Jeep officials said the building was too expensive to keep, that they needed the parking spaces. It was 64 years old, built in 1914, and had been vacant for five years. The demolition was announced less than 60 days before the implosion date.
We were all so disappointed. To think what a beautiful, distinctive, classic and uniquely famous building was being torn down for a parking lot. Dare I say, it would have made a fabulous local art and industry museum, or maybe a community art center, at the very least!
As the Jeep Administration Building in Toledo, Ohio was being made ready to blow up, the classic, 63 year old Waldorf Hotel on Summit Street and Madison Avenue was being torn down, to make way for a bank.
Tommy was a punk rock drummer in a Detroit band. And quite the great drummer, at that. He seemed like the perfect metaphor of the pending doom – he was like the dynamite that was going to blow up the building. Out with the old, in with the new, rock and roll style. I thought punk was the perfect answer to disco.
I asked him to make some pictures with me inside the building in February and March, culminating somehow by getting onto the roof of the building, where Tommy stood on a ladder over West Toledo, and then posed on the building’s edge in an oxygen tent, like a punk angel overseeing the Jeep factory buildings, with the Toledo skyline on the horizon.
One day nearly two years after this shoot, Tom said to me, I’m moving to New York, do you want to come? Of course I said yes. We’ve been together ever since. Tommy (his drummer name, his real name is Tom), the proverbial dynamite of the Jeep Administration Building implosion, turned out to be the spark that changed my life.
We actually moved to New York on April 13, staying at a New Jersey hotel that night before we drove over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan and down Broadway on the morning of April 14, 1981, exactly two years after the implosion Jeep Administration Building. It didn’t even cross our minds at the time. We were, after all, two nonchalant punk brats. In fact, not until right now have I ever realized what a fortuitous day that was for us.
Is life the car or the road?
There’s a car involved (a Jeep) there’s a road involved (40 years so far), and there’s some dynamite, in the form of a couple of beating hearts (or is it music?) …. today is much more than just the 40th anniversary of the Jeep Administration Building implosion.
My great great grandfather, Pierre Gentieu, was a photographer. He created sharp-focused, sensitive images of the workers and families who worked at the Du Pont Powder Company. His photos express the hard life of the workers, many of whom were newimmigrants, at the first big industrial company in the United States, which happened to be situated in the most photogeniclocation there ever could be for a gunpowder corporation, along the banks of the Brandywine River in the rolling hills of northern Delaware.
During my last year of college, I took a photography class, and suddenly everything seemed to fall into place, and I got instant recognition for my photographs.
I became a professional photographer in New York. In 1988, I had a show called “Confabulations” at a gallery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and that show was written up in American Photographer magazine.
A few years after that, I received a letter from a distant cousin Norman Gentieu, Pierre’s 77-year old grandson, saying that he found me from that review in American Photographer, and guessed that I was related to Pierre Gentieu. Did I know that he was a photographer, and that the Hagley Museum in Delaware has a complete set of his photographs?
I had NO idea!
It was an extraordinary letter from my cousin, and it explained why I was so drawn to photography and was kind of good at it, Could it be genetic?
The Hagley Museum told me that the Historical Society of Delaware had Pierre’s entire set of 354 glass plate negatives. The Historical Society let me borrow them to make prints, 10 glass negatives at a time, which was amazing.
I made archival prints from them — not the albumin prints of Pierre’s day, but the equally distinctive, and now-vintage gelatin silver prints of the twentieth century.
Pierre was only 18 years old when he immigrated, alone, to America from Orthez, Lower Pyrenees, France. It was 1860, and he stayed with his aunt and uncle in a room above their Darrigrand French bakery in Brooklyn. When it got cold, Pierre moved to New Orleans, where it was warmer and they spoke French. He joined the Orleans Artillery state militia, then the Civil War broke out, and the militia was absorbed into the Confederacy. Pierre was the first in his company to step out of line.
He joined the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry because he liked their uniforms. They were dubbed the “Dandy Regiment.”He fought in nine Civil War battles, and after the war, married Sarah Albina Weed, the sister of his tent mate and friend who taught him English. Pierre and Binie had six children — four boys and two girls.
