Archive for November, 2011

Armistice Day

November 11, 2011

It is Veterans’ Day in America. This national holiday was known as Armistice Day from 1926 until 1954, when an Act of Congress changed the name to Veterans’ Day.

I agree with the thought behind that change. We should remember, honor and thank those who served in all conflicts that imperiled our nation and the free world. Thank you once again to all American veterans, and to your comrades in arms from Britain and Canada, for going into harm’s way for the sake of my freedom.

I am old enough to remember Armistice Day. I think that it is unfortunate that the name of that day, and what it meant, is fading into the background of history. Armistice Day, while a celebration of the cessation of World War One hostilities on the Western Front, also was a sobering and necessary reminder that the War to End All Wars was anything but that. Perhaps the best way to honor our veterans is to learn, and to belatedly apply, the lessons of Armistice Day.

Here is a link to a 1948 Armistice Day speech by General Omar Bradley.

His words are still relevant today, especially the following:

“With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world by its moral adolescents. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have many men of science; too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Man is stumbling blindly through a spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death. The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.”

The Grandest Italian Master

November 6, 2011

“If you build it, they will come.”  Yes, but first you’ve got to figure out how to build it.

Filippo Brunelleschi

Filippo Brunelleschi figured it out, all right. His unsurpassed work in the field of architecture not only led to the construction of the Duomo of Florence, Italy.  His mathematical and artistic genius also made possible much of the Italian Renaissance, which led the people of the world out of the Dark Ages and into a new era of learning and culture.

I’m no art history expert, but I will venture a guess that no one – not even Leonardo or Michelangelo – had more impact, or unleashed more creative genius resident in others, than Filippo Brunelleschi.

A buddy of fellow sculptor Donatello, Filippo lost a contest to design the bronze panels adorning the west doors of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence.  Embittered by the loss, he fled to Rome with Donatello and studied the architecture of the grand old buildings, especially the Pantheon.

But construction of that Florentine cathedral, which had been going on for a hundred years, drew him back. It was time to build the dome, and nobody had the faintest idea of how it was to be accomplished. The dome was to be the widest and highest ever built.  But the plans forbade use of flying buttresses, such as those in the Gothic cathedrals of France, for support. The designer, Neridi Fioravanti, had died without telling anyone how to accomplish the task of vaulting the dome, 70 million pounds of Carrara marble standing 375 feet high.

Brunelleschi was named capomaestro of the project and swore on the Bible that he would adhere to Fioravanti’s vision.  His ideas and innovations included:

  • Building not one dome but two, with the inner and outer domes supporting each other;
  • Herringbone brick pattern on the dome surface, which made the bricks self-supporting until the mortar dried
  • The world’s first reverse gear, built into the hoist that lifted 1,700-pound stones hundreds of feet high. The reverse gear allowed the bucket to be lowered without turning the oxen around and re-hitching them,
  • The castello, the world’s  first sky-crane, built on the lower rim of the dome and used for positioning of the stones once they were lifted to that height;
  • A solid system of parapetti: platforms, scaffolds, lighted stairways and eating rooms for the workmen. Only three men died in the 16 years of construction work, an unheard-of safety record. He also had wine rather than water for the workmen; wine was safer than water back in those days.

Yet for all those innovations in architecture and construction, Brunelleschi’s greatest impact came in the world of art. He discovered the secret to linear perspective.  He did this by having people peer through a hole in the back of a painting he had made of the baptistery of San Giovanni, across the street from the cathedral. In front of the painting, they held a mirror that reflected the painting of the building; the real-life building itself was behind the mirror.

The people who participated in this experiment could not tell the painting apart from the real scene.

Brunelleschi thereby discovered, and quantified, that all lines receded toward a common point relative to the viewer of a painting. In Raphael’s “Betrothal of the Virgin,” for instance, all parallel lines of the painting intersect at a point on the horizon, which in the painting is the one that is farthest away.

