Why I’m (Occasionally) Proud to Be an American

On a press junket to Houston, our columnist rediscovered the ingenuity for which we used to be famous.

Just recently there was a moment when I was actually proud of my country, a moment when I remembered precisely what I love about being American. It happened in, of all places, Houston, Texas, a city where the American Dream has had a tendency to run amok. Coincidentally I had landed a few days after former Enron CEO Ken Lay was convicted on six counts of conspiracy and fraud, and four counts of bank fraud—and about a month before he died. I arrived for the opening of an exhibition called Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), the second major show of quilts by several generations of women from Gee’s Bend, a rural town in southern Alabama. This community of quilters—discovered in the late 1990s by William Arnett, a collector of African-American vernacular art—received attention from the art world first in a show at the MFAH in 2002. Working with household scraps and the waste from local mills, the women cultivated an aesthetic that could be a long-lost cousin of Abstract Expressionism. The quilts—notable for their audacious use of color and form—look nothing like conventional patchwork pieces, which are far more delicate and restrained.

While meandering through the galleries trying to decide whether the correct point of comparison was Barnett Newman, Lee Krasner, or Piet Mondrian, I was stopped in my tracks by a quilt made by 50-year-old Essie Bendolph Pettway. Subdued and sophisticated, the design was an array of charcoal rectangles on a gray background resembling something one might find on a hanger at Comme des Garçons. The label said it was “inspired by the Southern Poverty Law Center building” in Montgomery. Then I noticed Pettway standing there tending her creation. When I asked her about the sober palette, she told me that she saw a picture of the building, headquarters of an organization known for fighting bigotry, and reproduced it as faithfully as she could. And while she knew it was unusual to make a quilt with so little color, she thought, Well, why not? Pettway said her quilts are usually more colorful, that she often looks at the way sunlight appears as it passes through the clouds and tries to find fabric scraps that will help her re-create the colors and patterns. Spoken like a true modern artist, I thought.

At the exhibition’s opening ceremony, quilter Mary Lee Bendolph led the women, perhaps 40 in all, in a spiritual called “We’ve Come a Long Way.” Indeed they’d rocketed from nowheresville into the art world on the strength of their creativity and the need to, as Bendolph explained, “keep us warm, to keep our kids warm.” She concluded, “You can make anything out of nothing because of the Lord.” And I thought, Yes, this is what our country is supposed to be about. The part about the Lord didn’t resonate with me so much, but the making anything from nothing certainly did. Bendolph’s words gave me goose bumps.

However, I hadn’t really come to Houston to see quilts. I’d accepted the museum’s offer of a press junket to see the exhibition, but I had another agenda. I wanted to look at a new house by architect Brett Zamore. He calls it the Shot-trot, a 1,200-square-foot reinterpretation of two vernacular forms: the shotgun house, long and narrow with a sharply pitched roof; and the dogtrot, a covered central breezeway. I’d been tracking the progress of the house since close to its conception in early 2003 when I was starting work on a book about seeking out low-cost modern architecture all over the country. Zamore’s house became the gold standard for my book, in part because it was budgeted at $150,000 (including land), and would be ingeniously fashioned from off-the-shelf components; the young architect used standard four-by-eight sheets of plywood as Le Corbusier used the Modulor.

On the cross-country trip I took to research the book in the summer of 2003, I stopped in Houston again. Zamore and his client, newspaper reporter David Kaplan, were running up against a local bureaucracy that wanted the client to replace a portion of the city’s water main before starting construction on the house. The project was on hold. But Zamore persevered, got the needed permits, reengineered the house during the downtime, and completed it a year later. Now the book (The Perfect $100,000 House, Viking; see www.karriejacobs.com) was about to be published, and I’d never seen the house that partly inspired it.

On my recent visit, Zamore picked me up after a long day of art events and we drove across town to a sleepy residential neighborhood on Houston’s unfashionable eastern fringe. When we arrived at the house, it was already dark. Inside, the modest narrow home looked deceptively spacious and the finishes gleamed. “It’s more than I expected,” Kaplan told me. “It feels just right.”

And it did. Zamore has come up with a hybrid—traditional gestures wed to a modern sensibility— that, like the quilts, winds up being powerfully American. “It’s got such presence to it,” Kaplan noted. “Especially when you’re standing outside.” I hung out in the yard for a long time, admiring the house’s jack-o’-lantern glow, and for the second time in a day I got goose bumps.

The quilts from Gee’s Bend are about halfway on their journey from obscurity to the mainstream. The originals are now sold for about $2,000 to $8,000 by the Quilters’ Collective, with a few of the quilters represented by galleries such as Ameringer & Yohe Fine Arts, in New York, where a quilt can fetch as much as $30,000. And a series of licensing arrangements with companies, including Classic Rug Collection and Kathy Ireland Worldwide, will make Gee’s Bend literally a household name.

Meanwhile, the architect is in the process of setting up a company called Zamore Homes, which will sell five standardized versions of the Shot-trot house. In an elaborate business plan—drawn up with the help of the University of Texas MBA program—he asserts that his houses will be “made affordable by operating similar to IKEA’s business model; each ZH home is a kit solution based on intelligent design that uses off-the-shelf components.” In other words, Zamore is planning to build his houses by piggybacking on the infrastructure of the conventional home-building industry. The house’s kit of parts would be ordered from a series of suppliers, national companies that generally provide things like roof trusses, wall panels, and heating systems to production home builders. The components would be shipped to the site, where a local contractor would build the house. Zamore believes he can sell his homes for about $110 per square foot. “I just know it’s possible,” he says. “I figured, Why not?”

The stories of the quilters and of Kaplan’s inexpensive but beautifully designed house appeal to me because both are triumphs of design driven by necessity—the thing we used to call American ingenuity. The so-called American Century, the one that is rapidly receding into the past, was all about doing the essential things well, about applying our particular brand of spirited pragmatism—think Eames, Levittown, Apollo 11—to building a society where the middle was an enviable place to be. Lately the American Dream, also a product of the last century, has been eclipsed by the American Fantasy, a preoccupation with the trappings of unsustainable wealth coupled with a deep disinclination to tackle matters of necessity. On my trip to Houston, however, I found cause for optimism: Enron is dead and gone—it’s literally history—but the Gee’s Bend quilters and Brett Zamore are alive and quite well.

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