New Roof, Old Roof

Fri, 01/06/2023 - 12:30pm

Coming down the hill from the Harbor Church on Sunday, January 1, 2023, it was impossible to miss the work in progress that is the building without a name, to a very few the old Post Office, to many Finn’s, never mind that Finn’s will become a great memory, to most Ernie’s, the name attached to it since the 1960s when the Post Office moved to Bridge Gate Square.
The seven siblings who controlled the structure managed to agree that there was only one reasonable course of action. There would be no more rent incoming from the government lease, no one wanted to take over the management with a new tenant, and their widowed mother needed nominal income. So the building was sold to Ernie and Rita Sherman — yes, as the current proprietors will attest — there was an Ernie, a big man most of us remember wearing a white t-shirt, towering over his diminutive wife, Rita, the owners and operators of the restaurant. The mortgage payments would subsidize Grandma.
It is January, the sun is low in the sky at all times of day, harsh even from the south around noon and the photo I took through my windshield conveyed little light. There was work going on, but that was visible only on the back side, in deep shadow. The town was empty, the plunge was going on, people were there or out walking and reflexively I start to write “going to the dump because it was Sunday” but it was a holiday that had taken place.
Yes, the red roof has been replaced with what I think is charcoal gray. I’ve heard more than one contractor say red is impossible to come by with a hard deadline to meet.
Maybe I had some photos to balance the stark white and near-black image.
Over the years I have inherited, collected, amassed amidst a lot of trash, some real treasure. I do not have a wide collection and what I have is not organized beyond a few snapshots being in a box marked “old photos.” Still, I knew I had something of the old Post Office.
I was not looking for the interior shots, the wonderful wood a few of us remember, rather something of this street-level facade.
And there I found my Grandfather Nicholas Ball, Block Island Postmaster, some day in May, 1938. The same Nicholas for whom the park below the church, given to the town by those same seven siblings, is named, standing by his automobile, either on his way to or coming back from one of the grassy landing strips on the Island in 1938. It was May, and the grass was new and growing tall. The sign in his car window proclaims it to be National Air Mail Week.
There are a few other photos and a batch of envelopes, most addressed to him from postmasters across Rhode Island and beyond, but also one in his own hand sent to one of his sons, plainly put “Bert Ball” in “Kingston RI” with some odd letters below I am sure signify in which fraternity house he lived. No street address, no P.O. Box, just a name and a town and an afterthought Greek name.
It’s all another snapshot in time, that building, the glory of Air Mail Week, my grandfather’s pride in sending a specially printed envelope with an image of Block Island and a 9-cent stamp to his son in college, no small accomplishment in 1938, the top hat and set of photographs in a time long before Instamatic cameras, much less cell phones, recording every moment of our lives.
Still, I have nothing but somber photos of the building, in gray and white, all lacking the red to which we have become accustomed. My own recent pictures taken from the corner are not what I want.
Finally, I remember there is an image in the volume of Wetherbee prints and murals compiled by the late Jack Lynch, who began to replicate them when the computer technology today so common was new. Like any proper “Da” he enlisted a daughter with the appropriate talents and they were off.
There is the picture by Holden Wetherbee, likely from the late 1940s, of the old Post Office. With a charcoal gray roof. There is no end to the things I find looking for something else.
It is a book I treasure, a collection of those old paintings made new again, supplemented with photographic images of the same places, the Heinz farm with its barn and silos, the Beacon Hill tower clearly visible, not hidden by overgrowth along the road, Pier 76 with only a few boats at the Champlin’s Yacht Station dock, the buildings at the Old Harbor long since gone, all with narratives and explanations, generally somehow floating back to a favored theme
of Jack Lynch, Esq.: fishing.
This publication is a small part of a wide legacy but it is so important to the jigsawed puzzle that is the story of Block Island and one for which we should be forever grateful.