A New England Odyssey

Wednesday, August 23, 1995

     Unsurprisingly, I got up late today. Pam and George got up early to have breakfast downstairs, but by the time I rose, breakfast was over. While I was getting ready, George decided to walk around College Hill to take photographs of several buildings in the morning light.
     We started off by driving north on Benefit Street to see some of the older, wooden Colonial homes. They’re often pictured in postcards, each one in a colour different from the previous: barnyard red, then blue-gray, brown, pink, and yellow. Once we reached the end of Benefit Street, we turned east onto Olney and then south onto Prospect. Just down Prospect Street is the Halsey House, which served as the home of Charles Dexter Ward:
And at last the little white overtaken farmhouse on the right, on the left the classic Adam porch and stately bayed facade of the great brick house were he was born. It was twilight, and Charles Dexter Ward had come home.
     When Lovecraft wrote this, he was living just around the corner at 10 Barnes Street, which is given as the address of Dr. Marinus Bicknell Willett in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft also describes this house many times in his letters:
As for the place – I have a fine large ground-floor room (a former dining-room with fireplace) and kitchenette alcove in a spacious brown Victorian wooden house of the 1880 period – a house, curiously enough, built by some friends of my own family, now long dead.
     We also drove by Lovecraft’s last home, 65 Prospect Street, which was moved in 1959 from 66 College Street. It served as the home of Robert Harrison Blake in “The Haunter of the Dark” and is described lovingly in that story:
Young Blake returned to Providence in the winter of 1934-5, taking the upper floor of a venerable dwelling in a grassy court off College Street – on the crest of the great eastward hill near the Brown University campus and behind the marble John Hay Library. It was a cozy and fascinating place, in a little garden oasis of village-like antiquity where huge, friendly cats sunned themselves atop a convenient shed. The square Georgian house had a monitor roof, classic doorway with fan carving, small-paned windows, and all the other earmarks of early Nineteenth Century workmanship. Inside were six-paneled doors, wide floor-boards, a curving colonial staircase, with Aram-period mantels, and a rear set of rooms three steps below the general level. Blake’s study, a large southwest chamber, overlooked the front garden on one side, while its west windows – before one of which he had his desk – faced off from the brow of the hill and commanded a splendid view of the lower town’s outspread roofs and of the mystical sunsets that flamed behind them....
     Of course, all these homes are private so we were not allowed to view any of them. Next, we drove down to Power Street to view the John Brown House (1786). Power Street is aptly named, as several homes were built on it by wealthy merchants. If you didn’t read yesterday’s update, the John Brown House was described by John Quincy Adams as “The most magnificent and elegant private mansion that I have ever seen on this continent.”
     It certainly is a very beautiful, Federal home, and there are several unusual aspects about it. One of the back staircases has steps that are made of thick sheets of glass so it can be lit from below at night. There is also a large grandfather clock that has 9-functions: “second, minute, and hour, day of the week and the date, the phase of the moon, condition of the tide, and whether the bell is set to strike or remain silent.” One of the bathrooms is completely tiled, the wall tiles showing paintings of “scenes of naked nymphs and satyrs cavorting in a stream.” This bathroom also has a peculiar shower whose circular walls are lined with pipes. These pipes have holes all over their surfaces so they all spray inward, as opposed to downward. Also, John Brown was very fond of the squirrel which he considered an industrious creature, so squirrels are featured in many of the designs in the house. Some of the wallpapers have squirrel designs and a wooden squirrel sits at the top of a carving over one of the mantels.
     This beautiful three-story red brick mansion is across the street from the Nightingale-Brown House (1792), which we did not view. We did learn, however, that at one point in its recent history, the Nightingale-Brown House had to be extensively restored – the wood construction was falling apart due to termites and wood rot. To raise money for the restoration, they sold at auction a secretary desk that had been carved by Newport cabinetmaker John Goddard in the late 1700s. One of only 11 of its kind, it sold for an amazing $12 million, more than adequately paying for the restoration of the home.
     After leaving the John Brown House, we decided to visit a few local bookstores. The first, Seward’s Folly, was full of some excellent books, but they were in a bad state of disarray, so we didn’t stay long. If you have the time, I’ll wager that you can find some real gems amongst all the chaos. (Greg: I purchased a copy of The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll for you – I hope you don’t already have it!) We also went up Main Street to Other Worlds, a bookstore we’d visited two years ago. There I bought several Lovecraft booklets (such as “Lovecraft Studies” and “Crypt of Cthulhu”) and Pam found an excellent book called Along the Coast of Essex County. It mentions numerous sights to see from Marblehead to Newburyport, many of them just happen to relate to Lovecraft.
     We were hungry by now, particulary Pam and George who had eaten breakfast, so we headed down to Taco Mexico on Thayer Street, which had been recommended to us by several people on alt.rhode_island. On the way, we drove past Ladd Observatory, where we’ll be going tonight. Finding Taco Mexico was no easy task since they have no sign to speak of, but after doubling back, we found it. I ordered a couple of carne asada (De Carne Hazada) tacos, some rice and (black) beans, and decided to brave a De Barbacoa (goat) taco. Pam got a pollo torta (chicken sandwich) and a carne asada taco. George also got a carne asada taco, some rice, and a carne asado burrito.
