‘Architect’s Daughter’ Garber shares memoir

Form follows dysfunction

By Dagney C. Ernest | Jun 20, 2018
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Elizabeth Garber’s home writing studio includes her father’s desk from the 1940s and a model race car. “He also raced and owned racing cars; he really was larger than life,” she said.

Belfast — Elizabeth W. Garber has been known as a Maine poet for decades, but that’s changed, on two fronts. She spent the last 10 years working on a just-published memoir … and it has led her to become a lecturer on modernist architecture.

The local launch of Garber’s book, “Implosion: A Memoir of an Architect’s Daughter” — which Architectural Record called “un-put-downable” — will take place Friday, June 22, at 7 p.m. at the First Church, 104 Church St., hosted by the nearby Left Bank Books. Admission is free.

“It's going to be fun,” she said a few weeks before the book’s release. “I'm going to talk about how the creative community of Belfast inspired me to keep developing myself as a creative artist. And then how I changed over time: how did a Maine poet from Belfast ended up writing a book about radical modernism in Cincinnati?”

How indeed … especially since Garber, a former Belfast Poet Laureate, had spent much of her adult life pushing aside — save in therapy — her extraordinary upbringing. Granddaughter to beaux-art architect Frederick W. Garber and daughter of modernist pioneer Woodie Garber, she lived in, while helping finish the interior and landscaping, a stunning home designed by her father that has come to be known as the Garber House in Glendale, Ohio.

“I realized, this is not just a story of a family, but I have to bring in architecture, the history of modernism, the theory of architecture in Cincinnati and all the German immigrants that came to Cincinnati … and the intersection between the black experience and the white experience. So it took a long time,” she said.

It also took a while to come to prose from poetry. She’d “been writing poetry forever” when she started working on a Stonecoast MFA in creative writing at the University of Southern Maine.

“Part of what's great about grad school is they push you and push you into uncomfortable places. I had been sort of this nice Maine poet and then they were saying, all right, let's talk about uncomfortable places and tell a story on yourself,” she said.

A seminar on writing about race made her realize her southern Ohio youth in the 1960s gave her an unusual perspective. She started writing about it in her poetry, and then she had a change of heart — literally.

“I had surgery to correct an arrhythmia … They went in and burned or froze and scarred areas in my heart, and it just started this stream of memories,” she said.

Garber said her worst nightmare about the surgery had been that she would “lose poetry” … and she did. It “changed something in my energetics,” she said. But that didn’t mean she stopped writing.

“I started having memories every day and I just wrote them for the next three years — everything from my childhood, my teens, my 20s,” she said. “Things that had to do with my family, which I hadn't wanted to write about. I just worked on it in therapy and suddenly, it was like, what am I doing, what is this?”

The answers, she came to realize, were memoir and prose … and the mastery of writing prose was a whole new thing for the longtime poet. So she added on more schooling and switched to memoir, which meant reading a lot of them. She worked with Monica Wood at a Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance Black Fly Retreat, and Wood’s lauded “When We Were the Kennedys” helped her find the central image for her own work. But first, she had to do some major word-wrangling. Thinking about play structure while working with one of several editors was helpful.

“You start right before everything changes, and then you end almost right before it all resolves, or whatever. So I had to cut out the first third of my memoir and cut out the last third,” she said.

The middle third had plenty of meat — Garber likened the layers of memoir to thickening a stew. She realized hers was a story about herself and her father.

“My dad was a radical modernist in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and I loved architecture and sculpture when I was growing up. And then my father went crazy and became very destructive,” she said.

By then, Garber was in her late teens. The memoir covers the mid-1960s to 1972, when there were radical changes in American culture, as well as in the Garber household. Her journals chronicled both, including the Avondale, riot of 1967. During grad school, she had begun to pull from her writings, in poetry. One of her MFA mentors found the results remarkable.

“He was African-American, living in Virginia and the same age as me. He said, I haven't read white women or white writers writing about this,” Garber said.

Her memoir begins at a time when her mother “still wore white gloves when going to town” and her family was focused on their unusual home. They moved into the shell when the house’s exterior was finished.

“We stopped having a childhood and became the work force. I learned how to do carpentry and construction on the house, and then the next five years we landscaped it,” she said.

That landscaping has prospered; Garber said the privately owned house is now “a hidden gem,” but when she lived there, it was exposed and stark, but beautiful.

“It was magical! And daunting, because it was a masterpiece and everything had to be perfect,” she said.

The Garber homestead followed the rules of modernism. The chairs were all modern and in “islands of light” from above instead of lamps.

“And Le Corbusier said no couches, so we had no couches,” she said, sitting on a cozy one in the home near the reservoirs she and her husband have shared for three years.

Many years ago, Garber came to Maine as part of the back-to-the-land movement, and she and her first husband designed and built “a back-to-the-lander hippie house” in Brooks.

