Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Photo Essay: Victorian-Style Mourning, Beyond the Black Veil

From the outside, it may appear as though Mr. James Bettner, a lawyer and civil engineer from Yonkers, and his wife Catharine led a quintessential idyllic existence.

They were well-off, as was much of Riverside when they settled there in the late 1870s. By the year 1895, had the country's highest per capita income, thanks to the burgeoning orange industry.

But Mr. Bettner had come out West—as many folks had—for his health. He'd been diagnosed with a kidney ailment called Bright’s Disease, and he only survived to the age of 45, leaving Catharine a widow and single mother of two sons.

When Catharine's younger son died of tuberculosis in 1891 at the age of just 22, she'd had enough with the home on Indiana Avenue she'd shared with her deceased husband—so she deeded it to her remaining son and commissioned a new home to be built.

Since the Bettner family had profited handsomely from James co-founding the California Fruit Growers Exchange, Catharine managed to find her new home in a Victorian-style mansion on Magnolia Avenue, the City of Riverside's version of "Millionaire's Row."

To build the Queen Anne manse, Catharine tapped architect John Walls, who would earn notoriety later for his work with the Farmers and Merchants Bank (1905), the Vision Theatre (1931, then known as the Leimert Theatre), and several other movie palaces.

Now preserved and open to the public as a house museum called the Heritage House, it's a stunning showcase of what life was like for those who lived on the right side of the tracks at the turn of the last century.

But even with her fresh start, Catharine couldn't shake the shadow of death—and so it seemed appropriate to visit the Heritage House while it was draped in traditional mourning dress for Halloween.

It's the perfect time of year for the house to display all the classic elements of Victorian death, in all its somber glory.

Of course, the Victorians had a certain period-specific fascination with death, from producing death portraits... conducting seances to try to communicate with the dead... surrounding themselves with dead things that appeared to still be living, as the art of taxidermy rose in popularity during the Victorian period.

But as comfortable as the Victorians were with death in everyday life, they also respected the period of mourning enormously...

...turning down every sound...

...and dimming every light... as not to disturb those who were grieving the loss of a loved one.

Of course, particularly if you were a woman in the Victorian era, time stopped both literally and figuratively.

While it was traditional to stop a wound clock at the time of death (to commemorate the passing but also to stop the incessant chiming), having even less to do than the regular nothing that women had to occupy themselves with meant that actual time slowed to a seemingly imperceptible crawl.

Of course, the Victorian ladies had their hair jewelry and abalone shell art (some of which was incredibly painstaking to create)...

...but it's not hard to imagine them just staring up at the (14-foot) ceiling sometimes, waiting all day for night to come.

It's no wonder that Catharine had so many different lighting fixtures hanging above her—all of which are still original to the current condition of the house.

Of course, if someone were actually living at the Heritage House right now and were actually in mourning, all of the photos and portraits that hang would be turned around to face the wall.

And back in Catharine's time, that would've been taken care of by a Chinese servant, who had their own quarters and own staircase built into the house.

And when Mrs. Bettner would be ready to receive guests—as she loved to entertain and show off her fine art collection and various "Oriental" artifacts—she'd simply go town to Chinatown to staff up.

In terms of interior design, there was nothing simple about Victoriana—but every attempt was made to simplify daily life after the passing of a loved one.

Maybe it was to quiet the background noise, allowing messages from beyond to break through. Maybe it was to spot an apparition lurking in the shadows cast by a chandelier.

Mrs. Bettner lived in this house until her own death in 1928—and, because it was owned by only one other family afterwards (the McDavids), you can still feel her spirit alight in every room.

Or maybe that's a glimpse of her that you catch in one of the mirrors, which have been covered with only a gauzy, black mesh you can actually see through instead of the solid black crêpe that became a Victorian tradition in the 1860s.

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Monday, October 16, 2017

Photo Essay: The House That Corruption Built

The first thing I saw when I arrived at Boryspil Airport (KBP) just over a month ago for my trip to Kiev and Chernobyl was a sign, just past the passport checkpoint, that showed the word "CORRUPTION" in one of those red circles with the slash through it, the international prohibition sign that means "NO," no matter which language you speak.

I thought it odd, having expected other activities like smoking or use of cell phones to be prohibited at an international border—but, being used to other restrictions at other customs and border crossings, I was averse to take a photo of it. But it turns out that the fight against corruption would inform much of my visit to Ukraine for the next week—not the least of which was at the Mezhyhirya Residence (Межигір'я), a.k.a. the Museum of Corruption.

