Su Lum: Slumming
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
A couple of weeks ago I went online to check out the Boonton, N.J., real estate listings to see if the old house I grew up in was among the homes for sale, relieved again to see that it was not.
When my mother died almost four years ago, at the age of 99, the house died with her. No one in the family could or would move to Boonton, no one was in a position to be an absentee landlord, the taxes were prohibitive, the property was semi-isolated and an invitation to vandals, and so, after a few aborted attempts to interest local historical societies, we sold it.
Sold it to a developer, and got a good price because a strip of land bordering the property turned out to be just big enough for two home sites, which, judging by what had happened with neighboring sites, would surely be godawful, but the historic house and the yard and gardens, fertilized by my mother’s sweat and blood over the years, would be saved.
Almost immediately, the house sprang up on the Internet with a dozen depressing photographs of the rooms, empty save for the full-sized braided rug in the living room that my mother had worked on for most of my formative years. “I think you’ve outgrown that skirt,” she would say, cutting it into strips. We could all identify our old wool coats, blankets and jackets in the braids.
I should have taken the rug, but it all happened so fast.
Next thing we heard was that by moving an outbuilding, the developer could get two more building sites out of the yard, portending the unspeakable. Then the recession hit New Jersey before it hit us in Aspen, and the listing vanished from the Internet.
The old part of our house, the living room, with a Dutch oven and a fireplace that held 5-foot logs and an attic we called, accurately, “the slave attic,” accessible by treacherous stairs and having not enough head-room to stand, was built in 1740.
1740, 36 years old when the Revolutionary War began, a tear-down by Aspen standards before the first shot was fired. George Washington’s army encamped across the river; his headquarters were just down the road, now a museum in Morristown.
When my great-great-great-great grandmother was captured by the Shawnee Indians and held in captivity for four years – ancient history! – our living room was already almost 40 years old. I find this mind-boggling.
The “new” part of the house was built in 1808, 53 years before the onset of the Civil War.
The house was not a mansion by any means. Dining room, parlor (then a bedroom) and kitchen on the first floor, with a toilet and sink under the stairs, three bedrooms (one hardly bigger than a closet) and a bath on the second floor, and two connecting little bedrooms in the attic where my sister and I lived, sharing a bath with a clawfoot tub that I only came to appreciate after I had left. The floors creaked and the radiators breathed like dying men, scaring us in the night.
But it was surely historic, on the national register, not that that would save it – for all I knew the bulldozing might already have begun.
Last Friday I got a newspaper article with the astounding news that it had been saved – all of it: the house, the outbuilding, the buildable lots – by a group consisting of the Land Conservancy of New Jersey, the town of Boonton, the county of Morris and the state Green Acres fund!
They had all, it seems, been negotiating for years (that’s why it disappeared from the multiple listings) and now the papers have been signed, the deal is done. YES!! If there is an afterlife, my mother is rejoicing. I am rejoicing. My family is rejoicing.
A small irony is that it took the new owner’s development approval to build “four 3,000-square-foot modern Colonial homes” (don’t you love that: “modern Colonial,” like “new Victorian”) on the property to propel the conservancy boards to action to preserve it.
We would have sold it to them for two-thirds the price they paid and thrown in the bulk of the furnishings that had been in it for so many years if we had known it would end up something like a museum (this part of the plan is still unknown).
Notwithstanding, it is good, good news, a great way to start the new year (not the new decade, that’s 2011).
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Aspen City Hall reporter Carolyn Sackariason reflects on the same old story, different year, different decade.