An essay on the travails, rewards and connections of owning an historic family home- By Brian Keeler
There are some great blues songs about unfortunates who have fallen on hard times being evicted by unsympathetic landlords. There are even some paintings, books and even movies that come to mind that encapsulate this dilemma. One such painting,that has long been one of my favorites is the oil by Phillip Evergood, that happens to be in the collection of the Johnson Museum of Art right here in Ithaca. I have been a fan of the Regionalist School of American painters for years, which Evergood is often included, since my father acquainted me with their work in a book of his.
In this painting of Evergood’s, titled “The Pink Dismissal Slip” a 1937 oil on panel, the artist shows a rather cartoonish, if not stylized but realistic portrayal of a painter outside of his studio holding aloft the eviction notice. Evergood, part of the social realist movement too, endeavors to chronicle everyday life while making personal if not political statements. His work also is in alliance with Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Stewart Curry, and it brings the grittiness and unvarnished truth of life to the fore. This panel is quite an admirable work of perspective as it shows a doorway, an interior and stairways leading up and down simultaneously.
The Steinbeck book and movie, Grapes of Wrath have eviction and Banks foreclosing on destitute Oakies during the dustbowl also come to mind. But the genre comes to the fore in blues lyrics like George Thorohgood’s “House Rent Blues”
“Wanna tell you a story About the house rent blues
I come home one Friday
Had to tell the landlady I'da lost my job
She said that don't confront me
Long as I get my money next Friday Now next Friday come I didn't get the rent And out the door I went”
These odes and rocking blues riffs are fun, funny, upbeat and great to dance to as well. There are quite a few in this genre that are infectious tunes you'd love to hum or sing while smiling between lyrics. l Jimmy Witherspoon’s “Hey Mr. Landlord” comes to mind as a great swing tune that makes you want to get out your dance shoes and practice up the West Coast Swing patterns. Then there’s an even more timely and pertinent tune by Woody Guthrie based on his interactions with his landlord, Fred Trump- the father of his equally feckless son, our current president. One suspects that lack of virtue is an inherited trait. Guthrie’s complaints are interwoven with his disdain for the elder Trump’s racism, again apparently passed down. Guthrie worked up this 1950 tenant landlord acrimony into a song titled, “I Ain’t Got No Home.” Here are some of the lyrics.
“I suppose Old Man Trump knows Just how much Racial Hate he stirred up In the bloodpot of human hearts When he drawed That color line Here at his Eighteen hundred family project”
“Beach Haven ain’t my home! I just can’t pay this rent! My money’s down the drain! And my soul is badly bent! Beach Haven looks like heaven Where no black ones come to roam! No, no, no! Old Man Trump! Old Beach Haven ain’t my home!”
Perhaps Woody Guthrie received some posthumous poetic justice, as he died on 1967, but the Trump father and son duo, as landlords, were sued by the Justice Department in the 1970’s for racial discrimination.
I too have been a renter and know the challenges of making rent. In art school I had two apartments, one on my own and for two years with three other guys. My rent then in the shared apartment on Market Street in York, PA was $38.50. It was above a disco called the 617 and each weekend the thumping bass of disco and rock permeated the first floors. I was fortunately up on the top floor. Here in Ithaca I rented for several years an apartment in what was once the Willow Creek School outside of Trumansburg. I rented for two summers in Wildwood, New Jersey while drawing portraits in a gallery on the boardwalk in the early 1970's. This hotel that all of us artists stayed in was a four-story mansard roofed Victorian, something out an Edward Hopper painting or maybe the Adams Family.
Well, as much as I love these blues tunes and feel a deep respect for Woody Guthrie and his populist credo, I have seen the other side of the coin or as Joni Mitchell says, I’ve Looked at Clouds from Both Sides Now.” In other words, after years of being a landlord, I’ve seen my fair share of atrocious tenants. I am talking about tenants from hell in other words. I have also had some exemplar tenants too who were great people. In fact I have young fellow from Puerto Rico renting from me now who is a model of forthrightfullness and consideration. He came here after the hurricane, not knowing anyone and sends money home to his wife and children.
I inherited the family house in my hometown in Wyalusing, PA that was built by ancestor, John Gregory Keeler in 1865- himself a veteran of the civil war. I have an old photo of the house showing the Italianate structure on Front Street as it appeared back then. Adding to the family connection, I grew up there and the house has been in continuous ownership of one side of the family or another. There are generations of memories there and personal ones too. The measurements of us three Keeler kids are still recorded on the cellar door- as my parents would pencil in the growth record.
My studio is located just behind the house, in what was probably the carriage house and built around the same time. An annex was built around 1947 by my grandfather, Frank Miller and used as his display room for selling Fridgidaire appliances and for radios etc. The building was also among other things, used as the 5th grade classroom for Mrs. Nueber as the main part of the school was next door. The back room was the office of Inez Creque, the principle. This building also served as the home of The American Legion and later was my father’s art studio and social room called Hernando’s Hideaway. Another part of the building was my brother’s print shop. So you can easily understand the karmic if not familial bonds and allegiances.
