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Montpelier train station preserves the architecture of segregation

The Montpelier Foundation, which has restored James Madison's home to its original look, has also restored a small train depot. The restoration has returned the Jim Crow-era station to its original layout, including "white" and "colored" waiting rooms. Montpelier believes this helps make the history of segregation more emotionally palpable to new generations.

There's no "feel good" reward to being in this space, as there is when one visits the Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter, the site of a 1960 sit-in, enshrined as a monument to the civil rights struggle in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. But there are other, more valuable responses to this small, insignificant little station, where no history of any particular importance was made.

The white waiting room, according to the architectural plans, is 14 feet wide by 15.6 feet long. The colored waiting room is only nine feet long by 15.6 feet wide. Separate is never equal.

If the partition weren't there, sunlight and air would flow through both rooms, from the street frontage to the tracks side. Because there was only one station agent, both rooms had to be served by a single ticket office, which had two windows, intersecting both rooms at an angle. Anyone waiting to be served could catch a glimpse, through this triangular space, of people in the other waiting room.

You can easily imagine the agent turning away from a long line of customers at the colored window to serve whites first, as was the custom. Not only was separate never equal, separate wasn't always separate, either. This dual-purpose window enacted hierarchy and privilege: It brought the segregated rooms together through the person of the station agent, who made clear Southern Railway's priorities and values.

It is a small architectural detail, little more than a wedge-shaped protrusion into the two waiting areas. But details such as these, places where architecture actively sorts people into lesser and greater worth, could easily be lost if the architecture of segregation isn't preserved.

Our society isn't entirely done with such ideas as separate but equal. The phrase has cropped up again in debates about same-sex marriage. As some states consider legalizing such civil unions that would be "all but marriage," pro-gay marriage forces have argued that this would be functionally equivalent to separate but equal, a wall between two types of people erected merely to maintain a social animus.

The Montpelier Depot makes one keenly aware of what might be called the "overbuilding" of both architectural and social spaces. The depot is overbuilt, defined by an unnecessary wall, that requires more wood, more glass, and other materials than necessary to make a functional train station. It reminds us that our society is filled with distinctions, divisions and exclusions that serve no purpose.

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