A House of Many Stories

The search for the history of a house.
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The search for the history of a house.
(Illustration: Bill Firestone)

(Illustration: Bill Firestone)

One day in 1913, a 54-year-old leather dealer named Samuel Collieson took a leap from a second-floor window and landed in what is now our driveway. A Dr. H.P. Makechnie was summoned: He found Collieson beyond medical aid and surmised that the man had suffered from a sudden attack of melancholia.

Knowing that this happened doesn't scare us off. In an odd way it makes us appreciate our house even more. My wife and I grew up in suburban subdivisions where our families were the first occupants of their houses, so until now, we had no reason to think about people who had lived there before us. Then, a few years ago, we moved to Somerville, just north of Boston, and started looking for our own home. We knew anything we bought would be old, since the housing stock here dates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During the search we focused on the numbers, interest rates, asking prices. We focused on architectural charm, or lack thereof: Our eventual find, an 1892 front-gabled Italianate (originally a two-family house but now a single-family), had been stripped of most of its original details, and the clapboards were covered by asbestos-cement shingles. That people had lived here, perhaps many people, wasn't terribly relevant. The only thing that intrigued us about the previous residents was the possibility that they might have old pictures of the house showing what had been lost.

So we started looking. At the library we leafed through old, annual poll-tax directories that practically disintegrated in our hands. They contained a minimum of details—names, ages, occupations—but the details told stories. There were lots of anachronistic job titles: brass finishers, tinsmiths, brakemen, framemakers. Judging by the number of names, the house must have been a rental in its first decade or so, and it must have been crowded. Only men were listed in the poll-tax directories until 1920, when women earned the vote, but those men must have had wives, and probably children. There could have been a dozen people in the house, where now there were only two. When women finally made the directories—in a segregated list in the back of the book—most described themselves as housewife or housekeeper. One year a woman named Eleanor Collieson listed herself as a welder. I flipped the book shut to remind myself what year we were looking at: 1943. Perfect. Rosie the Riveter lived here.

We did a title search at the registry of deeds and began to piece together a story. Samuel Collieson bought the land in 1891, and by 1893, he was living in a house built on the property. In 1910 his adopted son Arthur moved into one of the units with his wife, Blanche. A few years later they had a daughter, Eleanor. In 1939 the family failed to pay the property tax bill, and in 1941 the city seized the property. Arthur died. Blanche and Eleanor must have been desperate. The tax bill had been $98.02. In 1945 the city auctioned off the property. We've wondered what became of Eleanor. The young woman who'd been a "welder" now called herself a "solderer," but the war was over, and the men would soon return to the factories. Did she lose her job as well as her home?

Back at the library we tracked down obituaries. Only one turned up in the index—Samuel Collieson, the original owner, in April 1913. We sifted through the microfilm, assuming it would be one of the little notices in the back of the paper, but when nothing surfaced we went back slowly through the whole day's paper. There it was, a big bold headline: "Samuel A. Collieson Jumps from Window of His Home and Is Killed." By 1913, he'd moved next door. The window he jumped from faced our house, and the path where he landed was now our driveway. The article described a "highly esteemed citizen" who had jumped out a first-floor window and had "lamed an ankle." He then went up to the second floor and jumped again. "For fully six months," the article read, "Mr. Collieson had been in very poor health, the result of a nervous disease." He'd been scheduled to leave on a trip to Bermuda with his brother Clarence the day the obituary appeared.

We've tried tracking down previous owners, without luck, and we never did find any old pictures. But it doesn't matter so much. We look at the staircase and wonder how many hands have touched the newel post. We know Samuel, Arthur, Blanche, and Eleanor touched it, probably thousands of times. They weren't just names in an old book but real people, living their lives. We may own it now, but it feels as much like theirs as ours.

Timothy Maheris slowly accumulating power tools as he also works on his first novel.