Thomas Carter is looking at a photograph of himself taken some 25 years ago, and he can't help but smile. It's a black-and-white press shot of the Fuzzy Mountain Band, with whom Carter played fiddle during his graduate school days at the University of North Caro-lina at Chapel Hill. Today Carter is whippet slender, and his standard uniform includes lightweight hiking boots, high-tech fleece outerwear, and an Avocet altimeter/watch that hints at one of his passions: backcountry telemark skiing. In the photograph he is equally slim and sports a floppy felt hat and rumpled denim shirt. "That was my hillbilly stage," he says. "I said 'ya'll' a lot during that period of my life. It was pretty hilarious."
But it is an image Carter cherishes, at least in part because it is only one of the person as he has adopted in his journey from son-of-a-son-of-a-son-of-a-pioneer to architectural historian and leading interpreter of the cultural landscapes of the American West. Carter is the founding director of the University of Utah-based Western Regional Architecture Program (WRAP), through which scholars are commissioned to document and interpret the human-built resources of the American West. The program is "a national forum for discussing issues related to Western regional architecture and the Western cultural landscape," according to its mission statement. An acolyte of the vernacular architecture movement, Carter has spent the last two decades studying Western cattle ranches, Mormon communities and field patterns, stockyards, and mining camps.
Although other scholars have focused studies on specific elements and regions of the West, Carter's scope is ground-breaking. His insights regarding the history and meaning of Western landscapes are beginning to find a national audience. He is the editor of a collection of essays, Images of an American Land: Vernacular Architecture in the Western United States (University of New Mexico Press), and his forthcoming Faith and Good Works: Making the Mormon Landscape in Utah's Sanpete Valley, 1849-1890, will be the first in a Yale University Press series called "Building the West," designed to explore the cultural landscapes of significant Western architectural traditions.
From his office at the University's Graduate School of Architecture, where he is an associate professor, he shepherds a growing body of architectural scholarship that sheds new light on questions that have long beguiled the nation: What does it mean to be a Westerner? Why the fascination with the Western land? And what do the human-built landscapes of the American West have to say about the West's place in the American melting pot?
In 1990 he founded the Western Regional Architecture Program to help change the long-standing perception that the essence of Western history is found in isolation, confined to the frontiers that erupted along the leading edge of advancing settlements. Thus far program scholars have analyzed working ranches in Nevada and New Mexico, Mormon building techniques and the Mormon landscape in rural Utah, hard rock mining and the cultural use of space in Idaho's Silver Valley, and the use of architecture as a culturally controlling mechanism on Native American reservations. Carter directs a seven-week summer field school in which graduate students in architecture travel to research sites to prepare architectural drawings, landscape diagrams, and photographs. Largely underwritten by support from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the R. Harold Burton Foundation in Salt Lake City, these projects will form the core of the "Building the West" series.
Simply by documenting little known resources, Carter would be making "an enormous contribution" to architectural and landscape studies, says Dell Upton, professor of architectural history at the University of California-Berkeley. But Carter's work goes beyond the measured drawings of historic buildings, field and fence patterns, and topography. "He is studying all of the spaces in these specific landscapes," Upton explains, "and looking at the system of spaces that fit into the [Western] way of making a living. No one has ever looked at the architecture of the West with this level of detail. No one else has the ambition to see the entire West the way he does."
The late J.B. Jackson sparked an intense fire of interest in the landscape of the West with his seminal journal, Landscape. But when he left the publication in 1968, says Chris Wilson, a New Mexico-based freelance cultural historian and author of the recently published The Myth of Santa Fe (University of New Mexico Press), "a generation of disciples" lost its prophet. Carter is helping to fill that void. When Carter began assembling Western architectural historians for a comprehensive program of built-environment studies, Wilson says, "there was as much written about the cultural landscape of Virginia as there was on the entire Western United States."
What's remarkable about Carter, Wilson says, is his unselfish approach to scholarship. He not only conceived the Western Regional Architecture Program, assembled its scholars, and steadfastly pursued his own research projects, but has done the difficult work of fund raising for studies beyond his own. "He is no egoist," Wilson says. "He has created a context so that these are not just isolated regional studies."
