I live in an eccentric neighborhood in a big city, a pocket of Craftsman, Victorian and Mediterranean homes in various stages of restoration. Two centuries ago, the city’s titans hired famed architects to build their mansions, until various forces caused them to move north and west.
In the 1960s, a new freeway sliced through the neighborhood, crushing property values. Grand homes that featured Bachelder-tiled fireplaces, quartersawn oak wainscot, and stained-glass windows were carved up to house multiple boarders, or worse, turned into crack dens.
Fifteen years ago, the dilapidated, and frankly, dangerous neighborhood made a comeback. Savvy investors, design buffs, and aesthetes with middle-class pocketbooks bought up the decrepit homes and lovingly, painstakingly restored them to their former splendor, and then some.
Most sections in the area have since been designated Historic Preservation Overlay Zones. Living in an HPOZ means you commit to keeping the architectural elements of your home in tact, or risk being tarred and feathered by members of the neighborhood association. It also means you are eligible for a major reduction in property taxes — one incentive for moving into this still-transitional ‘hood.
There is something about the neighborhood that speaks to my Southern roots. In a status-conscious city, this little-known jewel offers the best of a bygone era: a “village” mentality where neighbors pitch into re-roof the home of an elderly resident on a fixed income; matrons who organize home-cooked meal deliveries for families afflicted by illness; quirky locals who dress in Victorian garb for the annual ice cream social.
While people who dwell in the more modern, upscale parts of the city might wonder how anyone could live with warped hardwood floors and electrical wires hanging out from walls, those who live in the neighborhood see past the squalor, as if in a perpetual Faulknerian haze, drawn only to vestiges of a glorious, fabled yesteryear: “Are those the original quetzal art-glass shades on that light fixture?” “Look at your beveled-glass pocket doors!” “These hammered-copper doorknobs are to die for!”
Every year in December the neighborhood Historic Association hosts a fundraiser known as the Progressive Dinner Tour. Old-home enthusiasts pay for the privilege of being looky-loos in some of the grander homes in the neighborhood, eating and drinking their way through residences on the tour.
Tourgoers commence at the “Cocktail House” and several houses later, wind up at the “Dessert House.” By the end of the evening, everyone is in various stages of sloshed-ness and inevitably at least one guest has to be carted home in a taxi.
This year the tour was in my favorite section of the neighborhood, a gated pocket of stunning mansions — Craftsmans, Italianate villas, Georgian Revivals — on broad, tree-lined avenues.
W.C. Fields, Fatty Arbuckle, art collector Norton Simon, boxer Joe Louis, and legend has it, Ray Charles’s mistress — these were just some of the luminaries who lived in this neighborhood. Oil magnate Walter McGinley hired Paul Williams, one of the first African-American architects in the country, to renovate the staircase in his Regency Revival mansion. McGinley was godfather to Robert F. Kennedy, who was rumored to have trysted with Marilyn Monroe in the McGinley home. On a sadder note, this is where RFK spent the last night of his life.
It was this stately enclave that overrode what little common sense I possess, and caused me to nag my husband into buying a 100-year-old Craftsman manse in a more affordable, yet way funkier section close by.
After my apocalyptic divorce, I had been searching for a way to cobble back a sense of security, a foundation, roots to support my completely reconfigured life and now, blended family. The neighborhood seemed like a metaphor for our lives: early on, full of promise; violently cracked open in mid-life; then slowly resurrected, changed, but in some ways better than before.
My far more pragmatic husband would have been perfectly happy living in a generic ranch-style rental, but I wore him down. So now we live in a sprawling house that upon a superficial first look appears grand, but upon closer inspection could only be described as genteel decay. And thanks to our financially devastating divorces and crappy economy, genteel decay is what it will remain.
But, anyway, about the Progressive Dinner Tour. It’s staffed by members of the neighborhood association, who volunteer to prep, serve, decorate, shepherd, and docent. I work the Dinner House, donning black pants and a white blouse to wait tables. Generally, the wait staff serves seven tours, and we usually make it to the third tour before we start tossing back wine in the kitchen.
The Dessert House is staffed by a gaggle of tween and teen girls, who serve up coffee and pass doily-lined trays of confections, this year’s offering being brownies drizzled with salted caramel and whipped cream. Bedecked in their party dresses, the girls clear used plates and cups, and pass fresh desserts to 500 guests. Maybe it’s the ambient gentility and gracious-living floating in the air. Maybe it’s an evening away from texting and YouTube. Whatever the civilizing force is, the girls could not be more polite, mature, or hard-working.
This was my daughter Franny’s second year as a Dessert Girl. At age nine, she was the youngest of her troupe, and was thrilled to be in the company of older girls whose tantalizing footsteps she longs to follow, into Cotillion and admission to the local all-girls’ secondary school.
The Dessert House was astonishingly fabulous, all Moorish archways and muraled walls, with a Mediterranean-tiled pool and fountain in the terraced backyard. When I arrived to collect Franny at the end of the evening, I found her gathering discarded brownie-crumbed dessert plates, her faux-jeweled Octopus ring glinting in the glow of white pillared candles sprinkled around the enormous beamed living room.
“She was delightful, and so hard-working,” said the house captain, who ushered us out the door. I elbowed Franny, who knows the drill about eye contact and a firm handshake. “Thank you! I had the best time!” she replied, in her still little-girl voice.
By the time we drove out the front gates of the square, Franny had conked out in the back seat, her head collapsed towards her shoulder. I gazed at her in the rear-view mirror, a sigh of satisfaction filling my chest.
Amid the rubble of a horrific divorce, the upheaval of a custody battle, both parents’ remarriages, several moves, and a brother gone for who-knows-how-long to an out-of-state therapeutic boarding school, Franny has risen from the ashes like a junior phoenix. Blessed with native resilience and her own unique Franny-ness, she has miraculously emerged gregarious, engaged, funny, loving, generous, and an all-around nice kid.
Franny, I love you. More than you will ever know. More than I can say.