[Ppnews] Mr. 76759 Designs His Dream House

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Mar 13 19:09:00 EDT 2007


Mr. 76759 Designs His Dream House


Herman Wallace's dream house as drawn by Jackie Sumell.
NY Times
March 11, 2007

MINOR improvements still occur to him, but Herman Wallace has more or 
less finished his dream house. It's got a yellow kitchen, a hobby 
shop and custom-made pecan cabinets. It should be noted that no 
actual house exists, but this is understandable. Mr. Wallace has been 
in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola 
for the last 34 years.

Mr. Wallace's virtual home is the subject of a new book, "The House 
That Herman Built," and an art installation with three-dimensional 
models of the house is on tour in Europe. The project ? which walks a 
thin line between art and activism ? is a result of a question posed 
to Mr. Wallace five years ago: What kind of house does a man who has 
lived in a 6-by-9-foot cell for three decades dream of?

The woman who asked the question, and later produced the book and the 
installation, is Jackie Sumell, a 32-year-old white artist who at the 
time lived in San Francisco. Her work, often political, has been 
shown in galleries in San Francisco, Cincinnati and Portland, Ore. 
Mr. Wallace, a 65-year-old Black Panther originally imprisoned for 
robbery, was convicted in 1972 of murdering a prison guard. In 
November a state court commissioner recommended that his conviction 
be overturned, and a decision is pending on whether to adopt that 

In the four years it took to design the house, Ms. Sumell and Mr. 
Wallace developed a close rapport. Their intimacy can be glimpsed in 
the more than 300 letters they exchanged, many of which are included 
in the book. Their correspondence was initiated by Ms. Sumell after 
she attended a talk by an exonerated prisoner, a fellow Black Panther 
who had been put in solitary around the same time as Mr. Wallace. 
(They and a third inmate, also in solitary for decades, became known 
as the Angola Three.)

Nearly a year after her postal friendship with Prisoner No. 76759 
began, Ms. Sumell entered the M.F.A. program at 
University and, in a class devoted to investigating spatial 
relationships and architecture, she was assigned to interview a 
faculty member about his home.

But she had a more interesting candidate.

Her next letter to Mr. Wallace described the assignment and asked 
him: What kind of house do you dream about after all these years in a cell?

Mr. Wallace's cell is part of the 18,000-acre maximum-security prison 
in Angola, La. It was once a complex of plantations, named for the 
African country from which most of the slaves there were transported. 
The inmates still pick cotton and other crops in the fields.

"The house is going to need a swimming pool, with a light-green 
bottom and a large panther painted in the center," Mr. Wallace wrote 
to Ms. Sumell.

Yet for the most part the house invented by a man in solitary 
confinement reflects the thoroughly ordinary existence that he lost 
in prison. Mr. Wallace, who grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward of New 
Orleans, focused on amenities he longed for and old-fashioned 
building details he can remember.

The imagined house is the antithesis of Mr. Wallace's current 
quarters: a suburban home of about 3,500 square feet surrounded by 
flowers; he specified roses, gloxinia and delphiniums. There is also 
a guest house, reserved for visiting activists. A second-floor master 
bedroom looks out over a marble patio, landscaped garden and massive oak tree.

Steel and concrete ? prison materials ? have no role here ere. Birch 
and pecan are everywhere, their special qualities carefully explained 
in Mr. Wallace's letters.

Ms. Sumell said that Mr. Wallace, his view so abbreviated for so 
long, focused well on minute details ? the potatoes and Tabasco sauce 
in the pantry, the notebooks laid out on the conference table ? but 
had a harder time imagining open spaces.

Traces of a prison mindset crop up. When the placement of his 
computer meant his back would face the office door, Ms. Sumell said 
that he asked that a mirror be installed above, so he could see 
anyone entering the room. A sense of security is important to him, 
she explained. The master bedroom sits safely above the very center 
of the house. A wraparound porch adds a layer of perimeter, as does 
the surrounding garden. There is even a special door leading to an 
underground bunker, equipped with its own water supply. The goal, Ms. 
Sumell said, was never to feel trapped.

The time capsule of prison can be glimpsed in his preference for a 
1970s aesthetic: shag carpeting flows through the three bedrooms, one 
decorated entirely in white. The master bedroom's furniture is 
mahogany. The purple barstools were rejected: Ms. Sumell complained 
that she didn't know how to draw them. In one concession to changing 
times, Mr. Wallace asked that the bearskin rug be made of fake fur.

As the details accumulated, Ms. Sumell added, the house became 
something Mr. Wallace could fully visualize and, consequently, served 
as a kind of escape. (Such powers of visualization are not uncommon 
for him after years of solitude: Ms. Sumell described a chess 
tournament he helped organize in which games were played by inmates 
calling out their moves, cell to cell.)

Though Ms. Sumell estimates that she made at least 20 trips to visit 
him at the prison over the four years they worked on designing the 
house, many of the descriptions and measurements were exchanged by 
mail and were subject to the prison's censors. Once officials 
confiscated an elaborate floor plan Mr. Wallace had drawn; Ms. Sumell 
was told that it could have enabled another criminal to rob the 
(virtual) home.

The house would probably win no design awards. Except for the panther 
peering up from the pool bottom, Mr. Wallace's ideal is resolutely 
plain by contemporary architectural standards. (In a telephone 
conversation from prison Mr. Wallace recalled photographs of some 
more experimental houses sent to him by Ms. Sumell: "They had houses 
in trees," he said disapprovingly.)

What's arresting about the design is the singular approach to 
architectural planning that brought it into being ? Ms. Sumell calls 
herself the "tube Herman's ideas go through" ? and the emotional 
candor that infused the process. The letters in the book reveal 
excitement but also pain. In them Mr. Wallace refers to Ms. Sumell as 
a daughter, and at other times as a sister.

"We're family," she said matter of factly. "He's my best friend."

He gave advice on relationships and even fashion critiques. (After 
seeing her new mohawk, Ms. Sumell recalled, he said, "It's not that 
bad.") She discovered someone animated and thoughtful, a man who 
creates elaborate paper flowers in his cell.

There were surprises too. As the project neared completion, Ms. 
Sumell learned that her mother was dying. With the first exhibition 
of the house models coming up ? a chance to attract attention to Mr. 
Wallace's legal case ? he insisted she cancel it.

"You just focus on your mom," she said he instructed.

Is a project like this art? Or is it activism? And how significant 
are those questions in the context of a man spending three decades in 
a concrete box? Ms. Sumell says that she believes her only option is 
to push ahead, merging art with activism wherever possible. Her next 
goal is to build the actual house, right outside the prison if possible.

Mr. Wallace now has a copy of the book. (Merz and Solitude of 
Stuttgart, Germany, printed 800 copies, which are being sold for $20 
each at the <http://angola3.org/>Angola3.org Web site.) Though he 
found it a little strange to have "people peeping inside my head," he 
said, his voice sounded proud, if tentatively so.

"It expresses something different from the public perception of us 
prisoners," he said. "We have dreams too."

Mr. Wallace's most pressing dream is another courtroom, and a chance 
at freedom. In the months to come the state will rule on the court 
commissioner's recommendation that Wallace be released. Meanwhile, he 
said, he continues to think about his house.
2007 <http://www.nytco.com/>The New York Times Company

The Freedom Archives
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 863-9977
-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: <http://freedomarchives.org/pipermail/ppnews_freedomarchives.org/attachments/20070313/a42d2f42/attachment.html>

More information about the PPnews mailing list