Bil Browning

That old house across the street

Filed By Bil Browning | May 04, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: Indianapolis, life goes on

If you follow me on Twitter, you know I spent most of last Thursday morning and early afternoon watching them demolish the abandoned house across the street. I tweeted the play-by-play and sent pictures too. Here's a small slideshow of the event.

The house was over 100 years old and was once the nicest house on the street. The family who built it also built our home for their son; after they'd passed on, he moved into the bigger house that was just torn down. He died without heirs two years ago and the house sat vacant and abandoned since - left to termites, rats, raccoons and the occasional drug addict. Even though the elderly owner and I only spoke a handful of times, his and his family's lives have become inextricably entwined in my family's - and it's a lesson the LGBT community knows only too well.

A Little Neighborhood Background

Let me be clear: I am not the neighborhood historian. I just know bits and pieces that I've picked up over time. While some Indy neighborhoods have well documented histories, our neighborhood is always one of those listed but without information.

The elderly gentleman's family built the recently demolished house and ours. He lived in our home with his wife and sons. At various times he was a teacher, a blacksmith and a leather worker. He is always described as an odd scholarly fellow; he was a packrat too and never threw anything away. When his parents died (and apparently his sons had moved on), he moved into the bigger house across the street.

Our back yard has a ton of bricks less than a foot below the grass from when he lived here; there was a forge in the middle of the yard and we still find odd half-melted drippings of metal and chunks of partially burned coal. We've pulled enough bricks out of our small back yard that we put in a brick sidewalk with them.

When he sold our house, the buyers had to spend a long time hauling away all of the stuff stored in it. Almost every room had tons of crap in it - metal working leftovers, leather working tools, sheets of moldering and rotting leather, bricks, liquor bottles and general trash. When we recently had some insulation work done, I had to crawl into the attic and crawlspace. I pulled out at least 7 trashbags worth of empty booze bottles that had been hidden away for decades.

After He Died

After he moved into the other house, his packrat ways continued. After he died, his only remaining relative had the house emptied. The rooms were stacked floor to ceiling with only small walkways through the rooms. It took four semi-truck loads, three dumpsters, a dozen moving vans and several car trips to empty the place. Antique furniture, boxes of books, trash, and other odds and ends all made the trip to auction.

While the home looked rather dilapidated from the outside, inside was much worse. Gone was its former glory as the nicest house on the street. Termites had invaded long ago; the floors and walls were infested and mostly rotten. Other animals like bats, raccoons and rats had set up shop in rooms full of nesting places in the accumulated debris.

In one second story room the floor was so weak from the strain of decades of stacked heavy antique furniture that walking on it was dangerous. One of the floors on the first level had a hole in it that would drop you into the basement. The roof over the pantry leaked so badly you could see the rainwater flowing down the shelves like a waterfall; he continued to keep his food there. Moldy boxes and containers from years long past were hauled out to the trash.

He left the home to a hospice worker who helped him in his last days. The guy would bring him meals and check in on him once a day. Since the elderly gentleman was cantankerous and independent, he would refuse any further help. The hospice worker didn't want the house, couldn't afford the house, and ended up burdened with the responsibility of cleaning it up ASAP or facing large fines.

And so began a long period of legal battles between the city and the hospice worker. The house was condemned by the Health Department and boarded up. Notices went up in the neighborhood to warn that the rats would be seeking a new home and to keep an eye out.

Drug addicts broke in several times and vandals and scavengers tore out what remained of the home's former life as an upscale dwelling. The walls were ripped open to get to copper wiring. The ornate marble fireplace was removed. Woodwork and ornamentation were also lost.

Finally after several hearings and tens of thousands of dollars worth of fines, the hospice worker and the city reached a settlement. He gave them the house in exchange for forgiveness of the fines he couldn't pay on a house he didn't want to start with. Finally, last week the house was demolished.

Connecting the Dots

As I sit here writing this post in what was the elderly gentleman's library (now our living room), I'm reminded of the connections between our families. The fireplace flu is missing an antique knob that he "had to take;" he promised to find it in that big ramshackle house across the street, but never did. When I find a big chunk of twisted melted ore in the backyard or another brick hiding under the grass, I wonder what the house looked like back then.

One of his friends put graffiti in our garage; "So-and-so 1952" is still written on the inside wall and I fantasize who the person was and how his life turned out. I look at the big cement bricks that forms our basement walls with 1902 stamped into them or the old oil tank still standing in one corner. Everywhere you look there's the impact the gentleman and his family made on our home.

