Can a home be reincarnated?
From issue no. 60.
Library of Congress
The architect Louis Kahn once said that even a brick aspires to be a part of something greater than itself, and the idea is a nice one if you appreciate the transcendental power of architecture, how a building can tap into the sublime. And sure, some bricks might have humbler aspirations than others—a grocery store, say, instead of Monticello—while others, still, are perfectly satisfied with their essence, just as some men are obstinately content. But after a century or so of taking a beating, humble or proud, any brick is going to require at least a little attention. No radical metamorphosis, just a tending to what already is, a scrubbing off of the crud that conceals an original integrity.
Sixty thousand bricks and a man who spent years scrubbing them are why I moved to Rock Street—directly across the street, in fact, from the man and bricks in question. Jay Core, a former antiques slinger turned lighting restorationist, bought 1020 Rock Street when it was just a run-down commercial building—about a century old, with great possibility if you were dedicated enough—and spent over a decade bringing the place back to life. Well before I met Jay, I'd heard of him: Part bully-preservationist, part sheriff, he was a sauntering, middle-aged crank who hassled crackheads and drunks and harangued lazy neighbors who let their curb appeal disintegrate into squalor. By all accounts, for better and worse, Jay was a passionate neighbor.
He and his wife, Barbara, bought the building in 1992. The neighborhood was just a patchwork of old homes—Victorian, Italianate, Queen Anne, a couple of bungalows—that ranged from the meticulously restored to the desperate, spotted in between with churches and a handful of gaudy municipal buildings. At the time, Jay and Barbara still lived in Dallas, where Jay's lighting business is headquartered, and after throwing down a mattress and scattering some furniture around (and building a shower), they spent days at a stretch repairing 1020 little by little, as they could afford it. The plan was to move and bring the business with them. Jay and Barbara were both born and raised in Arkansas. 1020 was a foothold for a homecoming.
The first time I saw the building was in 2002, the year I moved to Little Rock from Brooklyn. 1020's broad, ornamental, anachronistic face reminded me of the corner pubs in favorite neighborhoods I'd lived in. But for a while, 1020 just seemed to be sitting there. The ten-by-ten windows—four of them stretching fifty feet of façade—were papered over. I couldn't see what, if anything, was going on inside. Breathtaking improvements were just a rumor, pumped relentlessly by a close friend, Peg, a Puerto Rican homeschooling mother from the Bronx, whose husband, Steven, had singlehandedly restored their own gasping Victorian. Peg and Steven were the block's youngest anchors. Whenever we drove past 1020, or whenever it came up in conversation, they would gush and prattle about how gorgeous the interior was, about the blood and sweat Jay had put into it. They kept promising to show it to me, and grinned like they knew a secret I didn't.
Finally, driving home one day, Peg and I spotted Jay's truck, a Ford F-150 pickup, parked next to the building. The garage door on the south side was open, and Peg swerved to park so we could look inside.
Something about craftsmanship, no matter how subtle, announces itself in details. If the craftsmanship involves wood—and, moreover, an exotic-looking wood that has a musk to it—then your response is likely to be emotional. At least, I get emotional. And Peg was right: I swooned in there, surrounded by a rich marriage between the brick walls and Spanish cedar paneling. That wood had a Mentholatum-like charge to it, fresh and sharp. A tin ceiling glinted eighteen feet above us. The south brick wall stood exposed, rustic, and with the authority of a hundred and twenty years. I could seethe tops of houses across the street peeking above the paper that covered the massive storefront glass. Double front doors stood nine feet high.
Toward the back of the building, Jay had sectioned off a small workshop, a satellite to his Dallas headquarters, where the pieces of chandeliers were spread across a worktable in a surgical pause. The intricacy and religious precision of those pieces recalled a gone century. Oil stank, brass glinted. You felt the weight of old wealth on a grand scale.
There seemed to be an inevitability to the effect 1020 was going to have on the rest of the block. When a house across the street went up for sale, I bought it, but on the condition that its tenants be allowed to finish their lease. Truth is, I bought it as much for 1020 as the house itself. I was now a landlord on the city's most promising block.