Pierre came from a family of breveted chocolatiers. The family legend was that they made chocolate for the king!So after the Civil War, Pierre and Binie settled down in New York, where Pierre opened two French bakeries and then a restaurant. But he ran into terrible debt, so he had to sell the restaurant.
It was 1877 and Pierre was 35, with a five-year old boy, a crawlingbaby, and a pregnant wife. Pierre was in deep trouble! But alas, he found employment at the DuPont Powder Company in Delaware. The company, being French, making gunpowder, and wanting to help out Civil War veterans, gave Pierre his second chance.
He started as a powder worker, a very dangerous job. But the du Ponts soon recognized his talent when they saw a goauche painting he made of the Lower Yard, and he was promoted to work in the office. You could say that art saved Pierre’s life from the many explosions that were occurring in the powder yards.
Pierre sometimes brought his camera to work with him, and for a long time was the only person allowed in the yards with a camera.
To quote from a clipping from the book, Corporate Images: Photography and the Du Pont Company 1865 – 1972, which the Hagley Museum and Library sent me in 1992 as an introduction to Pierre’s photography:
“Gentieu’s photography was very straight forward, with simple camera angles and poses dictated not only by his equipment, but also by his clear minded approach. He was a gifted amateur photographer who desired to show things distinctly in his pictures. For this he was encouraged by the officers of the Du Pont Company, and we can be thankful that he has left us the benefit of his vision. His photography was to leave a mark in the history of the company he worked for so faithfully for so long.”
To have found this connection to my roots has been so profound. If it hadn’t been for a photo credit, if it hadn’t been for Norman looking me up, if it hadn’t been for the Hagley keeping Pierre’s collection with his name on it, I never would have known.
I am Louis-Philippe, King of the French, greeting all here and all to come. And although this is a mere mortal marriage contract of 1838, just look at all those ancestor names! Enjoy, future seekers of the past.
The other night at a party I mentioned that I used to photograph babies in New York. (When pushed, I will admit it.) The man I was talking to said that he lived in New York when he was a baby, and that he was photographed for a baby product ad in 1972. I made wild guess that the photographer was Joe Schneider, which he later confirmed, after texting his mother. (And she remembered! To think, that a baby photographer could make such an impression on a mother as to be remembered 40 years later!)
Joe Schneider was the go-to baby photographer from the 1940’s to the 70’s. When he stopped photographing in the 1980’s, he continued to work as a baby handler.I landed my first big commercial shoot in 1986, which was for Baby Fresh, and having a big advertising budget, I hired Joe Schneider as a baby handler. I learned a few things from him too — most notably, the magic of Cherrios, which forever remained a staple in my studio and was often the secret ingredient to a successful shoot!
I was oblivious then to what Joe Schneider seems now to be most famous for — using Marilyn Chambers as a mother model on the package of Ivory Snow, when right after that, she went on to become a famous porn star!You have to start somewhere!
On the day we left for good, it was Winter Solstice, the best light of the year. When I came in that morning, the window light was touching the far wall. I photographed it at about 10:10, when the light from the east just happened to be centered on the well-worn floor. I went outside and photographed the building from every angle as if by doing so I’d take it with me.
“This loft has beautiful light,” my neighbor down the hall commented. I thought back to the first thing he ever said to me. The loft has beautiful light. Every day for ten years, each time I opened that door in the morning and found that empty space flooded by sunlight ready for me to transform it into something great because I was so fortunate to have it, I felt that beautiful light.
I looked around for one last time. The light streamed absolutely parallel down the length of the loft. I left at 2:20, the exact time of the winter solstice, I heard later on the news.
That sun in the studio—stripes of pure bright even light, straight through the south windows and up the 80 foot length of the open loft touching where my desk used to be. I’ll never forget that blazing sun. I could have left after the sun went down, to experience once more the light in its full cycle, reaching and embracing its way around the large empty space, then settling in the strange orange spectrum of sodium vapor street lamps that came on so early that time of year. I could have bathed in golden darkness one last time. But I left at the moment of Winter Solstice. I left my studio glowing at the best moment on the best day of the year.
