Thursday, December 20, 2007

Yesterdays

video
A great article in the nytimes city section this past weekend on a house on Clinton
Street in Brooklyn that has been owned by one family since 1866. I modified the slide show that accompanied it
The Ghosts of Clinton Street
NORA GERAGHTY and Dan Kahn moved into the four-story brick house on Clinton Street in the summer of 2001, a week after graduating from college. By day, their life resembled that of any young couple in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn: coffee from a patisserie on Court Street and commutes on the F train to entry-level jobs in Manhattan.
That was by day.

By night, the couple retreated to a world suspended in time, a house in which virtually nothing had changed in the hundred or so years since a construction crew had arrived at the door bearing a supply of the miraculous invention known as electrical wiring.

Ms. Geraghty’s great-great-great-grandmother bought the house at 312 Clinton Street for $4,000 in 1866. At the time, an outhouse stood in the backyard and horses were quartered next door.

For the next 140 years, a period spanning Brooklyn’s consolidation with New York, the family discarded practically nothing: not the trunks of hand-woven bedspreads and frilly Victorian undergarments, not the boxes of handwritten grocery receipts dating to the 1880s, not the chunks of petrified laundry starch now piled in a 19th-century beer pail called a growler.

Last year, the house underwent an extensive and much-needed renovation. A water-damaged beam was braced with pillars, and an old sofa was heaved onto the sidewalk decades after collapsing in the parlor during a wake.

Yet 312, as the family calls it, remains the rarest of places, a Brooklyn home whose residents eat at the same oak table, within the same brick walls, and among many of the same well-worn possessions as no fewer than five generations of ancestors. I came to know the house because my parents have known Ms. Geraghty’s parents for many years. Without the personal connection, her family might never have shown anyone their collections of bottled fainting remedies, thigh-high men’s socks, and mint-green sales slips for coal.

The couple acquired this inheritance not because they had any plans for their accumulated top hats and tax forms, but simply because neither they nor their forbears ever had the heart to throw anything away.

Michael Geraghty, Nora’s father, is a doctor in his 60s, a man with a soft gray beard and a prankster’s twinkling eyes. Every morning, he sets out by bike from the town house in Park Slope where he and his wife raised their three children and pedals toward the house on Clinton Street where he, his mother and his grandmother were raised.

He makes his way to the kitchen, past a retired gas-powered Easy brand washing machine, circa 1940. After brewing a cup of coffee, he changes into a suit and heads off to Long Island College Hospital, four blocks away.

On the way home, he stops into the kitchen again and fixes himself a gin and tonic, dropping the ice cubes into a glass that belonged to his father. He turns on a portable radio, an amenity modern by the standards of a house that contains a working Victrola.

On occasion, he sits at the scarred table and thinks about the people who sat there before him: people like his mother, Dorothy Walsh, nicknamed Sweetheart, who was born in 1906 in the second-floor front room and died on Valentine’s Day in 1968, or his great-grandmother Maryann Cassidy, his great-grandfather Peter, and their only son, John, all of whom died of a mysterious cause within a few days in 1874.

Dr. Geraghty has maintained this routine for 20 years. “I’ve tried communicating with them,” he said of his ancestors, smiling wryly. “They’ve never tried communicating with me.”

His daughter, Nora, is 28, with a slender face framed by long taupe hair. At the catering company where she works as a chef, she cooks on high-tech ranges with thousands of B.T.U.’s; then she goes home to heat up dinner in a 1935 Detroit Jewel. That “tin box,” as Ms. Geraghty calls it, is the home’s “modern” stove. “The old one,” she said, “is a wood-burning hearth that my dad would pop popcorn on.”

By Ms. Geraghty’s account, she and Mr. Kahn have sometimes found it challenging to make room for a personal life amid the clutter of so many family stories and remembrances, not to mention boxes. “There’s almost an inability to live a modern, normal life,” she said.

