Johns Hopkins Magazine - April 1995 Issue

Humanities & the Arts

Four floors of violins, etc.

The "mother lode" of string instruments

For 102 years, the Holzapfel Violin Shop on Fayette Street in Baltimore was a local legend. Touring string players went there to while away idle hours until their concerts. The shop manufactured and repaired violins, cellos, double basses, guitars, and virtually anything else with strings on it. It sold recordings and music, and acted as a go-between in the sale of pianos. Explains cellist and Peabody faculty member Stephen Kates, "It was simply the place to go if you needed repairs on an instrument."

In 1988, Karl Holzapfel Jr., the son of the shop's founder, died and the shop closed. When Kates learned that Holzapfel's widow was desperate to sell the place, he agreed to take a look at it.

What he found in the four-story building stunned him. "I walked into a shop that had undergone no modification since the turn of the century, except for the addition of fluorescent lighting," he says. He found hundreds of violins, cellos, double basses, mandolins, and guitars. Hundreds of instrument cases. Enough seasoned wood to make dozens of new instruments. Belt- driven circular saws and band saws. A foot-treadled veneer saw. Tools he couldn't even identify. "This was the mother lode," says Kates. "How often does a person who loves violin shops get four floors of violins?"

So in 1990 Kates bought the shop. He had vague notions of cleaning it up and reopening it as a store, until he grasped how many instruments still waited to be repaired. "You had to think of yourself as finishing what they had started," he says. The problem was, he didn't know an instrument repairperson willing to take on the task, and the machinery was antiquated. Once he got into every floor of the shop and realized the historical value of what he had found, he decided to donate much of its contents to the Baltimore Museum of Industry.

"This was like finding a Model T in a garage," Kates says, "What are you going to do, drive it to work?"

Cleaning out the shop and cataloging its contents turned out to be a mammoth chore for Kates and his wife, Mary Louise Robbins. The Holzapfels, Kates says, threw out nothing in 102 years. He and Robbins spent four years, often working in goggles and respirators, sifting through the accumulation of a century. Baltimore city workers hauled away seven dumpsters full of debris. For the first two years, Kates and Robbins were still living in New York, before moving to their present home in Annapolis. During the academic year, Kates would take the earliest possible train from New York, work in the shop for three hours, wash up in the back, then teach his Peabody students. He also spent two full summers on the project.

"We must have been out of our minds," he says. "It was no joy. It's something you do once in your life. But what was exciting was, there were treasures."

Kates was especially astounded at what he found on the third floor, where for a time the Holzapfel family had lived: "It was as if the family had just walked out in 1929. There was a newspaper from that year, covered with dust. Food still in dishes. Clothes in the closets." He found a trousseau from Mrs. Holzapfel Sr.'s 1894 wedding, a pair of 19th-century ice skates, and Karl Jr.'s grade-school primers. There was a wood-burning stove with mica doors. Kates found enough pieces of a century-old Victrola to reassemble it in working order.

Some of the tools used by the instrument makers have stumped even the experts at the museum, Kates says. "If you needed a tool in those days, you made it," he explains. An implement might have served only one specialized function in the making or repair of a violin, for example, and might have been a Holzapfel invention different from any counterpart. Says Kates, "A lot of things are still mysterious."

In the end, the museum took away eight truckloads of machinery and artifacts for its collection.

Kates sold most of the violins. He still has 60 or 70 that he says he'd like to donate to a violin-making school, for students to take apart and study. He had hoped to find a rare, highly valuable instrument among the hundreds strewn about the premises. "I didn't find it," he says, smiling ruefully. "The million-dollar baby I did find was the satisfaction of working on the shop."

Kates estimates he has finished 98 percent of the task of sifting through and dispersing the shop's contents. Now he's looking for a buyer for the building. The large stock of unused wood he found resides in the basement of his house in Annapolis. He wants someone to turn it into new musical instruments.

"I want to continue the line," he says. --DK

Giving Thurber his due

When one thinks of threats to national security, blind humorists who draw pictures of funny dogs do not spring to mind. Nevertheless, author Neil A. Grauer '69 discovered that from 1939 to the early 1950s, the ever-vigilant (and humor-impaired) FBI assembled a file on the late James Thurber.

Thurber published 25 books of humorous writing and drawing in his lifetime, including My World--and Welcome To It, Fables for Our Time, and My Life and Hard Times. His drawings of overburdened men, overpowering women, and dogs of indeterminate breed (call them purebred Thurbers) graced The New Yorker for decades, and his story "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" has become a classic.

Grauer came across Thurber's FBI file while working on his recent Thurber biography, Remember Laughter (University of Nebraska Press, 1994). The biographer knew from published reports that for several decades the FBI had collected information on dozens of notable American writers, including Theodore Dreiser, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, and Mary McCarthy. No one had ever listed Thurber as among those subject to the bureau's scrutiny. But Grauer had a hunch about it.

"He was an outspoken critic of Joseph McCarthy," Grauer says, and notes that Thurber also supported the anti-fascist Loyalist cause during the Spanish Civil War, a cause that attracted many Communists and therefore the FBI's suspicion. Grauer pursued his hunch and filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act, looking for a Thurber dossier at the FBI. Sure enough, one turned up. "The file itself doesn't contain a hell of a lot," Grauer notes. "Mostly press clippings."

