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Archive for the ‘history’ Category

A couple of odds and sods to dispense with this week; we’ll start with the biggest one.

I’ve decided that my last regularly scheduled Hope Street post will be written for the week of next April 13, more or less the blog’s four-year anniversary.

I haven’t felt inspired for quite a while, and feel like I’ve used up the really good calendar entries. And, I’ve fleshed out my grandparents’ lives about as much as they can be. They didn’t lead particularly dramatic existences, and I feel like I’m repeating myself each time I mention either their personal attributes or the physical surroundings of Hope Street.

(There have been times in the past week when I’ve wondered whether I shouldn’t end earlier, and whether I have 25 more half-decent entries left in me. I guess we’ll see.)

If I come up with an incredible binge of inspiration between now and next April, I reserve the right to change my mind and keep going.

If not, it’s been fun. Thanks for reading.

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I wrote last week about the dank basement of my grandparents’ home at 1107 Hope Street, noting that, to my knowledge, my grandfather had never taken a picture down there.

My dad was kind enough to do some legwork in his own, considerably less primitive basement. He swears he remembers a photo that was taken in the Hope Street cellar around 1946 or ’47, to document the replacement of the old coal furnace with an oil boiler.

He couldn’t find that one; but he did find another one of himself, taken in the basement during the same period or maybe a year or two later.

It doesn’t show much of the room … but it qualifies as a picture taken in the basement, so I include it here.

roddowncellar

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Finally, I’ll get back to this week’s subject line, which refers to the latest in a series of quixotic searches I’ve been on over the past three-and-a-half years.

My grandfather’s calendar for October 1975 features the following notation, made in the blank space immediately prior to Oct. 1. (Hence, Sept. 31.)

September 31, 1975.

To my 2014 eyes, the acronym BAC stands for “blood-alcohol content.”

I knew DUI laws across America were tightened in the ’70s and ’80s. And a quick Google search told me that stricter drunk-driving legislation was cited as an achievement of Thomas Meskill, Connecticut’s governor from 1971 to 1975.

With those two red herrings tucked safely in my pocket, I went off on a lengthy search, hoping to establish that Connecticut had lowered its BAC limit effective October 1975, and my grandpa was making note of it on his calendar, the same way he would make note of gas rationing or increases in the postage rate.

No such luck, of course. Even the New York Times archives, which provide regular insight into the goings-on of New York’s nutmegger neighbors, offered no information on any change to Connecticut’s drunken driving laws in the first half of the 1970s.

At some point back in the day, most states went from an .015 limit to an .010, but no one seems to want to tell me exactly when, where and how.

My grandfather was a temperate sort who was never known to overindulge in alcohol unless it was literally handed to him for free. So, a change in drunk-driving laws would not have made any direct difference in his life. Still, I could have filed a couple hundred words of comment, interpolation and flat-out gasbagging on the subject.

Instead, I have to assume that the BAC acronym on his calendar meant something else. I scanned a page listing 150 different interpretations of the acronym, but none looked like an obvious match.

I resign defeated, then. Whatever “BAC” meant will remain forever mysterious … along with the sunrise, sunset, news, weather and other occurrences of Sept. 31, 1975.

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“APPOINTMENTS, MEETINGS & OBLIGATIONS,” the top left corner of my grandfather’s calendars chorused, month after month, year after year.

What we find him doing this week … well, it’s definitely an obligation.

My grandpa would often use the tops of his calendars to list chores to be performed at some point during the month. It didn’t really matter when he fertilized the dogwood or got his car tuned up, as long as it happened.

The tumultuous month of October ’73 — think war in the Middle East, an energy crisis at home, and worsening Watergate — found him going downstairs to a funky, long-forgotten part of Hope Street to do some dirty work.

(Or at least I will presume, for the sake of this tale, that he did so. He never crossed the errand off his calendar, so maybe it lingered into November. We know from a prior entry that he had something else on his mind for the first week or two of the month.)