One afternoon, Jay found me painting my porch, and asked if I'd be interested in painting his tin ceiling. The scaffolding was ready to go, he said, "I just can't find anybody who wants to do it." It sounded like an awful job, not much pay in it, so I put him off, and lolled away half the summer instead. It wasn't until July, after my tenants had left and I was finally about to move in, that I walked the five blocks down to Rock and 11th, to see the completeness with which a fire—so eerily efficient—had gutted 1020 and destroyed nearly everything in it.
The Reverend Henry Hudson and his wife, Beth, visited Jay the day before 1020 burned down, bringing with them a brass, gas-and-electric Beardsley & Co. chandelier that needed a few improvements. "The last thing I wanted to do that afternoon was take on another job," Jay remembered. But the Hudsons were good friends. Jay ribbed them briefly about the price (about four hundred dollars), then put the chandelier away. They spent the rest of the visit touring the place. The bathroom was a point of pride: heated travertine marble floors, glass-brick walls, a roomy walk-in shower. They idled on the back patio, admiring the landscaping, the handsome brick annex on the opposite end of the courtyard, and the touches lay had added to the mother-in-law cottage, as he called it, a restored bungalow he and Barbara stayed in while working on the main building. In about a month, Jay guessed, they'd be settled in.
The next night, around midnight, Barbara awoke to let the dogs out, which took just a few minutes, and quickly fell back asleep. She doesn't recall what woke her up a few hours later, around three. Something about the dogs. They were restless.
Then she smelled smoke, and for a second thought it might be the window unit, but then saw, through the blinds of the bedroom window, flames curling up the light pole on 11th Street, flames licking the comer of the building itself. She darted out of the cottage and called 911. Before she could finish giving them her address, the first engine company arrived.
Jay and Barbara hurried through a back gate, through the alley, and they found both the 11th St. pole and Jay's F-150 burning wildly, gorging on fuel and oil. Firemen immediately set about extinguishing the truck and pole, then turned their hoses on 1020's garage door, blasting through it. A second engine company arrived and began to soak the roof.
"For a while," Barbara said. "It was fine. I thought it was going to be okay. The garage would be gutted, but it would be okay."
Jay asked one of the firemen if they could save the building. The fireman pointed to a spot where flames had punched through the roof. "By the time it pops through like that," he said, "it's gone."
"From that point," Jay told me, "the damage was exponential."
It wasn't until Barbara could see inside the building that she realized what the firefighters already knew. When they turned their hoses on the building's storefront, water pressure shattered the giant panes of leaded glass, and Barbara could finally see the strength and size of fire inside-could see nothing but fire. "That's when I gave up," she said.
Twenty-seven firefighters, seven trucks, ten thousand gallons of water. "Within half an hour, the damage was complete. By morning, the last hose had finished pumping, and daylight cast the smoldering mass into high relief. "With the fire mostly put out, the walls carved open, Jay could see the Reverend's chandelier resting at the top of the staircase, but was prevented from running inside to grab it. The heat had reached well over two thousand degrees, and the building still had a lot of cooling off to do. "But brass melts at two thousand," Jay said, and he couldn't figure out how the Reverend's lamp had survived the same heat that had liquefied the lamps around it, not three feet away. The fireman shrugged.
News trucks were pulling up. It was already Monday morning. Jay and Barbara retreated to their cottage on the other side of the courtyard, empty-handed.
Jay is a gregarious kind of misanthrope: grouchy, rambling, with the warmth of a natural storyteller whose every story is tinged with polemic. Ask him a simple question and he sidewinds toward an answer, pointing out extraneous details along the way, each detail leading down blind alleys of clarification that, in turn, reveal other hidden details that wind back toward the original point. Any answer sprouts many tendrils.
