Ghost Edwardians: Love in a Time of Disappearance
One of Richard Wilbur’s best known poems, “The Writer,” begins in his daughter’s room “at the prow of the house / where light breaks, and the windows are tossed with linden. . . ” For years I thought I knew what that meant, “the prow of the house.” Wilbur’s biographers, who have located the very house and the very room, tell me I am not quite correct, but I hold to my mental image. I live in a house with a prow, and a neighborhood full of such houses. The years I’ve spent writing poetry have made clear to me the hold that these streets and these houses have on my imagination. In the normal order of things, supposing my work is remembered, it might be years before some critic noticed its rootedness in a place. I have the chutzpah to talk about it myself because the place is already beginning to disappear.
In architectural terms, my “prow” is a dormer, projecting from the roof-plane at the front of the house. A gable end with a prominent window can have the same visual effect. On the streets I inhabit, a hundred such dormers and gables jut into the sea of society. In each the containment of the family puts its public face toward the street, propriety and stature on view. These are Edwardian and even Victorian houses, creaky with age but spacious, with dormers that often extend from third stories, looking into the crowns of mature trees. In times past, high windows on these streets would have been tossed with elm; the dying elms gave way to ash trees, now dying in their turn and being more thoughtfully replaced with varied species. Our own tossing is done by maples.
In spiritual terms—that is, from its interior—a dormer of this kind is a place of solitude and protection. As its etymology declares, it’s often a place to sleep. The sloping walls created by the main roof, or by the dormer itself, lean in as if to embrace the inhabitant: sleeping child, daydreaming teenager, adult engrossed in some attic-exiled craft.
Stature and protection. Were these notions even in our minds when we searched, somewhat frantically, for a house three decades ago? With two small children, crammed into an apartment and already renting additional space, all we knew was that we absolutely needed more room. When, in a rush at the end of my maternity leave, we signed a purchase agreement, we joked to friends that what we’d really bought was a set of bedrooms and a dry basement.
“And a dining room with a coffered ceiling and French doors,” one of us would usually add. There lay the first hint of what we’d been drawn to, like migrating species looking for the place they know by instinct, by heart.
What, first of all, were we migrating from, beyond the truism that young people generally reject their parents’ taste? I grappled with the question:
We were grounded for life: To be growing up
out in the suburbs, when they were new,
was to live life on a single story:
rambler and ranch-style, in homes
neatly bagged in cul-de-sacs;
at schools, too, low-slung and sprawling
over assorted boxy annexes;
at our stolid red-brick churches;
at shopping malls, then just beginning
to extend their asphalt pseudopods
rectangularly over farms;
everywhere children could go,
life was flat, earthbound . . .
To be more specific: my husband and I grew up in the same suburban neighborhood of Northern Virginia—not in the very same real estate development, but that hardly mattered, since there were so many, sprouting like mushrooms from the hothouse soil of the mid-1950s building boom. Legion and uniform, they were the little boxes of the Malvina Reynolds song, without even the redeeming California colors. Set in their treeless yards, they were still our parents’ great achievement, grasped in eagerness after a Depression and a war. Did we children intuit that those houses were something short of our elders’ actual hopes? That, after so much longing, the reality fell flat?
For flatness was certainly a defining characteristic, not merely of rooflines and floor plans. And over the years it has become clear that no one really loved those low-slung places, which are being replaced one by one with McMansions, as another poem laments. But we were children, and flatness was what we knew. Only by contrast did we come to realize what was missing from suburban featureless walls, minimal door and window casings, and hollow-core doors in cheap Lauan plywood. Those realizations took shape when we visited older houses, older neighborhoods, older people.
Those older people were grandparents, great aunts, great uncles: people who lived far away from the cities that gathered our parents into that suburban sameness. People we visited rarely, via long and tiring car trips. People who doted on us, overfed us, exclaimed over our every accomplishment, over our very being. People whose houses had oval, beveled glass windows set into their entry doors and curtained with lace. Or leaded glass lunettes. Or perhaps glass doorknobs, or intricate dark woodwork on window and door frames. And sleeping porches. And dormers.
My husband’s maternal grandparents were comfortably well-off and owned a house with many of these features. Mine were poorer and may never have owned the two-family house in which they lived on the upper storey, but even that house had those glass knobs and that dark woodwork. And that distance from the ground.
As we did our house-hunting, only after many showings did we make sense of our reactions. Our real estate agent may well have seen the pattern before we did—a lightbulb that came on for me years later:
Those months when we’d drift through houses
dreaming and vague, like air through the August windows,
what glamours were cast around us
by the molding’s ogival curves,
by the darkened heart of the oak and the sheen of woodwork?
