Monday, January 30, 2012

The House That Still Haunts

There’s something weird about me.

Okay…I see the heads nodding out there. 

I also see your point….but that’s not what I mean.

What I mean is, I seem to absorb whatever sense of history exists in a place wherever and whenever I come across it. 

The obvious are places of historical significance like Ellis Island, the remnants of Thoreau’s little house in the Woods or famous battlefields, like my grandparent’s old house on Oak Street.

I think everyone gets some sort of vibe from those places; they’ve come prepared for that so they’re already open to it.

No…I’m talking more about your average, everyday encounter with the past in everyday situations.

For instance, whenever I walk down Main Street in my little hometown, I pick up all sorts of things, not including the parking ticket that was left on my windshield during the 30 seconds it took me to walk down to the new and improved fancy shmancy central parking pay station thingie.

No…not including that.

Most of the buildings downtown date back to the early to mid-19th century. Even before that, these same streets bustled with all sorts of commerce schlepping back and forth to the schooners tied up in port. 

So when I’m strolling through the village, I pretty much shut out all the hub bub taking place in all the fine international dining establishments, check cashing services, long distance phone stores and other small retail businesses that have taken up residence in those old spaces and just soak up the ripples from the past. 

I see shop owners squeegeeing store front windows clean and sweeping street dust off the sidewalks. There are horses drawn carts carrying logs to the saw pit and carriages carrying people to the shops. An old fire pumper rolls down the street as men, dapper in bowlers and cravats, ladies, sublime in bodices and skirts, stroll the streets after lunch. The butcher, still in his blood stained apron converses with the shoe maker, his fingers hopelessly blackened with shoe polish.
I don’t know where this comes from, really. Just echoes from the past I guess. 

When I was a kid, there was no one place that resonated with these echoes more than an old deserted mansion, set back on an isolated hilltop, up in the woods off North Ridge.  There were actually two of these huge houses, one a bit smaller than the other, both of which we called haunted, because to a 10 year old that’s exactly what we wanted them to be.

I imagine at one time they served somebody well, but right at that particular time they served to pretty much scare the bejujus out of us.

One by one, we would sneak through the woods and approach the house from behind this low stone wall that I guess served as boundary marker at one time. From there, we would peek to see if there was anyone in sight.

If the coast was clear, one of us would give the signal and up over the wall we would fly, making a mad dash for the front porch and door.

Then suddenly…we were in!  

I’m talking in your classic “Vincent Price” haunted mansion here, except the only ghosts around were in our heads. But believe me…that was more than enough.

Today, it boggles my mind to even think that this place actually existed. Even more, that we actually had the courage to go inside, which now that I think of it, was probably trespassing and a violation of several laws.  So, for the remainder of this story, let’s just say this is all hypothetical. 
So “hypothetically” speaking, I recall the main hall housing the remnants of an old baby grand piano, just sitting there, keys missing, along with one leg, or maybe it was two. In fact, it might have been merely a small upright piano, but baby grand is more impressive, so that’s what I recall.

Wall sconces, equally spaced, graced the large room, which was divided into sections by tall, foggy windows, some of their panes long gone, other cracked and broken.  There was even what we called a secret doorway, a discreet opening that blended into the wall, which lead to what we thought of as a secret passage and stairway that snaked through the interior of the house. 

Of course there was also the ruin of an old chandelier, at least, again, in my memory, that lay in the center of the room and a staircase so majestic that one expected Scarlet O’Hara to come sweeping down from above.

Once inside the house, we proceeded to spook each other with every ethereal squeak and groan of the floorboards and the real or imagined sounds of car doors slamming…they were coming to get us!

In and out of rooms, we’d go, some stripped bare, except for a coating of time, others decorated with empty beer cans and bottles, undoubtedly the product of another sort of activity that took place by night with kids somewhat older than we.

Some rooms even showed signs of transient habitation; a refuge on a cold winter night for some unfortunate, I suppose.

Were they lurking somewhere behind the walls, peering out at us, pick ax at the ready?

No…but we liked to think that maybe they were.

Sometimes we would venture into the attic, a somewhat cramped space for such a big house, and there we would discover old hangers from a local cleaner—back when phone numbers featured far less numbers than they do now—and some ancient invoices from a girl’s boarding school.  Were those poor girls held captive in this dusty space by some cruel headmistress, perhaps for missing the correct spelling of Megalosaurus?

These are the thoughts that raced through our minds, along with our hearts, as we tore from floor to floor…again…hypothetically.

The house was 3 floors including additional living space in the attic, with at least two wings, so we could spread out and go off on own adventures until, eventually, we’d stumble upon one another, sneaking around this corner or jumping out of that crawlspace over the hall.  Usually a conspiracy would be hatched by a few to scare the many…which always succeeded, even when we knew it was coming.

And while the others were content to run from room to room, I would often just wander and breathe in the past.  

Perched by a large second floor window I imagined myself Gatsby and took in a large party of flappers and scoundrels making merry on my finely manicured lawn.

Bedrooms hosted house guests warmed by cozy fireplaces.

Below, the main hall was alive with music and light as elegantly dressed women and men mingled and danced, while tuxedoed servants offered canopies and drinks from silver trays, then silently disappeared back into the walls.


Yeah…I guess. I do have a pretty good one.

But when I have these sensations it feels like something so much more.  Like looking through the veil of the present, right into the past.

As it turned out, I learned some years later, the old mansion was just that: the home of a rich local benefactor who along with his wife willed the estate to the Town of Rye to be used as a public space upon their deaths.  The period of decline that we so enjoyed was the transition period in between the time the widow vacated the premises and the time the town took over sometime in the 70’s, restored the mansion to its former glory and created a park for all to enjoy. I even played softball on a field situated not 100 yards from the place whose deserted nooks and crannies I once roamed and explored.

Today Crawford mansion is used for weddings and other such events, and yes, I believe they serve canopies and cocktails from silver trays while music fills the halls.   

So maybe I wasn’t looking back into the past after all. Maybe it was really the future…or more likely a little bit of both

As it turned out, even though it’s the house that still haunts my memory, from time to time…it really wasn’t a haunted house at all.

It was more a place of happiness and joy, waiting to be reborn. 

It just had to make do with our brand of joy, in the meantime…but I don’t think it minded at all.

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