Until the recent renovation, for example, the house had no shower, so every morning she and Mr. Kahn were required to draw baths in a claw-foot tub. When the couple held parties, guests sometimes acted as if they’d walked into the period room of a museum.

“They didn’t want to touch anything,” Ms. Geraghty said. “And that’s sort of how we felt. It’s pretty, but when you’re living somewhere, really living, you want to be able to touch things and use things.”

Two years ago, Ms. Geraghty moved to San Francisco. She was beginning to feel as though the house were much smaller than it was, and in a sense, she was right.

She and Mr. Kahn had been living in just two of the eight rooms: their bedroom and the kitchen. The top floor was crammed with falling-apart antiques, feather mattresses, books, the entire wardrobes of nearly everyone who’d ever lived in the house, and much, much more. Nor had the couple ever felt comfortable in the grand Victorian parlor, with its massive candelabras and floor-to-ceiling gilded mirrors.

During Ms. Geraghty’s absence, Mr. Kahn, who works for a fashion company, remained at 312. After a few months, Ms. Geraghty came home, as though pulled in by some powerful tide. Less than a year later, the couple were engaged, with plans to marry in November 2006.

Dr. Geraghty wanted to hold the rehearsal dinner in the house, so he ordered a full-scale renovation. To clear space for the contractors, he, along with his daughter, her fiancĂ© and their friends, filled perhaps a hundred garbage bags with stuff Ms. Geraghty reluctantly classified as “junk.”

Among such items were the piles of mail that her great-great-grandmother had never gotten around to opening.

“The problem,” Ms. Geraghty said, “was that as time goes on, these things stop being junk and become antiques.” She wouldn’t hesitate to throw out five-year-old mail, she said, but these pieces were much older than that.

“Some of it was advertising for corsets, things like that,” she said. “You had to make agonizing decisions over what to keep, because it’s beautiful and it’s your great-great-grandma’s, and what to throw out, because, quite frankly, they should have thrown it out themselves 100 years ago.”

For as long as Ms. Geraghty and Mr. Kahn had lived in the house, they had talked about buying their own apartment. About a year ago, they found a 700-square-foot duplex on the southern end of Park Slope. They loved the idea of hanging their own pictures on the walls, and going out on Saturday afternoons instead of staying home to dust the family’s mantelpieces and vacuum its carpets.

But after much deliberation, they decided not to leave 312. “It wasn’t just the money,” Ms. Geraghty said. “None of us had the guts to do it.”

In part, that was because the house had a sort of magnetism for them. As Brian Epstein, a close friend from college, put it one day last summer, standing in the couple’s garden where a pair of rosebushes have been squeezing out pink and fuchsia blossoms every June since the 1930s, “It’s the place where nothing ever leaves.”

Ms. Geraghty still talks about the feeling of being “suffocated by the things,” but at the same time, those things and the feelings they evoke have fostered in her a profound gratitude.

“The way I feel about my great-great-grandmother,” she said, “my great-great-grandchildren will feel about me, unless New York is gone by the time they’re born. Because in a thousand years, this place will never be sold.”

Ms. Geraghty’s great-great-great-grandmother Catherine Hamilton was already twice a widow when she bought 312 in 1866. She had two daughters from her first marriage: Catherine Quinn, who could not hear or speak, and Maryann Quinn, the woman who would die along with her husband and young son in 1874.

Maryann’s daughter, Catherine Cassidy, was 6 when she lost her parents and brother. She survived to bear seven children and attain what was then the reasonably advanced age of 43. Twenty years after her death, her son Jim contracted pneumonia. It was said that he was days away from the grave when his father, a police captain named James Walsh, knelt at the foot of the young man’s bed with a picture of Jesus and prayed for the Lord to take his own life instead of his son’s.

A week or two later, Captain Walsh went down to cellar and never returned. His family found him on the cellar floor, felled by a heart attack or a stroke. They had his wake in the second-floor parlor, with mourners sitting on the ill-fated couch, while his son lay in the room directly above, recovering.

