Larry Steuben is a public servant. He’s also my brother-in-law twice removed: my sister Catherine married Jim LaFarge, whose sister Joan is Larry’s wife. Got it? Larry works for the city’s department of building inspection; actually Larry is the department of building inspection, and has been for twenty years.
The folks at 114 North Broad Street are remodeling the second floor—former location of Hamish Brookes’s legendary bookstore Shelf Life—and creating an apartment, with a “Millennial” clientele in mind. Even Agincourt has residents who want to be downtown.
With all the new construction north of Highway 7, Larry has ignored older building stock downtown, especially remodel jobs like this one. But this project is so extensive that he thought it would be good to take a look. So he parked in the back to check the fire stairs (riser-run ratios, handrails, etc.) on the way in. The rear facade is pretty utilitarian; tall double-hung windows in a common brick wall, one on either side of the stair. The stair itself is up to code: proper riser-to-run ratio; landing at the midpoint and again at the top. Handrail at the appropriate height and spindles properly spaced. But when he went inside, Steuben noticed something odd: the corridor jogged to the right and only one of the rear windows could be seen. All was not as it should be.
The old lath-and-plaster walls date from the 1890s when #114 was built. Layers of paint and paper showed in places, attesting to not only the age of the structure but also to the evolution of taste in the array of color and pattern displayed, even if only piecemeal.
If you thought phrenology—the 19th century pseudo-science of reading character and intelligence from bumps on the human head—had gone the way of the dodo, think again. Larry’s fingers and feet are sensitive to the slight irregularities in building surfaces; the minor architectural ripples that come from shifting foundations and alterations. He often skates across floors in his stocking feet. The slanting late afternoon light shining down that corridor revealed an undulation: he sensed the presence of a door in the wall on his left. A quick call to the owner authorized him to explore.
The handy Sears Craftsman pull-and-pry bar in his truck made quick work of the was at about eye level. Then, like Howard Carter in the Valley of the Kings nearly a century ago, Larry peered through a tidy hole the size of pancakes at Adam’s Restaurant and he saw wondrous things: a small stained glass window about six inches square configured with the number “96.” And again, like Howard Carter, he patched the hole and went for others to share his discovery.
What, do you suppose, lay behind that long-hidden door?