My fascination with house

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Glimmering high above Central Park South. Photo: JH.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021. It was sunny and almost on the chilly side in the low 60s. And if the weatherman is at the top of his art, if you’re reading this in the early afternoon of this day, the temp is in the mid- 80s. As I write this at midnight, it’s in the low 50s. I mention these details because the weather has its own drama going on. Like the lives of many us in the great city of New York in the year of our Lord 2021.

I hadn’t planned a Diary for this day although JH came up with a piece done for us several years ago by the late John Foreman for his Big Old Houses column. John, who left us five years ago, was a devotee and scholarly and emotional observer of the subject. I am too, save the scholarly part; not with John’s almost religious devotion and expertise on several levels. It’s its own art, and John was the dean of them. There’s an emotional element to his tours. You can get personal with them, as if the “tour” is specifically for you. You have to have a passing interest however.

My childhood house, taken in 1958. Built in 1839 as a farmhouse, it hadn’t been lived in for many decades when my mother and father found it in 1945. The house, when we moved in, was not wired for electricity, had no indoor plumbing and no heat except a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. $12 a month was the reason they took it. They “fixed it up” and lived there for the next 35 years.

My fascination with house began early. From age 5 we lived in a very old house, what was originally a farmhouse built in 1839. Seven rooms, 4 up (bedrooms) and 3 down (kitchen, dining room living room). No bathroom. Outhouse out behind an old barn.  They rented it like this in the mid-1940s, right after the War.

It had none of the modern conveniences like electricity or plumbing. There was a black sink in the kitchen. And a large black wood-burning stove with oven. The unlived-in-house hadn’t been painted in decades. But it was located on a very nice street in a very nice little town, with a large piece of land and very prosperous and solid looking neighbors surrounding.

All of the houses except ours were built in the early part of the 20th century. It was a cold Sunday afternoon when I first saw it, grey and wet, probably in the autumn. I was a kid waiting in the back seat of the car (there was enough floorspace that a kid could stand in the backseat of cars then) watching curiously. The house looked very very old — almost falling down — even to this kid. However, I was very open at that age, for a place to live. And this turned out, looking back, to be a perfect place to start the life of growing up. 

My father waited with me in the car while my mother went in to talk to whomever was in charge of renting it. A few minutes later she came out and got in the car and told my father that they could move in two weeks. The rent was $12 a month.

That sounds incredible today but back then, living as close to the bone as possible, it was a godsend to my mother and father. I, as a kid, was only aware of the fact that we would have a house to live in.  And indeed we did. And they made the best of it. My father and brother-in-law wired it for electricity and put in the plumbing, and plastered and painted it. I thought of it as a kind of hardship compared to the houses my friends lived in (which were warm in the winter), but in memory I was lucky for it was a great house for a kid to grow up in. And the neighborhood of porches and lawns and gardens and trees to climb was a “gift” to any kid.

Little David, age 3, with his wonderful big sister Helen (then age 17).

We settled in there and it was my home until I went away to college when I was eighteen. In summer after supper — which we now call dinner — my mother liked to take a walk in the area which was completely residential, just outside the center of the town. The architecture was early 20th century styles, none of which I was aware of, but I was fascinated early on with the architectural styles and sizes of the houses. Castles were what the boy had in mind. And the stories my mother would tell me about “who” lived in the house and details about the families – where the father worked, how many children, etc. Occasionally she’d add an item of real interest, such as: “That’s the house where the only murder ever occurred in the town. A professor, shot through the screen door of the front porch on a summer night. And the murderer was never found.”

That particular house was always part of our after-supper walks.  It was a big house, farther up the hill, representing a prosperity that wasn’t in our family. It was solid, like a fortress, to the kid’s eyes, and substantial and stable.  And it was jinxed on a summer night. I later solved the mystery (in my head), but that’s for another Diary.

Getting back to John Foreman’s visit to a house on Staten Island. (Coincidentally, my mother also brought me to Staten Island the first time she brought me to New York around the same time we moved into that house I described. I remember nothing of it except the Staten Island Ferry. That was the thrill for this country boy.)

Staten Island is part of the City but a million miles away in lifestyle. It’s still country. Once upon a time it had the greatest oyster beds on the North American continent. But then once upon a time sturgeon swarmed on the Hudson River. And then there were more of us than sturgeon and oysters. But leave it to John’s intense interest in his subject of Houses to find a house on Staten Island that has been there since about the same time my childhood home was built. The circumstances were economically dissimilar. The house on Staten Island had a history of prosperity and acquisition, and reflected that in its architecture. And, like all of John Foreman’s houses, they come with a story, a cast of characters, emotions and dramas. Which is what always fascinates me about a house.

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