Tuesday, September 29, 2015


A house whose upkeep isn't kept up quickly comes to look run down -- recalling Stephen Hawking's illustration of the concept of entropy as what happens if you stop making repairs on your house, and reminding me of a disorderly acquaintance who refers to his apartment as the "entropium." Driving past entropy-ridden houses, I feel sorry for them and hope that someone will take them in hand.

Sometimes, someone does. There was a dejected specimen on Gray Street in Arlington whose sagging porch, peeling paint, and overgrown grounds spoke clearly of neglect until someone took hold of it and turned it around. It now sports icing-pink paint, dark blue shutters, white trim, and a tidy, straight porch.

Also in Arlington, on Pleasant Street, was a large white-ish house, paint and grounds in sorry shape. Something about it said, Old person or persons with scanty funds live here. A lighted tree that appeared in a large front window at Christmas did little to alleviate the overall impression of gloom; if anything, it highlighted it.

Then one fine day the lawyer I worked for gave me a Purchase and Sale Agreement for a condominium at that address. The house I had been passing and pitying had been spruced up and divided into two condominiums -- as, to my surprise, had the barn behind it, which I had barely noticed. Both had been quite respectably painted light yellow-ish beige with dark olive trim. I have to hope the old people, if old people they were, aren't languishing in some nursing home.

A third Arlington house, a mansion on Appleton Street built in the 1890s, with a porte cochere and a dizzying array of bow windows, turrets, corners, and other Victorian gingerbread, was long coated in dark-green shingles that couldn't have been prepossessing when new and were not at all new when the house came to my attention. One day a "For Sale" sign appeared. This augured ill, it seemed to me.

For some time I didn't have occasion to drive down Appleton Street. Then one day I did, and to my gratification the ugly green shingles had been replaced with decent light-colored paint, and a dimly-lit lobby with carpet and table and lamp was visible through a glass door. "For Sale" was still there; the house, like the one on Pleasant Street, was enjoying a second career as condominiums. An acquaintance in the real estate business told me of a condo she had sold there, occupying a turret at one of the corners of the building. Now, some years later, the paint is looking more than a bit tired. I hope the condominium association repaints it soon.

An old farmhouse just west of the Concord Rotary, trying to hide behind a high hedge too far in front to conceal it, has exhibited increasing wear and tear over many years. When it came to broken windows, I decided the poor old thing's days were numbered; buildings don't fare well when water gets into them. But then the State Police bought the property. High white fences appeared, and horses. The windows of the house were protected with boards and green paint (which is now chipping off). But the house is still there, and something may yet be done with it.

Another candidate for rehabilitation is on Elm Street in Concord, near the police station and opposite the prison. Judging from its family resemblance to others in the neighborhood, it must have been built to house prison staff. For years past and to date it has looked unwell. It needs paint. The garage is missing a door. The window shades are always down; I don't think I've seen curtains there. The lawn and shrubbery are mowed rarely and pruned not at all. Unkempt and sad as it has looked, though, it was clearly inhabited: there was a car in the garage, and flowers planted hopefully along the walk. Driving by one day, I saw an elderly woman in overalls holding a gardening implement and surveying the yard.

Then the car wasn't there; I haven't seen flowers in some time. I imagine that the elderly woman has died or been relocated to what her children consider a more manageable situation. Then, some weeks ago, a "For Sale" sign appeared. I am watching for developments.

Also in Concord, just off Route 2, at the eastern edge of that nightmare of construction that extends for a couple of miles along Route 2 from Bedford Road in Lincoln to a bit west of Sandy Pond Road in Concord, was an old, shabby house loosely associated with a horsy-looking barn. I don't think I have seen an actual horse on the premises, but there are pictures of them here and there. The house and horse farm, if that's what it is, had a guys-live-here look: horsy fences and stables, and assorted pickup trucks and other vaguely agricultural vehicles.

