Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bill Doyle

As we get ready to move our possessions in to the new home, and in some ways to repurpose them, I am thinking about their history, and my history with them. When I returned from Spain at the age of 23 I took a job in the Book Department at William Doyle Galleries. Doyle's was a life-changing experience, first, and very much foremost, at that time, because of the personality of Bill Doyle.

I loved Bill very very much. He was, literally, the most generous man I've ever met. He wasn't the richest, just the most generous. Generous in an almost agressive way, as if he was proving a point, which he did.  As an auctioneer, he primarily dealt in things. He gave value to things. In many ways he dictated the value of things. But that was the least of his gifts. Peter Riegert in "Crossing Delancey", (and Lizzy will know this quote) says, at one point, to Amy Irving, "You think pickles define me?" So too with Bill. His life was in selling things, but they didn't define him.  Bill knew people. He loved to analyze people, loved sitting down with "Old Money". He knew more about Lace Curtain Irish, Our Crowd Jews, and who was in Mrs. Astor's "Four Hundred" than those who made up their number.

Many of his clients who were those whose ancestors had money and were usually in the position of selling their paintings and possessions in order to keep their lifestyle up or to pay private school tuitions. I loved being with Bill on these calls. There was no time limit. He did most of the talking, usually telling them stories about the ancestors or peers they didn't know, wrapping them up in his stories until they were ready to let go. It was always letting go; it was always their betraying their roots in favor of their needs, and there was literally no one better than Bill in reasoning with them that they were doing the right thing. He wasn't insincere. Far from it. He loved making a profit but he was always thinking. He was so incredibly sincere that, after buying a houseful of furniture he might send an extra check if it went very well.

Bill was entirely self made. He grew up in Newton Massachusetts, in a massive home with a massive family. His father died young, his mother was stern, and Bill made his own way. He signed up the local houses in August for snow removal so that when local boys came ringing they had to work for him. As a young banker he left every Friday with a van to buy things to sell during the weekend. H gave up banking and opened a shop on E. 81st. Then he started auctioning out east during the summers. He was a person who was constantly in motion. Even sitting in the front seat of the Country Squire with Rusty driving he was moving his socks up and down, crossing his legs back and forth. That's a Fly in Amber memory - him sitting in the front of the car during the weekend, wearing khakis, loafers, blazer, and, in inclement weather, a blue v-necked sweater. He was a brunette until he went grey quick in the last year of his life.

He was a remarkable friend. Always teaching, always sharing. He couldn't ever shut down - the stories, the advice, the lessons. Rusty and I would sit in the dark car on trips back from somewhere - Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Virginia, and the stories would come out in the quiet of night - childhood, beginnings, family, clients and friends.

He was obsessed with food. Food was constantly being delivered to the wealthy and the poor. He kept one food shop in business. I know this, because the place, Word of Mouth, went bankrupt within six months after his death.

But, I have to say, one of the greatest gifts that Bill gave to me was just uncomplicated love. Our relationship, once we knew each other, was, in my opinion, perfect. He loved me, I loved him. Beyond that, I loved his daughters, who were each incredibly bright and interesting. I loved his wife, who was and is smart and resilient. I was a lucky young man in a perfect world that had no limitations. The gifts keep coming - I'm married to someone I met at Doyle's, I'm surrounded by the glom that reminds me of Bill every day. Each piece - the picnic set, the chair with the rolled arms, the silver service, is filled with his stories.

They say that the best friends are made in childhood or war, but my time with Bill was both childhood and war, yet without any of the negative issues. We all worked so many hours, and so many days in a row, but, at the same time,  we were all working with interesting young attractive people and, most importantly, we all worked for him.

I think of Bill and miss Bill every day. It's near Christmas and I always think of him. He would have been organizing massive bags of food to bring to East Hampton, and Ned in the shop on 5 would be giving him the small little chest of drawers or interesting things that had to be fixed so that it could be put under the tree. Some of his clients would have given cases of wine, although he didn't drink. He'd drink a double espresso, tell me that I was the luckiest kid in the world to be working for him, that I should be paying him and then, as he was as bad as saying goodbye as I was, he'd be off.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Here Comes The Sun Room

More photos, less writing

The Sun Room was painted an off-white, with black asbestos tiles and green curtains. It originally had a pair of French doors leading into the living room. As mentioned, one of the previous owners had closed off one of them, and had taken the doors out of the other.

1. Looking west

2. Looking east. You can see the doorway that we opened back up on the left.

3. We didn't do much to the Sun Room, with the exception of opening that doorway again and painting. We chose a slightly whiter off-white, with grey trim. In the following photos you can see the new colors.

4. There is an interior and an exterior door. The exterior door will be painted white so as not to cause that shading that's apparent.

5. Outside the Sun Room there are two large arborvitae which we will take down in order to get more light in, replacing them with maybe more rhododendron. The previous owners had obviously not used these doors for a long time as the gutter outside was incorrectly installed and had blocked the doors from opening.

Monday, December 20, 2010


No photos. I haven't been able to get into the house for days because of the staining of the floors.