The basement at 1107 Hope Street hasn’t been invoked much in this ongoing yarn. Mainly because it was dark, and seemed only semi-finished, and scared Young Kurt enough that he endeavored not to spend any time there.

I was fine with other people’s basements as long as the lights were on. My other grandparents elsewhere in Stamford had a big sprawling furnished basement that was essentially a first floor, and I didn’t mind that. But the basement on Hope Street seemed cramped and primitive to me, and I was never much interested in going down there.

It was also full of tools, paint and such, being my grandpa’s work space, and I have never had any aptitude for handiwork. Maybe that factored into my distaste for the place as well. Handiwork, in my childhood experience, was what made my dad get mad and swear at stuff; and who would relish that?

Even when I wrote a room-by-room tour of the house on Hope Street a year or two ago, I spent about a sentence-and-a-half in the cellar. That was about all I remembered of it, and all I cared to know.

It’s a measure of the cellar’s utilitarian nature that, try as I might, I cannot remember ever seeing a picture of it.

My grandfather was big on documenting his surroundings — you name it, from the tile in the kitchen to the icicles on the front porch — and he lived in that house for 40-plus years. But to the best of my knowledge, he never brought his camera into the basement. That was the boiler room, where the work got done.

My dad, who grew up in the house, has a few stories that shine more light on the basement than I can.

When my grandfather smoked (my grandfather smoked?), that was the only room in the house where my grandmother would allow it. And my great-grandma used to marinate the beef for sauerbraten by stashing it away in the basement.

My dad had long since moved out by the fall of ’73, when the work room apparently needed some work in and of itself. So he wasn’t there to join my retired grandpa in slapping a fresh coat of paint on the walls.

I was going to suggest it might have been smarter to paint the basement in the summer, so he could open the windows and air the place out.

But the basement on Hope Street was below ground, so I don’t think there were many windows to open. (There was a big metal bulkhead door he could have left open, if he didn’t mind inviting every squirrel in the neighborhood to come stay down cellar.)

That coat of paint in the fall of ’73 could well have been the last coat he ever put on, and thus the coat that was there when I went to visit.

I couldn’t tell you what color it was, though. Everything I cared about was at the top of the stairs, not the bottom.

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I can feel the bile rise in my throat and my eyebrows grow gray and thick, Andy Rooney-style, as I type the following sentence:

Nobody writes letters any more.

It feels like such a bitter-old-man thing to say, like complaining about how no one appreciates Glenn Miller.

And it’s not entirely true. I suspect there are plenty of people out there who write at least the occasional letter, and a small handful — some of them younger than 80 — who still use hard-copy correspondence as their preferred method of staying in touch with the outside world.

(If vinyl records can make a comeback in the popular esteem, and photographic film can cling to a small but devoted fan base, good old-fashioned handwriting can’t be anywhere near finished. Only the increasing cost of the U.S. Postal Service stands in the way of a full-on comeback for handwritten letters. Just you watch.)

One of the advantages of handwritten correspondence is the quiet classiness of personalized stationery.

Have you ever seen an email sigfile that had the same elan as a piece of personalized stationery? Me neither.

A letter on personalized letterhead always looks like it came from a mansion; an email tailed with a personalized sigfile always looks like it came from a cubicle farm. (Unless the sigfile has an embedded image, like Snoopy, in which case it always looks like it came from an elementary school.)

I do not have any saved hard-copy correspondence from the “mansion” that was 1107 Hope Street, though it is possible that my parents or my aunt do.

I do not think I wrote to my grandparents often as a young child; and when I was 12 or so, they moved about 15 minutes away from my house, so there was no longer much reason to put pen to paper.

I’m pretty sure they had personalized stationery in the house back in the day, though, because I saw it on their calendar.

October 6, 1967.

October 6, 1967. The Atlanta Braves release catcher Bob Uecker, ending his playing career. Whatever happened to that guy?