What did all this mean?  Artists who learned this lesson could now accurately represent the three-dimensional world on a two-dimensional painting canvas. Brunelleschi’s disciple Masaccio was the first to do so successfully. He launched a movement that eventually included Raphael, da Vinci, and Michelangelo.

The Duomo was finished in 1636. Years later, Michelangelo was commissioned to vault the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome. He said he’d make it bigger and more beautiful than Brunelleschi’s.  Didn’t happen.  The diameter of the dome of St. Peter’s is 7.9 feet smaller than the Duomo’s diameter.

Ben fatto,Filippo Brunelleschi!

Farewell, Filene’s Basement

November 3, 2011

Back when I was a child, I was puzzled about this place called Filene’s. I thought it was owned by Bambi’s girlfriend Faline. She and her beau were nowhere to be found the first time that I went in-town shopping with mother and siblings.

There were at least a few family pilgrimages to Filene’s Basement in Boston every year. It was always a big event. We’d walk through the upstairs store too, and across the street to Jordan Marsh. But we seldom bought anything on the upper levels. Too pricey.

“The Basement” we knew and loved, with its raucous crowds and automatic markdowns and designer duds for cheap, is long gone. But they made it official today with the news that all of its stores would be closing by January.

I have to say that I knew this was coming way back in the 1980s. I was working at the Bank of New England and saw the acquisition/expansion loan proposals touted by CEO Sam Gerson…a leveraged buyout to spin off and expand Filene’s Basement.

Making the Basement a separate company from Filene’s itself – and financing it with mountains of debt – was dumb to begin with. Taking the Basement out of the basement and putting its bastard children into malls around the country was ever crazier. Didn’t they learn anything from Mammoth Mart, Zayre, Orbit, Bradlee’s, and all those other retail busts?

Still, it was with a measure of nostalgia that a read the corporate obituary. Filene’s and its founding family deserve a prominent niche in the business and social history of America.

Wilhelm Katz arrived in the United States from Prussia in the late 1840s. Like many Jewish immigrants of the day, he was fleeing the persecutions and pogroms that had sprung up in Europe after the Revolution of 1848. When he got to Customs in Boston, he wanted to register with an Anglicized version of his surname. Rather than Katz, he preferred “Feline.” The customs officer misspelled the name, and he became William Filene.

William Filene’s Sons Company was established in 1881. The Washington Street store opened in 1890, the start of the “Gay Nineties” and the height of the Gilded Age. William’s son Edward, pictured below, ran the company from 1908 to 1937. He was an exceptionally fine leader and captain of industry.  Among his innovations were:

  • Complete and honest descriptions of merchandise, and a “money back if not satisfied” promise;
  • Organization of the Filene Cooperative Association, America’s first company union, and advocacy of a “buying wage” as opposed to a “living wage;”
  • Minimum wages for women and a 40-hour workweek;
  • Founding the Credit Union National Association, which liberated many people from usury;

Did you also know that:

  •  Boston’s first public telegraph office was opened on the service balcony of Filene’s (1913)

(If you’re a post-boomer, do you even know what a telegraph office is?)

  •  Filene’s was the first American store to get rush shipments of the newest fashions from Paris, sent over on the Graf Zeppelin (1928)

Edward Filene (Photo by Bachrach)

(If you are a post-boomer, do you even know what a zeppelin is?)

  • Filene’s was the first store in New England to be air-conditioned (1935)
  • Filene’s uniform headquarters in Northampton outfitted every WAVE naval officer and every woman officer in the Marines (1945)
  • Filene’s installed a zoo on its roof, complete with an elephant, lions, and monkeys. Hurricane Carol destroyed the zoo the same year (1954). I never went to that zoo, but I remember Carol.

One more thought. We have read much about the drive, innovation, and creativity of the departed Steve Jobs. No one disagrees about the benefits that his company and products brought to the world.

I suggest that the story of Filene’s and Filene’s Basement – for its first 70 or so years anyway – is much like that of Jobs and Apple. It shows what the entrepreneurial spirit in the competitive pursuit of profit can do for a people, a city, a country.

Well done, and rest in peace, William and Edward Filene and family.