We've made some major repairs to the house. When we moved in, our monthly gas bill was over $400. After new windows, insulation and plugging all of the many drafts and leaks we've lowered it dramatically (our last bill as for $68!!). We've pulled up a sidewalk, planted grass and flowers, redone the drainage around the house and made other minor improvements. We've put our mark on the home too.

But right before they demolished the house across the street, a few of us went in for one last look around the place. Hanging over the fireplace was a huge antique mirror. One of the neighbor ladies - who grew up in the neighborhood - told us that the mirror had hung over that fireplace for as long as she could remember; she's well over 50 years old herself. The salvage men who were taking out the last remnants still worth anything asked me if I'd like to have it as a memento of the family's connection to our house. The mirror came home with me and will probably be hung over our fireplace.

I was the last person to walk out the door of the house before it was demolished.

A Story LGBT People Know

The story of this man and the homes is one the LGBT community knows only too well. We've lived through the ups and downs of fortune. We've come out proudly as ourselves - shiny and new - and we've also been downtrodden after years of abuse and neglect. We've experienced glory and shame as a community. As the neighborhood lived the trials and tribulations of his family and their houses, so has America stood by and watched as we've struggled for acceptance and equality.

But neither the neighborhood nor the American public stepped in to truly assist when things went sour.

As HIV and AIDS tore through the LGBT community like wildfire, America stood idly by tacitly condoning the destruction of "perverts" and "faggots." As the gentleman's family's fortunes declined and madness took him, the neighborhood turned a blind eye to his struggles. While most of the neighborhood bears some mark of the street's largest builder (they also built two other homes on the street that they sold automatically), no one stopped to think of the history and culture they brought with them or the damage done by their loss. And while our community has been attacked, murdered, raped, and left to die of disease without even the comfort of a helping hand other than our own family, I'm left to ruminate on the similarities between the situations.

I took the mirror to remind me to reflect occasionally on our path through life. The elderly gentleman's family - his mother and father, siblings, and his sons too - all saw themselves reflected in the glass. It recorded their lives and deaths without addition of agendas or motives; it simply was the display of emotions, aging and events. Now it can catch the minuscule details of our lives as it did theirs; the story lives on inside of its silent hardness - caught up in witnessing but never speaking.

I refuse to allow the mirror to simply reflect our lives in this home. Instead of merely being a reflection of the things we've done here, I want the story to live larger. I want the story to be told and remarked upon. I want the larger neighborhood - society - to see not just a mirrored image of our struggles and lives, but the larger picture of how we shape our streets, our cities and our country.

Perhaps by honoring our deceased neighbor by installing the mirror in our home, I can find the courage to continue holding up the mirror to the larger American psyche. Will we stand quietly watching over but never giving up the secrets or will we break the pattern and honor the contributions made in the past?

Only time will tell.


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The "passing" of the house across the street reminded me for some of Neil Young's song "This Old Guitar."

Here are the lyrics:


"This Old Guitar"

This old guitar ain't mine to keep
Just taking care of it now
It's been around for years and years
Just waiting in its old case
It's been up and down the country roads
It's brought a tear and a smile
It's seen its share of dreams and hopes
And never went out of style
The more I play it, the better it sounds
It cries when I leave it alone
Silently it waits for me
Or someone else I suppose

This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar

This old guitar has caught some breaks
But it never searched for gold
It can't be blamed for my mistakes
It only does what it's told
It's been a messenger in times of trouble
In times of hope and fear
When I get drunk and seeing double
It jumps behind the wheel and steers

This old guitar ain't mine to keep
It's mine to play for a while
This old guitar ain't mine to keep
It's only mine for a while

This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar
This old guitar

[Thanks to for these lyrics]

[ ]

Great story, Bill.

Your story brought back how I felt sorting through all of the stuff that old friends left behind when they died and how it made me think about their lives. Every item has a memory. Ya, I'm the gal that usually cleans up after words. I better be careful or people will start thinking I'm good at it. Not that I want to be. Opps, too late.

All the memoriess that old house across the street from you could tell us if it could talk, if it could tell us the story of the old man and his family. And all the old stuff you dig up in your yard reminds me of when I moved in my house 18 years ago next month. I'm still digging up plastic army guys, pull tabs from old steel cans and building blocks in the backyard. The kids names written on the wall in my shed, that used to be a playhouse before my hammer and saw got to work on it. It makes me wonder what those kids who used to play in it are doing now? Time is a fleeting thing. The older I get the more this becomes true.

Thanks for that great piece of writing.