Wednesday, October 11, 2017

It's Not Houses, It's the Life Lived in Them

Romance is wherever you find it.

Whatever the room had originally been - mud room? l'orangerie? former stable? -  it must have given off an aura of unbridled passion, or else why would the woman who led us there whisper, "It looks like where the chauffeur would meet the Downton Abbey daughter."

Since television isn't my forte, I saw it more as a place where Lady Chatterly might meet the gamekeeper Oliver and wile away a sticky afternoon such as today reading poetry to each other. Or, better yet, "reading poetry to each other." Wink, wink.

The room was notable for the minimally framed windows (the kind that open out) that made up the upper half of three walls of a brick-floored room that looked out on the garden. It seemed to be more of a final resting place for anything that didn't have a more appropriate place in the house proper than a room dedicated to anything in particular.

The charm of it was that it was completely unexpected.

Tonight was the first installment of House Story, a new monthly series that mashes up the storytelling elements of Secretly Y'All and the voyeuristic urges of Modern Richmond tours. Since I'd been going to both of those events for years, House Story seemed like a natural.

The chosen house on Grace Street looks completely different from those around it, so that was a definite draw. Add in that Mac and I had both walked by that house countless times (she used to live 2 blocks down and I walked that route for years) and always been curious about the interior and backyard, and it was all but assured we'd want tickets for the tour.

What I didn't expect was to walk through the front door and immediately run into a poet I know. For that matter, I did a double take with a woman (and she did the same) as we passed in the kitchen, only to turn around and realize we had met through work some 15 years ago.

"Just being in this house makes me love it even more," Mac observed as we made our way from one gracious room to the next, indulging our voyeuristic tendencies.

What was unexpectedly striking was that the 1838 house was mostly furnished in mid-century modern furniture and contemporary art while boasting details such as molded cove ceilings and curving walls, while the floors were remarkable for the intricate herringbone patterns throughout.

In the upstairs bathroom, a tiled undulating wall backed an open shower, but the owner said that they'd found the curved wall buried in a closet and immediately decided it needed to be seen, not hidden away.

After traipsing through rooms up and downstairs while letting our imaginations wander, we joined the group gathering in front of the staircase for some history and storytelling.

The current owner told us that the house had been built by a wealthy farmer named Talley - hence the house's name Talavera - on 25 acres in Henrico County in the Greek revival style: two rooms upstairs, two rooms downstairs and a central hall.

At some point, the house was moved from a Broad Street location to its current digs on Grace between Strawberry and Davis and enlarged. Then a two-story wing was added by C.F. Sauer in 1901 when he bought it. By 1922, it had been chopped up into a rooming house and by 1961, the city assessed the house and land at $10,000.

It was a fascinating history, to be sure. And the kicker was that two weeks before his death, Poe had done a public reading of "The Raven" in the front room by the fireplace.

Lois, the next door neighbor, had lived there since 1975, so she came next and shared memories of a previous owner named Serge who recalled hearing the clang of swords as Confederate soldiers climbed the stairs.

Lois pointed out that those stairs hadn't existed during the Civil War, but Serge had apparently been insistent. Other ghost sightings followed. Tonight, a kid who was filming the speakers piped up and said that a yellow orb had appeared in the frame as she talked about ghosts.

What the hell?

More recently, a woman showed up at the front door and asked to come in because she'd been married in the house in 1964, right in front of the fireplace next to which Mac and I were now sitting.

The director of the Poe Museum shocked everyone when he told the story of how when Vincent Price came to town, he'd asked to visit Talavera (for obvious reasons) and once there, read from "The Raven."

Because he could, that's why.

It was the perfect lead-in to a reading by poet Gregory Kimbrell of, that's right, "The Raven," done in front of the same fireplace where Poe had read, except with all the House Story attendees gathered 'round.

For those like me who stopped to think about that, it was a remarkable thing to experience given the location and reading material.

Acknowledging that his work owed a debt to Edward Gorey and was campier than Poe's, he followed that with a couple pieces from his own collection of macabre poetry, "The Primitive Observatory." And while I'd heard him read from it several times, I'm guessing many in the room were experiencing his disarming and disturbing poems for the first time.

Short of finding a willing gamekeeper in the mudroom, how could I not appreciate an event that delivers house porn, history, neighborly anecdotes and poetry?

Quoth the raven, nevermore...

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