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Walls, gates, and other open-and-shut cases

IN his poem `Mending Wall'' Robert Frost protested against the old New England, saying, ``Good fences make good neighbors.'' His objection was typically Frost - half reasonable, half cranky: ``Before I built a wall I'd ask to know/ What I was walling in or walling out.'' In the '60s the mood voted with Frost. Wall, signifying restraint, was as dirty a word as liberal is today, with its root meaning of freedom. The ideal of 20 years ago was to be open, whether you were reacting to secrecy in government or inhibited personal feelings. Walls existed only to push the Establishment up against. After that the walls came tumbling down - assaulted by Yippies or sort of dissolved by Flower Children. If the walls, external or internal, stood there, how could you ``let it all hang out''?

Ah, but in the '80s property is reverently valued again, and for property one needs boundaries - neat, orderly, protective boundaries.

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See my lawyer, Frost, you anarchist!

Anybody who can buy a stone wall in New England today has to be a millionaire.

Anybody who can build one will soon be a millionaire.

The stone wall has become a minor decorating rage, even when it simply extends, for no good utilitarian purpose, from a Point A to Point B, walling in or walling out neither cows nor sheep nor even rambling squash plants.

The wall is such a perfect symbol for the times. Why does it need to have any other use?

If the wall is back in fashion, listen carefully - you're sure to hear the creak of a gate, without which no wall is complete. In a recent issue of Harvard magazine, Edward Tenner notes that the gates that swung open during the '60s are now closing in a decade when strangers get viewed suspiciously as potential muggers if not terrorists - or, possibly worse, members of the homeless class looking for a warm grate to sleep upon.

In the war against gate-crashers Harvard has erected a minifortress of a Victorian gatehouse, guarding the vehicular entrance to Harvard Yard. It cost $57,000, or over $2,000 per square foot. But with a copper roof and granite foundation, it is a sentry post worthy of a top-security Army base.

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The current ``portalmania,'' as Tenner calls it, has its aesthetic side. But the stern symbolism of walls and gates is hard to ignore - especially when the gate is slamming in your face.

A new gate at Stanford is praised by one of its sponsors as affording ``a sense of entry.'' Still, the primary duty of a gate is either to exclude those on the outside or to hold in those on the inside - particularly when there is a lock. The metaphor is of a fortress or a prison.

Even the gates of heaven - the most blessed of portals - lose something by being paired in the minds of traditionalists with the gates of hell.

``Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,'' Dante supposed the inscription above the gates of hell might read. Gates are necessary, walls are necessary - granted, though one cannot imagine either in Eden. And certainly everybody abandons a little hope, a little trust, whenever a wall is erected or a locking gate is hung. Barriers do not constitute civilization's finest flowering.

In ``The Bostonians,'' Tenner observes, Henry James wrote in 1886: ``Harvard knows nothing either of the jealousy or the dignity of high walls and guarded gateways.'' Alas, the ink was barely dry before Harvard began work on the first of 18 gates.

That was the mood of the complacent 1880s. That's also the mood of the 1980s, which, as far as gates are concerned, may be thought of as the Gilded Gate Age (Part 2). A Wednesday and Friday column

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