Saturday, March 26, 2011

If these walls could talk ...

My office is in an old Main Line mansion (known during the day as Casa Mia), built by the Jacobs family in 1926. I have been researching its history, and the history of the family, and writing a monthly article for the community newsletter. Last night I was in my office late, chasing my deadline, and writing a follow up on last month's article about the 21 year old debutante Louise Jacobs and her life in the mid 1930's. And in the midst of that effort, something cool happened. Here's the article:

In June of 1937, the Chicago Tribune noted that “Hubbard Phelps has a new Taylor cub plane and has been seen flying over Watch Hill almost every day. … He will see the Harvard Yale boat races at New London from the air and will have as his guest Miss Louise Gaylord of Honolulu. Miss Gaylord, who is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Gaylord, formerly of Chicago and now of Honolulu will spend a week with Mrs. Phelps at Anchorage.” Watching the dashing Hubbard Phelps from the ground that summer was another Louise, the striking blond 21 year old socialite from Bryn Mawr, Louise Jacobs. And no doubt young Hubbard was watching her back.

In that summer of 1937, Hubbard Phelps was 21 years old, and spending that summer with his family in Watch Hill, an exclusive resort community in Rhode Island. As a history of the town reports,

“By the turn of the 20th century, there were seven sumptuous hotels on the water's edge. Also, at this time the first "summer cottages" were built by a syndicate of Cincinnati industrialists. By 1920, most of the Watch Hill cottages that stand today had been constructed by people from such places as Philadelphia and St. Louis. The seclusion of the resort attracted the rich and famous: Isadora Duncan, Clark Gable, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Mary Pickford, Andrew Mellon and Henry Ford.”

The Phelps were a wealthy and prominent Chicago family. Hubbard’s grandmother, Louise Hadduck de Koven, had been involved with Jane Adams and Hull House, and worked for children’s rights in an era where children were ground up in an urban industrialized society, and she was alive and active at Watch Hill, living until 1953. Hubbard’s father was Mason Phelps, who captained the Yale golf team and was a member of the gold medal winning U.S. golf team at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. He had a career as a professional golfer, and then founded a manufacturing business, the Pheoll Manufacturing Co., and served as president from 1908 until his death in 1945. Young Hubbard Phelps had his father’s genes – in 1935, at age 19, he won the Misquamicut Men's Golf Club championship, the youngest golf champion in history of the Misquamicut Club. He was a pilot as well, and had studied aviation in Oakland, California, and then in 1937 his family had bought him the new Taylor Cub airplane, at a cost of about $1475. Hubbard was young, rich, handsome, a star athlete, a dashing pilot. Hubbard was a “catch”.

It was a small summer community, and everyone knew, or knew of, each of the other families. The Jacobs had been summering there for years as well. Louise Jacobs and Hubbard were the same age – he was born 20 days before her. They had played golf and tennis, and sailed and swum together since they were little children. And Louise Jacobs was young, rich and beautiful as well. She was a “catch” too. While the newspapers were reporting in June that Hubbard was squiring Miss Gaylord from Hawaii, by October of that year, the Chicago Daily Tribune was announcing “Young Phelps is Engaged to Eastern Girl”. The article went on to note:

“Mrs. deKoven Phelps and her sister, Mrs. William McCormick Blair, are in Bryn Mawr, Pa. today for a large dinner party Mr. and Mrs. John Jacobs are giving there to announce the engagement of their daughter, Louise, to Hubbard Phelps, son of Mrs. Phelps of Lake Forest. The wedding is planned for the spring.”

Something clicked between these two young people that summer, or had perhaps been growing for years. In the fall, he returned to Washington DC where he was living, and she returned to Casa Mia with her family. But the relationship had to have been established by the fall, as the families were announcing the engagement at a dinner party on Saturday, October 30, 1937 at Casa Mia.

As I sit and write these lines, there is a party below me in Casa Mia. The conversation rises and falls, there is music in the background, and the occasional burst of laughter. It is the sound of people having fun together. And I am imagining that if I go downstairs, I will see the beautiful Louise Jacobs, and the dashing Hubbard Phelps, the center of attention of their proud parents, the two dowager grandmothers, and the gathered brothers of Louise and Hubbard. When I walk through the mansion, I am always imagining what these walls witnessed, and what they would say it they could talk. Tonight, as I finish this piece, I realize that they are talking to me, adding to my mental images of Louise and Hubbard and their families, and telling me what the engagement party sounded like in 1937, as the sounds drift up into John Jacob's old bedroom. Now I am going downstairs, and wondering whether I am going to pass through that wrinkle in time, and end up back in 1937. If you don't hear from me after this, you'll know where I am.

