Introduction to 2nd Stories

I first became intrigued with attics as I a young kid, when my family lived in the small northwest Indiana town of Fowler. It started at Grandpa and Grandma Mendy's house-a small, late-Victorian, frame home. The upstairs was unheated, and consisted of two bedrooms with variously sloped-ceilings, a short hallway, and two irresistible walk-in attic spaces.

Throughout her life, Grandma saved everything under the sun, and stored it neatly away in her attic cubbyholes. Assortments of odds-and-ends-far too precious to throw out-were tucked into shoe boxes, cookie tins, cardboard cartons, old dressers, and mothball-laden wardrobes. The smallest items went into match boxes or aspirin tins. There was an historical archive of postcards, greeting cards, and letters, all organized by year and tied neatly into bundles with string. She also squirreled away outdated military uniforms, decades-old hats, yellowing newspapers (with historic dates), and grade-school projects. In one drawer, I found small boxes of costume jewelry carefully wrapped in tissue paper, glass vials containing tiny sea shells sorted by color, 31/2 sets of false teeth, and dozens of used pencils (some sharpened down to nubs, but none with teeth marks). In short, those two attics were a veritable museum-an archeologist's or small boy's dream-and I loved exploring them.

Although we moved 30 miles away from Fowler just after I entered first grade, to the (comparatively) large city of Lafayette, I continued visiting those attics well into adulthood. After I married Lynn (also a curious a soul), she readily joined me on trips to Fowler for visits, cutthroat games of Uno, and attic forays. No matter how many times I explored, I always found something that I'd never seen before. Those attics mesmerized me, and they foreshadowed a curiosity about the upper levels of buildings that would endure for decades.

By the time I ended my elementary-school years, Weber's Hobby Shop had become a favorite haunt. It offered everything from plastic model kits, to balsa wood, to finely detailed HO-gauge steam engines. During my model-airplane phase, someone suggested forming a club. The idea probably originated with my friend Tony, who worked part-time at Weber's. After a few people expressed interest, Tony hung a sign-up sheet in a prominent location in the store, and we spread the word to others when out flying our planes on weekends. As enthusiasm grew, Mr. Weber offered his store's second floor as a meeting room, and the Lafayette Cloud Jockeys was born.

All I remember about the club is that most of the members were older guys, and the meetings were tedious and boring. But I still remember Mr. Weber's upstairs. Like many downtown businesses, the hobby shop only occupied the first floor. Although I had been patronizing the place for a few years, I had never considered the fact that there might be anything more to the building than the ground level. But there was-an entire second story, consisting of a single, large, open room with a high, tinned ceiling. It was completely empty except for a few dusty cartons, and the table and chairs we dragged up there for our meetings.

The exterior of the hobby shop had a large display window at street level with a false front above, so the second floor's tall windows couldn't be seen from the outside. From the simple style, I'd guess the fa├žade had been spruced up in the 1950s, perhaps as much as a decade before I discovered it. To get to the upper level, it was necessary to go through a cluttered storage room, then climb the worn treads of a long and creaky stairway, which I recall having surprisingly ornate spindles.

Soon after ascending Mr. Weber's back stairs for the first time, I found myself looking up at other downtown businesses and quickly realized how many had second, third, even fourth stories, and that most were off-limits to the public. As I began eyeing these other buildings, I could see that many upper levels had never been remodeled. Some had fantastic architectural details-cast-iron decorations, carved woodwork, I even saw faces and creatures. On the backs and sides of a few buildings I spotted fading advertising signs promoting cola, bread, and other commodities. The more I looked up, the more I became aware of another world.

As the years drifted by, I had the good fortune to visit the interiors of some of the upper stories I had been noticing. Some were converted to apartments, some were used as warehouses, one was an artists' studio, but many were empty-filled only with shovelfuls of dust and forgotten memories. Yet, no matter what their current use, they still interested me, not only for what they had become, but for what they had once been. I came to realize that, a century or so earlier, when each of these buildings was erected, the entire structure was used for something. Perhaps you climbed the stairs to additional sales space, a dance hall, a lawyer's or accountant's office, or an illegal speakeasy. In any case, there was something going on up there. Today, most people have no idea what lurks in the upper levels of old buildings. I'm sure some simply don't care, but I'm just nosey enough to want to explore such spaces whenever possible.

