Save it or raze it?
You hear the stories all the time. All across the Philadelphia region, the once-opulent homes of turn-of-the-century tycoons languish, termite-riddled, besotted by neglect and often – if anyone cares – stuck in the middle of a public battle between preservationists and developers. They are testaments to the time – the last vestiges of an older social order.
From nearby homes like Laverock Hill – a fight over which is detailed in Lou Mancinelli’s front page story this week — to Lynnewood Hall in Elkins Park, large, historic mansions face the same fate as La Ronda, a Main Line home that was demolished after a lengthy, public court battle.
Often, I find myself reflexively supportive of preservationist’s positions. When developers get their hands on these properties, they are often eager to raze the historic structures and replace them with housing developments that threaten the character of surrounding neighborhoods. It’s easy to oppose that sort of change.
While preserving community and open space are admirable, I have a hard time justifying the maintenance of old mansions for most of the reasons I hear preservationists offer as justification. I don’t see the public benefit in saving old mansions.
In the wake of La Ronda’s demolition, preservationists cited numerous cultural reasons to save the mansion – it’s a work of art, a piece of architectural history, etc. The only public economic benefit cited was tourism. Historic tourism certainly has its upside, but does it replace other potential benefits? Municipalities, particularly in these times, just can’t afford upkeep on more and more historic homes as private support dwindles.
It’s a tough position. Clearly, the public should be concerned about the preservation of cultural assets, but do old mansions really make that cut? Did these mansions contribute anything more to our culture than provide ample elbow room to our nation’s elite?
It would be nice to preserve old mansions if it made economic sense, but the public should think before it commits money or resources to saving an old house deemed decades ago to be too large to maintain by the wealthy families that built them. This is exactly what happened to Lynnewood Hall when Joseph Widener died there in 1943 and the family quickly put the 70,000-square-foot home for sale.
The times in which these old homes were built and the purpose they served – the excess space and land for one family – are long gone (at least in the Philadelphia region). Abandoned by their former owners, these homes may have been nice at one time, but they don’t accomplish much now. They take up lots of space on otherwise taxable land.
I’m not saying we should let developers have their way with these homes. When they can be saved, they should. But for many of these homes – when preservation costs more than any entity is willing to spend – it’s time to move on and find better uses for the land.
At long last, popping the cork with Mr. Goodtaste
For the past two years and seven months I have written, rewritten, revised, written, rewritten, and written again a “whydunit” mystery story I hope to get published. Along the way, the book has ballooned to more than 325 pages, reduced to 265, and then slipped back up to 299, where it currently wobbles.
During this time period, the title of “this little entertainment meant to be dashed off in a year” has changed from “Lovesick in Ann Arbor,” to “When the Movie Let Out,” to “The Great Chain of Lesser Beings,” to its current “AmericanaRama.” Along the way, the book briefly also ran under the name of “Malcolm’s Wine.”
This “Malcolm’s Wine” title is very appropriate to today’s column for a reason I’ll make clear soon. The original impetus for writing this story came about as follows: When my son, Colin, was born in 1969, I laid down a bottle of Kopke Oporto, 1970, (1969 was not a vintage year) Vintage Port Wine for him – to be given him on his 21st birthday. He died, however, in an automobile accident, when he was 18. That was awful. And a terribly life-changing experience for all of us who knew and loved him.
In the meantime, the bottle of 1970 vintage port remained in my small basement wine rack, growing richer and more entrancing by the year. What should I do with it? I wanted to smash it against a tree or throw it in a river. By the year 2005 it was expected to have become quite a lovely brew – it seemed a shame that no one would ever know how grand and sweet it supposedly was. Perhaps instead of destroying it, I would bury it and some lucky person would find it. Or I’d give it to a street person who was nickel-and-dime hustling to get up the price of a bottle of wine.
I’d been advised several times by well-intentioned people to drink it myself – on his birthday, perhaps. Here’s to you, Colin! But I couldn’t do it, as curious as I was to know the pleasures of that wine after it had ripened through the years. I can’t express why not, but I couldn’t. Perhaps the wine represented all the sweetness and richness I’d never know about the boy himself as he matured.
One day in 2007 I was downstairs rummaging for something else and saw Colin’s wine, and the thought came to me that ever since he died in 1988 I’ve had the luxury of feeling I had all the time in the world to decide what to do with that wine. But what if my house was burglarized and that bottle of wine was stolen? How would I feel? Would I shrug and say, “That’s the fate of that bottle”? Or would I try to get it back? It suddenly occurred to me that even more hurtful than the loss of the wine would be that I’d been robbed of the right to decide the bottle’s fate. “Choice” had been stolen from me.
I decided to spend a year writing a mystery story about that very theme. A father who had laid down a vintage port for his son, who then died, has his wine stolen. He decides to go after the thieves.
The book I wound up writing has that “pursuit of the wine thieves” element embedded in its core, but the writing of it was like herding cats, as they say, and numerous other characters and sub-plots evolved until it became the book I have been “shopping” for the past four months.
As I wrote a query letter and synopsis to agents daily and received rejections daily, only one bright spot of hope appeared, an agent I have given the nom de guerre, “Mister Goodtaste.” His first e-mail to me said:
Hugh: Sounds strangely fascinating. Please send complete manuscript by June 1.
His second e-mail said:
“I like the writing very much and the way the story unfolds in a Pulp Fictionesque way. I also like the insights into the book world and the setting is very defined and clear. Unfortunately, though, in the end, the story did not quite stand out enough for me...it kept me interested, but I did not jump out of my chair with super enthusiasm ...
Thus, with regret, I am passing, but I like your writing, so hopefully you will contact me in the future. Best of luck, Goodtaste
I asked permission to revise and send again. He said yes, send in mid-July. I did. This week I heard from him:
Thanks so much for sending the revision. I do like the novel and it is very well written, but despite the changes I don’t really feel compelled to take it on in this tough fiction market. I like it, but I don’t love, love it. So with regret, I am stepping aside for an agent who will totally go for it. Best of luck, Goodtaste.
So there you have it: “very well written ... I like it, but I don’t love, love it.”
I was disappointed, but at least the tension and waiting were over with. I went upstairs and decided to sit on my back patio and contemplate the beauties of a summer evening and enjoy a glass of cool pinot grigio. There was none in the refrigerator. I went back downstairs, where I’d put a bottle in the wine rack just yesterday. When I turned on the light, I was immediately surprised to see the wine shelf covered with what at first seemed to be hundreds of tiny, dead insects. I picked one up. It felt like plastic. Exploded pieces of something black. And at once, I saw the bottle of Kopke Oporto, 1970, on its side, just a dry, open mouth, blacker than a black hole, the top of the cork blown away, the lower half floating in the bottle.
Perhaps 20 percent of the wine remained – the rest evaporated. I knew what I must do. I grabbed the bottle and ran upstairs to the sink. “Janet, you’re my witness,” I said. I cleared the few dishes from the sink, readied myself, and poured quickly so I would not be tempted to taste what life has forbidden me to know.