Fri, 06/30/2017 - 8:30am

“How do you do that every week?” someone just asked me, a question I find validating every time I sit down to a blank screen and the reality of not only a deadline, but of having to find a topic.

Today I have loose ends swirling around me. 

Last week I wrote about the building that became Ernie's Restaurant, where and what it had been and the role my father had played in its transformation. It was important, to me, to write of family in a way I normally do not because it is so exhausting, this history of which we speak only in the most detached fashion.

And so I used a photograph of my dad and my older brother, both wearing United States Navy-issue dark wool because it was apt and because I love the image.

Also because most photos of the old General Store which would become the Post Office/Express office which would become Ernie's/Finn's were more of the building and less of the location; they required more explanation than they offered. What is, to me, obviously, the Adrian Hotel before the Harbor Church was affixed to its front is not so clear to someone not having spent decades looking at old pictures. 

I long ago stopped trying to explain to people, such as that older brother, that I do not have an exceptional memory, rather I have a great blank canvas with scattered blocks of absolute clarity. 

When I first saw this photo of Old Harbor, I cannot say but I know it was in the early part of 1961, at the school in a tercentennial presentation. I learned there had been a National Hotel before the one on the corner, a grander version, with a grassy embankment reaching up to the lower of two stories of porches.

It is that National, burned in 1902, which stands on the far end of Water Street, the land that is today across from it no more than a bit of shoreline, in this week's old photo.

Today, I wonder if it so captured my imagination because of the world in which we then lived. The grandeur of the late 19th century was long gone; the replacement National, a fine enough building in its time, built over the course of one winter, was a faded relic. It was huge, its white fading to gray, and it loomed over the harbor. Block Island was, I hear, wonderfully romantic to visitors to our sort of ghost town;  one of my high school classmates recalled it as “bleak” in those last years before people with outside money began betting on Block Island again.

Finding one's place in these old photos is a bit of a challenge. The Surf, I usually say, is the “anchor,” the eastern end of the present hotel, a cottage built on a northeast corner, a near-miraculous survivor not only of the 1902 fire but of countless winter storms and late summer and fall hurricanes.

Buildings south of it, on the west side of Water Street, have burned and been replaced, or have been altered significantly, store fronts added, porches removed, or, as is the case with those is the foreground, moved. 

The shore was widened as the harbor was dredged, the long, low buildings, fishermen's shacks, are gone, and part of the area, which turned first to grassy dunes, is paved. 

The present Harborside is, again, recognizable, after additions to its facade were removed and its porch restored; the tower of the The Inn at Old Harbor, the old City Drug, is visible. 

Then we come to the fun part of the photograph, the buildings in the foreground. 

After the fires and rebuildings, the change in topography, come the demolitions and relocations. The three-story building, the “warehouse,” where my grandparents lived when they were first married and the Japanese couple who had a shop downstairs helped the new mother with her first baby, was demolished in a time on the edges of my memory.

A later gift shop in that building is recalled by men half a generation older than I, I think, more for the impression made by the beautiful niece of the woman who ran it than for the wares. Today, the two-story replacement built on the site, houses Strings n' Things.

Only the corner of a structure on the far left is visible, sitting below the out-of-sight Adrian Hotel, now the Harbor Church. It was the Bowling Alley, moved to High Street, to become today's Seacrest. In front of it, on the street, was my great-grandfather's General Store, the relocation and repurposing to Post Office, market and now restaurant, noted last week.

My favorite one of all our moved buildings in this image, the old Life Saving Station, the barn-like structure poking its nose out between the warehouse and the Inn at Old Harbor. 

It was of the earlier designs, before the more recognizable Life Saving Stations were constructed, those that still dot the Coast, with their towers and dormers and attached boat houses, standing as either museum pieces or private residences. 

The Life Saving Station was decommissioned when three of the more “modern” ones were built on the Island, one each at Sandy Point, on Corn Neck Road, and on the West Side, the last of which alone remains.

The decommissioned surplus station was first relocated to High Street where it stood, more of the dormant streetscape of my childhood, with attached to it another story of something that “used to be. . .”  It stayed there, in place, for more than sixty years until the Block Island Club moved it down the Neck in the late 1960s. 

The white building that sits on the shore of the Great Salt Pond is a replica, brought over on a barge, in exchange for the original which was carried over the water and now resides relocated at the Mystic Seaport Museum.