By that time, Mr. Walsh’s eldest daughter, Marion, ran the household. She would never marry; the house, with its eternal needs — washing on Monday, ironing on Tuesday — was, in a sense, her husband.

Dr. Geraghty would come to know Marion Walsh as “Aunt Mar” (pronounced “Mare”), and for a time in the 1970s, he and his wife, Laurie, shared the house with her.

When Nora came along, the couple took it upon themselves to clear some furniture out of the way. Aunt Mar was not pleased. Dr. Geraghty did an impression of his aunt defending a worn-out carpet. “I just bought that 40 years ago!” he declared.

As it turned out, the renovations weren’t finished in time to hold the rehearsal dinner at the house. While the work was being done, however, some old chests were unearthed, and one day last summer, Dr. Geraghty and his daughter headed up a flight of stairs to examine them.

For years, the five cases had filled the back of what the family called the dark room, a storage space packed solid with framed portraits, hatboxes, electric train sets, two swords and other items. As far as Dr. Geraghty knew, some of the chests hadn’t been opened since the family had clamped them shut on the Irish side of the Atlantic.

He and his daughter positioned themselves at either end of a wooden trunk. As they slowly raised the curved lid, it made a low, moaning sound. Reaching inside, Dr. Geraghty removed a long, straight object wrapped in a newspaper. A flurry of dust particles shimmered in the light from Clinton Street.

Ms. Geraghty carefully peeled away the newspaper (The New York Times, “Hitler Predicts Triumph”), and she and her father stood gazing at an intricate pattern of black lace.

“It’s a parasol,” Dr. Geraghty said.

“Look, it’s mended,” Ms. Geraghty added, running her finger along a seam of black stitching.

A while later, from the pocket of a flannel jacket, Dr. Geraghty produced a matchbook bearing the words “The Hotel St. George, Brooklyn Heights” and a small picture of the establishment in its heyday. All the matches had been torn out, but Dr. Geraghty slipped the item back into the jacket pocket.

The next few hours were devoted to the exploration of the contents of a small trunk sheathed with tin and filled with an infinite number of tiny compartments. A stencil on the outside indicated that it had belonged to Catherine Quinn, Ms. Hamilton’s deaf daughter.

In a red cardboard gift box, Dr. Geraghty found a lock of brown hair; in a leather purse, someone’s molar.

“An actual piece of somebody!” his daughter exclaimed.

Letter after letter brought news of death and catastrophe: Someone had lost his eye in an accident, someone had succumbed to consumption, someone else had simply been “called away from this world.”

Many of these old-timers had left no direct heirs. “It’s a kind of immortality for them,” Dr. Geraghty said, referring to the decision to keep so many of their possessions.

By way of example, he mentioned a 19th-century boarder named Michael Campbell who rose from the kitchen table one night to use the lavatory and instead, under the influence of an unknown amount of beer or whiskey, made the fatal mistake of stumbling down to the cellar.

“He died having a good time,” Dr. Geraghty said.

By the time Dr. Geraghty came upon the receipt for his great-great-grandmother’s funeral, the light in the plainly furnished bedroom was fading.

“Check this out,” he said, gazing at a sheet of ivory-colored ledger paper.

“Brooklyn, March 15, 1888,” he began. “Estate of Mrs. Catherine Hamilton. To John H. Newman, Dr., general furnishing undertaker, 181 Court Street.”

He read on: “Four-horse hearse, nets, and plumes, $25. Five couches, $20. Chestnut box, $25. Draping parlors, $10.”

“Draping parlors!” his daughter exclaimed.

There was more: “Preserving book, $8; opening grave, $8.10; candles, $4.63; chairs, $3; gloves, $2.”

After nudging the undertaker’s receipt into an envelope, he returned it to the chest.

Finally, he and his daughter closed the lid and went downstairs. They had been going through Catherine Quinn’s belongings for more than three hours. The room darkened. The chest sat alone on the wood-planked floor. Its main compartment had still not been opened.

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