The house, a rectangular block too close to the road (as old houses can come to be), tried to be white, without signal success. It may have had shingles, in a dingy condition. There was a roof over the front porch, two stories up, supported originally by three tall uprights -- hardly describable as columns, they were more like 6 x 6 or 8 x 8 chunks of wood. I say originally three: as long as I have been aware of the house, the support at the eastern end has been conspicuous for its absence, imparting a corresponding sag to that end of the roof. I often reflected that if everyone who drove past the house could contribute $1 to the cause, enough money would quickly be raised to rehabilitate the porch roof. The place's only redeeming feature, and that very imperfect, was enough overgrown shrubbery that you couldn't see the house very well.

Then came the Lincoln/Concord construction project, which, among other things, does away with what we used to call the Infamous Intersection (because my husband was in a car accident there). Four roads met at not-very-right angles where Route 2 east turned right across from the Mobil station: www.openstreetmap.org calls it Crosby Corner (Google maps is incomprehensible to me; but that's another story).

Route 2 is being widened for a good distance as well, beginning just west of Route 128. Like other houses along the route, the horse-farm house, which couldn't spare it, lost most of its front yard and, divested of its semi-concealing bushes, was revealed in all its unkempt ugliness. The front porch, which seemed to be made of brick and cement, had crumbled almost beyond recognition.

A "For Sale" sign appeared. Who, please, I asked myself rhetorically, is going to buy that?

Improbably, it began to look as though someone had. Sometimes there would be a light in the attic -- left on for days or weeks on end, apparently. Sometimes there would be men on ladders. The remains of the porch roof disappeared, leaving a scar that didn't improve the house's appearance. Most telling of all, the dingy non-white shingles disappeared and were replaced with Tyvek paper. I had wondered all along if the (presumably) new owner would demolish the house and build something else on the (expensive) land. But no one Tyvek-papers a building if they intend to tear it down.

The house stayed that way all this past winter and spring and into the summer. Then one day it wasn't there. But out of the tail of my eye I thought I saw a building very like it some yards back from the road, down a small declivity, and apparently rotated about 90 degrees.

A few days later, driving east on Route 2 with a friend, I obtained her permission for a wild goose chase to try to find out what was going on. Bedford Road looked as though it might lead us to the house but failed to do so. We backtracked to the remains of the Infamous Intersection and turned sharply right and backward on what maps call the Cambridge Turnpike Cutoff. We had seen from Route 2 that Emerson Road was at least near the house, and the GPS found it.

At the end of Emerson Road and to the left on a short and nameless piece of asphalt, was the house, Tyvek paper and all, back and down from the road. A second, closer look a couple of weeks later partly confirmed and partly corrected my previous impressions; for one thing, the rotation noted earlier proved to be a glanced-at-quickly illusion. I braved the possible displeasure of the owner of the black pickup truck in the front yard -- the fate of that property is, of course, no business of mine -- and the more than possible damage to the underpinnings of my little Honda (as I have occasion to remind myself from time to time, "Civic" means "stay on the pavement"). The house is still there, albeit hard to recognize on its crisp new cinder block foundation with its new light gray siding, fresh white trim, and new windows.

Between it and the road, closer to the house than I would have thought ideal, is a building of uncertain provenance. It also sits on a new foundation and is equipped with new beige siding. A sun porch or mini-greenhouse built onto the back faces the house (and faces north, come to think of it; why would anyone do that?). On the side fronting the road is a large sliding exterior door, the kind often seen on barns, recently painted blue, with a dark-ish red door just to the left of it. A little cupola sits atop the roof. I conclude that this building began life as a barn; it's hard to tell what it is now.

Although aware of the house with the crooked porch for decades, I've only seen it up close on those two occasions and have watched the unfolding destiny of the horse farm at the end of Emerson Road from Route 2 while trying to stay in my lane (wherever it may be this week) and avoid hitting any barrels or Jersey barriers. I will continue to monitor, mostly from Route 2, the continuance of what might be called The Building's Progress.