Red Roof, Blue Sky
One day last summer or early fall someone came into the photography gallery on the corner with an old photo. They’d been sent to me - not to the gallery - as a last-ditch effort in identifying the location in the faded shot.
It was taken from somewhere on High Street they thought and following that had made the mistake I presume to be common, the one it took me years to wean myself from making: looking first for the present day familiar. There was a bit of mansard roof and they wanted it to be the Atlantic, which was impossible when looking down the lower part of the street.
The sharpest building, the one most clearly defied, was familiar, one I knew with certainty I had seen in postcards but I could not, at first, place it, a frustration compounded by the feeling these folks had decided it would just be where they wanted it to be, they’d wasted enough time on this silly chase. Then I found my keystone, the scallop shell in the high west gable of the Adrian House, now the Harbor Church.
The little house is still there at the foot of High Street, but much modified and painted white, not the nondescript color in the cards that translated to gray in the photo, the long-disappeared land bridge to the Manisses visible only if one had seen it in other images. There was a piece of the Lifesaving Station that is now in the Mystic Seaport Museum but for years resided sort of where the cows came close to the road last summer.
And then there was the mansard roof. I almost wanted to make it the Atlantic, they so wanted it to be, but I was on a roll of things gone, culminating in the three story building I heard called nothing but the storehouse — or warehouse —which was never explained. In older photos it is a plain building without a storefront but there were shops on the ground floor, at least one still in my earliest, wispy-est memories. My grandparents lived upstairs when they were first married in the early nineteen-teens before moving down the Neck. Items from The Orient were popular and an Asian couple had a little store but I heard of them more from my grandmother’s memory of the lady’s kindness to her, a new mother trying to find her way.
It was a sizable structure, a full four stories on the back, facing the northeast and was taken down soon after Hurricane Carol in 1954, a building lost not to the storm but fear of another. For years it was just an empty space next to the Post Office, then next to Ernie’s, where something used to be.
The components of that photo fell into place only when the high point, the white scallop shell, was identified. More often, looking around at the unfamiliar it isn’t so much what has changed as where we are standing.
It’s a small island, but I hear people exclaim over a never-before-seen view or the wonderment of “you can see fill-in-the-blank from there!” and feel a little less foolish at thinking I’ve found a house that looks just like another only to be told I’m looking at the back side, or from an angle that alters the background and sends me to a map to soften the “that’s impossible!” ringing in my head.
Then there are places that do not surprise me, streetscapes I know too well, but find stunningly different in the shifting light of the seasons, the blue sky touched with white clouds and majestic red gables rising from behind an oddly incompatible flat roof.
It was the Gothic, the view not unfamiliar, but perhaps, at 3:30 in late March, less trafficked, allowing me a moment to pause. I think of both buildings still as white, although neither has been in years. We knew someone who stayed in the apartment a chunk of the summer when I was little, as people did back then, the same folks renting the same spaces, houses mainly, for weeks or months.
It was the 1980s before I knew the place as described in a 1991 publication of the R.I. Historical Preservation Commission the as the “Captain Darius B. Dodge House (1874), A cottage orne with a high roof, steeply pitched dormers and cross gables, pierced bargeboards and wraparound porch. This prominently sited house caused considerable comment at the time of its construction: the Providence Evening Bulletin noted that ‘it re-
ally makes more pretensions to style than any private residence upon the island.’”
It may more accurately have been described as one of the earlier private residences aiming for style, although the Evening Bulletin may well have been influenced by early images of Capt. Dodge’s fine house, showing each window shaded by a striped awning one imagines - or I imagine, for no real reason - to be red and white.
Story has it Darius, an apparently successful fisherman who came ashore and managed the Pequot - now Harborside - Hotel, saw a “cottage” on a trip to England and had one incorporating elements of it built near the new government harbor, sure to draw the attention of visitors including a reporter arriving at the landing and walking down the street.
He also ran a drugstore; there were at least three on the island, three who advertised in 1909, one a druggist’s name and no more, another with “Prescriptions carefully prepared by Registered Pharmacists day or night” and Darius Dodge’s Island Drug Store, with “Prescriptions carefully compounded by competent clerks. Open the year round since July 4, 1889.”
It is the Drug Store that became the inn that bears Darius’s name, the pronunciation of which I am becoming accustomed. And wondering how I ever knew the old local way of saying the name of someone who died in 1921, decades before I was born.
Perhaps it’s best to stick with his residence, and that red roof against a blue sky.