TIME TRAVEL. My Second Apartment: The Snell Arcade Penthouse. That Never Was.
In my previous Time Travel post, I detailed the thrill of moving into my first apartment.
Within months, I discovered the apartment of my dreams, and quite by accident.
This is a long post. Best enjoyed with some time, and a glass of wine.
Looking at architecture has always been a passion. It is why cities thrill me so: Architecture architecture everywhere!
While I was born in Detroit, Michigan, a city which abounds with architecture, my parents—sigh—purchased a brand new house in a brand new suburb just outside of Detroit. I short, I grew up in an area utterly devoid of architecture.
When I was fifteen, my dad decided that we should move to St. Petersburg, Florida. So, that summer of 1971, my life changed.
Another sigh though. We moved into a brand-new apartment complex on the south side of town.
Mom: “Eight bedrooms? For only $13,000? It must be a slum area.”
Dad: “No, it’s just north of downtown. It’s a little shabby but it’s no slum.”
Mom: “The price is absurdly low. There must be a catch.”
Ross: “LET’S GO LOOK!”
A while later we pulled up in front of the quite respectable looking house. We all looked at each other, as if to all say: This? For only $13,000?
We got out of the car. The neighborhood was mostly 1920s houses and a few later small stucco apartment houses. Many of the houses were now rooming houses. When the neighborhood was new, this had obviously been prime real estate. Now, it was all a little shabby.
Going inside (it was an open house) we soon realized that the house, too, had been a rooming house. It did NOT have eight bedrooms, but rather eight rooms, all of which had been converted into bedrooms with the additions of sinks in every room, and closets built into corners.
The house though was intact, and the additions were easily removed. There was a graceful U-shaped Colonial-style staircase. Hanging from the entry hall ceiling was a pitiful wedding cake-style chandelier…
I was besotted with the house. The street was lined with old oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, and downtown was just a few blocks away. Importantly, I could have my own bedroom!
My father seemed intrigued.
Mom: “I don’t like the musty smell. You can never get rid of it.”
My heart sank. I tried to explain that the house looked like it had been shut up for a long time, all the windows were closed, and there was no central air. I went on that removing the musty carpets and musty furniture and musty drapes would do wonders.
Mom: “Nope. I won’t live in a smelly house.”
I still think about that house today. It’s current value is $1 million. The whole neighborhood has been revived and is now the hip place to live. A new townhouse across the street sold in 2017 for $1.3M.
However, I suspect that my father, too, became fascinated by the North East neighborhood, because…
There were 1930s Deco houses, and fabulous Space Age 1950s and 1960s houses, and all jumbled together in a never-ending joy to me. After a lifetime being starved for architecture, I was now immersed in architecture!
Not all the Snell Island houses were huge and imposing. While the 1920s houses were, the Depression almost killed off the developer, C. Perry Snell. He hung on by building very modest “infill” houses through the 1930s and into the 1940s. Such a house was what my parents would purchase in the summer of 1973, for $22,000. Our street was lined with modest houses but each end of the street turned onto glamorous Brightwaters Boulevard, which looped around and around following the water, and lined with mansions.
My father, again, had found the house, and it, again, had seemed too good to be true. It was listed at $25,000.
Mom: “A house on prestigious Snell Island for only $25,000?”
Dad, pointing at the ad: “That’s what it says here.”
Ross: “LET’S GO LOOK!”
Soon, we were parked in front of the house. It was white with hot pink trim. On the central chimney was a concrete cast medallion with two macaw birds sitting on a large branch, and all painted in a riot of full color.
Mom: “I’m not going in.”
Dad: “We’re already here. Come on.”
Ross: “LET’S GO LOOK!”
I had to act quickly, so I jumped out of the car. Dad followed! As we stepped onto the front porch, we heard mom’s door open.
The late 1940s house was sad. Every room was a pale, icy, lettuce green. There was green sculpted wall-to-wall carpeting everywhere. Each window had very pale green Venetian blinds. The bathroom was pink. The kitchen was original and shabby. A third bedroom and bath had been added onto the rear. Awkwardly.
Mom and dad each went: “No.”
