to work this labor-intensive crop.) In 1882, local James A. Bonsack revolutionized the tobacco industry by inventing a cigarette-making machine. By 1886, more than 30 million pounds of tobacco were marketed from Lynchburg.

Other local industries included the world's largest tannin extract plant, cotton, silk, and hosiery mills. In 1889, local pharmacist Charles Brown Fleet invented Fleet's Chap-Stick lip balm and the local company later developed the Fleet Enema and the first disposable douche.

RMWC was out on the edge of town, in a section called Boonsboro, where still stood gargantuan old houses like Hopper painted. It was one of several such areas in town, and each constituted a historic district with a name ending in "hill," lending the town its nickname "City of Seven Hills." The hills isolated each neighborhood just as the house in Hopper's painting here sits on a hill that seems to float (isolated) between the hill in the foreground and the hill in the background.

I started walking the cobbled side streets that traipse up and down the steep streets of downtown Lynchburg. Lynchburg was set out on a grid, but the many steep hills threw any regularity catterwhumpus. A sign on 12th Street right downtown said "watch for falling rocks." Downtown was virtually deserted. In a family-run jeweler, a clerk absentmindedly tapped her fingers on the display case. Slum sections turned up unexpectedly around the corner from treelined avenues.

Around town, signs announced what the woman at the museum had told me: that the Bateaux Festival was going on. Before canals and railroads, tobacco was transported from here down to Richmond on fleets of bateaux, exceptionally flat boats designed for the James River’s low waters. It took three husky slaves to propel the boat with long iron-shod poles and a large oar as rudder--six days down river and ten days up. The eight-day bateaux festival (called the River of Time) features authentic replicas and costumed crews poling from Lynchburg to Richmond, camping each night along the way. J. Canaday, in his article Edward Hopper: American Realist, noted that while in Paris Hopper liked to paint "bateaux-mouches, which still plied the Seine as a form of public transportation instead of serving as tourist sight-seeing boats as they now do."

Lynchburg was (as everybody I interviewed mentioned) notorious for being home to Jerry Falwell's headquarters and his Liberty University (LU). Down the hill from it, I found one of its graduates, the owner of the Drowsy Poet café. She had a long thin neck and short, copper-colored hair. Her fresh, freckled face held big brown eyes and a wry smile.

"Me and my husband moved here from West Virginia. I wanted a master's. We went to Liberty, but I like to tell people that I did most of the work in West Virginia. Me and my husband went to Drowsy Poet as students. We moved away to see where we would move after school. Then the owners called and asked if we wanted to buy it. So we did."

When I asked if people here were isolated, she jumped to answer, "Oh yes. In my café, I have seen that. If one person sits in the café, it draws a crowd. But if it stays empty, it stays empty. There are definitely seats you sit in if you want to be seen and approached, and seats you sit in if you don't want to be approached. The one you chose by the window, this is one you would be in if you don't want to be approached. I see people sit in here at the table you're at and look outside at people. People like to sit in that nook and watch everyone else, and they think no one can see them. They think, 'I'm invisible.' Nobody's invisible."

No comments: