Standing History

I am upstairs in a dilapidated building. The room is empty and exudes a sense of its age. Wood floorboards and cracked plaster are coated with dust. Late afternoon sun pours through windows that nearly fill one wall, while their grime casts odd shadows. Crouching low, I’m holding some loose cardboard-thin pieces of the floor. I’ve collected several. Although plain at first glance, I turn them over and am alarmed to find text in grand 19th-century typeface, interspersed with fragmented portraits. In one, a youngish, clean-shaven man in a high, starched collar stares past the photographer’s shoulder. His present image can only whisper the care with which he dressed for the sitting. Grainy black-and-white is now nearly gray-on-gray. My heart skips as I realize that I have seriously screwed up. Why didn’t I notice this before? I know I wouldn’t have moved these if I’d seen the printing, and I’m sure it wasn’t there before. My confusion grows as I try to remember specifically where I picked up each piece. Why would printed images be part of a floor?

The rest of the floor soon distracts me from these questions. Quite ordinary at the edges and toward the middle, it curves sharply upward at the center in a sort of inverse funnel. This area is about the diameter of a tree trunk and flat on top like a stump, about a foot higher than the rest of the floor. Some parts of it have the texture of bark, while otherwise the weathered saw-cut floorboards follow the impossible contours. Before this can begin to make sense, a wooden lid on top wiggles and then falls as a beaver scurries out of the floor. This startles me, of course. The beaver immediately starts to chase a fat cat with matted fur that’s been hanging around the room. I’m concerned for the cat (beavers do have big teeth, after all) but can’t seem to intervene.

Thankfully, I wake up in the constrictor grip of a coiled sheet. My face is in the pillow, head angled slightly for air, arms folded in tingly flightless wings underneath me. Mid-morning sun pours through a clean window, helping me identify the guest room of a friend’s house.

The dream comes back to me later, as I drive home from Deerwood. I ponder while I dodge Sunday traffic and warble along with Jimmy Buffett. The first part of the dream is easy—the setting was very similar to the front, upstairs room at the Schneider-Bulera House. While that name doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, it does nicely honor the extended family that lived there from 1869 through 1987. The house has been a preoccupation for me lately, and to varying degrees for several years. An unsung landmark in St. Paul’s Uppertown neighborhood, it is notably old for buildings in this part of the world, which is all the more exceptional considering its unassuming appearance. This is a small wooden house that’s very rough around the edges, but that’s the beauty of it. This is not a rich person’s mansion, or a piece of monumental public architecture. The Schneider-Bulera House is a real family’s house—a home—that somehow wasn’t washed away by the tides of decades, turning to centuries, of ongoing transformations within a growing city. St. Paul was born through structures like this, and nearly all have vanished.

I’m an archaeologist by training, and through my trade have acquired the habit of trying to look beneath the surface of pretty much everything. All landscapes are layers of stories, whether forest or prairie, rural or urban. For archaeologists, looking for what’s hidden in even the most boringly normal places eventually becomes an occupational hazard. Evidence is a vital aspect of archaeological research, as is provenience—the location and relationship in which objects are found. Like disturbing a crime scene, moving things around before the recording is done can result in an investigative dead end. In my dream, I was upset to realize that I’d been removing artifacts without recognizing their importance, and without proper documentation. This is an archaeologist’s version of dreaming that you’ve accidentally gone to school in your underwear.

Normally one doesn’t excavate inside an extant building. The Schneider-Bulera House is different. It’s been on my mind more than usual lately because a good friend of mine, a fellow archaeologist, is rebuilding it, using archaeological methods to guide the process. Excavations are sometimes conducted to help rebuild destroyed buildings, but in this case the fabric of the structure itself is the subject of the investigation. This is a new approach to archaeology in Minnesota. The house is currently a shell, gutted and stabilized, thus exposing a myriad of clues about its mysterious origins. It’s a professional challenge too. Most of these clues are subtle at best, such as the way a saw was used to cut a joist, layers of ancient paint, the form of old iron nails, the dimensions of a splashboard and so on. The right eyes are needed to recognize, analyze, and interpret them.

I met the Schneider-Bulera House in 1999, when I joined an archaeological dig in the backyard. The loneliness and disrepair of the place shrouded a rich history, which started edging into my imagination immediately. By afternoon, I was picking through a nest of mummified rats at the base of a fallen chimney, and decided that I wanted to live there. The house needed an owner. It had been unoccupied for more than a decade, and it fit my admittedly eccentric tastes. My attraction wasn’t the rats (although they were cool, and now are skeletonized in an archaeology lab). I think it might have been the charm of Uppertown, and the subtle role of this house in that strange brew of history.

The excavations have illuminated the legacy of generations of children and noisy family life. The artifacts are the everyday objects of another time—a broken bone toothbrush, a cast-iron clothes iron, carriage parts, scraps of a German-language newspaper, shards of bottles and pottery, fragments of porcelain dolls and handmade marbles, buttons and cufflinks, pipe stems, fruit pits, nutshells, eggshells, and animal bones. A test pit outside the kitchen window produced dozens of chicken bones (feet in particular). One of the bottle fragments is embossed “DR KING’S NEW DISCOVERY FOR CONSUMPTION.”

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