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.






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