By Laine Cunningham
My grandfather lived in an American Civil War-era hospital he’d converted into three apartments. In the early part of his life, he was a boxer until his hands gave out. For a time, he drove buses for the City of Hagerstown, Maryland. Eventually he put together enough money to buy the building at 255 South Potomac Street and, using his carpentry skills, converted it into a place he and his renters could call home.
The hospital’s first and second floors were open wards. Before the building was constructed (likely between 1861 and 1865), American hospitals were places for the poor and indigent. They had reputations as places where people were sent to die. The war demanded more for soldiers who couldn’t afford private care, and the airy spaces and numerous windows were designed to promote healing. Pappy enclosed the first two levels and rented them out. The third floor, accessed by a narrow, steep stairway leading up from the second-floor landing, became his home.
It also became mine, in a way. I grew up in a military family, and rarely spent more than two years in a place before my father received orders to relocate. When we were lucky, our new homes incorporated details that accounted for its environment, like the thick walls of the Oklahoma quarters that kept the interior cool. When we weren’t so lucky, returning to my grandfather’s home settled me, for a few days or a week, in a place that cycled through the rhythms of Hagerstown.
Perhaps this constant adjustment to new homes, and the comfort of those visits to Pappy’s place, are why I open to the rhythms of an art residence’s physical structure. The building’s orientation to the compass (and therefore the sun), the surrounding neighbourhood, and natural elements like weather soak into my awareness over the weeks and months of my stay.
At Unpack in Vedado, a neighbourhood of Havana, the tall exterior doors can be opened during the cool evenings and fresh mornings. Their louvered center panels allow air to flow while blocking the midday sun. Transom windows of frosted glass fill the private spaces with a gentle natural light. The tile floors, some of which are unique on the island, endure Cuba’s humid weather. The original tile and the painstakingly restored millwork allow the home’s history to live on.
The courtyards are closely integrated spaces for outdoor living. Breezes flow between the buildings and shoo mosquitoes during meals. As residents of surrounding homes ascend the open stairway behind the second courtyard, occasional conversations flow as the neighbours check in with Omar or coo over Ajax.
In the late afternoons, a feral tomcat claims the paved front area for sunbathing. It prowls the alley and yowls throatily to the female cat that perches on a ledge of the adjacent home. Further afield, the rooster struts with two hens along the grassy verge and announces the arrival of each new day. Stray dogs, busily attending to their own schedules, trot along the sidewalk. These are the rhythms of Unpack. These are the rhythms of home.