Sunday, April 18, 2010

Idea Garage Sale: Heroic Guido Bros. & the Fairmount Hotel

I'm still recovering from TLA, but it's a matter of discipline to do an Idea Garage Sale on Sunday so here I am. This is part of my repertoire of downtown stories that I trot out when people come to town for events, the story of the Guido Brothers and the Fairmount Hotel. And I'm going to do it the way I do it on the tour, straight out of my head, factual fudging and all.

Once upon a time, developers bought up most of the land east of the Menger Hotel and west of the highway to build Rivercenter Mall. To make room, they tore down the existing buildings. However, one building, the long-empty Fairmount Hotel, was protected by historical statutes and the Conservation Society (known locally, with various degrees of admiration, affection, and irritation depending on circumstances, as The Little Old Ladies in Tennis Shoes. Though they no longer look as old to me as they once did, but that's neither here nor there.) They could not get permission to tear it down and they could not or would not incorporate it into the mall design. A buyer was found for the building, but the parties could not agree on a good way to preserve the Fairmount where it was and also build the mall. The only option was to move it.

This raised two problems. One, no one had ever moved a building the size of the Fairmount before; and two, to get to the new location, on the edge of La Villita and across from Hemisfair Park and the Convention Center, involved crossing at least two, maybe three, bridges over the Riverwalk. It was a massive job of engineering and few companies even bid the job - but Guido Brothers (yes, they've heard the jokes) stepped up to the plate.

They did a lot of math, reinforced the bridges, and took several days or weeks in preparation. When the big day came, the streets and relevant areas of the Riverwalk were closed. News cameras were everywhere, including the national news. Maybe some international, too, I don't remember, but probably. I was working downtown but I didn't get to see any of it; not willing to fight the crowds. It took all day long, easing the great bulk of hotel through the streets. But I remember this: As the hotel rolled majestically over each bridge, the senior Guido Brother stood beneath it, saying: "If it breaks through, I'd rather be down here than up there."

I tell this story a lot. I can sort of see the picture book in my mind's eye. Wouldn't it be a good one? The kind that inspires kids to become engineers? But it would have to end with the triumphant opening of the hotel, not with the punchline.

I'm not gonna write it. Picture books and non-fiction are not my genres. By the time I'd interviewed the principles, checked the quote (which is maybe less of a quote and more a summation of what people assumed to be his motivation), researched all the facts, and uncovered a couple of other anecdotes (because you always uncover more cool stuff when you research) it'd be too long for a picture book and the energy with which I tell it would be lost.

Telling a story in the oral tradition is one thing. You're in a dynamic relation with your audience and if you have to guess, fill in memory gaps, simplify complex politics, and generally pull the longbow on the fly to keep the story running without getting sidetracked, well, you do. When you put things down in cold print, you have time for accuracy; and because of this, people trust print. Most folks who aren't involved in producing printed text have this vague idea that somebody, somewhere, has the job of stopping writers from publishing inaccuracies. Especially in picture books, which are for children and, therefore, educational by default, right?

And if you're a Guido Brother and you're reading this - enjoy being a hero of legend, okay? Even if I never have bothered to learn your first names.

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