Although Carter avoids a debunking mentality ("We're not about correcting misconceptions," he insists), the underlying thesis governing his program's studies does turn Western settlement history on its head. The premise is straightforward: that the settlement of the frontier, certainly a process of westernization, was equally a process of Americanization. Researchers in New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming, and elsewhere are discovering how the West "became transformed," Carter says, "into a wholly American land," and not a vast expanse of isolated, disconnected frontiers. While it is important to acknowledge the many cultural influences that contributed to the shaping of the Western landscape, what has been overlooked, Carter says, is the way the West was turned into a place with an undeniably American personality. In the Western landscape are values that even a century or two ago were considered "American": an economic system predicated on supplying markets, the rise of entrepreneurship, an embracing of technology. These architectural historians are learning that in settling the American West, the cultural and aesthetic traditions of the industrialized East weren't so much left behind as reinterpreted for a different environment. The evidence of this underlying "Americanness" is found in each of the Western Regional Architecture Program's study sites.
This transformation of landscape is particularly intriguing in the Mormon towns where most of Carter's research has taken place. Settlements were laid out according to Mormon prophet Joseph Smith's famous "Plat of the City of Zion," the grid pattern in which residential space occupied the same town lot as pasture, stock and hay barns, orchard and granary. But the Mormon town plan, theologically inspired as it was, was still founded on a grid of residential blocks like that common to much of the settled East. Although the Mormon landscape was a more intensive use of town space, what was "clear and astounding," Carter says, is how quickly the Mormons created "a middle class, Midwestern world out here." Like the landscapes of western mining, ranching, and timbering communities, the Mormon West developed in a relationship, he explains, "to the core culture: American middle class industrial capitalism of the late nineteenth-century."
The discovery of this emergent Americanization of the Western landscape has ramifications that extend beyond academia. There is a lesson for the wave of contemporary immigrants pouring into the still wide open West, and for the design community serving those people. The place to begin, Carter has learned, is to accept the West as an American place and understand that Westerners are Americans. "We can't be romantic about it," as Carter says.
This was no minor revelation for Carter, whose search for the identity of the West has always been as much about self-discovery as scholarship. Born in Salt Lake City in 1949 and educated in the East, he has at various times assumed the roles of ranch-bred Old Westerner, fiddle-playing Southern Appalachian Bubba, New Western High Altitude Fun Guy, and diligent Modernist Academic.
Carter's ancestors came west with the Mormon migration in the 1840s; 20 years later, according to family history, his great-grandfather, Joseph William's father, took a second polygamous wife. This caused deep division in the family. Young Joe Billy, as he was called, packed up and headed to the Ruby Valley of Nevada in 1864, and was among the first settlers in the region. By the time Thomas Carter was born, the family had moved back to Salt Lake City, and his great-grandfather's side business, ferrying goods by wagon from the railhead to distant ranches and mines, had turned into a large trucking enterprise run by his father. Though he spent time in Ruby Valley, Carter was a city kid, with few thoughts as to the role of his Western roots. When he applied to college in 1967, Carter looked to the far side of the Mississippi.
The escape was to Brown University, and moving from Utah to culturally diverse Providence, Rhode Island, Carter says, was a "most powerful experience." He eschewed the campus crowd, found a little banjo shop where he could hang out, and spent his time in the city's Portuguese, Italian, and Polish neighborhoods. There he found a sense of "face to face community" that he'd never before experienced. He began thinking about "the relationship of traditions and behaviors and what they said about our country and the concept of culture."
But 3,000 miles from home he brought the Western stereotype with him, such as ranch dust in the creases of his coat. Carter's fiddle playing and penchant for old-time music earned him the nickname "Tex" at Brown, and the suggestion from a professor that he record New England fiddle players as research for a term paper. In that moment, Carter's life changed. "I thought, 'You can really do that?'" he recalls. "You know, like, 'That's school?' I still can't believe I found people who were open to these kinds of ideas, to a real intimacy of education."
By the end of his career at Brown, Carter was a committed "folkie." He earned a master's in American folklore at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1971 and won a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to document old-time fiddle players of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. In 15 months he recorded more than 200 fiddlers for tapes that now reside in the archives of the Library of Congress and UNC-Chapel Hill.
Carter's future was coming into focus, or so he thought. He matriculated at Indiana University in 1975 with plans to use his fiddle recordings in a dissertation exploring the ways in which shifts in musical expression reflect change in local culture. For a year all went well, until his advisor, the esteemed folklorist Henry Glassie, left Indiana for the University of Pennsylvania, and Carter had to convince another doctoral chair of his scholarship. That professor found Carter's musicology skills lacking. "He said I just didn't have it," Carter says, "and that shut the door. I had my dissertation in a box, but I just had to start over."
