2020 Catherine W. Bishir Prize Recipients

The co-winners of the 2020 Catherine W. Bishir Prize are Michael J. Chiarappa and Andrea R. Roberts.  Their compelling articles on African Ameican experiential landscapes in the mid-Atlantic and Texas open new avenues of critical inquiry with new, diverse, and model methodologies that fruitfully further vernacular architecture studies.

Michael J. Chiarappa’s “Working the Delaware Estuary: African American Cultural Landscapes and the Contours of Environmental Experience,” Buildings & Landscapes 25:1 (Spring 2018) synthesizes the perspectives of environmental history and vernacular architecture studies to explore the agency of African-Americans in shaping the cultural ecology of metropolitan Philadelphia’s tidewater region.  Highly skilled black workers—many migrants from the Chesapeake and North Carolina—were key participants in multiple processional landscapes of natural resource harvesting, processing and consumption as well as highly specialized interpreters of the natural landscape and keepers of environmental knowledge.  From oyster boats, to shucking houses, to the fish markets, oyster cellars, restaurants and hotels of Philadelphia, African Americans played key roles in every aspect of the shellfish economy, particularly as it expanded in the late 19th century.  In the region’s highly ritualized spring shad harvest, black shore-based seine hauling crews, fish splitters, plankers and roasters performed under the gaze of white audiences in attendance for both the spectacle and the resultant dinner.  Chiarappa contextualizes a rich array of period accounts, magazine illustrations, Thomas Eakins paintings, documentary photographs, and interviews to reveal natural and architectural environments shaped and experienced by black labor, “a cultural landscape animated by African American participation in greater Philadelphia’s estuarine ecology.”  As a study of the interplay of extractive economies, ecology, race and place, Chiarappa’s article serves as model for vernacular landscape research at a regional scale.

Andrea R. Roberts’s “‘Until the Lord Come Get Me, It Burn Down, Or the Next Storm Blow it Away’: The Aesthetics of Freedom in African American Vernacular Homestead Preservation” Buildings & Landscapes 26:2 (Fall 2019) is a close examination of grass-roots historic preservation practices in two rural black East Texas “freedom colony” settlements, among over 550 established by former slaves across Texas between 1865 and 1920. Roberts sets the successfully sustained stewardship practices of descendent homestead owners in the context of cultural theorists’ work on the black experience of place, developing particularly the concepts of homeplace and homesphere as sites of community liberation and survival against the outside world of white surveillance and oppression.  For family members, their historic homesteads are deeply significant as both repositories of multi-generational memories and as expressions of active freedom, resilience, and successful resistance to a white regulatory culture of land dispossession.  Architectural rehabilitation in this context can be understood less as a potential threat to historic integrity than as evidence of continuity and adaptability. Roberts posits the inherent tensions between this experientially-based engagement in homestead preservation and mainstream American historic preservation practice and regulation standards.  Her article serves both as an important critique and a call for a more inclusive understanding of the significance of place in the lived experience of African Americans.

Maire O’Neill Conrad, Committee Chair

Margaret Grubiak

Michael Steinitz

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