I loved the house. Desperate that we would pass on another cool house, I had them follow me into the living room. Pulling up a corner of the carpet, I showed them lovely Spanish tiles. “Oh!” Same for the dining room. “Oh!” I pointed out the tall ceiling in the living room, with its elegant paster curved cove, and the fireplace with wonderful (but profoundly tarnished) brass andirons. I pointed out the charming two steps up to the bedroom “wing” which had lovely oak floors under dingy carpeting. “Oh!” I waxed lyrically about the walled courtyard in back, and the partially open breezeway which connected the house to the 2-car garage at the very back.
Mom and dad had not registered any of these features. It did not seem to matter though, and we left.
Later, after dinner, I came into the living room with a drawing I had done showing how, with some modest alterations, the house would really work with us.
Dad smiled: “I think we should take a second look.”
They purchased it. And that was the very first time my parents had ever listened to me. Oh, that was a thrill!
I was soon in heaven. I would spend countless hours driving my bike along the curving, brick-lined streets of Snell Island. So, too, would I slowly drive around the North East neighborhood, also lined with wonderful houses spanning the 1920s to the 1960s. And I continued my homage to downtown.
Stepping into the lobby, I was horrified by the dropped ceiling and florescent lighting. I thought: What’s above this ceiling?
Going to the elevator, I got off on the mezzanine level. It was an office corridor. More dropped ceiling. I got off on the second floor. It was all offices and more dropped ceilings. How, I wondered, could a building so architecturally rich outside have been transformed into something so banal inside?
I pressed the elevator to the third floor, and my head soon exploded.
The elevator doors opened. Rather than the expected dark hall, I was greeted with sunlight. I turned to a glass door, and opened it. Stepping out, I was awestruck.
The court was lined with narrow rooms, one after another, and all with shallow vaulted ceilings and beams. The rooms overlooked the street or alley.
And this magical, astonishing oasis? It was, when I visited, totally abandoned. How was it possible, I wondered, for THE coolest place in the whole city to be abandoned? The rooms bordering the courtyard were empty and filled with pigeon droppings. The windows were filthy.
But all was intact and also in pretty good shape. I felt a desperate urge to live in this magical courtyard.
Further exploration of the building did not reveal any additional wonders but, for the next few years, I would spend many hours thinking about the courtyard, and I introduced dozens of people to it. All had the same reaction: Wow!
A year later, I was again wandering through the building, hoping to discover some new treasures. On the mezzanine level, with its low ceilings, I saw an open door. Oh! Could I get a peek inside? I stuck my head in. Then, to my great surprise, a head met mine from the other side of the door. I jumped back. The door opened wide, and a very elderly man gave me a huge smile and asked: “Can I help you?”
I felt foolish. And like an intruder. But his smile indicated that he was not upset.
“I love this building and was just curious about what’s behind all the closed doors. I didn’t mean to intrude.”
His smile got very wide. “How old are you?”
“And you spend your time wandering around old buildings downtown, a downtown filled with all us old people?”
I nodded. His smile got even wider.
“Do you really like this building?”
“It’s my favorite in town. But—sweeping my hand towards the dropped ceiling and harsh lighting—what…happened to it?”
He gave me a long look. Then he looked to the ceiling. “You don’t like that?”
I was nervous. But he was still smiling. “No. It’s cheap. But this wasn’t a cheap building originally, right? I’d love to discover what’s hidden behind all the cheap paneling and dropped ceilings.”
His smile was now huge. His eyes sparkled. He stepped into the narrow hall with its low ceiling and harsh light. He winked. “Follow me.”
We walked a bit down the hall, then he opened a cheap door. He reached inside and flicked a light on. He wiggled one finger at me, bekoning. “Look.”
As I stepped toward him, he stepped back, and motioned for me to go into the room. I did…and gasped.
I was in a utility closet. It was full of brooms, mops, buckets of old water, cheap metal shelves, and old paint cans. But, on the wall opposite, and filling the entire wall, was a gobsmacking, brilliantly colored mosaic mural of some ancient seaside town with ancient sailing ships. It was huge. It was absolutely stunning.
WHAT was this work of art doing in a utility closet? This all made no sense.
I couldn’t breathe. This was one of the most thrilling moments in my life. The old man chuckled. “Well, you wanted to learn about the buried secrets of the Snell Arcade!”