So I’ll begin my blues-ish lament with one very recent incident that has proved very trying, if not vexing in the extreme. One year ago, I had tenant whose family had been living there for a couple of years move out without telling me. He left in the middle of January during the worst cold snap of the winter. Two weeks after his sudden flight, he sent me a text message saying something to the effect- “Oh I want to be honest with you, I moved out two weeks ago and your pipes are all frozen along with your sinks and tub.” Gee, thanks for your honesty! The upshot was that the damage was terrible, over $25,000 by some conservative estimates. It was malicious too- with cabinets kicked, windows broken and so much more. A ton of junk, garbage and all kinds of personal detritus left behind too. Geesh!
Just this week, trying to fend off another such incident I had to confront a new tenant who may be trying a similar stunt. This fellow is definitely going through challenges as he just got fired from his job and is under investigation with a court appearance scheduled for yesterday. He seemed like a great guy, took very good care of the place inside and out. He even helped me rake leaves one day. The confrontation yesterday involved him shouting at me while pounding his fist and hand together threateningly. All this while he’s standing in the apartment in a tank top with the heat blasting at my expense. His girlfriend has been lying to me about his whereabouts etc. Its odd the things one notices under stressful situations. On one of our first encounters, I noticed what looked like capsules stuck to her tongue while she was talkng- assuming they were drugs she had not swallowed. On the subsequent meeting, I realized they were tongue piercings- metal decorative studs. Well, sort of Like a David Lynch-esque vignette from Twin Peaks.
So the list goes on and on. But some other perspectives from locals and family add some light to the saga. A fellow I went to High School with, Tracy Keeney came by to look at the apartment for a business associates this fall. He relayed an episode of his, as he owned a house down the street from mine. He said he was in the house one day cleaning up after reprobate tenants, while others who were behind on rent, were upstairs smoking pot. He said to himself, “What’s wrong with this picture?” Now he regards being a landlord as a job he’d wish on no one.
Here in Ithaca my friends who rent say for the most part their tenants have always been responsible and speculate that the university and professional affiliations may have some relevance. However one friend here in Ithaca said that he'd heard of tenants moving out and filling the toilets with concrete as their farewell.
I consulted my lawyer in Towanda, in regards to the tenant fiasco of last year. I hadn’t needed a lawyer in over 35 years fortunately. The last time was when an ex girlfriend broke into my studio and stole some drawings of her that I had done, and absconded with my diary as well. These were purloined ostensibly as they were about and of her. My Lawyer minced no words about tenants, as he is a landlord in Towanda. He went on at length about the awful stuff that he’s experienced himself with his own tenants and his client's tenants. He advised me against any legal action. He said, it would cost me around $5000 and probably then would not produce any worthwhile results. Furthermore, the former tenants might vandalize my property it retribution, or worse. So this is one aspect of landlord tenant reality, and as you can imagine, it is aggravating that someone can cause thousands of dollars worth of damage and walk away – leaving one with no legal recourse.
The house is in a precarious state now. I am slowly trying to get it back to a condition were it could be rentable again. Perhaps then I would sell the property in the hope that having it in good condition and historic it would be valuable and not be razed.
That brings up another aspect of the story. I have heaped scorn on those in my community including the local museum and members of the borough council who have actively destroyed historic property. What makes those council members actions even more egregious is three-fold, they encouraged a business existing in downtown to move out, destroyed a historic home, and then built this nondescript modern building in it's place for a new bank office. So my situation now is that I may have to eat humble pie and be witness to my own family home being torn down.
To show my interest in historic preservation in Wyalusing, I have compiled a list of all the historic homes and other buildings that have been destroyed in the past couple of decades. In a town of around 600 or so souls, it is rather a huge historic loss. I had an effort a few years ago to save one of these, the 1896 Bridge St building. Even after organizing a meeting and having an architect draw up plans for a possible use- it came to naught. The building along the Wyalusing Creek was torn down a couple of years ago.
List of lost historic homes in Wyalusing within the past 40 years.
Berhrend House- Church St
Neiley House- Front St
Mann House- Front St
Sitas House- Marsh St
Huffman House- Rte 6
House next to Huffman House- Rte 6
Church St House- Next to Behrend House
Rocket- Courier (original Office) Main St
Bendinsky House- Rte 6
Ottaviani House- John and State st
Friery House- Rte 6
Town Tavern- Taylor Ave
Storage Building- Stowell St
Middendorf Hotel- Church and Marsh St
Welles House- Rte 6
Welles Mill- Rte 6
Lee Building/ McCarty Garage- Bridge St
Three Taylorville Houses- Rte 706-just outside of town
Wakely House- Marsh St
The Oakley House- Taylor Avenue
The Acme Store- Marsh St
Schnure House (?) Rte 6
The former Dimock Hardware Store on Taylor Ave- slated to be razed by the (borough council.)
So what kind of conclusion can one make from this? Hmmm, not sure really, as there seems to be minimal value for historic properties in some quarters. But my point in this essay was to show the other side of the blues laments in popular song, art, and film. Maybe in the process of writing- there has been some clarification on family, history and hometowns. Or, who knows, perhaps a blues song for landlords may result.