Up in Smoke

As I was leaving the gym last Saturday, I thought I smelled smoke and asked, “Is something burning?” The attendant was dismissive and unconcerned; I think there’s a fireplace in the “parlor” of the church activity building, and, since we’re finally getting some seasonable fall weather, perhaps he assumed someone had built a fire.

When I got home, my husband sought me out and said, “Oh, I was hoping to catch you before you took your shoes off. I thought you might want to wander down to the end of the street and check out the excitement.” The excitement, it seems, was a cluster of fire engines and related vehicles, with firemen attending a controlled burn. Sure enough, I later saw a tweet from the City of Fairhope’s Twitter account that “The Fairhope Fire Department will be conducting a live fire burn exercise on Oct. 30 from 8 a.m. until about noon at 356 North Bayview Ave. The department will be burning a house approximately 3300 square foot and conducting multiple training exercises throughout the morning.”

Sure enough, when I walked past on Sunday, nothing remained but a smoldering shell. On Monday morning, a bulldozer and excavator had been brought in to demolish the remains and load the debris onto dump trucks, and by the end of the week, nothing was left but an empty construction site.

Here’s how it looked before demolition:

And here’s how it looked after the fire.

Although I didn’t know it was going to be burned, I knew it was slated for demolition, as all the doors and windows had been removed. I later learned that representatives of Eastern Shore Affordable Housing, a local Catholic organization, had been allowed to come in and remove whatever architectural elements they could salvage.

So another neighborhood landmark is lost. Built in 1943, the four-bedroom house had been owned by Marie Louise House until her death, at age 93, on August 27, 2008. Mrs. House was the widow of Colonel John M. House, Jr., who had died on June 25, 1997, just one week short of their 50th anniversary. A native of Belgium, Mrs. House had been working there as a pharmacist when she met the colonel while he was stationed there during World War II. They had married after the end of the war and moved to this house when he retired in 1965.

When I walked past the house, I would often see her sitting on the porch. Very rarely I would see her out taking a very short walk, supported by her caregiver. Then I didn’t see her any more and wondered whether perhaps she had been transferred to an assisted-living facility. In fact, I suppose at that point she had already died, and presently there was an estate sale.

Colonel House had been married before and must have been considerably older, as he had a son, John M. House III, born in 1929. The son also served in the military, also achieved the rank of colonel, and had died in January 2008 at the age of 78. There is a John M. House IV, but it is grandson James House who has become a colonel.

Although Mrs. House had three step-grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren, none lived close by, and she left the house to the Catholic Archdiocese of Mobile.

At first there was no sale activity, but eventually a FOR SALE sign appeared in the yard, and later it was tagged as SOLD. From online sources, I have ascertained that the initial asking price was $795,000 (the 2,465-square-foot house sits on a 29,700-square-foot lot overlooking Mobile Bay). Although structurally sound, the house was candidly advertised as needing interior renovation, and after a while the price was reduced to $595,000. I don’t know what the final sales price was, but the purchaser was, in effect, buying just the lot, which can probably be subdivided.

It will be interesting to watch future construction on this lot, but it is rather a shame that it didn’t find a buyer willing to restore it to its original style and charm.

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