Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Postcards from Newport: Little Treasures

We spent an afternoon in Newport last Friday, after stopping to see Green Animals, a topiary garden and house museum in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. I'll have postcards from the garden later. In Newport we saw two Preservation Society house museums. We always like to visit Kingscote, a Gothic Revival house with an unusual Arts and Crafts dining room designed by Stanford White.

We also visited Chepstow for the first and last time. While the house itself is 19th-century Italianate, we should have paid more attention to the mentions of "mid-century" and "contemporary" in the Preservation Society's brochure. While the house has fine antiques and paintings dating from the family's Colonial–era ancestors, the overall atmosphere is "Trapped in the '80s with My Overpaid Decorator."

As the tour guide discussed the blatantly patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme of the formal rooms, I kept getting a creepy feeling that the last owner — whom I imagine as an 80-ish grande dame with a lacquered blonde helmet and too much cosmetic surgery — was just around the corner, sipping a Manhattan and jingling her charm bracelet. While I enjoy visiting house museums that mingle several generations of family furnishings and tastes, I seem to draw the line somewhere before the 1960s. Chepstow looks like every rich old lady's house from the past few decades — you can tell too much money and effort went into creating its sumptuous "informality," and the ghost of Laura Ashley is always lurking somewhere, too.

I realize that it's prescient of the Preservation Society to keep this house as it is, as a prime example of overprivileged feminine taste in the late 20th century. I'm trying to be enthusiastic about it (can you tell?). Someday soon, all the ancient, distinguished, opera-loving trust-funders will be gone, and their padded chintz upholstery, dog oil portraits, and needlepoint cushions will land in their grandchildren's dumpsters.

We parked our car in town and walked to the house museums about a mile away. Newport has a wealth of interesting domestic architecture from the late 17th to the 21st centuries, with especially elegant and/or fanciful houses built from about the 1860s to the 1920s, of course, when the town was a summer destination for Society. Wandering around is the best way to find them.

We spied this picturesque gate and had to look in:

A lushly landscaped pathway led to a small, English-style stone cottage with a slate roof and hexagonal chimney. I'l take it!

Not far away, we found this delightful stone house with windows that "make faces" on its little tower:

Gee, I'll take this one, too! I'm not sure if these houses were once gatehouses for larger mansions or if they were built as small "storybook" residences, but you will be hard-pressed find such elegant little fantasy houses anywhere in the Boston area, especially in stone.

On the lower end of Bellevue Avenue — the opposite end from the great "cottages," you'll find the Hotel Viking (1 Bellevue Ave.), a stately five-story brick hotel built in the 1920s. We've eaten lunch there, and I'd happily spend a night or two upstairs. When we're in town, we always go in just before the ride home to use the restrooms. On this visit, we found dispensers of iced cucumber water and lemonade in the lobby, so we took our drinks to the rocking chairs on the shady veranda.

Across the street is a row of colorful commercial buildings:

These two buildings are the Hydrangea House Inn. While I've read that there aren't many original details left within, I'd like to stay there, too. In fact, there are lots of really lovely inns and hotels in Newport. Inn-hopping could be even more fun than visiting house museums. Someday...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dazed and Confused, But with Cookies

In Back Bay, in the '80s and '90s, our supermarket was called the Star Market. At some point, it changed hands and became a "Shaw's Supermarket." Nobody cared. We still referred to it as "the Star." Many of us long-time residents continue to declare that we are "Going to the Star" as if we're launching into Space.

A store's name doesn't matter, as long as you can get the same old stuff you need inside. Unfortunately, every few years the Star/Shaw's people make that difficult. They "update" our store and rearrange things. But first they create chaos for a few weeks, when the place is so random and disorganized that we can't find anything. There was also the time when the Shaw's (or maybe it was the Star) moved to a new location around the corner, ushering in a remarkable period when Back Bay residents spoke willingly and frequently to our neighbors in the aisles — it was the only way to find anything in uncharted territory. For weeks, we wandered around, looking hopefully in each other's carts and asking, "Hey, where did you find that?" It was the friendliest we've ever been, except maybe right after 9/11. (We didn't even bother with each other when our transformer blew and we lost power for a couple of days.)

If you find New England supermarket history fascinating, you can read the Star/Shaw's story here on Wikipedia. I found it boring and confusing. (You'd be smarter to invest your time in David McCullough.) It will make your head spin, so don't do it before you need groceries in Back Bay. To get them, you will need all of your brain cells in working order, and you might need to borrow some, too. Because our "Shaw's" is turning into a Star Market again.

