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The Cherry Tree House

April 30, 2013

I don’t know where I found the 100abandonedhouses.com website, but I know that once I started looking at the images of once-elegant and capacious derelict houses in Detroit, I was deeply intrigued. Kevin Bauman’s emotive images of homes lost to the past are all at once compelling,  disturbing and elegiac.

 

I have a passion for the neglected architecture of the past.

 

That’s why I’m so drawn to the massive, vacant Moorish hotel in Sharon Springs, NY. Built in the 1920’s, it catered to a predominately orthodox Jewish and dwindling clientele until 2004. After that, it was purchased with an eye toward turning it into a spa, but the developers have done nothing with it. So there it sits, high on a hill at the end of Sharon Springs’ main thoroughfare, its stagey glamour fading as the stucco crumbles and the paint chips away, the driveway more pitted after each spring’s thaw.    

 

However, it is possible, though perhaps not safe and surely less than legal, to ramble around its 150 rooms and yawning public rooms, imagining (and it doesn’t take too much in the way of imagination) the ghosts of the place.

 

Like the Adler Hotel, which has a bit of an institutional vibe about it, Kirkbride buildings fascinate me. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a 19th-century psychologist, believed that architecture played a therapeutic role in treating the mentally ill. Advocating what he called “The Moral Treatment,” Kirkbride theorized that the structure of the asylum itself could play a beneficial role in the patient’s potential for recovery. And so, in the latter half of the nineteenth century, there was a national explosion of asylum building, most of it along the principles Kirkbride espoused—ornate, multiple-winged stone or brick buildings that, in the twentieth-century, came to epitomize the kind of patient treatment shown in the iconic 1970’s movie, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”—shot on location in a deteriorating and still-functioning Kirkbride building in Oregon.

 

Throughout the United States, dozens of these complexes have been left to fall to ruin or razed entirely, taking with them much rich architectural history as well as the stories and spirits of those who lived and died in them. (“The Moral Treatment” also stressed self-sufficiency--patients helped with gardening, sewing, raising chickens. And since many spent their lives in these institutions, there were also cemeteries with elaborate landscaping, several designed by Frederick Law Olmstead who, himself, died in a mental hospital whose gardens he designed.)

 

I suppose it’s not surprising that I live in an old house. Mine is in an enclave of similarly old and elegantly designed houses on land procured for the scientists, as well as other civic leaders, who helped build the General Electric Company at the turn of the last century. These homes are generous in scale, amply spaced on wide, tree-lined streets and are in some ways mute testaments to a lost era of this city’s scientific innovation and cultural richness. Because I care about the houses and the stories of those who lived in them, I serve on the board that helps maintain this plot of homes.

 

 

 

But it’s this awareness of the lives lived here that also makes it so bittersweet to come across the rare vacant home in my neighborhood. It sounds fanciful to say this, but I swear the windows have some strangely mournful quality, as if they are eyes, bereft of life. So often the sagging shutters appear resigned, like fallen shoulders. Why a vacant home should have more of an anthropomorphic aspect to it than one which is lived in is unclear to me.

 

Certainly I understand that this is my projection on inert, inanimate objects. And yet the idea of a house or of any building where lives had been lived, full of the common human joys and woes, is also susceptible to projections. This is why haunted houses make such good subject matter for short stories, novels and films. You need go no farther than to the FX series “American Horror Story” to see how a house, in season 1, “Murder House,” and a mental institution, in season 2, “Asylum,” become, themselves, main characters in the mini-series.

 

Driving home the other day I passed one of the two vacant houses in my neighborhood. This one has an especially dark and looming quality. It is discreetly plastered with notices advising potential trespassers that the property may not be lived it in its present state. (You can’t actually read these notices until you are already trespassing…)  I don’t know what’s wrong with the house. I don’t know why it doesn’t appear to be in either a realtor or a bank’s hands.

 

 

And yet as I looked at the house I was struck by the twin cherry trees in abundant blossom right in front of it. They were frosting pink and as full as dancers’ tutus. They stood in harsh contrast to the vacant windows, the sagging porch, the peeling paint. They seemed to offer hope or maybe a challenge or maybe even a promise—that life returns and that one day someone will peer out from a second-storey window to gaze with pleasure at the splendor of the trees.

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I'm a writer, yoga teacher, Lutheran pastor, and music nerd living in New York. I find a feast in daily living - most days, anyway - and write about it here. 

Finalist for the 2017 Chautauqua Prize!
The frank and funny story of a church-geek girl who spent twenty years in the ecclesiastical trenches as a Lutheran pastor, preaching weekly words of hope she wasn’t sure she even believed.