It developed that I was talking with 76-year-old Archie Parish. He was an architect. And it was into his office that I had peeked into. He invited me inside, gave me a verbal tour of the building, and explained its sad history. He then walked me through the building, explaining as we went along, and revealing more hidden aspects.
It was the best day of my life. And I fell madly in love with the Snell Arcade.
In 1975, a few months after moving into my first apartment on 22nd Avenue North, I was again wandering through the Snell Building. I took the elevator to the seventh floor, the top-most button on the elevator keypad. But what about the tower of the building, the three floors above the seventh-floor? How did one access them? I looked around. One door was locked but it was obviously an office. Another door opened into a utility closet. Another door…opened to a stairwell. And there were stairs…going up.
My heart was pounding. At the landing of the U-shaped stair, there was a door. It was numbered: 800. The eight floor? I stared at the door on the landing. Then the door opened. A woman gasped, and her hand went to her mouth. I gasped.
Instantly, I recognized that she was scared of me, a man with long hair standing in a dark service staircase.
I blurted out: “I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m sorry. I just love this building, and was wandering around it. I was dying to know how to access the tower.”
The fear drained out of her expression. Then she smiled, quizzically. “How old are you?”
“And you love this old building?”
“And you want to get into the tower?”
She seemed to ponder this. Then she opened wide the door on the landing, and said: “Well, then you better follow me.”
My heart soared. My heart sang.
Stepping through the door, it was immediately obvious that I had stepped into Narnia. We walked up a short flight of steps into a room which took my breath away.
“Amazing, isn’t it?”
Struck dumb, all I could do was nod.
She smiled, obviously enjoying all this. “My name is Sue. What’s your name”
Thus, by 1950, the tower became an apartment for the owner.
One entered a room that was not large but had a high ceiling. The floor was gorgeous Spanish tile. A narrow stair led up to the ninth floor. It had a gorgeous wrought-iron railing, and the stair risers were, if I recall correctly, set with colorful tiles.
The west terrace was, as mentioned, enclosed in 1947. It was fully glassed on three sides, and the cabinets were fabulously late 1940s and of very high quality. It was a dream kitchen.
I don’t recall what the south terrace was used for.
The east terrace was additional living space.
Upstairs was the bedroom, also with a high ceiling, and a strikingly colorful 1920s tiled full bathroom in the corner.
I was bedazzled. I was struck dumb. I was powerfully in love.
“So, you like it?”
“It’s the most amazing apartment in the world.”
Sue looked intently at my dazed, rapturous expression for a moment. “Would you like to rent it?”
“In a few months I need to leave. The landlord will be livid about my breaking the lease, as the apartment was vacant for many years before I rented it. So…if I can tell them I’ve another renter lined up, I think they will be OK. Would you like to make a deal with me? When I’m ready, if I can call and alert you, would you be willing to show up at the landlord’s office, that same day, and sign a new lease?”
I could not believe what I was hearing.
THIS might be mine?
THIS the oh-my-God-the most-gobsmacking-place-I’d-ever-seen could be mine?
Looking Sue straight in the eyes, I replied: “I want this apartment more than anything. It would be like an amazing dream coming true.”
She smiled, we shook on our deal, and exchanged phone numbers. I gave her my work number, and hours, as I did not have a home phone.
Beaming, she said: “How extraordinary that I met you in a dark stairwell.”
Riding my bike home to my shabby apartment, I was dazed. I kept thinking of the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy’s drab black and white life suddenly transformed to vivid Technicolor. And now, now, I had been offered such a transformation.
My life to date had been so painful, could it be possible that, after all I had been though, this stunning, glorious prize might be awarded to me? Really? Really?
The months crept by. All I could think of was the Snell Penthouse. The waiting was painful. My head and my bones ached. And doubts soon tried to overtake me. I had been brutalized my whole life. There was no way that life would, all of a sudden, be generous to me. No way! However, I was able to keep these dark thoughts at bay due to the seeming cosmic nature of our encounter. I mean, I was on the stair landing JUST as Sue opened her door. And she actually NEEDED help. Help which I could, UNIQUELY provide.
Yep, it seemed like destiny, my grim past notwithstanding. I knew I would get the apartment. Cosmic forces, for the first time, were aligned with me.
