Message From a Stranger
FOR New Yorkers drawn to old houses and apartments, the reminders that they are hardly the first to inhabit their rooms can be thrilling. If those people had their way, no one would ever empty a cellar or clear out an attic.
“It’s the dream of someone who buys an old house to find things other owners had left behind,” said Chris Kreussling, a computer programmer who, in the basement of his Victorian home in Flatbush, Brooklyn, unearthed a trove of brochures, tickets and newspaper clippings from the 1939 World’s Fair.
From the tenements of the Bronx to the prewar apartments of Manhattan and the frame cottages of Staten Island, signs of earlier generations lurk in unexpected corners, “like cave drawings providing traces of previous habitations,” said Richard Rabinowitz, president of the American History Workshop. “And these finds are especially meaningful in a city like New York, where we always have the sense that we’re walking in the footsteps of those who came before us.”
New York City, home to a disproportionately large number of people living in buildings constructed decades ago, is especially rich in reminders of those who occupied our houses and apartments long before we did. According to the 2008 Census housing survey, 85 percent of New Yorkers live in buildings erected before 1970, compared with 42 percent of Americans generally. More remarkably, 39 percent of New Yorkers live in buildings predating 1930 and 17 percent in buildings predating 1920. Luckily for New Yorkers with a taste for past lives, many of these dwellings function as palimpsests of the city’s history.
As a place where the friendly ghosts of the past refuse to depart, it would be hard to top the blue frame house on City Island in the Bronx where John and Linda Nealon Woods have lived for 33 years.
Snatches of words in Gaelic, courtesy of Irish-American students who used to rent rooms in the basement, are visible on the walls. When Mr. Woods removed plaster from a bathroom wall as part of a renovation, he unearthed a Depression-era Boy Scout catalog, with boys’ names scribbled on the order form. A hanging brass lighting fixture projected the Star of David on the ceiling of the foyer, an indication that the house may have been used for religious services.
Today, only a few letters of the Gaelic inscription are still visible. The ingenious lighting fixture has been dismantled. And Mr. Woods has no idea what became of the catalog. Nevertheless, these accidental reminders of the house’s 80-year-long history retain their power to haunt.
“As far as we know, no great triumphs or tragedies took place here,” Mr. Woods said. “But it was a place where people led their lives, where they raised children. And it’s nice to have little fragments reminding you of people who were here before.”
The reminders can be as mundane as junk mail and even packages delivered decades after their intended recipients have moved on. Sometimes the reminders are grim, like bullet holes in windows that recall a rougher, more disorderly city.
Sometimes the reminder is something forgotten when the former residents cleared out, like yellowing documents in a basement safe.
Sometimes it’s impossible to explain why a particular item was left behind. Or maybe all too easy, as was the case for Anne Marie Salmeri, who moved into her Murray Hill co-op seven years ago.
“When I bought the apartment,” said Ms. Salmeri, a broker with the Corcoran Group, “the former owner left behind a few odds and ends, including a silly ostrich egg on its own stand. I couldn’t imagine why she even had it in the first place.”
Yet Ms. Salmeri still has the egg, which sits on her bookshelf. “It isn’t that I like it so much as that I just can’t seem to throw it away,” she said. “Seven years later it’s exactly as the former owner left it. Only now it’s mine.”
The flower holder that Don MacLeod, a law librarian, found when he rented a walk-up on Elizabeth Street was similarly baffling.
“In 1980, when I moved into our old Little Italy apartment,” Mr. MacLeod said, “there was a ceramic statue of the Virgin Mary that had been a flower holder for a funeral arrangement. The prior tenant was a very old Italian man who had died in the apartment. Now, I have no religious convictions at all, but I did not have the heart to evict Mary.”
Three years ago, when Mr. MacLeod and his girlfriend, Lisa Kearns, moved to Seward Park Cooperative, Mary accompanied them. Today she sits on a kitchen counter, a bouquet of meat thermometers stuck in the Styrofoam insert, framing her golden curls.
Certain reminders of a previous resident instantly conjure their spirit, few more so than the mirrored dressing room in Katharine Hepburn’s Turtle Bay brownstone on East 49th Street.
“When the house was sold in 2004, it was in estate condition and needed to be completely renovated,” said Eileen Robert, the Corcoran broker who handled the sale. “But her mirrored dressing room stayed, and it was so glamorous. There wasn’t a single perfume bottle, not a single lipstick, but you had a vision of her sitting there and making up for a date. The house was empty, but it was still the most evocative room you ever saw.”