What old-world charms were recited?
For certainly we were spellbound
in deep designs—saltbox, colonial, foursquare—
concealed from our rapt attention.
Our agent, her lacquered smiling
changeless, took pains to show us the patterned surface,
part image, part invocation
of faces out of our childhoods
kissed at the end of a day-long drive in summer.
Of love that demands no labor. . .
Whatever the effects on our taste of our suburban roots and later college dormitories and drab grad-school apartments, what we chose in the end was the kind of house where, as we believed, something lived that already loved us.
Most sources don’t need recourse to love to explain the presence here of so many large old houses. Money had much more to do with it: the money and the ambition of developer John L. Merriam, banker and statesman, who bought the land at a midpoint between the two downtowns of Minneapolis and Saint Paul in the 1880s. A railroad linking the downtowns threaded through the area, and Merriam was canny enough to foresee that a residential district close, but not too close, to commerce would be attractive to businessmen in both cities. He set his minimum price requirement high, aiming for a well-off clientele. He achieved it, and the resulting neighborhood—which grew for the next forty years—is full of striking houses, each different from the next, according to its first owner’s taste.
But even striking houses decline with age, and by the time we bought, many houses had been to the bottom and were just beginning a kind of return. Some were living less dignified reincarnations, chopped up into student rental units, regular sources of irritation to their homeowning neighbors. Others were being updated slowly, painstakingly. This is where love comes back into the picture: a house is occupied by an intrepid remodeler, improved by his own work, modestly or grandly, and sold. We snapped up one of the modest ones.
The bringing-back and nursing-along of old houses supported, and still supports, a standing army of specialized local trades—everything from hardwood floor refinishers to ornamental iron workers, along with a fair number of architectural salvage dealers. Plain maintenance has also required plenty of labor from my own hands, and poems have come out of such jobs as wall repair and the replacement of ancient window putty. “Work is love made visible,” wrote Kahlil Gibran, and the houses worked on all around us were clearly beloved by the people who lived in them, our neighbors. Some of them took unreasonable risks with that love; working on the roof of a three-storey house is a matter for specialists, as our neighbor, who lost the use of his legs attempting it, will tell you.
So there are limits even to love. And I sometimes wonder whether the ability to work with patience and care is diminished for modern people. The century-old devotion that led apprentice carpenters to trim out even the insides of our closet doorframes with full headers and mitered moldings—that struck me, when I wrote about it, as a degree of devotion that had died amid the horrors of the twentieth century’s wars.
. . . Ordinary human love
fails to hold the world in form.
Different rigors, soon enough,
wrung from dulce et decorum,
follow from the battlefront:
settling plaster cracked to crumbs,
simple comfort sunk to want,
houses hacked to rental rooms.
Dumb, occult, the beauties sit,
oak or maple, dark and sweet.
Mitered corners meet and fit.
Ghost Edwardians shade the street
down its hundred years of ill,
sullen in their crafts and arts.
We who merely buy and sell
strip them for replacement parts.
(from “Trimming Out, 1911”)
Researching Merriam Park’s history, I once quipped that the work of local architect Clarence Johnston is so ubiquitous here that for forty years I have been walking around inside his mind. I riffed on that thought:
I have breathed the air of his Edwardian uprightness,
his line a mortar that limes together
the jumbled stones of my living.
His forms are Roman porticos
with weighty matters to uphold.
Which is not to say they are dour.
They juggle Georgian dentils and Doric capitals,
amused at what such gravity drops into place.
But the final effect is dignified,
and for a century his buildings
have lifted their faces to my own
declaring, This is stature.
And I have been of their mind.
See how this one struggles to speak it now,
ground floor prinked in the clown suit of commerce,
babbling a second childhood
as it wags the day-glo sign of a yogurt franchise
and the pastel banner of a cupcake store.
(from “Catalogue Raisonné”)
The yogurt franchises and cupcake stores are coming, though not on the first waves of change. The first waves were there before us, in the properties carved up as student rentals. The next waves still leave the exteriors of the houses unchanged, but they damage the soul of the place. Bit by bit, they make painfully evident how little love has to do with streets full of big old houses.
What does one do, for example, with a six-bedroom, three-storey house in need of repairs, when few families are big enough to need it or well-off enough to buy it? In many cases, its use will change; it will be something other than a family home, and families in nearby homes will feel that at best as a loss and at worst as a threat. Under threat, people can be ugly.
The likeliest new use for such a dwelling is as a halfway house—a place, surely, for people in need of love. It might be a residence for people whose difficulties are with mental health, or with substance abuse, or with criminal history. In a neighborhood graced with houses big enough to accommodate a dozen souls, proposals to allow these special uses are made in block after block; one such facility is down my block and around the corner.
