September 17, 2019

Windows to the Past

Tom Dickinson’73 learned to recognize the signs. Before a house was discreetly torn down in his adopted city of Arlington, Va., the power lines might be clipped and the lawn neglected. The next time he drove by, the house would be gone.

Over the past 40 years, Dickinson has witnessed the razing of entire commercial areas and blocks upon blocks of modest houses in Arlington. Mostly, they’ve disappeared one by one.

A modest home at 19th and Van Buren Streets in Arlington, Va., before it was razed. A modest home at 19th and Van Buren Streets in Arlington, Va., before it was razed.
Credit: Photo by: Tom Dickinson’73
In the 16 years since he and his wife Ann Tutundjian’76 bought their current home in Arlington, every house within sight of their own has been torn down and replaced, and a large new church went up across the street.

Dickinson explains that real estate in Arlington, located next to the nation’s capital, is so valuable that “gorgeous old houses with old features and fixtures,” go for inflated prices sellers can barely resist. Developers keep ramping up the offers, then buy the homes, demolish them, and build what Dickinson calls “mega-mansions” in their place.

Last February, the average price of a single family detached home in Arlington passed the $1 million mark. Many of these new, larger houses sell for much more—in the $2 to $3 million range.

Rather than chain himself to one of the mature trees in protest (tree canopies are another casualty of the city’s tear-down-and-rebuild mentality), Dickinson responded to the situation with intelligence and artistry.

He grabbed his camera and started documenting what was happening. Without a grand plan, he just kept shooting.

The much-larger new home at the same location, one of more then 500 before and after photos Tom... The much-larger new home at the same location, one of more then 500 “before and after” photos Tom Dickinson made documenting the area's gentrification.
Credit: Photo by: Tom Dickinson’73
Starting around 1980, he systematically took pictures of individual Arlington houses before a bulldozer tore into them, salvaged a few things with permission, then photographed what came next on the exact same lot: an expansive new home. He’s documented at least 500 instances of this phenomenon, capturing what’s been lost in a visual narrative spanning decades. Last winter, he showed his photos in a public exhibit that attracted national media attention.

Dickinson already had an interest in history when he came to Beloit, but his college experience magnified it. A Beloit Planner, he studied in Sweden and Germany and traveled in Europe for almost a full year. When he returned, he worked with legendary History Professor Bob Irrmann and Dean David Adams to transfer from physics into a major in U.S. history.

“There is a direct line between Beloit and the things I enjoy doing now, and they’re attributable to the great teachers and experiences I had at the college,” he says. “Beloit really emboldened my passion for history.” Dickinson adds that seeing the old Scoville Hall being demolished on campus during the 1973 summer term awakened his awareness and affinity for historic preservation.

Now retired from the U.S. Department of Defense, Dickinson started his career as a civilian television producer overseeing training and documentary films for the U.S. Air Force.

But he’s never strayed far from his interests in history.

Once, he and his boss at the Department of Defense discovered that Air Force staff in a California storage facility were making space by pitching old films documenting historic moments, such as President John F. Kennedy addressing graduates at the U.S. Air Force Academy’s commencement, his last such speech. As part of his job, Dickinson intervened to save that and other archival footage from a dumpster, and he helped devise protocols to prevent that kind of culling from happening again.

Even during a short period without a camera while at Beloit, Dickinson not only witnessed but also captured that demolition of the college’s old Scoville Hall. It was a project for Professor of Art Richard Olson’s filmmaking class, and it may be the only such historical record of that event.

Today, in Arlington, Dickinson is still at it, documenting a dramatically changing city.

In 2016, he won a grant from an Arlington arts program that allowed him to share his before-and-after photos more broadly. Called “Windows to the Past: Arlington, Then and Now” it was displayed from November 2018 to January 2019 at the Westover Branch Library.

Dickinson framed his photographs with windows salvaged from the razed homes.

“My intention was to say ‘this is what’s happened over the 40 years I’ve been here,’” he says. “It’s changed the character of this community from one that was diverse and affordable to upper middle and upper class. All the things that make a city a city—little shopping areas, a downtown, a drive-in, mini golf courses. All that is gone.”

The T.W. Dickinson & Sons warehouse in Edgerton, Wis., harks back to when this part of Southe... The T.W. Dickinson & Sons warehouse in Edgerton, Wis., harks back to when this part of Southern Wisconsin was a tobacco growing hub. Dickinson is looking for ways to steer the property to a vibrant second life.
Credit: Photo by: Tom Dickinson’73
These days, Dickinson is also tackling a much more personal historic preservation project from a distance: He’s searching for a partner/investor(s) for the adaptive re-use and repurposing of the T.W. Dickinson and Sons Tobacco warehouse. He inherited the three-story, cream brick building built in 1885 in Edgerton, Wis., when his father died in 1999.

He and a group of Edgerton residents imagine the 13,000 square-foot warehouse becoming a local history museum and event location, which could, among other things, tell the area’s unexpected agricultural story from when it was a tobacco-producing hub. But Dickinson says he’s open to all ideas.

Dickinson’s motivation is not to make a profit, but rather to save this well-built old warehouse from an all-too-familiar fate he’s spent a lifetime documenting.

“I’d like my legacy to be that I was able to do something to transition that building to an enduring and productive second life,” he says.

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