The brownstone was bought as an investment property and is available for rent. And Trudy Schlachter, the Elliman broker who represents the new owner as the exclusive rental agent, concurs with Ms. Robert about the power of the dressing room. “It retains the glitter, the original charm and detail,” Ms. Schlachter said.
During a renovation in 2000 of her brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, Anne Kreamer found a trove of 19th-century sheet music.
“We were taking apart the walls,” said Ms. Kreamer, the author, most recently, of “It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace.” “And buried inside we found this sheaf of old sheet music of popular songs.”
Though cracked and all but falling apart, the music vividly conjured an era when family and friends gathered around a piano for an evening of lively entertainment.
And the sheet music itself, some of which had been published in France, was beautiful. The cover for a number titled “The Upper Ten Thousand” depicted a man in top hat, white gloves and stylish blue coat. Another cover featured a hand-colored shepherdess, gazing at the water.
“They were exquisite,” said Ms. Kreamer, who with her husband, the writer Kurt Andersen, has lived in the house for 21 years. “And they gave me the feeling that people found joy in this house, that these rooms were filled with happy people and resonant with song.”
Some people are so proud of their discoveries that they want to tell the world. Mr. Kreussling, who blogs under the name Flatbush Gardener, posted an image of a 1911 print he had found hidden in his basement, showing the stretch of Brooklyn waterfront owned and operated by the New York Dock Company.
“These things play into the romance of old houses,” said Mr. Kreussling, who found the print, along with the 1939 World’s Fair memorabilia and an invitation to the dedication of the Lincoln Tunnel, when he moved to the house in 2005 with his partner, John Magisano. “They help you read the house and learn its history.”
The older the building, the greater the chances that previous residents will leave their mark, which may be why a late-19th-century apartment building on West 50th Street near 10th Avenue is so rich in reminders of former occupants.
Pete Mattaliano, a playwright and acting coach who lives on the fourth floor, discovered the imprint of an old-fashioned flatiron on his wood floor. Stuffed behind the bricked-up fireplace he found a robin’s-egg-blue parchment envelope, addressed in a old-fashioned hand to a Miss S. E. Lane in Bayside, L.I., a reminder of the days when mail with even the sketchiest address could still get delivered. He also came upon a child’s marble and bills for coal.
“These things made it much more tangible that people were living here at the turn of the century,” said Mr. Mattaliano, who was so taken with these pieces of the past that he is writing a screenplay inspired by them. “The idea that ‘If these walls could talk’ — in New York tenements, that’s really the case.”
And in gratitude to his predecessor in the apartment, a Mr. Sydlowski, for staying so long and hence keeping the rent under $1,000, Mr. Mattaliano has never removed his name from the buzzer in the vestibule, much to the confusion of people delivering packages.
Mr. Mattaliano’s neighbor, John Quilty, 44, a photographer, was even luckier. When he arrived in his third-floor walk-up, in 1986, he discovered a trunk that had belonged to an actress named Amelia Summerville, who lived in the neighborhood until her death in 1934. Inside were costumes and memorabilia that traced in exquisite detail a long-ago life on Broadway and in silent films.
Mr. Quilty gave away the trunk and the costumes. But he saved a flowered teacup that Miss Summerville used for a monologue titled “Afternoon Tea,” along with a gold locket and a lock of her hair. A poster with photographs depicting the actress in various elaborate costumes hangs on his wall. And he still has her scrapbook, which includes an article revealing that even back in 1925, a newspaper was posing the question, “Whatever happened to Amelia Summerville?”
These artifacts make him ponder the nature of his neighborhood.
“This was always a neighborhood of theater people, a place to which people came without their families,” Mr. Quilty said. “In a clichéd way, it makes me feel connected, as if I were meant to be here.” That he has the apartment’s original skeleton key, handed down from tenant to tenant, underscores this belief.
Most of the time, what’s left behind is gone forever as far as the original occupant is concerned. But once in a great while, a former resident may chance to revisit an old stomping ground, and with unexpected results.
Marcia Schonzeit, an editor and college teacher, lived in an apartment house on West 79th Street until 1952, when she was 11 and her family moved away. When she returned 20 years later for Lamaze classes with Elisabeth Bing, the noted expert on natural childbirth, she made an unexpected discovery.
“I recognized the address, of course,” Ms. Schonzeit said, “but until I arrived, I hadn’t realized that she was living in what was my old apartment. And there in a bathroom, on the lid of the toilet, was a decal of a pink and a black swan that I’d put there when I was a little girl.”