Thursday, September 24, 2015

Seward's Folly - Part I

My father, Seward James Blair, was named after William Seward, Lincoln's Secretary of State. His paternal grandmother, Amanda Schooley Blair, who worshipped the husband of her older cousin, Frances Seward, insisted. When Amanda's father died in 1850, seeking his fortune in the California gold fields, eight children, all first cousins of Frances Seward, were left fatherless in Ovid, New York. The Sewards lived 31 miles from Ovid, in Auburn, New York, and Mrs. Seward, a very compassionate woman, took eight-year-old Amanda under her wing. Some versions of family lore assert that Amanda was a paid companion to Seward's consumptive daughter, Fanny. In any case, according to letters written by Mrs. Seward and journal entries by Fanny, Amanda spent a good deal of time in the Seward house after the death of her father. In spite of the illustrious and convoluted history of his name, Seward James Blair was known by everyone as Bud.
Seward James Blair

Amanda Schooley Blair

William Henry Seward
Frances Miller Seward

Bud Blair was an architect and a dreamer. So, it was inevitable that he aspire to building his dream house. He also had well-honed carpentry and other construction skills he developed as a teen-ager while working with his father on their farm, constructing outbuildings which were always way over-engineered for their intended purpose. I remember in particular a "shed" about six feet square, with foundations, an eight foot ceiling, a window, wood floor, and shingled pitched roof. The sole purpose of this little cottage-like building was to house old magazines. Other buildings were more utilitarian, a workshop, accommodations for poultry, feed, and farm equipment. Bud was a builder by birth and he intended to demonstrate it on a grand scale.

First, the plans were drawn for a 4,000 square foot ten-room house, intended to accommodate our family of seven.  Features included: a 500 square foot combination kitchen and laundry with three sinks and two refrigerators, abundant cupboard space, and state of the art fluorescent lighting; four fireplaces, one of them an indoor barbecue; a wall of glass thirty feet long and twelve feet high; and roof surface of 1/12th of an acre.

Construction proceeded at a glacial pace. Little progress was visible for years, yet all available time and money was allocated to the "new house". Piles of used bricks accumulated in the yard. Old railroad ties for use in future landscaping gathered in other parts of the property. In the meanwhile, we lived in the old house as it began to fall apart around us. The roof leaked in so many places that elaborate interior systems for handling the runoff were devised. At least 20 buckets were placed in strategic places in the attic and an intricate aqueduct moved rainwater from a gaping hole in the ceiling to the kitchen sink.

One day, while my mother was grocery shopping, my brother, Mickey, decided to show our horse, Nellybelle, the inside of the house. She followed placidly as he led her into the kitchen, through the dining room, across a corner of the living room, down the hallway, and out the front door, where her foot broke through the rotting boards of the front porch. He was able to extricate her without much difficulty and return her to the pasture before Mom returned. No one ever asked about the hole in the porch. New evidence of the house falling apart appeared frequently and was just taken for granted.

But the walls went unpainted, the roof unpatched, as all extra time and money were devoted to the new house. Decorative pillars between the dining room and living room were hollow, having been eaten out by termites; only many layers of paint gave them form. The piano, couches, and chairs ringed the large living room, with a vast open space in the middle because it would not support the weight of heavy furniture. Walking across it felt like preliminary bounces on a trampoline, while glassware clattered in cabinets. A door in the living room opened onto a porch, one story above ground level, but the rotten staircase had been removed years earlier.

For Christmas, my father wanted only a keg of sixteen-penny nails. Vacations were spent chipping mortar from used bricks, or looking at building supply catalogs.

Back view of the old house and yard.


Mom works with enthusiasm at painting the foundations of the new house in 1959.

Repurposed bridge piers delivered, to be used as floor joists.

 Foundations laid, ready for floor joists. Front view of old house in background showing the porch the horse stepped through.
 Valery and Kenny in front of the Christmas tree, 1958.
The door behind the tree leads to the porch without a staircase.

1959 must have been seen an infusion of cash because there was an apparent building spurt.
Foundations and a steep concrete driveway were poured that year. Huge timbers salvaged from the destruction of a bridge across the Oakland-Alameda estuary were laid across the foundations to support the subfloor. My dad secured funding by throwing himself at the mercy of anyone who seemed to have some ready cash. Refinancing and second mortgages were negotiated frequently, his mother was tapped for further advances on his inheritance. Local magnates, Fred May and Louis Lurie were approached. Sometimes it worked, more often it did not. Sometimes the house seemed to be taking form, but more often, it lay fallow.






Tuesday, September 8, 2015

And Then There Were Five


On October 18, 1949, Kenneth Lee Blair was born and I was ten and a half years old. I remember answering the phone (a heavy black bakelite phone with a rotary dial and a springy cloth-covered cord), when my mother called from the hospital to announce, "It's a boy!" and I remember being very disappointed I didn't get the baby sister I wished for. But, I rebounded as soon as I held my sweet new sibling in my arms. I felt as though he was my own real live baby doll. I kissed him and cuddled him, dressed him, took him for walks,and thought he was the cutest, most perfect being on the planet. Changing his diapers and feeding him were duties my mother gladly yielded to me and I considered them a privilege.

I remember pushing him in his Taylor Tot down to the new Lucky's Supermarket where an old lady stopped us to fuss over the baby. She looked up at me and asked, "Is he yours?" 

Her question filled me with pride, but I told her the truth, "No," I said, "How old do you think I am?"

She replied, "Oh, I don't know, they have them so young these days." I wished he were my baby and maybe in a way, he was. I had a maternalistic bond with Ken that endures to this day, even though he died in 1993 and I felt the loss as deeply as the loss of a child. 

The picture below was taken in April of the last year we lived in the Athol Avenue house. That July, when my mother was five months pregnant with her fifth child, we moved to 5501 Leona Street, to a tumble-down Victorian era farmhouse on an acre of land in the Oakland Hills. My parents had visions of living in that house only as long as construction of their dream house was under way. But, that's a story for another day.

Easter 1952

In 1952, my mother finally delivered the baby sister I waited for so long. Valery Joan Blair was born October 25 and again I remember answering the phone call from the hospital. "It's a girl!" announced my mother.

"I knew you could do it!" was my response. 

And like for brother Ken, I had lots of opportunity to practice my child care techniques. From the time I was five years old and told to keep an eye on Mickey, until I left home, I always had a hand in caring for my younger siblings.

With Mickey, I felt an intense sense of displacement and sibling rivalry. I didn't have the same issues with my second brother. When Ricky was born, I was nearly five. My job was to keep Mickey safe and out of the way while our mother took care of Ricky. Ricky had a few health struggles when he was young: asthma and a milk allergy as an infant, and a severe case of whooping cough when he was about five. I was too young to be directly involved in his care, but I felt he was very special and needed to be protected.

Because I was involved in the hands-on care of both Kenny and Valery, I felt very maternalistic toward them. At the same time, they grew to be very close to each other with frequent escapes into a fantasy world created by the beautiful and creative mind of Ken. 

As they grew closer, I grew more distant, moving into my own world filled with girlfriends, boyfriends, and plans for a future formed by my past.


Christmas, 1954