Not that anyone cares. Even newer residents use both names since we old-timers have confused the hell out of them. The real issue is that the Star/Shaw's people are rearranging the store again, big-time. I was just there and I'm still dizzy from my efforts to purchase a few things. They are disorganizing everything in stages, so the merchandise will probably move around more than once. Simple things like crackers will become sought-after, moving targets. 

As you can see below, I found the risotto next to the organic toothpaste:

Between the toothpaste and risotto, you'll find a bottle of "Desert Essence." I don't know what it is but I hope you never put any in your mouth. I've been to the Egyptian desert: it's a vast litter box for wild cats and dogs, donkeys, horses, camels, sheep, goats, and human. You don't want desert essence, trust me.

It looks like we Back Bay neighbors will have to start talking to each other again, god help us. The store is already surreal. There is neither Shaw's nor Star signage... it's all generic, and the place seems darker, too. Those big signs up by the ceiling that tell you roughly what's in each aisle are untrustworthy, and several are blank, as if to put you on the Road to Nowhere. 

All I needed tonight was cereal and straws. I found the cereal fairly soon, after I noticed that bottled iced tea was next to pancake syrup... and, naturally, pancake syrup goes with cereal. Just like little fruit cups belong with poultry stuffing:

I needed straws because we drink lots of smoothies these days. I'm cheap: I like to reuse my straws so I rinse them and keep them on the kitchen counter. But I kept finding that they had tooth marks all over them. I didn't think I was an unconscious straw-biter, so I was puzzled. Then I saw Lion carrying one around.

So we needed straws. I had to ask where they were, and along the way, I noticed one bag of Tate's chocolate chip cookies (only 6 grams of sugar per cookie). I grabbed them just in case I never saw any again. I also grabbed bathroom tissue, thin spaghetti, and a tube of McVitie's Digestive Biscuits (5 grams of sugar per biscuit) just because they were there. Being British, they used to live in a "Foods of the World" ghetto section but the Foods of the World now have their green cards and are naturalized citizens, mingling with the Jello and Campbell's Soups.

I never imagined tuna and Jack Daniel's BBQ sauce coming together, did you?

I was bug-eyed by the time I got to the registers, dazed from concentrating furiously for so long amid all the colorful packaging. Most people standing in line with full carts looked strangely triumphant. But I bet they had also loaded up on things they found rather than things they needed.

You might be wondering how all the Ocean Spray juice flavors were faring during the upheaval. I was curious but I couldn't find them, so I can't tell you.

Monday, July 21, 2014


Lion figured out how to take selfies with my phone today. He's an adolescent now, so I figured it had to happen sooner or later. These may not be his finest moments but at least he doesn't have a double chin. That's one of the [few] good things about having a beard.

I'm not sure how he held the phone far enough away to get that shot. Maybe Possum helped him. But what I really want to know is how all the Rainier cherries in my little bowl managed to escape and fling themselves all over the kitchen floor when we were out for a walk today. They behaved themselves the whole time I had them in the fridge. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Annals of Real Estate: We Have a Winner!

No, we don't have that kind of winner, unfortunately. It's been more than four years but we still don't have a signed offer on a place that we love. Or like. Or can stand, even sort of.

BUT: this morning, in the course of my relentless, leave-no-stone-unturned search for the house of our heart's desire, I believe I have found my personal pick for Worst Boston-Area Listing Photo Ever:

Every morning, sends me an email listing new properties from the day before. I've already seen everything that interests me, but I glance through them just in case. I have no idea how I stumbled on this house this morning as I went through the list — this place has been under agreement since November. But when I saw that photo I practically spit up my tea. Then I knew I had to show it to you.

This is one of just two photos advertising a $260,000 Victorian four-bedroom house in Quincy. The other showed the exterior of a very ordinary Greek Revival. The listing noted that the roof leaks, there's water damage, and the floors need help. It's a short sale.

Keep in mind that this is the only photo of the inside of the house, so we should expect to be admiring its very best features. I have seen my fair share of terrible real-estate photos, including close-ups of toilets (seat up or down), contractor-grade faucets, fuseboxes, boilers, doorknobs, and vinyl tile. But none was as evocative as this sad little corner with its messed-up walls and junk all over the floor. 

No way am I setting foot in this place. 