What's right with the world: old haunted houses, wrinkles in time, walls that talk, and an active imagination.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

In praise of the Ten Minute Commute

On this wet and cold day, which generally slows down traffic, causes accidents, and leads to a much longer commute, I made it to the office in the usual time: ten minutes. I pass through two traffic lights, then down one long hill to a turn that is usually backed up - for people headed north. But I head east - and so can use the shoulder to get around the morning backup to my right turn,, and then a long uphill, passing beneath a heavily trafficked interstate that is always jammed. Then I have to make a left against oncoming traffic - sometimes I have to wait as long as a whole minute - but this morning, a kindly oncoming driver flashed his beams at me - "Go ahead buddy, make your turn" - and so I was into the homestretch, down a lane past a school and church and then into the driveway to my workplace. Walking from the parking lot to the building. I heard honking. Not the human variety but the goose variety - and looked up to see one goose sitting atop a chimney on one building, and one goose sitting on top the chimney of another building. Both honking. Perhaps arguing over which chimney will be their spring nest. In ten minutes, I have arrived at my office, with little traffic, little to hold me up, and not even enough time to get the entire news cycle from KYW. And with my peace of mind intact.

Rarely have I had a commute like this. In the past, I have worked in the city, where the commute involved first getting to a station, parking, getting to the train, waiting, riding, then making my way to the office from the train station. That could take an hour on average, and of course much longer with weather conditions interfering with each leg of the journey. In later years, I had a job that was about a full marathon, 26 miles, from home to the office in Kennett Square. But over a road laid out in Colonial times - the old Baltimore Pike - over hills and around curves, past new shopping malls, through many cross streets and traffic lights, and towards the tail end, over the Brandywine Creek. On a good day, a 45 minute commute. And on its worst day, when the Brandywine flooded out of its normal course, and the bridges were all closed, I had to drive to Wilmington to find a bridge across the "creek" that was still open. I saw accidents weekly, and read about fatalities along this stretch several times a year. In snow, with the hills, it could take between one and two hours. It was discouraging to get into the car and realize that I still had this long commute in front of me. It was not a commute on cruise control listening to books on tape. It was work.

With my current commute, I can bike it in nicer weather. I even ran it once, just to try that out. The distance is not bad, 3 miles, but there is a significant hill in each direction, and so running is an option, but low on the list when my middle aged knees have a vote. But it's good to know I could walk home if that ever became necessary.

I view the time that I save through my commute, and the peace of mind of having such an easy one, as a form of pay that I receive in my current job. I am self employed, and in choosing to be self employed, I have chosen also economic uncertainty, which is magnified in times of economic turmoil like we are experiencing now. I have no steady paycheck. No steady benefits. I only eat what I kill, as the saying goes. But I am also paid in two items that so far the government does not tax: time and peace of mind. My commute is invariably ten minutes each way, each day. I never have to drive through Wilmington to get here. I never have to stand in a train station listening for the announcement that the trains are delayed or canceled due to weather conditions. From the front door at home to the car is ten seconds. From the parking lot to the office door is about 90 seconds. The only honking I have ever heard is from geese. I honked back at them this morning, but it was a friendly exchange. I arrive, not stressed out from the commute, but at times oblivious to it. It goes so quickly and painlessly that some days I pull in and don't remember passing through the landscape at all. I find value in that.

Life may change and I may be thrust back onto the wheel of the rat race, but this morning, this cold and rainy morning with people further to the north dealing with March snow flurries and icy roads, with traffic backing up on the interstate, I had a ten minute commute.

What's right with the world? A ten minute commute!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"And the seasons, they go round and round"

A few weeks ago, my wife learned a new trick - took a cutting from one of our forsythia bushes and brought it inside and put it in water. A week later, it was in bloom. A reminder of what is to come. After the rain this weekend, driving to the office yesterday there were whole patches of small white flowers, snowdrops, that were not there the previous day. Today, crocuses shooting out of the ground. I am going out to run at lunch today - and it looks like a two layer day, as opposed to the three and four layer runs of winter. People were talking about watching the Phillies play on Sunday - baseball - on television. A lot of great expectations for this team. Will they ever lose a game all season? In spring training, you can think thoughts like this. Spring is a time of rebirth. A month ago there were eight foot high piles of snow where my office mailbox is. Now, crocuses are coming up. Robins are back. There is some chirping going on in the morning - not a lot yet, but it's starting. How do they all know it's time?

I still get excited about that first snowfall in December - how beautiful it looks when everything is covered in white. Love it when the leaves start changing in the fall and their smell is in the air. And love the first trip down to the beach - Memorial Day - when the sun is out, and the brave and foolish are the first to swim in the ocean, and the rest of us are in beach chairs, just enjoying the sun and sand and surf. I don't know how the seasons change in China or Egypt or Australia or Fiji. But here in Pennsylvania, they come in four distinctive varieties, and it is always a pleasure to welcome in the new one.

What's right with the world? Snowdrops. Two layer days. Spring training, when everyone can dream of winning the pennant. The change of seasons. Painless rebirth.