The house is still empty of everything and everyone but contractors. The Senerchias finish the electrical pretty soon and Q & R has, very kindly, had eight men working seven-day weeks painting and staining, all to get us in by Christmas. I don't even want to be there by Christmas.  I want less pressure, not more. They tell us now that the work should be done by the 23rd and the move in is scheduled for the 27th. We will continue to sleep on the sofa at Christina's Mom's apartment until Christmas morning and then, just as every year, move down to the beach. I cannot wait to breathe at Point Lookout with my family, if just to lower my blood pressure.

On the 27th, the Feast Day of John the Apostle, Christina and I will stand together in an empty clean house that morning and wait for the Dun-Rite men to come in. We as a family will sleep in beds with cold sheets, without shades on the windows, watching the headlights from cars on Colonial Avenue glide across the ceiling. We'll call out to one another through the uncarpeted halls, and we'll be home.

John was the Saint who Stayed, the apostle whom many said Jesus called most beloved. Peter was the rock, but John was the one who was treasured for his loyalty. He was with Jesus for the Passover, lingered, together with Peter, after the arrest, and was the only apostle who was witness to Jesus's death on the cross. He was the one charged to take care of Mary. He was the first to believe that Jesus had risen. I agree, there's a lot of religion here, which I don't want to get sucked into. I'm just not that religious. I do like that our move-in day is the feast of St John the Eagle rather than, say, Saint Jude, patron of hopeless cases, or St. Maude, patron of misbehaving children, or St. Expeditus, patron of procrastination and money issues.

Back to John the Evangelist. Interestingly, there is a story that says he was taken to Rome where, thrown into a vat of boiling oil he miraculously emerged unharmed. That took place, supposedly, on May 6, my Dad's birthday. John the Apostle died of natural causes, near Ephesus in Turkey, as an old old man. I hope to do the same.

And so this Christmas is not forfeit. There is perhaps a greater sense of expectation, of humility, of thankfulness for the generosity of family and friends, which has been remarkable, and unsparing and heartfelt, and we haven't even been in an emergency. It's been more of what we should have, more what we learn in the Charlie Brown Christmas, and less than in, say, Santa Claus is Coming to Town. It's just not what we've done the past 12 years or so, and I am happy for the change.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Walls Unpainted

Everyone has a history. We were all something slightly different on our way to becoming the someone we are now. The person we fall in love with at first is, after all, just a part of the person we love as we get older. In a house, too. There is a general accretion in a house of the personality or personalities that we bring to it. We, as new owners, love what we see, and yet there is this immediate impulse to alter that which we loved - the old fashioned-ness, the conservative, the age-worn. 

When C and I visited Wynnewood for the first time, it was very clear to me that this was an older woman's house. Older furniture, religious paintings, chintz bedcovers, lots of brown wood, as my friend Bill Doyle would say. The house flowed nicely. I could picture the older woman making toast or pouring a scotch (but never two). And not knowing her, not knowing one thing about her but what you could glean from family photos (three daughters) and inscriptions (husband an admiral, she a golfer) I still thought I had a sense of who she was, just from the way she lived - not wasteful, independent. Our friends the real estate agents said the family lived here forever, and so the children who were obviously grown must have been obviously young here at one point. No posters of the Beatles or Jimi Hendrix, although the electric green shag rug stayed in one of the bedrooms right to the end.

That era - the one of being a mother with young children - was not of this house now. This house was like my Grandma McGinity's house - built for an older couple, tea at five, ginger ale, grandchildren to play cards with or review their report cards or play piano with.

We're nearly at the end of our initial changes. I'm hesitant to even say renovation or restoration now, which is what I said weeks ago when we started. Obviously, some things that she had lived with we wouldn't, like the 90 year old electrical wiring, or the lead paint. The house wasn't alarmed, now it is. The floors were sanded and restained. We had to bring the house to a certain point of modernity. But the house wasn't bad in itself. We fell in love with the house for what it was, and then moved to change it into something else. It had its own ghosts and memories, most of which we've probably put under one more blanket, one more coat of paint, in our zeal.

I'm not regretful. It's just that in this life we don't get one thing, anything, without giving up something else up. We'll be happy here. It will be our house, and the microwave and the toaster will work at the same time, and the scratches made in the house, and the flowers in the garden, will be of our choosing.

Anyway, on to the photos of the house as we found it.

Here is the sunroom, looking toward Wynnewood Rd.

And looking toward the back yard. The storm windows have tin tags, each numbered, each unique. The screens are down in the basement. The bookcase in the left corner was blocking a doorway to the living room. We took it out, first thing. It transformed the living room in terms of bringing light into what was a dark room.

Here is what we call the Girls' Room, upstairs. There was green carpeting here. I liked the iron beds, Christina no.

This was the middle room, which she had used as a sitting room. It will be the Boys' Bedroom. The closet below is about as big as a Cadillac.

The Master Bedroom. Marriage is all about compromise. When it comes to our sleeping arrangements, I've generally found myself on the wrong end of the compromise - when the bed was against the N wall I had the N side, when it was too close to the S wall I had the S side. I've demanded, and so far been ceded, the side without the radiator. I kept thinking that my brain would be softly boiled as I slept the sleep of the brave Celts.

