I used to spend summers with my grandparents from about the time I was 8 or 9 until I was about 16. They owned an old Victorian Inn in upstate NY in a little old town where we knew everyone. My grandmother was the head chef, and they served lunch and dinner weekdays, breakfast on the weekends.I spent a lot of time wandering its hallways and becoming acquainted with each and every nook and cranny, from the velvet red and gold wallpaper in the dinner dining room, to the mosaic tile floor in the lobby.
The hotel was filled with antiques – some of it original furniture and trappings, some of it collected along the way by the various owners. I especially loved the 3rd floor – it was a long unused space, except for storage. Modern fire codes demanded a modern fire escape , and it was impossible to accommodate such a thing on that floor without huge expense and without ruining the historical character of the place. It had originally been a ballroom, and in the early 20th century was converted into inn rooms. While I was there, it was all storage. Furniture, antiques, my grandparents’ personal stuff, old pictures – it was a treasure trove for the imagination of a child!
It was also a bit creepy. Let me state that I do believe in ghosts, and it is because of my time there. That place was haunted, and I never spent a single night there that I did not fall asleep with my little radio playing Pachelbel’s Canon in D on a loop. But somehow, as frightened as i often was at what was invisbly lurking in the shadows, I had a real connection to it. The hotel was always a live being to me – separate from the living and the dead within its walls. And I felt that I had a kinship to it, that it and I had some sort of understanding that I belonged there.
As I got older and my grandparents began to talk of selling, I became restless – I struggled during the last few visits to document every inch of the place, every little detail into my memory so I could never forget it. For the most part, I succeeded. I can remember the smell of the place, a mixture of the giant gas oven in the kitchen and the grill coated in centuries of grease; the popcorn , smoke, and stale beer smells from the bar, the smell of age and the damp river just a few hundred feet behind the hotel (indeed – the river had flooded badly in 1971 and brought 5 feet of water and mud inside the hotel before receding- it took the previous owners months to clean it all).
I can recall the feel of those mosaic tiles under my bare feet ( a HUGE no no – my grandfather was admant that there be no bare feet in the hotel except in your room!). I can even recall with pleasure the taste of my favorite meals from the kitchen – and I have yet to exactly re-create any of them, despite being given the recipes by my grandmother. All of these memories have haunted my dreams for years now, and never far from my heart is a longing to go back and commune once more with the scenes of my childhood.
Somewhere around 1997 it was sold to a man a few towns over who was a local chef. He made some changes over the next couple of years but ended up asking my grandmother to help out part time in the kitchen. In this way, I was still able to gain some decent access to the hotel the few times I visited during that period (I married in 96 and soon after went back to college, eventually settling in Virginia). Unfortuately, a lot of the changes he made were cosmetic – he began to ignore the major structural repairs that were necessary quite frequently on such an old building. My grandparents continued to live in the house right next door to the hotel, witnesses to its decline and eventual closing.
Two years ago the property went into foreclosure. What sickens me most is that the amount he paid was about a quarter of what I paid for my home here near Charlottesville.
Now the bank owns it. It has been sitting empty for most of the last 2 years. With work demands, I have been there only briefly for a funeral , and got just the quickest of peeks at my old beloved. It made me heartsick, and I couldn’t bear to think much on it. Little towns like that are aging poorly in upstate NY. As the elderly die off, very few young people stay behind. It’s little more than a ghost town now. There’s a gas station as you enter town, and a bowling alley on the outskirts. There’s a tiny post office there – the kind where if you should forget so and so’s eaxact address, you can put there name and zip code on it, and the postmaster will know which box it goes in. Beyond that, there really is nothing. A few worn houses beaten down by harsh upstate winters.
My parents made a trip up this past weekend to see the family. While they were there, my mother had a look around. She took pictures and sent them back to me, with the warning that “things look bad”.
Indeed, they do.The ceiling is leaking in places. Wallpaper is peeling. All of the furniture and antiques have been taken, sold off. The beautiful wood bar in “The Taproom” is covered in mold. Mold in fact is beginning to claim most of the wood in the hotel – the banister on the staircase, the doors. There’s a feeling of despair and decay. “It’s died”, she told me. “It has given up and died”.
I don’t know why this affects me so deeply. Certainly it is sad for my grandparents and aunts and uncles. But they’ll shake their head, say “It’s a shame” and move on. I find that it’s not so easy for me. I want to rescue it. Maybe it’s because letting go of it is like letting go of everything that was once so familiar and happy about childhood. I feel like my inaction and my inattention have been a form of betrayal, as if I could have somehow stopped this inexorable march toward death. Even now I lack the means to even attempt a rescue – and to what end? Would I really want to live in the middle of nowhere and run a quaint little inn where tourists hardly wander and local folk are becoming more and more spare? It just all seems so feasible, sitting here in Virginia, knowing for how little it could be had, if I were willing to take those steps. The guilt and sadness weigh on me as I sit here and write, and make preparations to drive up next month to see for myself. I sense, however, that the bleak November weather in the greying town of so few will do little to help.