Friday, Oct. 6, saw plenty of activity at 1107 Hope St. There was a doctor’s appointment for the college-age daughter of the house; then a trip back to college for her; and in the meantime, a cake to bake for the non-driving member(s) of the family. (Did the cake go back to college, or was it for a church event? History sayeth not.)

But somebody took time during the day to order stationery from Brock Press in nearby Norwalk.

There’s no mention on the calendar of a trip there, so I’m guessing someone called — or maybe even wrote in — and perhaps renewed a standing order.

An ad for Brock Press, taken from an April 1967 issue of the Norwalk Hour newspaper.

An ad for Brock Press, taken from an April 1967 issue of the Norwalk Hour newspaper. My grandparents would not have been shopping for wedding announcements in October of that year.

Brock Press is yet another of those ’60s and ’70s local businesses my grandparents patronized that don’t seem to be around any more. The most recent reference I can find online, not including obituaries, is a 1977-78 Norwalk city directory.

(I also found the online memoir of a man who apparently married the woman who inherited Brock Press. By his telling, the company is still around, but has passed through various mergers. The meat is in the last paragraph of this page. Feel free to read the rest if you want; it is juicier and jauntier than anything you will read on Hope Street.)

It would be nice to close this post with an example of a letter from my grandparents on their old stationery. But, as I mentioned, I don’t have any.

Which brings up a larger pondering: I wonder if anything my grandparents wrote exists outside the family.

Is there some company my grandparents did business with that still has its order in their files somewhere? Some now-deceased friend whose saved life’s-worth of correspondence now reposes undisturbed in a grandson’s basement?

I’d say probably not. All that stationery my grandparents ordered probably sits — crumpled, mustard-stained, yet remarkably intact — in landfills between Bangor and Buffalo.

Not everything is meant to last forever, though. And while the stationery was around, it did the job it was intended to do.

Certainly, it looked classier than anybody’s sigfile.

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I find myself without words this week, and last week’s post leads nicely into a further discussion of the art of Bill Blumenau.

So — with the help of my dad, who took the pix — I’ll devote this week’s installment to a display of some of my grandfather’s paintings and drawings.

It’s possible that some of these were displayed in the 1975 art exhibit I wrote about last week. They might also have been shown in other exhibits in Stamford-area public places in the 1970s and ’80s.

Nowadays, they stay at home. But you can come into the gallery. You can even click the pictures to see ‘em bigger, if you want.

Allegedly, the two kids are modeled on my brother and I, dropped into an unfamiliar setting.

Allegedly, the two kids are modeled on my brother and I, dropped into an unfamiliar setting. If you read this blog regularly, you’ve seen that red tuque before.

Here's another painting I've mentioned (but not shown) on the blog before.

Here’s another painting I’ve mentioned (but not shown) on the blog before.

No backstory on this one. Looks like something my grandfather might have photographed in Maine.

No backstory on this one. Looks like something my grandfather might have photographed in Maine.

I wonder where the inspiration for this came from. Personal travels in Stamford or Springfield, Mass., or maybe someone else's photo of New York City?

I wonder where the inspiration for this came from. Personal travels in Stamford or Springfield, Mass., or maybe someone else’s photo of New York City?

I enjoy the boringness of this moment in time - a guy doing his yardwork, perhaps, going into his crumbling back shed. I also love the tiny red splash of the handkerchief in his pocket.

I enjoy the mundanity of this moment in time. I also love the tiny red splash of the handkerchief in his pocket.

Dunno whether this was based on a picture or whether it just came out of my grandpa's imagination. I believe he usually painted from photos.

Always liked this one, myself.

This is based on one of the Keuka Lake pix taken around 1983 and mentioned, but not included, in this post.

This is based on one of the Keuka Lake pix taken around 1983 and mentioned, but not included, in this post.