     The chips and salsa arrived first, and after dinner we all decided that they were the best part of the meal. The carne asada tacos were a bit bland, so I spiced mine up with a touch of salsa. George’s rice and burrito never showed up, and he had to get the waitress’ attention (she was sitting at a table chatting with her boyfriend) to order it again. Pam liked her pollo torta, but I didn’t care for the goat taco – it had a flavor that was reminiscent of lamb, veal, or deer, a bit too gamey for me. Overall, it just wasn’t as good as Mexican food back in Phoenix, even though everyone had recommended it as “authentic.” I suspect authentic Mexican food simply can’t be found in New England...
     Next we headed out towards Swan Point Cemetery (1847) to visit Lovecraft’s gravestone. On the way we passed 598 Angell Street, where Lovecraft lived with his mother from 1904 to 1924:
In 1904 the death of my beloved maternal grandfather broke up the home at 454 Angell St., and caused my mother and myself to take our present smaller quarters at No. 598 on the same thoroughfare.
     We also drove down to the banks of the Seekonk River, which forms the east boundary of Swan Point Cemetery. At the cemetery, we had hoped that they would have a visitor’s center so we could find if there were other personages of historical significance, but there was none. Having studied Jason Eckhardt’s map in Off the Ancient Track numerous times, I felt sure I could drive directly to Lovecraft’s grave. And I did.
     Someone had respectfully placed flowers on the graves of both Lovecraft and his mother, Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft. Also, some “fans” had placed a “Cthulhu on Board” sign, a chunk of rusted metal, an “Unspeakable Oath” baseball cap, and a small tray of violets. On the top of the stone they had placed some pennies, keys, and a fortune from a cookie! We moved everything out of the way to take some photographs, and rinsed the stone with some water we’d brought along so the inscription would stand out. To my relief, the grafitti that had previously been on the back of the stone had pretty much washed away.
     After taking our photographs, we entertained the notion of tossing everything but the flowers. Instead, we placed everything back next to the gravestone, wondering why they had been put there in the first place. What do people have to gain by putting things that will eventually be considered trash on the graves of those they claim to revere? Leaving Swan Point to go back to the B&B, we passed 454 Angell Street, which was Lovecraft’s birthplace in 1890, and home from 1893 to 1904:
I was born on the 20th of August, 1890, at No. 454 (then numbered 194) Angell Street, in the city of Providence. This was the home of my mother’s family; my parents’ actual residence at the time being in Dorchester, Mass.... In the mid-seventies, my grandfather transferred all his interests to Providence (where his offices had always been) & erected one of the handsomest residences in the city – to me, the handsomest – my own beloved birthplace! The spacious house, raised on a high green terrace, looks down upon grounds which are almost a park, with winding walks, arbours, trees, & a delightful fountain. Back of the stable is the orchard, whose fruits have delighted so many of my sad (?) childish hours. The place is sold now, & many of the things I have described in the present tense, ought to be described in the past tense...
     And now, many years later, no trace at all exists to tell of Lovecraft’s birthplace. An apartment building now stands at the corner, and the grounds have been split into other lots. We arrived back at the B&B where we all relaxed for a bit. Pam and George napped, while I typed the bulk of this update. Just before 9 p.m., we left for the Ladd Observatory, which Lovecraft frequented when he was young:
The late Prof. Upton of Brown, a friend of the family, gave me the freedom of the college observatory, (Ladd Observatory) & I came & went there at will on my bicycle. Ladd Observatory tops a considerable eminence about a mile from the house. I used to walk up Doyle Avenue with my wheel, but when returning would have a glorious coast down it.
     The Ladd Observatory is on the highest point in Providence, which is an astounding 260 feet above sea level (I’m kidding, for the sarcasm impaired). It’s only open to the public on Wednesday nights from 8 p.m. to 11 p.m., so it was a good thing I found out before our trip. The 15' refracting telescope is mounted on a tall pyramid of brick that is independent from the rest of the building. That is, the floors of the building do not quite touch the pyramid. We were able to see Jupiter (which I filmed), Saturn, Vega, and a ring nebula, which occurs when a star shrinks and leaves behind a cloud of gaseous material. The star itself still shines, but is barely visible as a corona around the dust cloud.
     By a strange coincidence, some of the people there were discussing a Lovecraft special that will supposedly be on the Arts & Entertainment (A&E) channel soon. As it turns out, Roger, the elderly gentleman running the show, was interviewed for the special. We got on the topic of Lovecraft, and mentioned that he was the reason for our trip to New England. One of the guys there had read some Stephen King, while another was a King fan. I got the impression that neither had read any Lovecraft, and the latter hadn’t even heard of Clive Barker. So, we spent some time disparaging King and discussing the literary merits (or lack thereof) of modern horror authors. I also made it clear to them that, while I don’t like King, I admit that he has a certain gift that he’s clearly putting to good use – entertaining people.
     After over an hour of stargazing, we headed up towards Thayer Street to eat some ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s and to stop at the College Hill Book Store. George and I had waffle cones (he had two scoops of chocolate chip cookie dough, and I had scoops of english toffee and butter pecan), while Pam had a sugar cone of chocolate fudge brownie yogurt (that’s 4 things I don’t like). Then we went to the book store, mainly to buy postcards. Now, we’re back in the bed and breakfast getting ready for bed so we can get up early to go to New Bedford and Mystic tomorrow. I suspect it’s going to be a long day. We’ll see!