An alternate view, looking toward the sleeping porch on the left, which will become an office for Christina.

The sleeping porch. It had some bad water damage, and so we stripped out the walls and reinsulated the whole shebang.

An alternate view. This was the husband's desk, with his file cabinet. We ripped the ceiling down and found the original tongue and groove paneling, which we've had painted.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Kitchen As We Found It

The kitchen is the heart of any house and ours is no different. Like a heart there are numerous ventricles pulling people in and pushing people out. There are five doors that lead from the kitchen: Front Hall, Dining Room, Basement, Garage, and Back Door. Sounds complicated than it works out to be. 

The kitchen as we found it was a picture in beige - beige floor tiles, beige cabinets, wallpaper with beige ground and little primroses on it. We're in the process of painting out the beige to a white, changing the hardware, taking the drapes away.

Below is the sink. Most of the counters are 1930s formica with stainless strapping, stainless sink, oven hood and backsplash. One can stand at the sink and look toward new horizons. The cabinets are wood with porcelain knobs. The hardware will change; the cabinets will stay.

The refrigerator juts out from the wall. We decided to keep the fridge where it is, but for a couple of hundred dollars the contractor was able to push the wall back six inches into the garage, thus gaining us the space and keeping it even with the stove that will go next to it.

This is at the back of the kitchen. The sink was charming but very very odd - the tap only came about six inches above the bottom of the sink. I'm not even sure what it's for - a pitcher would not fit under, it's too narrow and shallow for doing dishes, and the tap is too low in general to fill anything. We removed it and are putting a counter across the back.

The cooktop was leaking gas and had loose knobs, The wall oven was quite cool but I didn't trust it entirely. It was electric, with rusting elements. We thought now was the time for a change. The stainless backsplash will stay, but we're putting a stove in where the cooktop is, and then reusing a cabinet taken from the back of the kitchen

Another view. The narrow wall at the back of the room is what the real estate agents refer to as a "Powder Room". This is misleading in our case, as there's no sink, or really anywhere to stand in order to powder one's nose. We have what would have been described as a Water Closet. Utilitarian, closet sized, not meant for the obese or pregnant or crippled.

An alternate view of the front of the kitchen. Cabinets will be painted. Should open it up a bit.

The Garden

The garden at our house looking toward the Writer's Cottage (East). The sun room, on the left of the photo, is the Southern most room of the house.

The reverse view, looking West from the Cottage.

Looking toward the house from the same position. The tree in the center is beautiful, and has an oddly placed flower bed below it. Will have to work on this.

Looking directly North at the house. The Sun Room is on the ground floor, behind the arborvitae, which has grown too tall and obscures the windows. On the second floor is an enclosed summer sleeping porch (more on both later).

Looking North toward the back of the house. There's a mass of vinca as the ground cover, and just where I'm standing is a dry well that I think is going to need some maintenance. The ground is wet - retains water too much - and so we will live with it and then make peace with it.

Charlie Chan and the Writers Cottage

Our property is L-shaped. Our home occupies half or so of the long part. At the end of the L is a little one room house that sits apart. It's admittedly in rough shape - the cement floor is cracked, and the wallpaper is faded and peeling. I can't tell whether the sag towards the center is caused by the floor or the house itself. When we first visited the property the little cottage had this mysterious air to it. I wanted to fix it before we tackled the home, but Christina said that was foolish and typical and I suppose she was right.

At the closing, the seller said that her parents were the third owners of the house, and she had heard that the  first owner, a writer, had built the cottage as a writing studio. She had used it for sleepovers, but it had begun to fall into ruin. Anyway, it was a charming story.

In talking to the neighbors yesterday we learned a little more. The story goes that it was Earl Derr Biggers who moved to the house in the early 1920s and it was he who had the little cottage built and in it he put a pot bellied stove and a desk. In that cottage he wrote the Charlie Chan novels, or at least the first four. I have to conduct more research.

It made me think of Dylan Thomas's writing shed in Laugharne, Wales.


Dear Gwalia, I know there are
Towns lovlier than ours.
And fairer hills and loftier still,
And groves more full of flowers.

And boskier woods for blithe with spring,
And bright with birds adorning,
And sweeter bards than I to sing
Their praise this beauteous morning.

By Cader Idris, tempest torn,
Or Moel Yr Wyddfa's glory;
Carnedd Llewelyn, beauty born;
Plinlimmon, old in story.

By mountains where King Arthur dreams,
By Penmeanmawr defiant,
Llareggub Hill a molehill seems;
A pygmy to a giant.

By Sawdde, Senny, Dovey, Dee,
Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd;
Small is our River Dewi, Lord,
A baby on a rushy bed.

By Carreg Cennen, King of Time,
Our heron head is only
A bit of stone with seaweed spread,
Where gulls come to be lonely.

A tiny dingle is Milk Wood,
By Golden Grove 'neath Grongar;
But let me choose and oh! I should
Love all my life and longer.

To stroll among our trees and stray
In Goosegog Lane, on Donkey Down,
And hear the Dewi sing all day,
And never, never leave the town.

(from Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas)