Off North Road - House on William & Center

By Russell Hoxsie - November 29, 2007

There was no question in the minds of those neighborhood folks in the vicinity of William Street that the condition of the old house in mid-block was a shame. Some months ago, the stately 1850s home, all three stories of it, including chimneys and porches and dormers, was sheathed in an enormous blue plastic sheet. What had started as an apparent and ambitious renovation ended after about three months. All activity on the property stopped. Some of the plastic had been torn away on the winds and the poor old dowager, her clothing and cover hanging in tatters, stood forlornly open to the elements. Roof rafters were bared and large sections of the outside walls had been disrupted or removed.

I could peer into our old front hall and stairway from the sidewalk. The bedroom windows on the second floor were removed and empty; two large dormers on the front were torn apart. Summer winds and rain blew in and roamed about at will. I nearly cried when I walked past and saw my old bedroom open to the oncoming fall weather.

A friend said he had been in the basement on an errand while work was yet in progress and he could look up into the disemboweled dwelling and see from basement floor to the third story roof. It's a wonder this place doesn't collapse in on itself, I thought. Rumor had it that the beams were affected with dry-rot. The new owners and workmen hadn't been seen for months. Friends stopped me on the street to ask, "What in the world is happening to your old house on William Street?"

The house had been our first home and medical office for 25 years before our children had grown up and away and the office moved to the new hospital building. We had become up-Islanders, but all of us remembered the old place as our original home. We felt as if we were watching at close hand the swift advance of a terminal disease and we could do nothing more than stand about and mourn. Great heaps of sand and stones appeared in the yard, bushes were turned upside down and left there, the driveway gates had been unhinged and left on the adjacent curbing and lawn. The fence now enclosed a disaster zone with NO TRESPASSING signs on all sides, not the proud and eminent citizen on the corner a block from Main Street.

Our old home's distress had become part of me and I was depressed, so that I avoided going by to see the mess. On a recent cool crisp fall morning, I had business on Main Street and wandered up to William & Center. There, in the glare of mid-morning, were new bright studs becoming the first new members of a rebuilt front wall. There would be hope after all; the wrecking crews had been called off, I thought, and the spring in my step returned.

My son Steve and I walked around the corner looking for other signs of hope. To our surprise, it became apparent that a whole slice of the main body of the house on the west had been removed and men were carting sand and earth from under the old foundation for new footings. I remembered the old crawl space under the living room, which made that end of the house drafty and cold on stormy winter days. We knew the house was old but we forgave her sins because she was home and we loved her.

"That house will rise again and be terrific," a friend said one day as we passed the block together looking up at the wreck of a house. He knew I felt sad about it and he must have sensed better days ahead. It's good to look on the brighter side when life is looking dark. Another inspection with Steve revealed activity in the offing which suggested the restoration of that large slice off the west end which had been sacrificed in order, perhaps, to make a new foundation more easily built and more secure before trying to replace the structure torn away earlier.

Now, on my more frequent visits around my old block, I see new materials filling holes in several places where I had seen nothing but empty spaces and jagged old lumber. Doug Look, a neighbor just up the street for the same years we lived nearby, stopped to talk, rubbing his chin and beard in consternation over the place. I wasn't the only one who was grieving over our distressed lady on the corner. Surely the neighborhood will be happier once its order is returned.

The house on the corner of William & Center Streets had become a metaphor for my life as I have aged and found that old age is not for sissies, as they say. The visual impact of that beloved home in her distress was actually contagious as I took on some of her pain and appearance of impending total destruction. Being an amateur psychologist as I am, I sense relief that my own house is being restored. Of course, I know I can't order new studs and shingles, dig new foundations or plant new shrubbery and re-hinge the gates of my own incarnation but, without hope and evidence of the possibilities of improvement, there will be nothing but downhill from here on.