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.

1 comment:

  1. Ok I didn't know there were so many people named Louise and to see them all in one story, I thought I needed to comment! :) I believe that there is alot of life in old homes, that can't be seen or touched. It can be felt, for sure. Things that can't be explained by the temperature, or the furniture placement, or the smells that can permeate a home/building, occupied or not. I think it's something in the atmosphere, that touches some people and not others. Mostly it's neutral, nothing that would cause an uneasy or haunted feeling. Just something. Only one time in all my years of running in and out of homes, have I had an experience when that 'something' affected me in a way that (I felt) kept me from doing the best job possible. I felt very disoriented when in the house. Fine once outside, but each time I stepped back in, there was something there. I found out after my visit that the house was the scene of a husband/wife murder suicide. The husband stabbed his wife to death in their bed, then asphixiated himself in the built-in garage. I had no idea when I was in there, what was wrong, but that house had the strangest sensation. As soon as I was told the home's history, I just knew that the wife's spirit was still there and she was really angry. That's my interpretation anyway! The house sold under market but was resold a few years later at regular market so I guess she moved on. The end!