Wednesday, May 13, 2009

from Sharon Springs, NY: clean slate

After my previous post, a commenter wrote: one of the saddest things around is a long empty house. Fascinating, but sad.

Ed and I wake up to a crisp and brilliant Tuesday. Inside, the cousin house has heated up to a toasty big oven.
What’s the heating system here? -- I ask.
– Ed answers. He explains about oil and hot water and hissing radiators, but my thoughts are wandering as I look around the room where we spread out our sleeping bags. There is so much that is old here! An entire set of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the shelves. The 11th edition, published in 1910. The room is stuffy now, but we dare not open the ancient windows. The wallpaper shows water damage in the walls. In some rooms, old furniture is stacked to the side. But, the kitchen is modern and we see a copy of an Alice Waters cookbook lying around. And, Ed has us connected to WiFi in no time.

I try not to misplace things, but in a room with someone’s clutter, it’s hard. We spend a good half hour looking for my misplaced watch. As a result, I am now familiar with every dust ball around our sleeping area on the floor.

I need some fresh air.

We walk down to the village and look around. Sharon Springs is one fat chapter in a history book. But it feels like that chapter has come to a close. The spa hotels, the gazebos, the sulphur baths – they defined the Main Street not too long ago, but now they’re shut down. Left standing, but in disrepair, they are not glorious at all. They are a sad reminder of how shifting tastes can ruin a village. Or at least strip it of its significant markings.


There are two or three cafes in town, but all are closed for one reason or another. I search for a cup of coffee and finally find one in a pizza place. The grocery stores have shut down several years back but there is a liquor store, and a place where you can get your nails done. On the outskirts, you can still pull up to Dairlyland for a soft swirl ice cream cone. And some fried chicken tenders.


In the afternoon, we set out to inspect the family houses. Besides the cousins’ place, there is the grandparents’ grand place and the small “Button House” – probably the oldest of the three. In addition, there are the out buildings -- garages, a greenhouse, sheds...

We begin with the grandparents’ place.

On the outside, you immediately notice the peeling paint and places where the wood is warping. But on the inside you begin to appreciate what years of great care can do to a home. It all looks so perfectly preserved! What, to me, is so disconcerting is that nothing has been touched here for decades. The closets have linens, neatly folded, discreetly covered in the old world style with a hanging sheet. The smell is of camphor and mothballs. An old trunk has a beautifully printed card on it: “this trunk was last inspected and cleaned in June, 1966.” The grandfather’s room has jars of his knickknacks in the closet. His shoes are tossed to the side --- untouched for decades. In the room where Ed’s parents occasionally stayed (before the young family took over the Button House), a closet is full of his mother’s clothing. Things that predate Ed’s childhood, I’m sure. No one has touched anything here either. If any relative passed through here in the last quarter century, there is no indication that she or anyone ever entered these rooms. (And certainly there are enough rooms here that you could bypass the main ones and still do well by yourself.)

In the third floor rooms, Ed shows me the fire station and doll house his father and aunt played with as children. On one wall I see war helmets hung by the window. Which war? The first? The second?


We go out on the roof. Slate – Ed shakes his head. Who uses slate anymore. I'm thinking -- these slates sell for a lot at Crate & Barrel. As cheese plates.


The reality is that there is no future for this house. Too big, too old, too costly, sitting here in a depressed rural community – a beautiful, aging misfit.

Down the hill, the Button House is in far worse shape. The walls and ceilings in some rooms have given up and crumbled to the ground. The furniture is in place, the dishes here, too, are still in the kitchen cupboards, but it’s as if someone chased the inhabitants out in the middle of a meal. And then poked holes in the house. The shell is damaged even as the rooms are left alone. The ancient TV, the crank phone, the old clocks, books, Currier and Ives prints – still there, as if waiting for the family to return.

We walk through the former gardens, past grape vines, the apple orchard, past the buckled pool, the shattered greenhouse. You should have seen the care my grandmother took with the gardens. My aunt too! There were flowers everywhere. And as I’d run up from one house to another, I’d pass relatives sitting on the porch, always with a question for me, a good word.

But here is the brutal truth, the bottom line, really: these houses, untouched for all these years, must eventually be stripped and taken apart. Just as rebuilding the spa hotels seems like a wistful and ultimately futile endeavor (for whom? for what reason?), so, too, investing in these mammoth houses makes no sense at all. Not here, in the little village of Sharon Springs.

And it is so sad for me to see this. Being raised in Europe, I have always missed the mixing of the old and new here. And now, I am walking through a village with a remarkable and rich history and that village is about to lose its markers of a fascinating era. It'll have a clean slate, eventually to be filled with more practical homes and convenience stores, or in a worse scenario – by nothing at all, so that the entire village will have moved on. To Florida or Texas maybe.

Even though it is so pretty in this upstate New York region!


We eat dinner at one of the old, boarded up hotels – the Roxboro.


The place has been taken over by a local couple. Even though there is already one restored hotel in town, they're full of optimism for this one as well. Thus far, they've reopened the dining room. Three courses for $9.95 if you come before 6. An old woman and her son sit at a table at one end of the room. We are at the other end. The silence in the room is palpable.

If they reopen the hotel rooms, who will stay here?


We drive to the edge of Sharon Springs. At Dairyland. Ed orders a vanilla milkshake. We take turns sipping it as we return for the night to the cousins' house.