No Longer Weak and Weary, Poe’s Bronx Cottage Is Restored
By PATRICIA COHEN
Published: October 26, 2011
Edgar Allan Poe, in an undated portrait, moved to the former farmhouse in what later became the Bronx in 1846.
Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times
Workers finishing restoration of the Poe cottage in the Bronx, which underwent a half-million dollar renovation.
Now this city-owned cottage, where Poe wrote the poems “Annabel Lee” and “The Bells” and the short story “The Cask of Amontillado,” is receiving the finishing touches of a nearly half-million dollar renovation. And while the official date to reopen the house after more than a year of work is still uncertain, school groups have started to visit the site, at the Grand Concourse and East Kingsbridge Road in the Fordham neighborhood, this week. The timing seems only fitting. October is the month of Poe’s mysterious death, in 1849, and ends with Halloween, whose spirit is so expertly evoked by his memorably macabre stories like “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and “The Pit and the Pendulum.” (The Film Society Lincoln Center is capping its forthcoming Scary Movies series with a Halloween performance of “Nevermore,” Jeffrey Combs’s one-man show about Poe.)
What remains as tightly sealed as the crypt that imprisons Fortunato in “The Cask” is the Poe Park Visitors Center, which sits a stone’s throw away in the adjacent playground and was completed this year. The iron-gray pavilion, with a V-shape roof (like the wingspan of a raven) and slate shingles to evoke feathers, was designed by the architect Toshiko Mori and is being promoted by the Bronx Historical Society as both a complement to the Poe house and “a venue with boroughwide appeal.” The new center will provide a space to show a video on Poe’s life and offer some introductory exhibits before people head over for their cottage tour.
But neither the society, which helps operate the cottage with the city, nor the Parks Department, which paid $4.5 million for the visitor center, can afford to staff the new pavilion, said Angel Hernandez, an educator with the historical society. In the middle of the day last week its public bathrooms were locked with a handwritten note that said they were under repair. The sides of the pavilion were scratched, and vandals had begun the work of prying off the slate shingles.
Rather than the winged creature in Poe’s famous poem, the visitors center brought to mind something more earthbound. “Now it’s an elephant on the complex,” Mr. Hernandez said.
The society has applied for grants and to foundations and the State Legislature for financing, Mr. Hernandez said, but so far has had no luck in this harsh economic climate. The idea of selling paving stones bearing the names of donors, as was done in Tompkins Park in Manhattan, was rejected by the Parks Department. Until an agreement is reached on who has responsibility for operating the center, fund-raising proposals have been postponed.
Larry Scott Blackmon, a deputy parks commissioner, said, “We are looking into the intricacies of managing the center.”
Before it closed for renovations, the cottage, which was built in 1812 and is the last remaining building in what used to be called Fordham Village, typically received some 10,000 to 12,000 visitors a year.
With the welcome center not yet opened, visitors must watch the video from some 20 metal folding chairs that crowd the cottage’s upstairs bedroom. They learn that Poe, considered America’s first lyric poet and the inventor of the modern detective story, moved to the former farmhouse in the summer of 1846 with his wife, Virginia, and her mother, Maria Clemm. He had married Virginia, his first cousin, in 1836 when she was just 13 years old.
By the time they moved to Fordham, she was suffering from tuberculosis, and Poe was bankrupt, having lost his savings in a magazine venture. His mother-in-law (and aunt) foraged in the neighboring fields for food. Virginia did not survive the winter, and contemporary visitors can see the tiny 8-by-8-foot room downstairs that contained the bed in which she died that January, in 1847.
Friends noted that Poe was crushed by her death and sat by her grave, despairing, for hours. The haunting verses of “Annabel Lee,” the last that Poe composed, relate how “all the night-tide, I lie down by the side/Of my darling — my darling — my life and my bride/In her sepulchre there by the sea.”
Poe spent many of his days in the Bronx (then considered a part of Westchester County) wandering through the woods and by the river. St. John’s College, now Fordham University, had opened just a few years before his arrival, and he frequently visited the first generation of Jesuits there, writing that they “enjoyed smoking, drinking and playing cards, and they never discussed religion.”
Poe’s fondness for alcohol was notorious, and one can imagine the clanging from the bell tower on campus, prompting him, after a night of drinking, to write, “To the tolling of the bells/Of the bells, bells, bells, bells —/Bells, bells, bells — .” The university still has the very bell, stamped 1840, though some speculate it may have been another bell in New York that haunted Poe.
In October of 1849 the 40-year-old Poe was found on a Baltimore street, delirious and wearing another man’s clothes. He was never coherent enough to explain what happened, and he died in a hospital a few days later.
Poe and the places he lived have inspired other writers. John Henry Boner, an editor and poet, wrote a poem titled “Poe’s Cottage at Fordham” in 1889, that begins:
Here lived the soul enchanted
By melody of song;
Here dwelt the spirit haunted
By a demoniac throng.
More recent dwellers included a raccoon that had burrowed into a ceiling beam. The recent renovation fixed the damage, replaced rotting wood and worn window frames, thresholds and shingles. The outside has been freshly sanded and painted white with green clapboard shutters.
With the house newly refinished, one can see how this one-and-a-half-story dwelling might have served as a model for the one Poe himself wrote of in “Landor’s Cottage,” his final short story: “In fact nothing could well be more simple — more utterly unpretending than this cottage. Its marvelous effect lay altogether in its artistic arrangement as a picture. I could have fancied, while I looked at it, that some eminent landscape-painter had imagined it with his brush.”