This appears to me to be drawn, rather than painted, so I'll put it in for variety's sake.

This appears to me to be drawn, rather than painted, so I’ll put it in for variety’s sake.

One last from the coast. The ocean has probably claimed this place by now, wherever it was.

One last from the coast. The ocean has probably claimed this place by now, wherever it was.

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If you’d been in Stamford, Connecticut, around this time 39 years ago, you would have seen a side of Bill Blumenau this blog has never entirely captured.

In fact, if you’d really been on the ball, you could have picked up a Bill Blumenau original for your living-room wall.

Talk about lost opportunities.

September 19 and 20, 1975.

September 19 and 20, 1975.

My brother and I called my grandfather “Drawing Boy,” a name my brother coined to describe his artistic proclivities.

And he did draw: My parents still have a colored charcoal portrait he did in the 1930s, and he drew handmade birthday and holiday cards well into the 1990s. The card he did to celebrate my engagement is on display upstairs in the guest room as I write this.

He also won local awards for his photography, a story longtime readers might remember. He was more into photography than painting when my dad was growing up in the ’50s, by my dad’s recollection.

At some point — probably after his kids moved out in the mid-to-late 1960s — the balance of his artistic interest tipped more toward oil, acrylic and watercolor painting.

His calendars from the late ’60s on include several references to painting and art classes. His photographs from those years include landscapes and scenery that he shot with an eye toward turning them into paintings.

(Barns were favorites of his. Among his photos, there exists a decaying envelope full of snapshots of barns in various stages of collapse.)

And, as early as I can remember, the bedroom at 1107 Hope Street that used to be my aunt’s had been converted into a makeshift studio, with an aluminum folding table set out to hold his supplies and an easel pushed back into the corner when the kids came to visit.

A rocky coast in Maine, circa 1971.

A rocky coast in Maine, circa 1971. No barns, but plenty of painterly ambience.

It appears that, once he’d been working in a format for a while, my grandpa was not shy about putting his work in front of others to see.

His entries in the local paper’s photography contest, detailed in the blog post linked above, are examples. So are the local art shows and exhibitions that begin to pop up on his calendars in the late 1960s and continue into the middle of the next decade.

In the early fall of 1975, his work was on display at one of Stamford’s snazziest new addresses, One Landmark Square.

The building, also known as Landmark Tower (hence the “L. Tower” on the calendar entry), had been completed just two years earlier. At 21 stories high, it ranked as Stamford’s tallest building until 2009.

I’ve seen several mentions of the Stamford Art Association holding exhibitions there over the years. (I emailed the art association, trying to find out if Bill Blumenau was ever a member, but never heard back. Alas.)

My guess is that my grandpa might have had one or two of his paintings displayed alongside the works of others as part of a group art show.

That would make sense — bringing a touch of color and some more foot traffic to the new local skyscraper, while giving local artists a distinctive platform to show off their work. And certainly, my grandpa was not well-known enough outside of his own house to command an entire show of his own work.

I don’t know whether my grandpa sold any of his paintings from this show. My limited knowledge of such things suggests there is usually a price tag available for the art on display, and if an art lover wants to make an offer, free enterprise runs its course.

I like the thought that somebody somewhere in western Connecticut has a Bill Blumenau original on their wall, or even in their attic, as a result of one of these kinds of events.

My grandpa’s painting style was realistic, of the sort that would have pleased a general audience. I find it easy to imagine someone liked his work enough to want to bring it home. It is perhaps a long shot to think that one of his paintings is still up in someone’s living room … but I find it a pleasant thought.

A not-very-well-photographed sample of Bill Blumenau's work.

A not-very-well-photographed sample of Bill Blumenau’s work.

The same, only different.

The same, only different. This entry really deserves better photography … but.

At some point when my parents finally downsize, my house will be home to the world’s largest collection of Bill Blumenau’s paintings. Not sure what I’ll do then.

Hold an art exhibit, maybe?

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