We do not do change well on Block Island, or so we are told. I might agree with that assertion, based on based on no more than the fact we have no choice. It is thrust upon us, whether we like it or not, and do not even realize at the time what that change will be, may not realize until decades later the lasting impact of something that seemed of little consequence at the time.
Likewise, we look at the things we felt were monumental, earth-shattering at the time and wonder whatever had us so worried.
Then, of course, there is just change in our lifetime, something as simple as the Spring House Hotel and Annex mansards being returned to their historically accurate red, to match the hip-roofs above them, stripping them of the elegant white facades, especially the tall east end of the main house.
When the North Light was last restored, great effort was put into finding the original colors. After much research, it was determined the tower had been a
creamy white, not the black or brown I had known for decades.
The lantern was removed and rebuilt, replaced in June and lighted in the fall of 2010. It wasn’t until the spring of the next year — if not later — that I found
myself returning on the boat on a hazy afternoon and looking over at the first greeter, that I saw it with new eyes.
In the first seconds, the black lantern appeared to be floating in mid-air; the pale tower beneath it had melded into the pale sky.
There are times I don’t get to foreign realms like the West Side for a spell, or certain sections of road I rarely travel, and find a whole house built, or removed and replaced, or most disconcerting, remodeled.
It was in that last frame of mind I was, one summer evening, when I looked over and was certain, in the way the most improbable thing can happen, that the first floor of the Sullivan House has disappeared during the day, or since the previous evening.
It was not like the North Light, quickly reconstructed in my mind. The whole first floor of the grand Sullivan House was gone, and as unlikely, not a scrap of construction debris remained in sight.
It was, of course, in place, the fieldstone walls illuminated by the porch lights, making them the color of the pale evening sky.
It wasn’t until last night I saw it again, that same strange confluence of events, the pale sky, the lighted porch, the interior illuminated, all running into one color. Definition was changing in the seconds it took me to pull over on the empty Neck Road and fish out my camera phone. I haven’t much of a zoom
on it, my weekly complaint of late, and I didn’t want to move much past Cozy Cottage for fear of losing the angle and the light.
The sunsets are still late and the daylight lingers, but these nuances are fleeting.
It has always been a wonder of a house, green and sweeping, up on that hill, with a porch that gives an impression of symmetry until one day, by some chance it becomes clear it is not that way at all.
I remember Miss Sullivan and her sister Mrs. MacGregor, only vaguely, perhaps more for having heard the stories that come to mind every year when I see hay being cut. My dad drove what I now realize was his little Ford tractor out to Indian Head Neck, lowered the sickle bar, and cut what I was told was
Kentucky blue grass (I was little “but it’s not blue!” I protested as my mother tried to explain it was more a cast than an actual color). It had to be mowed in a certain direction, the ladies insisted, because it hurt their feet when they walked back and forth between their houses, a program which baffles me to this day.
There was a barn or a carriage shed out of sight, below the hill, on the little rise where there is some storage off-season these days. It was dark green, like the house, and I think was taken down after the 1954 hurricane, because of damage or my pre-emptive strike theory or something unrelated, I am not certain.
It seems a long way from the house, but there was a fine masonry wall on the east boundary of the property, along Corn Neck Road. My memory of it is slight, but several years ago when I asked for recollections of the State, now Town Beach, Edith Blane replied, recalling the building of the pavilion, and in the process “removing the entire dune where the pavilion was built and creating a real hazard for the ocean to sweep across the road and fetch up on the wonderful wall built by Cornelius Sullivan - brother of Helen Sullivan and Mrs. MacGregor. You can just see the top of it now.”
I do remember damage to that wall, but more the ravaging of the new parking lot in 1954; the masonry truly vanished from all but the most watchful eye in 1964 when the Neck Road was elevated from just north of Beach Avenue to a bit beyond the Scotch Beach entrance. Some will remember a significant drop going into the beach parking lot, mitigated over the years with various construction projects and that inward march of the sand. It is still there for the looking, that downward slope, along much of that road.
It is the reason there is a full set of highway plats from Scotch Beach north, showing the true bound of the state land, often behind stone walls and hedges,
not just some vague measure of a finite number of feet from a center line that may have changed a tad over striping jobs over time.
Yesterday’s 8:42 illusion to the contrary, the Sullivan House still stands in all its regal splendor, a true Block Island survivor.