“I've never chosen stark modernism. But I like to visit it,” she said.

Revisiting her youth, “Implosion” explores Garber’s relationship to her father, a closer connection than her brothers had — due in part to a shared interest in architecture — and more positive than her mother’s. But they all suffered when mental health and modern architecture intersected with the changing times. Garber wrote about it all in her journals.

“My first boyfriend was black, senior year in high school. So I wrote about what that was like. And how my father, the great liberal, suddenly went nuts,” she said.

What definitively sent Woodie Garber into the tailspin that tore his family apart was Sander Hall, a student residence building he designed for the University of Cincinnati campus that opened in 1971. The 27-story building was wrapped in glass, filled with modern furniture and housed 1,300 students, one RA per 65 young people. Even before anyone moved in, people said there was going to be trouble there.

“They called it animal house and the firehouse and it was just partying out of control,” said Garber. “It was like the perfect storm of a collision of culture.”

Garber said that 24 hours after the students moved in, all the beautiful modern furniture in “the lounges that he had created to have this ideal, perfect place for students” had been “ripped off.” Things went downhill from there.

“It was so out of scale … it was just a huge mistake. And that building was what really put my dad over the edge,” she said.

By the end of the second year, students were committing acts of arson two or three times a week, Garber said. Sander Hall, despite its incredible views of the city and lofty ideals, was only used for nine years. On June 23, 1991, it came down in what was the largest implosion in the United States to that date.

“In Cincinnati, everyone knows about Sander Hall. It was like this huge cultural event of everybody going to watch the tower imploded,” Garber said.

And that everybody included her father, who died three years later. The battle for the building and the struggle in the family became parallel stories in the memoir — and that is what helped Garber shape her memories into a compelling narrative.

“It was like the explosion of the family and the explosion of the tower paralleled. And I didn't know that when I started. I wrote this little thing, oh, right, and he designed this building,” she said. “And then, wait a minute …”

Her original idea for the cover of the book, published by the hybrid She Writes Press, was a photo of the implosion. Instead, there is an interior shot of her childhood home in its modernist serenity. Garber had worried about the house, but in recent years, it has been restored.

“You can even take virtual tours of it,” she said.

The heart of “Implosion” is a personal tale, the telling of which has brought unexpected healing to her family; Garber dedicated it to her mother and brothers. And there has been another unexpected result.

“I learned so much about architecture from my dad that I'll be giving three different talks about modern architecture and his work,” she said.

In Glendale, she will present on the influences and architectural lead-ins that led to the design and building of the Garber House. At the Cincinnati Public Library, which her father designed in the 1950s, she will talk about how the design came about in collaboration with the librarian. And at another library, she will talk about the influence of her grandfather, “who was the most important architect of that first half of the 20th century,” and her father's career and the parallels between them.

“So I'm doing architectural history! People have asked if I could do the Cincinnati talks here, so I’m figuring out how to combine them,” she said.

In the meantime, she will be doing a less intensive presentation about the memoir and how it came about around the state this summer and fall, including events in Camden (July 19), Cushing (July 29), Blue Hill, Boothbay, Portland and Bangor.

“In Maine, you could so easily believe that modernism had never happened. But because I grew up with it, when I see an exquisite glass modern house, I just love it. It’s like a fairy tale,” she said.

As the book makes clear, there was no happily-ever-after in the Garber House. When Garber was 26, she went to an acupuncturist in Berkeley, Calif. It brought her out of a seven-year depression, set her on a career path — she has been a practicing acupuncturist for 33 years — and helped her feel compassion for her father’s bipolar disorder and for herself.

“I work with people with whatever they come in with. But I especially love helping steady and restore people's spirit and help them move out of depression or overwhelm or anxiety,” she said.

Writing the memoir has lifted her own spirit, as far as the trauma her younger self endured.

“I was a sarcastic, unhappy, depressed girl. But I … was determined I was going to be a writer,” she said. “I ended up making sense of what she lived through, which just feels really good.”

And she didn’t completely sacrifice her poetry. Garber said she was so thrilled that Kirkus Reviews' starred review described her book as "poetic and incisive" that she had the quote printed up on an unabashedly comfy pillow.

For more information about “Implosion” and Garber’s other work, visit elizabethgarber.com. While there is plenty of seating at First Church, Left Bank Books would appreciate an RSVP to leftbank@myfairpoint.net or 338-9009.

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Staff Profile

Dagney C. Ernest
A&E editor for Courier Publications, LLC
(207) 594-4401/4407, ext. 115
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Dagney has been providing Courier coverage of the local arts scene since 1985 and has helmed the multi-paper A&E section since it debuted in 2003. She has been a local performing artist, community and professional for more than 30 years; and spent a decade writing, producing and announcing on-air for several Midcoast radio stations. When not in the NewsNest, Dagney likes to be in motion.

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