This palace was owned and built by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who went into exile after being overthrown and unseated in the 2014 revolution—though no one can actually prove his ties to the place.

President Yanukovych was so good at hiding money and running the country like a shell game that the only paperwork that exists of the ownership of Mezhyhirya, where everyone knows he lived, is tied to several companies that can't be traced back to the corrupt politician.

It's true, Yanukovych was elected. Twice, in fact. But many dispute the validity of the second time, at least.

And you know who helped get him elected, despite the popular vote going to his opponent? Our very own Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for U.S. President Donald Trump who officially registered as a "foreign agent."

Like Trump, Yanukovych had expensive taste and liked to show off his personal wealth—from his own private tennis court...

...bowling alley...

...and boxing ring... his wife's pet project, a conservatory full of taxidermy, plants...

...and live, exotic birds...

...who were left behind when Yanukovych and his wife eventually fled.

Everything at Mezhyhirya is the ultimate in excess...

...from the furniture... the carpeting and wood inlay flooring... the light fixtures in the ceiling.

Everything is so pristine that it's hard to imagine anyone actually using any of these rooms for any routines of daily life.

That's partly because Yanukovych hated the smell of food being cooked, and therefore he required that his meals be prepared off-site and merely assembled in the kitchen adjacent to the dining area.

Of course, it's all empty now—save for the tourists who visit the compound to learn how corruption could make one man so rich and the rest of the nation so poor.

Everything appears to be bathed in gold leaf or cast out of silver ore.

And that which is not made of precious metal has been carved from some exotic wood with some delicate grain.

There's even a limited "John Lennon" edition Steinway piano on display—and, despite the velvet ropes, you can play "Imagine" on it, if you know the tune.

There are no guards to keep you from touching anything. Nobody's going to stop you from enjoying the opulence.

Some might be inclined to call Mezhyhirya "ostentatious"—and, sure, it is flamboyant. It was both designed to impress and also hidden from public view.

It's more regal than presidential, per se.

In fact, its interior design appears to be right out of the handbook for Queen Anne or some other 18th century palatial abode.

But some parts of it are actually kind of nice, though it's hard to imagine anyone actually sleeping here...

...sitting here...

...bathing here...

...or praying here.

And yet, it's all together in one place—everything a despot would need to live in secrecy and assemble wealth without drawing too much attention to himself as he profited off the state and his struggling constituents.

And when Yanukovych fled Ukraine after the 2014 revolution—to Moscow, no less—he abandoned his Mezhyhirya and its grounds, leaving all the spoils of corruption behind.

That turned out to be a boon for Ukraine tourism, as the coined "Museum of Corruption" has become a "must-see" attraction for all visitors to Kiev and the surrounding areas.

But the more that the contents of the main house (a club house nicknamed "Honka" that resembles a Finnish hunting lodge) are publicized, the more it's left vulnerable to thieves, looters, and vandals.

You couldn't blame a citizen for wanting to take what their tax dollars were spent on, after all.

The statuary...

...the gardens...

...the bathhouse and its fountains...

...and a replica of a Spanish galleon would be enough to inspire some resentment in anyone who was living in poverty while the president prospered.

And that's not even counting his collection of luxury cars from around the world—including a 1938 Dampf-Kraft-Wagen (what would become Audi), a 1945 Studebaker, and a 1950 Bentley.

Of course, most Ukrainians couldn't possibly have had an accurate sense of the scope of the corruption under Yanukovych's rule.

That is, until they got to visit his home for themselves and see first-hand the fruits of their labors.

It's a wonder that nobody has taken their frustrations and aggressions out on the windshields of any of those cars in the collection by now.

But even more than all of that, this is the president who refused to stop cozying up to Moscow...

...and who came up with every excuse not to move the country in a more westerly direction (towards joining the European Union).

He was ousted not just for those reasons, or even for the corruption, either. Ukraine's interim government issued a warrant for Yanukovych's arrest because of the mass murder of those who were protesting his policies at Maidan.

Those revolutionaries who survived the bloodbath of Maidan, like Petro Oliynykr, came straight to  Mezhyhirya after the president fled—to both expose and protect the site and its 345 acres. By that point, security police had already withdrawn from their official duties.

The rebels have guarded it ever since. And former President Yanukovych is still on the run and wanted for money-laundering, inappropriate use of state assets, and crimes against humanity.

For 360-degree views inside at outside the estate, click here

Stay tuned for a future post on the revolution at Maidan, which is now known as Independence Square.

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