From the road

Thu, 01/21/2021 - 5:00pm

Today, the sun shone, and it was not terribly cold, the wind blew. The dog was happily outside, bounding about; when she came back in it was to lie in the sun, following the patch of warmth as it moved across the floor.

Then the sun slid behind the clouds and the sunny bright was gone. I noticed the sky, it is hard not to notice the sky moving along the wide open Neck Road off-season.

Then equipment was moving along the road by the beach house, not so wide I had to stop but it was easier and I wanted to look at that pale sky that no matter how layered appears to be two-dimensional, one of those matte canvases that were always so obvious in old television shows.

The sky looked like winter, it looked like cold and snow and wind, and I wondered at my reaction to it, akin to that patch of sun on the floor, how the mere sight of them makes me shift some in temperature. Pulled over by the beach I watched two planes approach the airport, one right after the other, no more than dark shapes against the pale sky, an everyday sight that is still a marvel.

Closer to the Old Harbor, the road runs so close to the water, and the view is a sort of back side of the Water and Dodge Street corner, with intersections that fascinate me despite having seen them for my whole life.

It is especially the back of the National, the big hotel built over the course of a single winter, four floors rising from a slightly elevated mound of earth, and the tallest section of the Surf, in its final form four full stories, that grab my attention. They appear to align from a certain spot on the Neck Road, their mansard roofs seeming to run together with such precision they might have a sky walk between them, or even be connected from street level.

It is one of those thoughts of the moment, striking and then out of mind. I remember the National when there were no lower level shops, just an embankment, a grassy bit of lawn, wider in old photos than I remember it, held in place by a cement retaining wall that seemed about to burst, freeing the earth.

I’ve only one snapshot memory of the Surf before the Cyrs purchased and re-opened it but the National was a great hulking beast on the corner, fading and then simply closed before it struggled back to life in fits and starts, without an initial major injection of outside capital. Even the space under the porch, that thriving little area, today, did not exist. It was dug out, in sections, from the south to north, and housed all manner of enterprises during its first, floundering years of rebirth.

The Cyrs caught the Surf just in time, the National my mother called a Gray Elephant — to distinguish it, perhaps from the White Elephant the Harbor Church, buildings of another era that seemed on the brink, tottering between loss and salvation. During Lester Dodge’s last years in his family house, located where the Island Free Library now stands, he walked around the National every night to be sure there was no fire growing inside the hotel.

Lester was born in 1877, he would have been out of college when the original National burned in 1902, he may have been out in the wide world working, or home for a summer visit, but either way the memory of such a fire, real or related to him, had to have been an underlying concern.

But it did not burn, apart from a mattress fire in the years the National was primarily workers’ housing, astonishing through the lens of today but not so odd at the time. How our world has changed.

And this sort of mental wandering is how it took me so long to realize why the alignment from the Neck Road was so striking, that the fourth floors of the buildings would so match. The porch of the National, wrapping around the first floor of most of the building, above that dug out lower level, is a good half story higher than the porch of the Surf, across Dodge Street.

The Surf was built in stages, the cottage, the steeply gabled center and the highest, first a flat two-story box, which appears from old photographs to be the current second and third floors. The National was built of a piece, over that one frantic winter and the north end of the first floor was originally a ballroom, with apparently a low ceiling.

Don’t try to make sense of these old buildings, I try to tell people. Do not expect them to always follow expected form, just love them as they are, and delight that there is often quirky history behind the updated facades. And thank the stewards who keep them all alive.