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Tyler Potterfield at Fort Pulaski near Savannah, Georgia
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A memorial for Eugene Coghill and Cora Coghill Schleif at Oakwood Cemetery
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Tyler and I posed in front of a defunct tavern on Tybee Island that I thought we should reopen.
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Conrad Aiken’s memorial in Bonaventure Cemeterybears this cryptic inscription.
The Flashback column for May, the origin story of the Boulevard, carries a somber afterword. I quote Tyler Potterfield in the piece, both from his 2009 book Nonesuch Place: A History of the Richmond Landscape and from a telephone interview. He fulsomely agreed to speak about the topic "with the stipulation" that I mention the effort that he and fellow historian Selden Richardson were undertaking to place a marker honoring its designer, Wilfred Emory Cutshaw.
This was the penultimate time I spoke with him, the last a few weeks ago at a James River Film Festival screening he attended with his wife, Maura Meinhardt.
I became acquainted with Tyler professionally through the years, both because of his historical knowledge, and in his capacity as a city planner. We had mutual acquaintances and interests, and ultimately became friends. I attended his wedding at St. Andrew's in Oregon Hill; like myself, he came to the matrimonial altar later in life.
Tyler collapsed and expired Friday morning. I use these particular phrases because, honestly, I think he’d appreciate them.
Thus Tyler hailed me whenever our paths crossed, often he on his bike or from the cab of his pickup truck. This became our standard greeting, usually accompanied by a firm hand shake. The term didn’t make oblique reference to the old Batman serial, but rather the archaic manner with which members of a city referred to each other – something like “brother,” but more formal.
The description also referred to our collaboration to annotate, illustrate and index Samuel Mordecai’s Richmond In By-Gone Days, or, in its trundling evocative 1859 title, Virginia, especially Richmond, in by-gone days : with a glance at the present : being reminiscences and last words of an old citizen.
We were only a few sessions in to what would be a daunting and time-consuming project. We ate well, suppers often made for us by Maura, using ingredients from their garden. We then convened to the book-lined front room where, as the evening shadows deepened, we read portions of the book back and forth to each other and took notes as we went along.
Pushing into middle age, Tyler joked about our being “old citizens,” although Mordecai compiled his delightfully chatty book on the outside of his allotted “three score and 10” years, at about age 73. His was a long memory and one preserved for posterity.
Tyler contributed in many ways, but one legacy he left is his book, which I often consult. That’s one tangible example among many others, but Tyler was denied giving us his own “Memories of an Old Citizen,” as I’m sure he would’ve.
The suddenness of this event has caught me bereft; the mind stalls against not seeing him fill a doorway and not hearing that energetic greeting, “Citizen!”
He was a true citizen, active in the community and his church and as a planner for the city of Richmond, where he brought a sensitivity about historic preservation and the smart and imaginative use of existing resources. We became acquainted somewhat slowly through professional contact — he was the first person I called when embarking on a story about the city’s current plans for one corner or another — but grew through mutual interests. He possessed, at first, an old school reserve, but it warmed toward a dry humor and wry observational nature.
Some of my two best memories of Tyler occurred on unusually damp, windy and jacket-worthy afternoons, much as the one we experienced in Richmond today.
You need to understand that Tyler possessed a genuine enthusiasm — glee is perhaps more accurate — about history. He was as nerdy about Richmond’s stories as any fan of Star Trek orDr. Who. His voluminous knowledge exceeded mine and his capacity to share it was greater. Riding around poking about at the city’s nooks and crannies was as fun for me as it apparently was for him. He took delight in pointing out to me, during one harried expedition, a clutch of early 20th-century tobacco barns in Manchester that he hope to see preserved. "People just think, 'Eh!,' but it's a vital part of what happened here," he said, as though trying to convince me.
One gray day in later 2012, he took me on a tour of some East End cemeteries to look at unusual monuments. Like these at Oakwood, entwined trees — trimmed to indicate cut-off life — of married couple Eugene T. Coghill and Cora Coghill Schleif. I knew nothing of them, nor now, but want to.
Then there's the high columned marker of stonemason James Netherwood. Tyler remarked how unusual this was in Richmond to have a facsimile of the person atop a graveyard monument. We're used to angels and allegorical figures.
Netherwood, wearing his Masonic apron and holding his stoneworker's tools, stands proud peering into the distance from underneath the floppy brim of his weathered hat. Netherwood’s achievements include supervising the placement of stone at Old City Hall, the Planter’s Bank and the Chamber of Commerce building that was torn down barely 20 years after its construction. The column probably came from a demolished building, either the the post-fire Jefferson Hotel or another. “Ever written anything about Netherwood?” Tyler asked me. Nope. I hadn’t really heard his name until that day.
Netherwood's wife received a smaller marker topped by an idealized classical figure.
Another monument, this on Shockoe Hill Cemetery, another of our city’s older and often neglected graveyards, belonged to Robert Hutchison of Savannah, Georgia, and his third wife, Ellen Laura Caskie. The elemental stained funereal columns, their incised words of memoriam fading, hinted at a mystery within the Spanish-mossed streets of old Savannah. I’d never visited there, a place that Tyler knew well from growing up in and around the town, and in April 2013, I tagged along with him for the purpose of writing a travel piece for the magazine and getting to the bottom of the Hutchison story.
Savannah greeted us with rain and wind. At certain times a strange bitter stink clung in the humid air from the nearby paper mill. “The Chamber of Commerce folks say it’s the smell of money,” Tyler informed. I don’t recall this ever fitting into a Savannah travelogue, including, later, mine. Tyler took great pleasure in showing off the town to me – the Crystal Beer Parlorwith its walls decorated by photographs and paraphernalia of its past and the Massie Heritage Center, one of the best historical architectural museums I’ve visited, Forsyth Park and Fort Pulaski. We ambled the streets even in fine drizzle. We split our overnights between his parents, who lived nearby, and a hotel.
When a hotel accommodation didn’t go well, the management upgraded us to the splendid River Street Inn, a former cotton sorting center, five stories wrapped around an atrium with a tavern in its basement and a view of the boat-busied river and Hutchinson Island. “We’re livin’ large now, my friend,” Tyler said.
The city unfolded like a massive magnolia blossom, although it’s smaller than Richmond and designed like a jeweled heirloom cameo. A guided intelligent plan made Savannah work for most of its history but the 20th century presented problems and a terrible attrition to many grand structures, usually for parking lots and highways. That's the kind of “bulldozer brotherhood” attitude that Tyler opposed, and he had Savannah as an object lesson.
The weather cleared. We took in some performances of the Savannah Music Festival, including Lake Street Dive, now of some renown. I spent some of our final day’s hours at the Georgia Historical Society researching our man Hutchison. And on our way home, we rolled intoBonaventure Cemetery, though the “Bird Girl” sculpture on the cover of the John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is removed to the Telfair Museum.
But Conrad Aiken’s bench remains, along with the cryptic inscription, “COSMOS MARINER – DESTINATION UNKNOWN.” Berendt repeated a story that Aiken saw the ship’s name as he watched the vessel pass Bonaventure. He made a point of tracking the ship’s record at the city’s port office. And he found that wonderful entry.
Here in Richmond, this afternoon, hard rains resumed.
Hail to thee, Brother Citizen! Bon voyage, to your own destination.
And here is the Flashback about "The Man from Savannah."
Sarah Price, who sang with Tyler in the St. Thomas choir, wrote this moving tribute and captured him well.