I had never felt such joy.
I was working in the kitchen of a restaurant. Daily, I brought into the bar a platter of cheese and crackers for the afternoon crowd. I had struck up a conversation with one regular. I do not remember his name, so will call him Rob. He was gay, attractive, and about thirty. We found that we both loved downtown, and he worked at famous Webb’s City, also downtown.
One afternoon, after I had brought out the cheese/cracker tray, we talked a bit. He asked: “Are you OK? You seem really upset.”
I blinked. And blinked again. Then I poured out my overwhelming lust for the Snell Penthouse, and the deal that I had made. “Sue called an hour ago. She broke her lease today! She then called and told me to rush to the landlord and sign a lease!”
“So, what’s the problem?”
“My boss wouldn’t let me leave. So, I’m counting the minutes till four, when my shift ends. Then I’ll rush to the landlord. I feel so distracted. I can’t think of anything else.”
Rob asked: “Who is the landlord?”
Still distracted, I replied with the well-known name of a local banker.
“Well, I’m sure it will all work out. Most people don’t want to live downtown.”
Yea. You know where this is going.
Rob, motherfucker Rob from Hell, did want to live downtown.
When I arrived at the banker’s office, and explained why I was there, the banker’s secretary informed me that a new lease had been signed an hour previous. And, yes, the signature was Rob’s.
Motherfucker Rob from Hell.
Rob. Motherfucker. From. Hell.
Upon learning this scalding information, I jumped out of my chair, dazed, but my legs would not support me. I crumpled back into the chair. I explained to the secretary how Rob has stolen the apartment from me. I explained how I had waited months and months for the apartment to become available. I explained how much I loved the building and how having such an apartment would be like a dream come true.
She appeared to think I was…not right, somehow. She then ruffled through some papers, and asked: “What is your name?”
I gave it to her.
She look deeply disturbed. And confused. “That is name Sue gave me. She said you’d be in right away to sign a lease. But here it is, hours after Sue was here.”
I explained about my boss not letting me off early.
She shrugged. “Sorry. A lease is a lease. You shouldn’t have told anybody about the apartment.”
My life flashed before me. All the pain. All the abuse. I had always thought that moving away from my family would offer protection. When I moved into my first apartment, the rapturous sense of freedom I experienced seemed to validate this. I would never be brutalized again!
But, fuck, here was a punch to the stomach greater than anything I had ever experienced. Ever greater than sexual abuse. For, not only had something magicalwondrousamazing been snatched from me, but…gasp…gasp…it was my fault this time.
My big mouth had betrayed me, stabbing my dreams to death.
Somehow, I returned home. Somehow, I kept working. Yet, I felt dead inside. For all that I had been though I had felt pain, yes, tremendous pain, but I had never experienced anything like this. For, I now realized that not just my family could be unimaginably cruel.
So, too, could seemingly friendly people. Even near strangers.
I had not ever prepared for this.
I hated Rob with the passion of an exploding sun. I detailed what he had done to everyone I knew. Then, a few months later, he grabbed me in a disco and pulled my aside.
He whispered: “You fuck! You’ve destroyed my reputation. Everybody thinks I did something evil. You need to stop badmouthing me, you piece of shit. It’s not my fault that you’re too stupid to understand how the world works. Who the fuck do you think you are?”
I was shocked. He had been holding my upper arm, tightly. I jerked away. “Wow! You did something evil! You! PURE evil! And yet you think I’m the problem?”
I said this loud. Everybody heard. He looked like a cornered rat. And, like a cornered art, he looked at all the angry eyes looking back at him…and scurried out.
I never again saw him in any disco. I never again saw him, period.
This all happened in early 1976. In the fall of 1978, I moved to New York City, and all the pain and anger about the Snell Penthouse was eclipsed by the intensity of my new life. Many years would pass before I thought about the penthouse and Rob.
In looking back, I suspect that my life would have evolved radically differently had I signed a lease on the Snell penthouse. I was so obsessed with it that it is likely I would not have moved to New York. If so, I would have had a vastly different life.
Today, at sixty-three, I do not know if I should curse Rob. Or thank him.
Life is weird.
(Yes. I still curse Rob.)
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