But don't you love how the mirror reflects the worst of those stains on the wall? And don't you think it makes the room look dramatically bigger and brighter?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seen on the Comm. Ave. Mall

Someone left a child's fire helmet on top of the bronze one on the Vendome Fire Memorial on Commonwealth Avenue at Dartmouth Street. The sculpture honors the nine firemen who died in the 1972 fire at the Hotel Vendome, which is the white stone building you can see in the background. The memorial gives the names of the men, a timeline of the tragedy, quotes from firefighters about their work, and a bronze coat and helmet.

I often see bouquets and wreaths left at the memorial but this is the first child's helmet I remember. In Boston, firefighting is often a family vocation, shared by fathers and sons. So it's natural to wonder if a grandchild or great-grandchild of one of the nine — or perhaps a child of one of the two firefighters we lost during the Beacon Street fire a few months ago — is planning to follow in his footsteps.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Annals of Real Estate: A Tiny Townhouse

On Sunday, I went to Bay Village to an open house for a tiny townhouse on Lyndeboro Place, which I'd never heard of. It's unique: you enter through a brick and wrought-iron gate into a tiny enclave of four semi-attached townhouses, which face each other across a little brick courtyard, not far from the Theater District. A big apartment building looms over it on one side, but that's life in the city. The other side has a sloping, fenced area with mature trees and groundcover blocking the view of a busy road.

I could tell immediately that the four-story townhouse was too small to hold our books and furniture, but it was adorable! I knew I wanted to share it with you. There were two tiny rooms on each of the three upper floors, but the basement was configured as a pink-walled office or craft room with cabinetry under the stairs:

Whoever staged and styled this place had charming taste and vision. It had a theme of soft pastels and warm neutrals with personality — which one rarely sees in staged properties. Usually you find white walls with a cold gray, white, and black color scheme — as though any more appealing color choices would be too threatening for a buyer's imagination. 

Look at all the pretty print fabrics and quirky items on the shelves in the basement:

The kitchen was small but efficient, and it sparkled with five lighting fixtures. Look at the dishes and cookbooks on the shelves, and that pink KitchenAid mixer:

There was also a tiny half bath under the central staircase on this floor, and a fireplaced dining room the size of a postage stamp was just inside the front door. Upstairs were two small, sparely furnished bedrooms, a bathroom, and a closet for a stacked washer-dryer. The pastel theme continued:

The top floor had two compact, neutral living rooms separated by the staircase. The back one led to a little deck with plants in need of watering, while the front room had a long, upholstered bench built under a bay window, with storage. A perfect place to sit and read....

All photos courtesy of Coldwell Banker Residential Brokerage, Newbury Street, Boston, via (except for the photo below)

I looked inside a couple of the bench's drawers and found board games and toys. At this point, I was beginning to wonder if the house had been staged at all, or if maybe some wonderfully quirky, minimalist family really lived here. Then I took a closer look at the bookcase, and realized things had gone too far. The game was up:

I went home to present this book arrangement idea to my husband as a great way to make our own library appear more coordinated and "neutral." We've filled something like 200 linear feet of bookshelves right now, and we need a lot more — this is one reason why house-hunting is so difficult.

When I showed my husband this photo, he just looked at me. And then he went back to writing his book. (He's actually writing two books at the moment. Because we all need more books, you know?) 

The little house went under agreement the next day.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Happy Birthday, Possum!

Possum is 5 years old today. Every day is a holiday for Possum but we like to celebrate this occasion by praising and indulging him even more than usual, telling him formally how proud and honored we are to be his family. Truly, he is the greatest of our cats — and not only in terms of volume.

Possum listened politely and said he was very pleased to hear all that but would vastly prefer some sausages. Sausages are often foremost on his mind when he's not thinking about art history or ways to improve me. The trouble is that he craves a particular kind of fish sausage from his homeland, Norway, that is not available here. So we have never been able to satisfy his longing.

I love to coo over his kitten photos and his birthday gives me an excuse. Possum tolerates me, but just barely, since he is never one to look backward and reminisce. 

Here he is lounging on the sofa shortly after he arrived. We could already tell that he would grow up to be extraordinary: cultured, gentlemanly, cosmopolitan, elegant, and full of interests and ideas. We didn't know he would turn out to be quite so well-upholstered.

Here is another early photo where he has cat food on his nose. He objected to my including this one, but I think it's adorable and I'm the one at the keyboard:

Possum was proud of displaying his belly even before it became so... prominent:

Here's a recent closeup that he likes because of the way it presents his tipped left ear. He's very proud of that because it proves he was believed to be a wild outdoor cat once upon a time, rather than the the Proper Bostonian he say he is now.

