You Don’t Know What You’ve Got

Thu, 05/07/2020 - 5:15pm

“They paved paradise

Put up a parking lot

With a pink hotel, a boutique

And a swinging hot spot

Don’t it always seem to go

That you don’t know what you’ve got

‘Til it’s gone”


The lyric of ”Big Yellow Taxi” was the written reaction of Canadian singer and songwriter Joni Mitchell to various vistas and sites in Hawaii. It languished for a few years before becoming a huge hit in the United States, an anti-development anthem in a time when the sprawl of post WWII building finally reached even little Block Island.

The timing was purely coincidental but it fits, although we never did get that pink hotel.

There is an upside of not knowing what you’ve got, the basis of so many historic restoration stories, the uncovered, forgotten, fireplace, the clapboard beneath the asphalt siding, the hardwood floors hidden by horrid carpet. It is so easy to bemoan what is gone, but even absent those great discoveries, there is much left in plain sight, fretwork in the high gables of houses of a certain era, detailed little windows we pass and rarely notice. The once elegant Adrian Hotel, now the much altered Harbor Church, has its ornately trimmed turret.

Talk of the installation of the sidewalk at the start of West Side Road, included concerns over the loss of the hedge at the Narragansett Inn. It was a necessary sacrifice I told myself, even though it was only privet, not long growth oaks or some other fine trees. Since the work began, and more since it has ceased, I have travelled that little piece of road several times, always taking care to be mindful of the cut pavement, the yellow tape, the orange cones, cognizant of the need to pay attention and not ride off the edge. Yes, a silly concern, I never drove into the hedge but still…

A couple of days ago I noticed for the first time not the cut pavement, nor stalled work, nor oddity of no privet but finally saw what has been behind that hedge all these years, a long, simple retaining wall. It is in what seems remarkably good shape, perhaps held in place by that thicket though the decades when we experienced frost heaves in late winter and rocks would routinely tumble into fields and road sides, protected more recently from the deer hooves that do the same damage.

The fact is I never much thought about what, if anything, other than earth, was behind that wall. There are, have long been, worn stone steps leading to the old house that shows in the earliest postcards of the era. There was a barn, rooms today but, by its form, recognizable if one knows to look. The hotel dining room is in some of those oldest images, when it was Alton Mott’s Shore Dinner Hall, close to the water and the trade arriving on the steamers after the breach was cut in 1895. It was moved up the hill, and the hotel built in front of it, the newest of the old hotels, from an era when it was hoped the increased traffic would result in a little village around the dock. Mr. Mott had a store, for while, on the corner, there was a fish pound in the Hog Pen, and another hotel rising from the pasture across the road, all overseen by the grand Hygeia on the hill where the Public Safety Complex stands, and the Weather Bureau, still in place, a reminder of when Federal buildings were both utilitarian and beautiful.

It is a charming notion, a little village in the other harbor. It was a grand ambition, perhaps, but those were heady days on Block Island, when the big hotels were built and immediately expanded, when a horse car ran between the harbors looping the way of the beach and the listing of shops in one publication include two pharmacies, both filling prescriptions as well as ice cream and sundries, and a lone “Druggist” seemingly offering no impulse buying, when there were “hair dressing rooms” and a bowling alley, and two milliners, among the restaurants and markets and guest houses with electricity and long distance telephone.

And the farm on the shore of the Great Salt Pond became a hotel with a simple stone wall defining its boundary.

Sometimes, you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s found.