A fortnight ago in "House Sisters," I posted the article about our West Philly renovation project that appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, on March 27th, 1994. Eleven years later, on March 26th 2005, our West Lafayette renovation project was featured in the Lafayette Journal and Courier. Just this past week, when I shared my address with a new acquaintance, she immediately recalled, "Oh, your house was in the paper a few years ago!" Nine years ago, in fact! How nice that she remembered!
(click on text to enlarge for reading)
Residing for a decade in Philadelphia, we became spoiled by the housing stock, with choices from every century of American history. We were returning to Indiana for many good reasons, but we were sad to leave our grand old historic houses behind. Would we be able to find something as beautiful as our urban Victorian? Miraculously, the answer was "Yes." For the life of us, we could not remember ever having driven by this house when we lived here before (1988 - 1993), though we certainly must have done so. Nevertheless, we learned through the grapevine that it might be available, so on a leap of faith we flew out, made an offer, and thanked our lucky stars.
Work in Progress, as described in newspaper article
Completed Project (see related post on my book blog)
I can easily get lost for an entire afternoon browsing through all the old papers that came with the house, reading the descriptions of all the previous owners and real estate transactions, even last wills and testaments! In Philadelphia, I had to go to the courthouse and painstakingly track down all the previous deeds of ownership on microfilm (very old tech), but when we bought the house here, the realtor simply handed us a thick folder bulging with over a hundred years' worth of brittle time - worn papers already compiled.
I'm sure you remember Robin William, in Dead Poets Society, telling the students to listen closely to what the old photographs are whispering:
you can hear them whisper their legacy to you.
Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? - - Carpe - - hear it? - -
Carpe, carpe diem, seize the day!"
That's exactly the same feeling I get when looking at all these old names and signatures. Just to name a few, there were Robert Alexander and his wife Elizabeth, who signed her name with an "X" in 1825. Their homestead deed from the United States of American was authorized "By the President John Quiuncy Adams." Next came Nancy G. & Henry L. Ellsworth (the first Commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office), who owned the parcel of land when it consisted of 130 acres, plus additional property stretching all the way over to Illinois. In their day, the main road at the end of our hill (now called North River Road) was called Ellsworth Street. The Ellsworths eventually sold to the land developers who gave their name to the area, the Chauncey Brothers of -- coincidentally! -- Philadelphia (Elihu, Charles, and Nathaniel). Before West Lafayette incorporated independently of Lafayette, it was known as "Chauncey," but for practical reasons the rather less charming "West Lafayette" won out instead. We still have Chauncey Avenue, Chauncey Hill Mall, and Chauncey Village Apartments, but what a unique name it would have been for the entire town.
It's not yet clear to me which property owner built the house, somewhere around 1895; but we do know that from 1912 - 1955 it was occupied by the Topping Family, including son Robert W. Topping, who wrote A Century and Beyond: The History of Purdue University and Just Call Me Orville: The Story of Orville Redenbacher.
Though I never have any sense that the house is haunted, I feel sure that some of The Others must live here; after all, there have been so many of them! As Walt Whitman writes in "Song of the Open Road":
You rows of houses! you window-pierc’d façades! you roofs!
You porches and entrances! you copings and iron guards!
You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much!
You doors and ascending steps! you arches!
You gray stones of interminable pavements! you trodden crossings!
From all that has touch’d you I believe you have imparted to yourselves, and now would impart the same secretly to me,
From the living and the dead you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me. . . .
Whoever you are, come forth! or man or woman come forth!
You must not stay sleeping and dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you.
Thank you old house for imparting your secrets!
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Monday, April 14th
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