House-Hunting Drags On

Our house-hunting continues relentlessly, although I haven't been boring you with details.

But I feel like boring you with them now.

We've made offers on a few places in recent months, but there were always higher offers, with fewer contingencies, that we weren't either able or willing to beat. We're not exactly in mourning for any of them. But it's getting tiresome since we've been at this now for four years.

One recent near-miss was a lovely High Victorian duplex on Tremont Street. It had beautiful detail, lots of space, and a tiny deck overlooking the Villa Victoria low-income housing community. The main drawback was that almost every wall was covered in Venetian plaster in strong, strange colors (green marbled walls with a red ceiling, purply-pink marbled walls with a metallic copper ceiling...). At first we thought that the place just needed a good paint job. Simple, right? 

I'd love to live in a Venetian palazzo... but it would have to be in Venice.

I guess it's Christmas every day in this bedroom.

Interesting furniture... but those colors are just too weird to wake up to.

But I did a little research on Venetian plaster and learned that you can't just paint over that stuff. The top layer has to be removed with chemicals and sanding before you can paint. I spoke to an experienced painter, and he told me that, conservatively, it would cost between $35,000 and $50,000 to repaint the condo with four to six painters working for a solid month. The condo also had a kind of creepy kitchen (black fridge, black counters, mostly black cabinets) tucked under the stairs, reminiscent of Harry Potter's bedroom. So we made a correspondingly low offer and someone else (who probably doesn't know about Venetian plaster) made a better offer, and that was that.

Then, last week, we thought long and hard about a Victorian house in Newton. It was on a busy street, but it initially seemed to have everything we wanted: old-fashioned charm, lots of space inside and out, William Morris wallpapers in the dining room, a porch, and so on. But somehow nothing quite worked. Much of the outdoor space consisted of a sloping front lawn bordering the busy street. The porch was too narrow to hold furniture. The living room was oddly configured with a corner fireplace, and would barely fit our beloved sofa. The dining room was much bigger (although the sofa didn't fit there, either), but the two rooms couldn't be "swapped" because it had a lovely, glass-doored butler's pantry. There were more space problems in the bedrooms upstairs. 

Lovely and so normal after that condo. Yet it was strangely not "us."

After a long session with our tape measure, we surrendered. We didn't make an offer. We expect that it will sell for $300,000 over the asking price — just like another house, two doors away, that we considered in the spring. That was another reason we balked; some families will pay a premium to be in a good school district, whereas we are home-schooling our cats.

The only good news is that there is more inventory, finally, after a dry spell of about two years. I check online for new listings many times a day; I took a break for a few hours one afternoon last week to do some writing, and missed out on a Marlborough Street penthouse. Those are still rare; there still isn't a lot of inventory in Back Bay or Beacon Hill, although we no longer go for weeks without a single listing in our price range. Anyway, that penthouse (which needed a lot of work) was snapped up in a couple of hours by the first buyer to see it.

I won't let that happen again.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Happy Birthday, Wendy!

Wendy is five years old today. We had to choose a birthday for her, since she wouldn't tell us. Hers is on the day before Possum's.

 Our first visit with Wendy at her foster home.

Wendy's brief time as a lap cat.

Every year on her birthday, we have a little conversation with Wendy. Here's how it went today:

Me: Hey, Wendy, you're five years old! Happy birthday! Are you ready to stop hating me yet?

Wendy: .

Me: What did I ever do to you to make you run away if I even look at you? I can't even walk into a room sometimes without you taking off.

Wendy: .

Husband: Wendy, your mother adores you and has always been nice to you. Don't forget that she found you at the rescue, and brought you home and treated all your parasites and that ringworm! She's also the reason you get to eat such nice food instead of kibble. Can't you be a tiny bit grateful?

Wendy: .

Husband: So, you've lived with us for almost five years now. Do you think it's time you unpacked and settled in?

Wendy: .

Husband: I love that you let me give you belly rubs when I'm sitting in the leather chair or I'm in bed, but do you have to flee from me in terror the rest of the time?

Wendy: .

Me: Wendy, have you noticed how your four brothers never, ever run away from us — except for Lion, when we're wearing shoes? Can you try to relax, like them?

Wendy: .

Husband: Wendy, I'm going to catch you and hold you for a little while every day until you get over your fear of me. I could tell you didn't like it when I did it today, but I hope you'll get used to it.

Me: Don't worry, Wendy. I'm not going to do that because I think you'd have a heart attack.

Wendy: !