One such opportunity came on a Saturday morning back in the 1970s. when Lynn and I happened to be inside the ornate Tippecanoe County Courthouse. All the county offices were closed for the weekend, yet the building was open, for a reason that now escapes me. We were just wandering around when Lynn spotted an inconspicuous door that was ajar. I pushed it open to reveal a tall set of wooden stairs rising up-to somewhere. There wasn't anyone around to ask permission, so we started climbing-and ended up inside the dome.

To say the least, it was a remarkably special place. The normally hidden support structure of iron plates, beams, and rivets was all exposed and, in the center, a set of spindly cast-iron stairs rose up to the very top, where we could see the mechanism for the dome's clock. Lynn placed her hand on the railing, causing the entire stairway to shake. It was obviously not OSHA-approved, so we decided not to climb any further. But there was still a lot to admire about the magnificence of the place-the sheer volume of the dome, the meticulous craftsmanship, the architectural design. Sadly, this extraordinary space was only being used for storage of old records.

Not long after our courthouse investigation, a fellow I was working for purchased an old 4-story (5 if you counted the basement) brick-and-limestone building a block away from the Courthouse that had most recently belonged to a roofing contractor. After taking possession, we had to deal with decades of accumulation. The place reminded me somewhat of Grandma and Grandpa's attic, but a great deal messier. Amid the piles of trash, there were beat-up office desks and file cabinets, brittle asphalt-shingle samples, window frames with broken panes of glass, and hundreds of rolls of wallpaper that crumbled when unrolled for inspection. It certainly looked as if everything was destined for the dumpster but I kept rummaging through the detritus for treasures.

Just as I was about to give up, I was drawn to a cardboard carton tucked behind a pile of trash. Inside, amid more rubbish, I discovered a pair of odd-looking mechanical devices. As I turned them over in my hands, they increasingly sparked my interest. Each was constructed of two cast-brass pieces which were loosely fastened together and slid in an arc, as well as a pair of concave wooden rollers, one twice the diameter of the other. It took me several minutes to realize what I'd found-the hardware for the top of an antique rolling library ladder. I quickly claimed them and, although it took two decades, I was eventually able to incorporate them into the house Lynn and I built for ourselves.

Over the years, my fondness for the upper levels of buildings-both inside and out-has continued to grow. Without even thinking about it, I look up whenever I enter a new town, or pass a country church, or spot an isolated, railside grain elevator. The eyes of most people tend to look straight ahead, as if they were wearing vertical blinders, so I sometimes feel like a bit of an oddball with my head tilted back. But I occasionally influence others to look up as well-and they usually smile at something they had never noticed-yet had been in plain sight all along.

As Lynn and I were driving around southern Indiana for our last book project (Guardians of the Soul), we passed through dozens of Hoosier towns, large and small. In each, we routinely craned our necks to see the upper portions of buildings, pointing out interesting architectural details to each other. At one point, Lynn suggested that these gems deserved a book of their own-and she coined a title: 2nd Stories. I liked the idea immediately, but wasn't convinced her title was the best choice. After all, we were admiring some third and fourth stories, not just seconds. So we considered alternative titles such as Heightened Vision, A Higher Viewpoint, and A Different Perspective, but none clicked.

The more we deliberated, the more 2nd Stories sounded right. Then an obvious fact occurred to us. The word "story" didn't just refer to a different level in a building -it also meant a narrative, or an account of something. And with that realization, the title stuck, fitting perfectly a book which, as a photo essay, tells a visual story. Plus, for many of the older structures, it is a second story-a record of how they appear today, after they've changed and aged over the decades.

So, that's how this project started. Of course, like all major endeavors, the basic concept grew, changed, and matured, as it progressed. For example, it didn't take long before we began noticing all sorts of things up in the air, such as tall, industrial, brick chimneys, bridges, and Eiffel-like microwave towers. As a result, it became important to include captivating structures other than buildings. Originally, I planned to simply shoot the upper levels from atop a step ladder, but once I actually started taking pictures, I realized I'd be using a variety of perspectives. These included close-up details, as well as straight-on shots. Sometimes I'd frame only the upper portion of something, other times I'd capture the whole structure-placing it in the context of its surroundings.

These refinements to my original mission led to the upstairs, on top, and overhead of the subtitle. The common denominator is that these subjects can only be seen by elevating your perspective. That is, you need to lift your eyes, or climb, above the terra firma, to which gravity, and habit, so firmly adheres us. When looking at these images, you'll begin to realize how much is missed if your visual world is limited to ground level. In fact, I guarantee you'll begin looking up more often, and your world will become larger, more expansive, and dramatically more three-dimensional. Those vertical blinders will be relegated to the past.

John Bower