Saturday, October 26, 2013

History of Walnut House



By all appearances, John was a success.  As we know, appearances are more important than facts.  He looked the part of an American businessman standing in the muddy road waiting for his family to arrive.  John dressed, acted, and delegated as expected of an executive.  But, today, he will live like one.

In this Protestant community, it was insisted that homes have a simple design.  The exterior of 443 Walnut Street appeared to be a plain farmhouse painted sage with gold, purple, and blue accent colors.  Opening the heavy walnut door and walking through the vestibule was an impressive stairhall.  A grand and ornately carved staircase welcomed visitors.  Wasteful ornamentation showed others that he’d “made it.”  Having walnut wood shaped continued John’s dynastic wealth and this house was its temple.  Carpenters from his furniture factory were hired to elegantly design doors, wainscoting, and window trim.  The gem of the house was the back parlor that featured a large fireplace and mantle made up of figures of Greek gods, like Atlas with the weight of the world on their shoulders.  The parlor had a side door and could be locked from the inside for secret society meetings.

For the next 32 years, John saw lots of changes.  In 1893, a duplex was constructed immediately to the north for the families of two of his oldest children.  In 1896, another duplex was erected to the east for his other two offspring.  Piece-by-piece, he sold his old farm property for new homes.  It was a wise investment as the population boomed from 16,000 when he bought the land to 87,000 when he sold the last parcel a couple of years before his death in 1901.  John’s wife passed in 1904, but the home remained in the family until 1930 when it was sold to Gordon.

Gordon’s parents immigrated from the Netherlands to join a Calvinist community.  They had plenty of Guilders when they arrived and started an inn with its famously exclusive club.  The business grew into a property management company that Gordon eventually inherited.  If he learned anything from his parents, it was how to get something for nothing.  With the acquisition of Walnut House, his staff was immediately instructed to divide the single-family home into four apartments.

In the 35 years Gordon owned the home, he only visited it three times.  Gordon squeezed every cent he could from the property putting as little as he could toward upkeep.  As the quality of the home declined he’d exploit his tenants more.  Rents would unexpectedly jump 30% or more (especially during the World Wars).  He charged extra for every child resident.  He’d bill for improvements never made.  By 1965, Walnut House was so neglected that Gordon gladly accepted an offer from St. John’s Hospital to bulldoze it for a parking lot. 

Developers, institutions, banks, and their politicians planned to raze 960 acres of the neighborhood for a couple new high-rise apartments and fields of asphalt.  As wrecking balls arrived, so did the protesters.  Neighbors bought neighbor’s homes with cash as banks refused all loans in the area.  After many lawsuits and threats, the area was designated a historic district and protected. 

As the hospital could no longer demolish Walnut House for car storage, it decided to sell the property to Dan, a recent college graduate, in 1969.  Walnut House was in rough shape four years earlier.  Allowed to disintegrate further by the hospital, it seemed a lost cause.  The roof, which probably needed to be replaced in the 1940s, was little more than rotted wood and tar.  A large portion of the north side collapsed allowing the elements inside.  Rain would cascade from the attic gently down the stairs and walls, and pool in the basement undermining the foundation.  A small fire destroyed the original kitchen and much of the exterior siding was rotten.  Dan moved his few possessions into the back parlor, which was the only habitable room.

Dan started his life at Walnut House.  Repairs made to the roof were paid from his new low-level finance job with an auto parts manufacturer.  The exterior was rehabbed with help from his recent bride.  The landscaping and new windows were installed at the time of the birth of their first daughter.  The family moved about the house as walls were removed and plaster repaired.  The kitchen was gutted and replaced with the birth of their second daughter.  Important milestones in their lives were tracked by the painting of a room or refurbishing a historic detail.  With the house restored to its original grandeur, it was difficult for Dan to move to the suburbs in 1986.  But, he refused to sell the house.  He rented Walnut House with the intention to return once his daughters left for college.

I had just been accepted to grad school when I was looking for an apartment.  Like most college towns, anything decent and close to the school was out of my budget.  That was until I saw Walnut House with 3-4 bedrooms, 2 baths, modern kitchen, in a walkable neighborhood for slightly more than a studio apartment in the “student ghetto.”  While skeptical, I made an appointment.  After a long meeting with Dan, he let me rent the home.  He was willing to sacrifice rent money for someone with good credit and would not destroy the house.  Plus, a hefty deposit for insurance. 

The cast of roommates changed as often as a soap opera.  The only constant was my conducting research or writing papers at my salvaged banker’s desk.  That and ordering pepperoni pizza from Tommy’s down the street where I befriended the entire staff.  My girlfriend moved in when her lease was up and organized all sorts of parties with various themes or activities.  Random happy moments with my roommate and her boyfriend trying to assemble a sound machine for an engineering class.  The walk home from Dusty’s Saloon when our designated driver was insulted and ditched us (misunderstanding).  It felt like “home” and I thought about giving Dan an offer for Walnut House.

Like John in 1869, I stood in front of this beautiful Victorian home.  By all appearances, I was a failure.  Playing the part of the fool, I stood in the graveled street wondering what I could have done differently.  The last of my possessions crammed into a hatchback I borrowed from a friend.  Whatever didn’t fit in the vehicle was tossed to the curb.  Every so often, my ex-girlfriend would look out the window to see if I was gone yet.  I made one last round to make sure all my stuff was out, put my key on the front table, and drove away not sure what to do.


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