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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Thomas Durant

I promised more to come in the way of my eulogy, when I wrote of my Uncle Tom's passing a few months ago. Uncle Tom was one of the co-founders of the Cafe Rienzi, and an artist in his own right - only one of his many accomplishments. He originally hailed from the suburbs of Chicago, and as a young man, roamed a sales territory in Indiana for his father's business. Uncle Tom knew just about everything and could do just about anything. He and my Aunt met in the labor movement in Detroit after he served in World War II. He followed Aunt Joan back to New York, her roots, and they lived on the outskirts of Greenwich Village for over 60 years until he died. I remember him taking me to his studio in the fifties and teaching me about abstract art. I was maybe eight or ten years old. He let me paint a picture. It remained with me for a while, I even took it to classroom show and tell as my parents moved around the hemispheres in pursuit of my Dad's geology career. It eventually disappeared into my distant childhood.

Uncle Tom and Aunt Joan were fabulous cooks. They tended to fight for control of the kitchen. Uncle Tom cooked me many a wonderful meal ... I still remember steamed mussels, seasoned with a sauce, probably consisting of garlic, olive oil, fresh parmesan cheese, and I don't know what all else, when I brought my girlfriend to New York back in the early 70's.

Yesterday I was visiting with my Aunt Joan on the phone to find out her and my cousin Anna's Christmas plans this year - their first Christmas without him. Aunt Joan gave me quite a few tidbits about Uncle Tom (and the Cafe Rienzi) that were new to me. So here they are:

The Cafe Rienzi was located in what was an old macaroni factory, with a grocery store in front. Uncle Tom, with his architectural affinities, designed the Cafe out of the existing facility - and all the founders worked to turn it into a reality. Aunt Joan has been a prolific writer in her life (not just poetry). I look forward to the day when more of her work is published, because I believe it is a great gift to future generations. Anyway, for a period she wrote plays for Off-Off Broadway, and Uncle Tom built all her sets. Many of Aunt Joan's plays were performed in Theater for the New City currently located at 155 First Avenue, New York 10003-2906.

image courtesy of bike snob nyc blog

This current location was originally an indoor market with vegetable stands and such. Again Uncle Tom provided the architectural drawings and plans to convert this area into a theater. Aunt Joan says the artistic director Crystal Field still provides her with complimentary theater tickets as a thank you.

Uncle Tom also played a key role in assisting a long time (albeit younger) friend of the family artist David Maurice of Star Metal in setting up his metal works business. Star Metal does decorative and architectural metal work for downtown New York buildings among others. 

Well, I will close for now, but I am pleased to add these new details to the online record. One of the fond images I have of Uncle Tom - in addition to all the wonderful family discussions over the dinner table, and growing up with his inspirational paintings decorating my Aunt and Uncle's New York apartment is as master gardener. Uncle Tom brought his midwestern roots to New York. He put out garden every spring. For years he had a wonderful roof garden in Manhattan, complete with a fig tree, which we all enjoyed. He even grew sweet corn up there. And wonderful little strawberries and all kinds of vegetables. Even after the roof became unavailable for gardening, he continued to grow tomato plants on their tiny metal window seat balcony off the back bedroom.

I hope some of the folks who have purchased Uncle Tom's paintings will eventually find these writings and perhaps provide photos of his work. 

JuneBug


1 comment:

Juliethedancer said...

Wow! Wish I had a bunch of talented relatives like that! Lucky gal!