THE ENDURING VALUE OF A VENERABLE HOUSE
By Susan Lyons
It was a sunny day, breezy, and about noon. A good time to replace the flowers that Hurricane Irma had victimized in planters near my front door. I picked up my little trowel, glanced toward the street for some reason, and noticed someone in a black sedan staring at my house. I asked if I could help, only to learn that the driver’s grandmother once lived here at 7 Gadsden Street. He had come by to show his wife and daughter on their way to a family occasion.
Deja vu. I had done much the same nearly a quarter-century ago in Lewisburg, a little southern West Virginia town, where my mother grew up and where my grandmother, with whom I was close, lived and with my grandfather was proprietor of a women’s clothing store. I loved their house, and needed to visit it again in mid-life. Its “new” owners graciously invited me in, allowing me briefly, but meaningfully, to go back in time.
Now it was my turn. I was so pleased to find out that it was my visitor’s great, great, great grandfather who built this house, in 1903. Only six or so when he came here, my visitor recalled the place as his extended family’s emotional home. That was, he said, because his father was a military man and, with his family, traveled the globe. When they thought “home,” it was 7 Gadsden Street.
A descendant of the DeVeaux family, my visitor recounted fascinating family history in Charleston, including an intermarriage of French Huguenot and Sullivan’s Island Irish, and the time long past when children from this neighborhood’s black and white families were close, and played together, but lived separately.
I invited them in, as had been done for me, and as we wandered out onto the piazza, the wife of the builder’s descendant took pictures and emailed them to his grandmother who is still alive — in her early 90s. Seeing them, she wrote back that she had begun to cry. This had been her piazza, of course, her home. At that moment, I remembered having emphatically told my new, late-life husband who brought me to Charleston 14 years ago, that this piazza had to have a glider. That was because of halcyon afternoons I had spent as a child rocking on the glider on my grandmother’s porch.
The visiting couple’s charming nine-year-old daughter was excited to be here and seemed to sense the importance of the continuum. We gazed out over the back yard that, in 1903, opened directly onto rocks, some miscellany, marsh, and then, of course, the Ashley. There was no Barre Street, no Lockwood Drive. And when storms came, well, it flooded.
Guess what? For the past three years, that yard, now grassy and planted and filled with wonderful color in spring and summer, has flooded. Harbor waters this year, river waters the two years before that. I assiduously pump out the garden and have replaced the ductwork beneath the house for the third time.
But this year, neighbors up and down Gadsden Street have begun to talk of moving away because of continuing damage.
I do not want to do that. I have loved hosting friends and family here from near and far. They take turns on my glider and we break bread in a dining room where French doors once provided breezes before those ducts brought in air conditioning. The husband who brought me here became ill, sadly, and died in this house some years ago. But I have a new love, who shares the house with me now and has come to cherish it as I do. And each year I add plantings to the garden I inherited from more than a century’s caretakers. The trees and perennials, even the soil, speak of their memories.
The value of 7 Gadsden, for me, far exceeds real estate. It has become home. And I dearly hope that my adoptive city will soon find a way to protect us from the flooding so that we might continue to share important memories.