I’m descended from two Civil War Yankee soldiers. Well, that is, one Yankee soldier, Pierre Gentieu, and Binie Weed, the sister of Yankee soldier Frank Weed, who was Pierre’s closest comrade in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry and his tent mate. Had it not been for a split second decision made by my great great grandfather, enroute to Vicksburg as a Confederate soldier in April 1862, Pierre and Frank would never have met on such agreeable terms, Pierre would not have been introduced to Binie after the war, and there wouldn’t be me! I suppose that’s why I felt compelled to find out all I could about the inspiring story of courage that he left for us.
While researching my great great grandfather’s Civil War story in Louisiana, March, 2000, I met two very special Civil War historians, Chris Pena and Andrew Capone, who lived in the area of Pierre’s first battle, an hour up the river from New Orleans in Donaldsonville and Thibodeaux.
They gave us a tour of the area, showing us where Pierre’s camp was, where his first battle was. Later, they treated us to a delicious Louisana home cooked dinner of sauce piquant at Andrew and Judy’s house in Donaldsonville, the town where Pierre Gentieu took his stand.
I told them the story of how in 1861, Pierre initially signed up with a Louisiana militia, but ended up fighting in the 13th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry.
It was April 1862, and Colonel Theard of the New Orleans Guards was leading the militia to Vicksburg from Fort Livingston. Half way to Vicksburg, in the very town of Donaldsonville, he lined up his men and gave them a speech.
Colonel Theard told them of his orders to go to Vicksburg, but explained that he had no right to take them outside the state without their consent. He hoped they would go, but he didn’t want to force anyone. The Colonel then offered any man an opportunity to declare if they were against the cause of the Confederacy. If any man had any scruples about it, that man was free to step out of the ranks.
In Pierre’s own words, as he recalled the moment 50 years later in a letter to his nephew, Frank Weed’s son:
Then came the time for me when I had to decide at once. My conscience and pride were struggling; one was saying you ought not accept the cause of slavery; and the shame to appear before my comrades, as if I were afraid because we would have to fight, was a struggle indeed; but I made up my mind now or never whatever happens—I stepped out the first one in my company with cries of coward from the rear.
There I stood for a few long moments until Albert Fest stepped out from the right of the company. A very tall man compared to me, he said, ‘Pierre, I am with you on this!’ Then 30 German men stepped out soon after that. As we were the butt of all insults from behind, the Colonel put a stop to that very quickly, saying ‘None of that, men, it takes more moral courage for those men to step out as they have done than to stay in the ranks’; and closing the few of us near him he spoke kindly, but sadly, saying to leave all our equipments, taking only our personal property—-that New Orleans was so many miles off, in such a direction—-we could get there the best way possible—-that we were free; and so we left worrying whether or not some of the hot headed ones might shoot at us; but the Colonel kept them in line until we disappeared in the woods.
Back in New Orleans, the trip of which was not without adventure, Pierre signed up with the 13th Connecticut. One reason was that the great looking uniforms appealed to his sense of style, with the dark blue trousers and polished brass buttons. He survived nine battles.
After dinner, Andrew took us into his workroom. He excavated battle grounds, including the site of Pierre’s first battle as a Union soldier. Andrew looked through the baggies of bullets, then handed me a bullet covered in white rust and dust, saying, it was Pierre’s bullet. Pierre dropped it during his first battle. The bullet never hurt anyone, Andrew pointed out, and it was mine now because Pierre wanted me to have it.
I gladly accepted the bullet for all of its poetry and brought it back up north. I arranged it in my studio along with some toy soldiers that I bought in New Orleans, one to represent each of five generations, and a broken brick Chris and Andrew gave me from the ruins of Fort Butler, and some spanish moss.
The soldiers were slightly precarious on the brick, because some mornings I would come in to find that the soldiers had fallen on the floor or into the spanish moss, from the vibrations of the Six train that ran through the basement of the Lafayette St. building. But never Pierre, and never the bullet.