by Tim Gilmore, 3/13/2016
Spring is the ghostliest season. You might argue for autumn, centered on Halloween and dead corn stalks standing in the fog, but spring takes its name from resurrecting the dead.
So it’s appropriate this early March Saturday that feels and acts like spring, bright new green shoots puncture the city and the Jacobs Flats comes back to life. Three stories of balustraded porches and balconies, rising from West 2nd Street in Springfield in strong square yellow-brick columns, the Jacobs Flats looks like nothing could take it down.
But more than half a century of incrementally-then-exponentially accelerating decline nearly did. When Sue Kowalewski first looked at the building, its insides were in shambles, rotten like an emptied-out mummy. As she and her partner Bart Whaley resurrect it, she’s renamed it, and its new name matches the quiet strength the building presents to the street.
Jax Brickhouse takes its name from a play-by-play announcer for the Chicago Cubs, Jack Brickhouse. The building has no need to prove itself. It’s its own proof. In its new name, Sue brings together Jacksonville and her hometown of Chicago.
And the tiled name on the porch floor at the front door still says, “Jacobs.” So do the blocked letters in the keystone above the front door fanlight.
Christine Farley has researched 115 West Second Street’s early days. Chris is a Springfield “character.” Every distinctive city neighborhood has them, and each such character is distinctively that neighborhood’s. An Englishwoman who sews her own sweaters and brings Scotch eggs to parties, Chris first charmed me, outside Springfield’s 3 Layers Café in 2013, when she told me how the dead manifest themselves to the living. I’d met with her in preparation for my book, Stalking Ottis Toole: A Southern Gothic, about the pyromaniac pseudo-serial-killer who grew up in Springfield.
As is often the case with historical research, the building’s records have presented Chris Farley and Bart Whaley with frustrating contradictions. The building was constructed in 1911. Or 1906. Eva and Henry Jacobs, who built the apartments and gave them their name, owned a millinery store downtown. According to succeeding census records, Henry was born in Germany, then Illinois, then both he and Eva in Germany. The Jacobses had a daughter named Bertha and a son named Solace, or Sollace.
Standing on the third floor balcony, my daughters and I watch dark gray fallen oak leaves sprinkle West 2nd Street. New light bright green shoots pop from 10,000 oaken arms and fingers.
We’ve walked up the shine of the stairs. We’ve noted the numbers above original apartment doorways. The restoration is almost complete.
If you sign the lease on No. 3, on the second floor, you’ll move into William and Mackie Branscombe’s apartment. The meat wholesaler and his wife moved into these rooms in 1914.
Apartments No. 5 and 6 are now a wide open top-floor loft. At No. 6, Abraham Berlack, a men’s clothing salesman, lived with his wife Nellie and his widowed mother-in-law until she died in 1914.
It’s unclear which apartment on the first or second floor an actor named Charles Weston called home. In 1905, Weston appeared in his first Broadway production. He starred as Nana, the canine “nursemaid” in Peter Pan. Nana’s a Newfoundland, the fifth largest breed according to the American Kennel Club.
I can understand playing the part of Nana. My friends Eva and Jerry Dale McFadden, keyboardist for the country rock band The Mavericks, who live on the eastern side of Springfield, had a 150-lb. Newfie named Nanook, one of the sweetest dogs I’ve ever known, whom I always said looked either like Chewbacca or a man in a dog suit.
According to Chris’s and Bart’s research, Weston participated in more than 65 films, both shorts and full-length features—acting, directing, and producing—between 1912 and 1917. It fits the scale of the historical record. In the first few decades of movie-making, films proliferated from studios on scale with seedlings rising from acorns beneath old oaks.
Like those of any old building, the chapters of Weston’s life are sparsely detailed. He was born in Jacksonville’s Brooklyn neighborhood in 1886. He directed the silent British epic The Battle of Waterloo in 1913. He lived in the Jacobs Flats in 1916. He worked burlesque in New York in 1917. On as-yet-unclear charges, he was sentenced to jail at Riker’s Island in 1918. On August 15, 1919, Charles Weston committed suicide by diving from an 18-story building on 42nd Street in Manhattan.
But spring’s no time for suicide. Spring’s the ghostliest season. Everything buried will rise.
Last December, my wife decided we’d buy no more dead trees for Christmas. We brought into our living room a weeping holly, cornered by a bookcase, across the room from the fireplace.
Early January, we planted the tree, which had dropped most of its leaves but held on to a few bright red toxic berries. Once in the ground, the holly shed all external signs of life. But late February Jacksonville sunlight is golden like late spring sunlight in San Francisco, and I’ve watched the gold against old buildings and the corpses of planted Christmas trees.
Early March, slender green leaves, more each day, the curled-o’er branches of the weeping tree, multiplied green.
Likewise, at the Jacobs Flats / Jax Brickhouse, my daughters and I touch today the quoins about the arched front door and trail our fingers up the stair-rails.
Spring’s the season for raising ghosts, as T.S. Eliot says in those most-quoted lines from The Wasteland:
“April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”