Remember Laughter recounts the life of a resilient, difficult man beset by both physical and psychological problems. A childhood accident cost Thurber one of his eyes, and his remaining vision deteriorated throughout his life. In his biography, Grauer describes Thurber's efforts to continue writing and drawing despite his handicap. To keep drawing, Thurber tried magnifiers, a special Czech pencil that made a glowing line, and a custom lighted drawing board. He learned to compose prose in his head, dictating stories to a secretary. "I developed a much deeper respect for Thurber's courage and tenacity," says Grauer. "The guy never quit. He just kept on working."

Thurber could be a charming, self-deprecating raconteur. He enjoyed telling the story of an angry, rejected cartoonist who once demanded from New Yorker editor Harold Ross an explanation for how the magazine could publish "a fifth-rate artist" like Thurber. Ross's response: "Third-rate."

But Thurber also could be a nasty drunk who abused his best friends, smashed furniture, and brooded about not winning the Nobel Prize for literature. He was a philanderer who entertained a girlfriend on the night of his daughter's birth. After he became nearly blind, he occasionally had a New Yorker office boy guide him to a woman's apartment for more extra-marital exercise; the office boy was 17-year-old Truman Capote.

Grauer notes the unsavory aspects of Thurber's character but doesn't emphasize them, as he believes previous biographers have done to excess. "His friends always forgave him," Grauer says. "Why shouldn't I? I mention his faults, but I don't dwell on them."

Himself a reporter and cartoonist for the late Baltimore News-American from 1970 to 1980, Grauer says that he had long been fascinated by Thurber's abilities as a writer and artist. Twenty years had passed since the last biography of Thurber, and Grauer thought the decades might have given those who knew the humorist a more detached, objective perspective on him. He spent about two years working on the book, interviewing Thurber's daughter, Rosemary, and several of Thurber's longtime friends and associates. They included New Yorker writer Philip Hamburger '35, New Yorker editor Roger Angell, humorist Art Buchwald, writer Heywood Hale Broun, the late historian William Shirer, and caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld confirmed for Grauer a story that other biographers had written off as apocryphal--that Thurber, during an evening at a cocktail party, would change his glass eye two or three times, with each new eye more bloodshot than the last.

Thurber has not received his critical due, Grauer believes: "He really is a major American literary figure. He had an impact on John Updike and Russell Baker and Garrison Keillor, and to an extent, I think, Woody Allen. I think he's been underestimated."

Grauer had previously published two books, Baltimore: Jewel of the Chesapeake and Wits and Sages, a collection of profiles and caricatures of syndicated columnists such as George Will and Erma Bombeck. --DK

Art History goes high-tech

Until recently, undergraduates in Hopkins's Art History Department needed good notes and good memories to study for exams. In class, their professors would lecture using color slides of artwork--artwork that frequently was not reproduced in their textbooks, or was reproduced only in black and white.

Macie Hall, curator of the depart- ment's visual resources collection, has addressed this problem by creating a system of on-line digitized images accessible by personal computer, via the Internet. Now students who need another look at, say, a hinged shoulder clasp from the 7th-century Sutton Hoo ship burial, can click a few keys and produce the image on their computer screens, in full color and acceptable detail. One of the first of its kind at an American university, Hall's brand-new system gives students access, from their dormitory rooms, to more than 600 images at any time of day. Students who don't have their own computers can use those at Hopkins's MSE Library or at two on-campus computer labs.

Beth Hudson '95, an art history major, praises the system. "It's very good," she says. "The quality of the images is great. The slides in class go by so fast it's hard to remember them."

Hall's system uses a part of the Net known as the World Wide Web. Students connect via the Internet to the Hopkins JHuniverse index on the Web, and there find the listing for their specific art history class. They then view an index of the images for that class. To avoid copyright infringement problems, the university has restricted access to the images to students, faculty, and staff with Hopkins Internet addresses.

Hall began to think about a better system for viewing images about four years ago. Her first try involved compact disc technology. Working with Peter Batke, now at Princeton University but then with Homewood Academic Computing (HAC), she produced four discs, each containing 100 images. The department made four copies of each available for students to borrow.

"There were a number of problems," Hall says. "Students [because they needed to use laboratory computers equipped with CD-ROM drives] had to operate within certain hours. The technology is not intuitive for the first-time user. And we were juggling check-out times. So we began to investigate putting all of this on-line." Assisted again by HAC, Hall learned how to create the interactive computer indexes that enable students to retrieve images. To convert the pictures into digital data, she oversaw the scanning of hundreds of images from the department's slide collection. That data was then stored on compact discs and transferred to HAC's main computer, where students can now find it via the Net.

Students began using the system last fall in Megan Holmes's undergraduate courses on the Italian Renaissance and Michelangelo.

Holmes notes that art history instruction has shifted from the study of great canonical artists to a greater emphasis on cultural context. Instead of traditional art history textbooks, she often must give students packets of photocopied articles, which do not have good reproductions of artworks. The on-line system lets students view high-quality images, she says.

She does wish it were simpler to place images on the system for students to view. Hall shares that wish; she says that it currently takes about an hour's worth of labor to prepare a single image and its hypertext indexing for the main computer. In the case of Herbert Kessler's course "Introduction to Western Art" this semester, that meant roughly 280 hours of work. Furthermore, Kessler and Holmes each had to plan months in advance which images they would use. "I can't just march in and put in an image for class the next day," Holmes says.

As the digital image bank grows, more classes will be able to use it. Says Hall, "All the faculty are interested, but there's so much work involved." --DK

Written by Dale Keiger and Kevin Smokler '95.

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