In the years after World War II, many older neighborhoods fell into neglect as home buyers and developers fled for the suburbs. You could buy up in-town properties for a song in some places – districts that have now become quite trendy, even chic, especially when gentrification takes place.
In my novel What’s Left, her great-grandfather quietly snapped up many of the sites around the family restaurant – storefronts and offices, old houses and apartments – and, as a result, added real estate rentals and leasing to the family business. He saw the ‘hood as his own urban village, one he nicknamed Mount Olympus.
One of its anchors was a big pink Victorian house with the witch’s hat turret, the imposing dwelling that became the family headquarters a block away from the restaurant. At the time, it would have been more destined to become a funeral home or law offices or a flophouse than a revived mansion. It was too large for the typical nuclear family, and developers would have deemed needed renovations and maintenance too costly for the existing market. If it sat a few blocks closer to the hospital, it might have found use as medical suites.
So Cassia’s family’s timing was right. Victorian came back into style, in part as a reflection of hippie style.
Another twist in the story involves the building next door, an old white-frame church her uncle buys up on a whim. Apart from its location, there was little to support the decision as a business move. Another uncle, in fact, wanted to see the money used for a more promising development – there was a no-brainer payoff in that option.
When I introduced the church to the story, I had no idea where it would fit. Would it become the Tibetan institute Cassia’s father was helping establish? Or a hippie hangout of some sort? Or an underground theater? So it kind of sat there for a while, largely as the kids’ indoor playground, probably sapping up money that could have gone elsewhere.
And then it took off on its own, in part inspired by tales I heard of another restaurant and its live music influence. But that one was in a big city and was set in an old movie theater where the staff would party in the balcony.
Here’s a related passage that was no longer needed by the final version:
At first, we were way too busy moving the bookstore and restaurant and getting our new menus running smoothly. Remember, with both Tito and Baba off in their studies, the enterprise hinged on Dimitri, Graham, Barney, and Pia, with some guidance, more than anything, from the surviving elders. That was a lot on a few young shoulders.
Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy. The idea’s great, but …
We have some old country churches around here that have been converted into charming residences. And an old Quaker meetinghouse and school in Baltimore became a fashionable condo. We also dined in an elaborately restored church in the woods of Maine, an exquisite meal on a snowy night.
The one Cassia’s family buys is in the middle of a block in town, surrounded by houses, offices, and small stores.
What would you dream of doing with an old church like this?