How much do I even need to say here? Already you are picturing tense conversations among those who own homes that will be near such houses, among parents whose children go to school there. You know what NIMBY looks like and sounds like, in agitated district meetings where people speak shakenly, hoping hard not to appear cruel or selfish, but always possessed by some absence of real love, some fear of relapse or of physical or sexual threat, and underneath all else fear of the loss of property value.
Of course, some well-off buyers exist. Flippers somehow bring wobbly buildings up to code and curb appeal, often for sale to people even more well-heeled. Most of this labor is of money and love in combination. Up and down our own block, such renovation has happened: kitchens, bathrooms, decks, landscaping. In the present white-hot real estate market, in which every day’s mail brings offers to buy our house, our neighbors’ houses are selling for five and six times what we paid thirty years ago. A happy situation, until one realizes that this rising vortex of numbers is pricing people out of the market, putting upward pressure on rents, and adding to the number of homeless who haunt the bus stops, the on-ramp corners, and the tent city at Cedar and Hiawatha.
Sometimes, though, a wonderful house is too far gone. However hard neighbors may push for historic preservation, a house’s state of disrepair may mean it can’t be profitably made livable. What then is the more loving choice? To deprive the neighborhood of one of its jewels, and lessen the value of neighboring properties, by letting a developer replace the ailing building with modern apartments? Or to preserve the grand building as a historic property and deprive its elderly owners of the profitable sale that will fund their needed but expensive care? Week by week, the narrative unfolds in the neighborhood paper.
It will leave nothing. Nothing. The future comes,
ripping the asphalt up—black, jagged slabs.
It chews and spews and carts away the crud.
We’re in its dust, coughing, detoured, irate,
squeezing our wheels between blaze-orange drums,
while on both sides the wheeler-dealers land-grab.
Where refugees nursed little stores on blood
are artists’ lofts and high-end real estate,
their grand decks stacked against us. How this ends
(upending our directions in mid-scheme
without the be, finale to the seem)
is a steel-track lesson: that your road depends
on dreaming of what cannot happen yet.
The future comes. It frees us to forget.
(from “Central Corridor Light Rail Construction”)
When I wrote about the difficult, disruptive creation of the Green Line on University Avenue, I realized that it was only superficially the first domino in the neighborhood’s fall. Much more was going on than light rail: for example, the loud new construction of five-storey apartment buildings, in the popular style that looks for all the world like a pile of shipping containers. From the neighborhood’s boundaries inward, the pressure of population and the need for affordable housing chip at the nature of the place. The growing shape of a new soccer stadium looms to the northeast, desired as a bringer of business, loathed as a bringer of traffic, crowding, and noise. To the south, local college officials are nearly rabid to build additional student housing of the sort that locates dorm rooms on upper floors above commercial space, with minimal setback from the street and no space for grass or trees. The low hum of change I tuned out while I was a working parent is a ceaseless tinnitus in my now-retired ears. It accompanies the morning pounding of pile drivers.
Change happens; nostalgia solves no practical problems. So how will I learn to recognize love in the sort of neighborhood this will become, and the sort of home that is almost certainly in my future? I do have some idea about that future. I have lived long enough to lose one parent, then watch the other be stripped of everything—first of a house, then of a large independent apartment, then of a smaller one nearer a daughter, and finally of her life, in a tiny efficiency in assisted living. While I was looking desperately for someplace to care for her, I saw over and over how such places put on, in their lobbies and public spaces, the same Edwardian costume of stature and protection that my parents missed in their ’50s homes and that I have hugged to myself for decades. Woodwork on a grand staircase, William Morris prints, and turn-of-the-century furniture are the calming mask on the unsmiling face of geriatric care. I know enough now to fear the cookie-cutter standardization of that care. It is the same standardization that disheartened our childhood homes, those houses that were built for the press of population we exerted as we were born and are doomed to exert again as we die.
What does love ask of me now? I wonder that, on nights when I walk toward my own front door and look with a pang at my lit windows. If I’ve been absent-minded and have left the attic light on, so that the dormer is shining like a beacon, the pang is especially fierce.
“High” first appeared in Umbrella and is included in Gardening in a Time of War. “Showings” first appeared in Mezzo Cammin and is included in Breath Control. “Trimming Out, 1911” first appeared in American Arts Quarterly and is included in Breath Control. “Catalogue Raisonné” first appeared in Angle and is included in Street View. “Central Corridor Light Rail Construction” first appeared in Leif and is included in Street View.
Photo credits: Maryann Corbett