Montpelier train station preserves the architecture of segregation

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 28, 2010; E03

Two things distinguish a small 1910 train depot a few miles south of Orange, Va., on Route 20. Newly renovated and with a fresh coat of marigold yellow paint, it looks as though it were built yesterday, as if the freight trains that still lumber by might actually stop and unload cargo. But it is the signs above the old waiting room doors at this abandoned Southern Railway flag stop that are the most astonishing feature.

"Colored" and "White." Built in the era of Jim Crow, the Montpelier Depot was constructed according to standard plans issued by the Southern Railway's Washington office, and the standard plans called for segregated waiting rooms. The train station, which sits on the grounds of James Madison's Montpelier estate, was recently restored, and when it was reopened to the public last Sunday, the old signs from the Jim Crow years were back.

The freight room of the station serves as a U.S. post office, but the rest of the building has been restored as an architectural reminder of what segregation looked and felt like. Signs inside and out make it amply clear that this is no sick joke or a monument to an ugly past. It's part of the nonprofit Montpelier Foundation's ongoing efforts to explore the full history of an estate owned by an architect of the Constitution, a landscape soaked in Civil War gore, in a state that embraced segregation early and clung to it to the very end.

William duPont, a powerful businessman and owner of Montpelier in 1910, built the small depot with his money. It served the trains that brought cargo and visitors to the estate, and it served duPont, who commuted between Virginia and Delaware. It was also used by African Americans who lived near Montpelier.

It wasn't an easy decision to re-create this small but evocative example of the architecture of segregation. Tom Chapman, who researched the history of the building, said he canvassed African Americans in the area about the idea. Reactions were mixed.

"Some looked at me and said, 'I've been there, I've done that and I don't want to see it again,' " Chapman said. This is the voice of fatigue, one of the toxic byproducts of oppression.

But there was a stronger argument. Segregation is part of local history, segregation was brutal and this building can make the emotional impact of segregation clear to generations born after the civil rights battles of the 1960s. Juan Williams, a National Public Radio and Fox News commentator who was invited to address the ribbon-cutting crowd, embraced this line of thinking.

"We're reminded of the psychological impact it must have had on those who came to a public space just to catch a train," Williams said.

Preserving the architectural remnants of segregation "is a preservation frontier," Robert R. Weyeneth wrote in a 2005 article in the journal the Public Historian. Weyeneth analyzed and classified past segregated spaces -- courthouses, hospitals, beaches, parking lots, bus stations, restaurants, schools, streetcars -- and noted that many of the physical remains of segregation had disappeared. Civil rights activists had worked diligently to remove signs over drinking fountains. The "colored" entrance had become the fire exit. The basement restroom was converted into a janitors closet. Urban renewal bulldozed much of the architecture of segregation, and many black-owned businesses, which catered to people excluded from whites-only establishments, didn't survive the economic shock of integrated shopping, dining and hospitality.

It is also easier, Weyeneth argues, to preserve the "heroic architecture" of segregation -- places of resistance, or alternative spaces where African Americans created vibrant and independent worlds of commerce, worship and social interaction -- than the darker, more shameful "imposed" architecture of separation.

But the Montpelier Depot demonstrates how volatile and disconcerting it is to encounter a fully preserved Jim Crow space. The building was rededicated as the country was still digesting an argument over the word "retarded," sparked by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's angry reaction to White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's recent casual use of it as a slur against liberals. These arguments are patterned and predictable as disputants jump between unrelated debates: about free speech and censorship, memory and forgetting, the nature of speech acts in a deeply ironic society, and the magic power of words to wound and change meaning.

These arguments never yield a consensus on whether linguistic taboos advance or impede social progress, whether it's better to take certain coins out of circulation or efface their old meanings and power. The Montpelier Depot, by contrast, is static, fixed, a relic neutered in part by the fact that passenger trains ceased to stop here more than 40 years ago. It reminds one of the past without reanimating it.

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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