09 September 2007

The Yellow House, and What You Can Do With It

There is a movable wall in the Patrick St Lawrence House, which, when lifted and hooked into place horizontally near the ceiling, opens two normally separate parlors into a main room large enough for an 18th Century dance. This, along with exotic wood balusters, newel posts and enormous window sills, is one of the many features of the “Yellow House” that nobody gives a shit about.

If, for some reason, you’ve read about the house on a local historical site, you’ll know to hang a left onto Chatham from South Street, then a quick right between two other historic houses nobody gives a shit about, into a new-ish parking lot. If you know where you’re looking, or if it’s Fall and the trees are bare, you can see the Yellow House on the left, dolefully rotting away in its third and possibly final location.

Keen students of history—hand wringers all—know that the Yellow House was built in 1787, the year that Pittsboro was chartered. It was constructed by the obscure and suspiciously flamboyant Patrick St Lawrence, who distinguished himself by marrying a wealthy widow. Building the house bankrupted both himself and his contractor. He fled somewhere and died somewhere else. We can’t be concerned with him. He was a Mason.

The house wandered around Pittsboro for a couple centuries, starting in the northwest corner of the Courthouse lot, then spending some time south of where the jail used to be, and finally ending up at the end of South Street. It’s been private residence, an inn and a tavern, a boarding house, and, in its latest incarnation, a white elephant. In 1984 its epitaph was written by the National Register of Historic Places. It’s now the oldest house in the county, if you care about that kind of thing. It sure is taking a long time to go away.

Frankly, the Yellow House is kind of an embarrassment.Because it’s falling apart on government property, it can’t be quickly mowed down like Betty Bell’s old mansion on West Salisbury. No, there it sits, free to whoever can afford the $100 grand to move it.(Somebody better show up quick, because there are plans for that space.) The County is so aware of the house’s value that they let the Historical Association, after much mewling, barely raise enough money to fix the leaky roof. Town employees refrained, by all accounts, from throwing black walnuts at the men who made the repairs.

It’s well established that the house is old and in the way. But the main problem with the Yellow House is that it’s, well…you know, not like other Chatham county houses. It’s not a plain, sturdy farmhouse. It’s ostentatious and big, and was designed for having dances and socials. It has “architectural details:” elaborate chair rails and the aforementioned hinged wall and exotic woods. It was originally painted bright yellow.

Do I have to come right out and say it? It’s the gayest historical landmark we’ve got.

So, what’s to be done with this leaky, gay behemoth? The County could take a page from it's own book with respect to history management: let developers bulldoze it and name the fake-ass little village that sprouts there “St Lawrence Place.” If the house still had its chimneys (which it doesn’t—do you know what a pain in the ass those things are to move?), then those could be kept, restored and left standing as a monument to the developer’s reverence for history.

But that will never happen.Local government can’t participate so obviously in the free market. If the Yellow House is going to fall down, it had better be quick about it, and reduce the surplus population of local historical money pits. Haven't there been enough pictures taken of it? We all know what it looks like.

Until such time as the house is dismantled or mysteriously implodes, and if you love the smell of mildew or have a fondness for water stains, you can get the key from the town manager and see the Yellow House for yourself. If you fall through the rotting porch floor the Town cannot be held responsible. You might, once you see the enormous green double doors on the second floor that used to open onto the veranda, fall in love with the place. If so, congratulations. Pittsboro needs another foot soldier in the Pyrrhic Wars.


Cottonmouth said...

Great post, Tommy! The St. Lawrence House is an object lesson in the ability of communities to overlook their greatest assets because they're not familiar with their histories. The St. Lawrence is, first, a part of our heritage, and its slow disintegration mimics our own. Second, the St. Lawrence (if it and other historic homes have to be judged this way, and not preserved simply for their own sakes) could be a boon to the economy of our community with just a little imagination. Look at to see how a small town can discover and embrace its heritage, and in doing so make its economy boom and improve its quality of life.

Instead, dozens of historic and significant homes in Chatham County are being left to rot while owners wait for property values to make them rich, an outcome that is neither inevitable nor imminent. But meanwhile, while they wait, water, insects, and neglect are destroying our heritage.

What does it say about a community that cares so very little about those who built it?

Anonymous said...

By the way, that's . I left the link open accidentally.

tommy yum said...

I couldn't agree more. I do believe a post is in order on our relentless embrace of amnesia.

Thanks for your kind words and input.