1998 was a special year for me. I’d been out of college for a year and working on exciting projects at my first design firm, Studio A. The previous 5 years had been a blur, between school and work; and I’d been living in Northern Virginia for many of them. Laurel, not to mention Steward Manor, seemed to be fast becoming a distant memory.
But at some point in 1998, I had the idea to revisit Steward Manor. Still in touch with a handful of close childhood friends—most of whom had also moved out of state years ago—I wanted to design a book that would recapture the essence of the Steward Manor we knew as kids. It wouldn’t be a book in the true sense, but just a personal project that I’d share only with those friends I’d grown up with. But before I could even begin to outline the book, I had to actually go back to Steward Manor to see and photograph it for myself; to see what had changed, and what had stayed the same since the last time I’d been there. And while the addition of glass doors and new wooden fencing took some getting used to, the change that I found most difficult to accept was the loss of our beloved basketball court—which had recently been converted to a community garden. I shot the following sequence of photos while experiencing it for the first time, to document the drastic change around this familiar corner.
But most importantly, I came back to photograph the buildings. Specifically, my building at 100 Bryan Ct., and those of my closest friends: 2 Woodland, 100 Sharon, and 106 Sharon, respectively.
Coming back in 1998 was a unique experience, because the community had indeed changed—in fact, it looked better than it had when I was growing up there over a decade earlier! But it had clearly retained the same unmistakeable character that I remembered so well. Yes, the numbers on the buildings were different; the old white wooden fencing was gone, as were the old wooden front doors with the reinforced glass. But it was as if the buildings had simply adapted, and actually improved with age.
What I had no way of knowing at the time, however, was that these photos would capture Steward Manor in the midst of yet another transitional period. Or, that more than another decade was about to fly by—and like the apartment complex itself, my Steward Manor Days project would also adapt… and improve with age.
Now, let’s fast-forward to the present day for a moment.
Most of us typically take for granted the “ordinary” things in life—the car we currently drive, our living room furniture, the grocery store around the corner. We never really think to photograph these things, because—well, they’re ordinary. This was particularly true in the years before digital photography, when we actually had to pay for prints. Limited to a roll of 24 shots, who’d really waste a photo on something that wasn’t extraordinary?
But as we later learn (and often regret), sometimes it’s the ordinary things that we miss the most.
Living in the moment, we just don’t think about the routine details, and how fleeting they might actually be. Those seemingly insignificant details are what define the different eras of our lives.
Looking back at these photos I took of Steward Manor in 1998, I’m struck by that. At the time, it all seemed so current—the minor changes as well as the major one. I remember having that familiar feeling after seeing the prints, that these were just more “ordinary” photos… for the time being.
As I mentioned, time really does have a way of flying by as we get older. And just over the past year, Steward Manor Days has taken on an entirely new and expanded role in my life, as I’ve learned so much more about the history of the community; and most importantly, how many other former residents share an interest in it.
Today, I look at these (and all) photos of Steward Manor so much differently. Much of what seemed ordinary and mundane at that moment in 1998 has already been lost to history. In these images, you can see what were new vertical blinds hanging in original double-hung windows. All of those windows—original from 1959/60—have been replaced in recent years, giving the buildings a subtle but distinctive facelift you can see today.
These photos also show actual building number signs—the last of which Steward Manor utilized before switching to the large blue entrance awnings which each bear address numbers. Many current residents may not recall a time when Steward Manor didn’t have blue awnings. And for that reason, it’s important to document them today as well.
Beyond these obvious changes to the buildings’ facades, other lost or evolving details can be seen in this collection from 1998: lamp posts, benches, trees, and more. Even the iconic Steward Manor back-lit signs are gone. Fortunately, I didn’t limit the photos to just those four buildings that day. Not knowing what might change over the next several years, I shot a number of key areas—including the creek, which was eventually fenced off completely.
With this in mind, let’s take a look back at Steward Manor in 1998. These were the photos that launched this project. They also serve to remind me to always keep a camera at the ready, and to never hesitate to photograph the ordinary. The difference between ordinary and extraordinary can sometimes only be a few short years.