Summer People: Ellen Weiss

Ellen Weiss — Photo by Ralph Stewart

Ellen Weiss is a retired professor of architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans. She is the author of two books, City in the Woods (an architectural history of the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association) and Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington. She is a summer person and the second subject of a weekly MVTimes series, Summer People, whose goal is to introduce readers to their summer neighbors, some of them prominent and extraordinarily accomplished, some whose lives are less exalted, all of them Islanders in their own ways. How do they describe their connections to the Vineyard and their seasonal Island neighbors? How do they describe their off-Island lives?

As a visitor stepped through her back door in West Tisbury, Ellen Weiss immediately offered coffee. “It’s from New Orleans,” she called from her pantry. As the coffee brewed and the smell of chicory filled the kitchen, Ms. Weiss talked about her connection to the city. She first went to New Orleans in 1987, when she accepted a job as a professor of architecture at Tulane University.

“I was probably the first member of my family to go beyond the Mason-Dixon line. Ever,” she said laughing easily. “I kept writing to my family, ‘I don’t understand the language.'”

In addition to her addiction to the local coffee, Ms. Weiss has grown to love New Orleans jazz. “There is something physical about the music that taps into basic human rhythms. It is extraordinarily happy music. In the New Orleans version, even the blues is happy. Listening to it, you suddenly feel the tension ooze out of your body. No. You don’t even feel it ooze, it is just gone.

“I think I get the same kind of relaxation out of listening to the surf at the beach here.”

Ms. Weiss has been coming to Martha’s Vineyard since she was a little girl. After visiting Menemsha in the 1940s, her parents, Harry and Gertrude Weiss, fell in love with Martha’s Vineyard and continued to return with Ellen and her younger brother, Julian. In the 1950s, they bought their house in West Tisbury, eventually retiring there full-time. Ms. Weiss inherited the property from her parents.

Nathaniel Hancock, John’s cousin, built the house in 1735. Her memory feature’s the building’s architecture. A curved window, perfectly shaped into the roof, she explains, was completed with the addition of a second story bathroom in the 1940s. This is the house’s iconic “eyebrow window,” which can be seen from Old County Road.

Of architecture in general, Ms. Weiss said, “It’s a way of expressing your most profound convictions. Architecture is cultural. It’s like literature. Buildings have a tremendous capacity, when they are well done, to make us into happy people.”

Of her own house – “These are relatively small rooms, and I think they are really nice to live in, as opposed to some of the newer houses which are much larger and in which the dimensions seem meaningless. Why have so much space?”

Ms. Weiss expresses herself forcefully on the issue of large houses on Martha’s Vineyard, an issue that is exercising Island planners and regulators just now. She holds that maintaining balanced proportions is more important than keeping with a traditional appearance.

“Many people think that there is a Vineyard style. They think it’s about grey shingles and a pointy roof, and I say no. I think that size is more important than style when considering what is right for Martha’s Vineyard.”

In her living room, the door to the foyer gives a peek into a bright downstairs bedroom. Another door leads to the dining room and a screen door beyond, where the sunlight warmed and infused the house with the smell of dry grass in the yard.

“There is a hammock in the back. Sometimes I just watch the birds. Sometimes I read. Sometimes I nap. Sometimes I talk to people who stop by, but of course the guests get the hammock then.”

Her guests include Ms. Weiss’s brother and family who come to visit most summers. Thin pencil marks on her kitchen door frame record the rising heights of her brother’s children and grandchildren. Julian Weiss and his wife, Kathy Reed, are architects, who have designed two modern houses in West Tisbury.

Ms. Weiss has spent many summers, and longer periods during sabbaticals, on the Island. In the fall of 2005, she had an unanticipated, prolonged stay. Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans.

“Mostly what I remember is lying in a fetal position with my ear next to the radio. At first, I didn’t know what had happened to my house. I was shocked in the same way other people were shocked, but I had closer connections than most people here. But I just stayed here. There was nothing to do.”

Ms. Weiss’s house in New Orleans did not flood, but the roof was gone. She returned to Louisiana when Tulane reopened for the January semester.

As a professor, she enjoyed her research of American communities. Her book “City in the Woods” was the first to seriously consider the architecture of Wesleyan Grove in Oak Bluffs, today known as the Martha’s Vineyard Camp-Meeting Association (MVCMA), as a subject worth academic study.

“As an outsider, it seems to me that today they are very conscious of their history and of the spirit of communalism,” she said of the MVCMA today. “I’m sure there are always tensions between neighbors, but their goal is the same. They are a community, not just a real estate deal.”

Ms. Weiss’s recent book, “Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee,” tells the story of the first African-American architect and his role in designing, at the cusp of the 20th century, Booker T. Washington’s university for African Americans. The book’s subject, Mr. Taylor, also had ties to the Island. His first letters to Mr. Washington are datelined Cottage City, as Oak Bluffs was then known, and some of his descendants are still Island residents. Ms. Weiss will talk about her book on July 26 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum and again on August 29 at the Chilmark Library.

Although she plans to divide the upcoming year between New Orleans and the Island, she says she will likely retire full-time in West Tisbury.

“This has always been part of my life. New Orleans was a wonderful part of my life, but I was never of the city, of the place,” she said, “We moved a lot when I was a child. But we always had this. This was, in a sense, home.

“I’m a repeated wash-ashore. I keep washing ashore.”