Monday, May 7, 2012

Nostalgia: "Before You Were Here" Vintage Postcards and Capturing the Spirit of a Place

The Sea Island Casino, vintage postcard roughly 1940/50s
History fascinates me as much as paper nostalgia, especially vintage postcards, which is one of the reasons I started The Paper Compass.  When someone speaks about history, I am all ears.  When I travel, I often read up on the location, my curiosity driven by questions such as how did this place come to be? What did the people who shaped it see and think and do?  This is why, very naturally, and gradually over the course of the last two decades, I have unsurprisingly found myself a collector of vintage postcards.

My first vintage postcard set the trend.  I found it in a thrift store in Lake Worth, Florida my senior year in high school.  It was a view of Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, looking towards the Boston Public Garden from Kenmore Square, with a statue rising out of a fountain as the foreground focal point.  I bought it with the romantic notion of finding the scene featured once I arrived at Boston University, and I pasted it to my new dorm room filing cabinet.  As synchronicity would have it, “the end” of the Commonwealth mall, part of The Emerald Necklace, was about two blocks away from my dorm.  I recognized the statue one evening after leaving my friend’s apartment in The Braemore.  It was smaller than I thought it would be, the fountain was dry, and the grandeur of the view was marred by the overpass to Storrow Drive.  But I had found it!  I was captivated by the fact that this view of the city was still there 70+ years later.  So began the trend of collecting vintage postcards of places that I wanted to visit, dreamed about (the original Coney Island), or had been.

My recent travels (the inspiration for my last post) took me to back to Georgia’s Golden Isles, where I consistently visited my grandparents, once a year, for the first 25 years of my life.  My memories of time spent on Sea Island, at the hotel, The Cloister, located there, and also on St. Simons run vivid and deep.  They are some of my most favorite memories with my family and of my childhood.  And because time always marches on, so many of the locations, are truly that now—just memories. 

The courtyard of The Cloister roughly 1930/40s--you can
still see the wilderness of the island off in the far distance
Built in the 1920s by famous Florida architect Addison Mizner, The Cloister, a casino, a pool and a resort, soon became the summer haunt of Atlantians, and some of Hollywood’s and Washington’s rich and famous.  The hotel (and island community) survived The Great Depression by printing their own money.  After WWII the hotel continued to expand, and by the time my childhood memories of Sea Island and The Cloister began it had grown into a thriving resort and cottage community.  So highly was it regarded, along with the beauty of the island, that The Cloister hosted the 30th G8 summit there in 2004.  After that, the hotel decided to expand, to upgrade and improve.  The original Mizner hotel was torn down, a new hotel built with more modern amenities and better views.  Next, the original Beach Club was torn down, a new pool area built (minus diving boards—too much of a liability).  And, last but not least, a gate house was built so that only those with special access can get on the island.  Everything that was once there is completely razed.  Everything is new.  Modernized.  In what feels like having a waking dream, everything there is inspired by the same rooms, hallways, pool decks, and dining areas that came before it—so that it seems familiar, smells the same—but doesn’t feel right. 

The new hotel and beach club are truly beautiful.  Like something out of Architectural Digest.  In some cases I will agree that it is “improved.”  My memories, though, are of a place that was much more fun, full of traditions but also casual.  Inviting.  Which is why the two vintage postcards featured here are some of my collection favorites.  They are of the Cloister before I ever knew it, but they feel familiar because the old hotel always had the glamour that is present in vintage postcards.  Even without a message they seem to say, Wish You Were Here—celebrating the golden age of an era when handwriting and postcards were as common as fingerbowls on the dinner table.
It is not easy to capture the spirit of a place.  Especially, its place in time.  But I find that if you look in the right places—such as a dusty box in the corner of an antique shop—you just may be able to find the vintage postcard that does. 

For fun: a 1980s postcard of the Beach Club
that looks like it came right out of my childhood memories

A postcard of architectural renderings of the "new" Cloister hotel


1 comment:

  1. So heartfelt and beautifully remembered. What a tribute to all those wonderful years we spent there as a family. And those memories will stay with us forever. Thank you.