It was a huge blow. Enervated by beginning his doctoral studies anew, Carter changed the focus of his studies from vernacular music to vernacular architecture and, in 1978, left Indiana for the tiny Utah community of Manti, his base of operations for a dissertation on the Mormon housing of Sanpete Valley. He worked as an architectural historian with the Utah Division of History during the early 1980s, picking up a few part-time teaching hours at the University of Utah and foundering in what he calls an early mid-life crisis.
In search of an anchor, Carter embraced his Western roots. He began playing Western music in a string band and documented with measured drawings the Ruby Valley house where his father grew up. Those were the years of Tom Carter, Westerner with a capital W.
But another critical moment was at hand. In the summer of 1987 Carter won a Benno M. Forman Fellowship to the Winterthur Museum, the collection of American furnishings and art in Delaware, to research the heritage of Mormon furniture styles. There he found himself a part of an intellectual ferment. After dinners a number of Winterthur fellows would gather to play midnight golf and talk about the explosion in vernacular architecture studies. "It was a heady time," Carter recalls, describing his discovery of the vernacular architecture movement as "liberating." One night he asked the group where the West fit in with these new ways. "And nobody knew," he says. "Nobody was doing anything out here. So that's when I thought, maybe that's what I can do."
With more than a decade of scholarship to draw on Carter is working towards a new synthesis of architectural, landscape, and historical analysis. Students of the Western landscape need a theory, he writes in Images of an American Land, and he has a few thoughts about what that might be. The search of the American West should begin with recognizing that its settlement grew from a nation embracing its landscape for refuge and renewal. The region wasn't, as some scholars suggest, a great safety valve for the poor of America, Carter says. It was more simply a place for people wanting upward mobility. Who wanted more? And what's more American, Carter asks, than wanting more? In a redefinition of the region, Carter now contends "that the West is the most American of regions."
This hypothesis of the West as a place of refuge will come as no surprise to "immigrant" Ted Turner or a host of unwashed backpackers in Glacier National Park. Carter's point, however, is that the invented West that lures everyone from Hollywood celebrities to Manhattan fly-fishing wannabes is hardly a late-twentieth-century phenomenon. The idea that the West is the "last best place," to steal phrasing from a recent anthology of writings about Montana, is already more than a hundred years old. As early as the nineteenth century, Carter postulates, the West became the last best place for a generation of young Eastern intellectuals who pilgrimaged there for taste of a landscape still intact: Theodore Roosevelt, Frederick Remington, The Virginian author Owen Wister. By the 1870s the need to save the West as the last best place even emerges in American national policy with the dedication of Yellowstone National Park.
And it's happening all over again. The West is a new source of refuge from the East. This time the battle is between the old West and its religion of use and extraction and the new West ideologies of high technology and preservation. It is, Carter says, "the fight for what's left over, for the landscape itself and for what gets done with it."
In this fight, of course, are those who make decisions about the land and its uses. Carter is given to musing on the lessons a new look at the Western landscape might have for those who directly affect its adornment. And although the connections can appear a bit obscure, he admits, the transfer of Western history from historiography to design must take place for the very sake of the Western landscape.
New Western history, Carter says, "centers the discourse on the competition for what's left over and exposes the invented Western landscape. It doesn't offer solutions, but it teaches us what we've done to the land." His is a new way of looking at the West, stripping away the veneers of structure and fiction and coming to terms with the landscape's true culture and traditions. It incorporates a line of reasoning that suggests Carter's latest incarnation: Postmodernist.
In the West, especially, the history of the landscape has largely been the story of "fictions that become part of our cumulative record." In tourist towns such as Sante Fe, New Mexico, and Park City, Utah, these fictions have become a commodity, a romantic, institutionalized replacement for a West somehow lost to the nation at large. Carter believes it is time to put an end to the selling of that image, and part of the responsibility lies with those who create the landscapes, the "new stories," as he calls them, "that become part of the fabric of history." Carter hopes that the Western Regional Architecture Program stimulates such examination.
Eddie Nickens is a writer based in North Carolina. This article is excerpted from one which originally appeared in the May 1997 issue of Landscape Architecture.