"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Friday, March 28, 2014

House With a Past


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!

Here is a copy of the article she was thinking of
(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.

Indiana Victorian ~ Sideview Before Addition

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:

"But if you listen real close,
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 America 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 fa├žades! 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.

~ Selected lines from Parts 3 and 13 ~

Thank you old house for imparting your secrets!

Next Fortnightly Post
Monday, April 14th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

House Sisters

Newspaper caption: "Three - year - old Ben McCartney
descends the newly painted staircase of his family's home,
a four - story Queen Anne - style twin that dates to 1890."

In January 1993, Gerry and I flew out to Philadelphia to preview the real estate market. We looked at three fine houses in the suburbs and three more in the city, just to get an idea of what was available. I still remember walking through the door of "814" for the first time and thinking to myself, "We could live here!" It was the kind of house that I was used to seeing in magazines or touring as historical landmarks. But, apparently, here in University City (West Philadelphia), a normal everyday citizen could buy a house like this and live in it! In February, we saw a second round of houses, a dozen at least; but at the end of the day, there was one that we just couldn't forget! We asked our realtor, "What about that one we saw last time: '814.' "

Back in Indiana,our house sold quickly, and on Easter weekend, we arrived in Philadelphia, ready to renovate and learn about urban living. The house closing was utterly chaotic, but our beautiful old city house was worth all the stress. We loved it at first glance (and still do, even though we've been gone so many years). Gerry began immediately with the necessary renovation projects: exterior and interior painting, re - sanding the floors, and re - building the main staircase -- baluster by baluster!



About a year later, we were honored to have our house, and Gerry's handiwork, featured in the local paper. Here's the bulk of the article, if you care to decipher (click on text to enlarge):

and the smaller photo that acccompanied the head - liner above:

Within a week of our house appearing in the paper, we received the most amazing letter:

March 28, 1994

Dear Mr. and Mrs. McCartney,

Hello, how are you today? You do not know me personally but we have a few things in common, and I just had to write and tell you. On Sunday I read the article about you in the Inquirer and looked at the pictures of your present home. Disregard this letter if I am wrong, but my family and I are convinced that you now live in the home that all of us grew up in at 814 So. 48th St. You stated that this is probably the nicest house you will ever live in, and I am writing to you today to tell you that I completely agree! You never will find another like it!

We moved into "814" when I was 12 yrs old, and I lived there for 8 more years until my marriage in April of 1971. They were truly some of the best and worst years of my life; but I'll tell you that from the day I left until today, I have not stopped missing that house. It is just such a beautiful home, so much charm, so many beautiful rooms and hallways and those elegant stairs! Luckily I am able to remember every inch of it, although I understand some changes have been made over these past 20 years since we left. In those years, I have raised 4 children and still come into Benny's Barbershop, around the corner on Baltimore Ave. and when I do, I always go by to say hello to my old home.

Friends of mine were friends of the previous owners, and we actually met in Benny's one day and meant to get together again, but unfortunately we never had the chance before they moved. My children have grown up hearing stories of our life at "814." It was a wonderful home and one of the nicest neighborhoods to live in. Our neighbors were more than friends; they were more like family to us than some of our own family were. When we first moved in, my father - in - law, whose family lived right across the street on Beaumont Ave. organized a block party every summer. They would close the street and we would have all kinds of games and food and fun. Every family on the block participated. It was such a great day for all.

Over the years, we had family members live in the apartment on the third floor. We always had the kind of extended family environment that you only hear about nowadays. It was a wonderful experience for all of us who were fortunate to be a part of it.

Anyway, I just couldn't let the opportunity to contact the new owners of our old home pass me by. Hopefully you and your family will be lucky enough to make for yourselves as many happy memories in that grand old house as we did. Good luck & maybe someday we will have the opportunity to meet face to face and swap stories. If you are ever in need of a good haircut, please go around and visit my friend Benny, you won't be disappointed I'm sure. Maybe it will even be a day when my children and I will also decide we need to make a trip into Benny's ourselves.


Please take care of that gem which you are fortunate to be in possession of at this time because there's someone out here who loves it and will never forget the years spent within its walls. Take care and bye for now!

Cordially, Vicky Duffy McLaughlin


Well, you can imagine how thrilled I was to receive that letter and how anxious to respond! Certainly in my life, there are a couple of old houses that I would like to re-visit, to be greeted with open arms by the current resident and welcomed inside to relive my past. Houses that come back to me in dreams:

Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

by Derek Walcott, b. 1930
Saint Lucian poet and playwright; professor at the University of Essex
1992 Nobel Prize Recipient

Needless to say, I invited Vicky over at the earliest opportunity and she paid us a number of visits during the reminder of our time at "814" (April 1993 - August 2001). We were privileged to meet her dear father, Mr. John Duffy, who shared with us many details about his purchase and upkeep of the property. Another time she brought her sister along and some of the children, nieces and nephews. She showed us a hidden spot in the living room where her brothers had signed their names one year after re-painting the woodwork. She met my British in - laws on one of their annual visits to Philadelphia and became one of their favorite American pen pals. And my sons grew up just as Vicky's did, getting their haircuts from our mutual friend Benny.

As for the two of us, Vicky and I have been "house sisters" ever since, united for all time in our adoration of "814." As American poet, playwright and professor Kenneth Koch (1925 - 2002; see also) writes in one of the best old house poems ever:

To My Old Addresses
. . . O
My old addresses! O my addresses! Are you addresses still?
Or has the hand of Time roughed over you
And buffered and stuffed you with peels of lemons, limes, and shells
From old institutes? If I address you
It is mostly to know if you are well.
I am all right but I think I will never find
Sustenance as I found in you, oh old addresses
Numbers that sink into my soul
Forty-eight, nineteen, twenty-three, O worlds in which I was alive


Next Fortnightly Post
Friday, March 28th

Between now and then, read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts

Looking for a good book? Try
my running list of recent reading

Dream House