His mastery of chandeliers developed over decades of trafficking other relics, and lots of junk. He grew up in Dumas, Arkansas, and spent his high-school weekends driving a Chevy pickup—sans floorboard—the forty miles to Pine Bluff to see his grandmother. An antiques shop—ANTIQUES HERE—was a regular landmark on the way. One day, Jay came across a four-poster bed that looked fancy enough that it might be worth something, so he loaded it onto the truck and brought it to the shop to see what he could get. Sally Mayes, the owner, confined to a wheelchair, rolled out to take a look. Jay unlatched the back, she studied the goods. Then she asked him how much he wanted.
"Make me an offer," Jay said.
"I never make offers," she said.
"I don't know how much to ask for."
"Well, ask something," she said. "I'm not going to make you an offer."
"Would fifty bucks be too much?"
"I won't give you less than a hundred."
Sure, she dickered the wrong way with him on the price, but Jay estimates that today the bed is worth about twelve thousand dollars. "Plus, I figure she didn't want to screw me," he said. "I thought, 'This business is pretty damn good.'''
At the end of Jay's junior year, Mayes proposed an arrangement: If he worked for her that summer, driving her wherever her collector's instincts led, she'd help buy him a better truck and meanwhile teach him the nuances of the antiques business. Jay agreed, and they spent that summer towing a trailer full of tens of thousands of dollars' worth of beds, dressers, mirrors, mantels, casement windows, and just about whatever they could coax from people (for a price) who didn't realize the value of what was in their possession. The trick to finding it all lay in a bit of economic history. "You kinda had to know where the money used to be," Jay said. "Where the economy was down but the houses were good." In the South, he says, that was usually along the Mississippi River. So they drove, and drove, boomeranging between Dumas and towns along the River all the way north to Chicago. They slipped into junk shops and scuttled through ghettos and neighborhoods where the houses reflected a grand decrepitude, a vanished wealth that had left precious pieces in its wake. Victorian craftsmans—both single-family and those chopped into apartments—were all untapped X's on a map.
Mayes was clever and convincing, and Jay gleaned a blustering style from her, a rough Bible salesman's charm that put him in the living room before actually being invited inside. With Mayes, he says, "I'd pick her ass up and set her on the stairs," and just by watching her would learn the art of bullish courtship. "She taught me how to knock on doors. She taught me how to get in basements and attics—I can get in a house slicker than an eel through a keyhole—but the most important thing she taught me was how to find out if they owned the house or if they were renting. If they were renting, glory be to the Lord, we could buy everything in the house!" In other words, a regular part of the business involved convincing tenants to sell pieces of a home they didn't even own. "The tenants were down on their luck and needed the cash," Jay says. "We didn't care." They'd buy doorframes, landing windows, even the front door itself. If a fine stained-glass piece was spotted, "we'd have a glazer there in a heartbeat."
After high school, Jay spent a couple of years in New Mexico, then attended Tulane, selling antiques in New Orleans to make a living. He paused in Little Rock again before moving to California, but by now his home was just a technicality. The taste he'd acquired with Mayes stuck with him. He spent most of his time driving cross-country, chasing rumors of rare architectural items in any city. Along the way, he'd grab smaller things that were easy to sell or throw into a deal. Urban renewal was his blessing. As cities razed old buildings in bad neighborhoods, their parts and contents were expunged onto the streets, and Jay would be there to sweep them up, the landing windows as well as the desk fans—all of it bygone, and most if valuable to somebody, you never knew who. Jay came to be known as a "picker," but was one of the few pickers who also dealt in the large-scale, high-end stuff. "It wasn't anything for me to leave L.A., stop in Little Rock, get a quick night's sleep, and head out for the East Coast," he said. ''I'd buy a truckload of Depression glass in Detroit, then go sell it to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena."
The pace quickened when, in 1970, a restaurant phenomenon called Friday's showed up in Memphis. A Manhattan perfume salesman named Alan Stillman had bought a pub in New York and decorated it with Tiffany lamps and other antiques, catering to the after-work crowd. Friday's quickly became a singles-scene mecca, and its success spawned franchises and copycat restaurants whose need for antique decor was a boon for Jay: sinks, towel dispensers, mirrors, soda signs, bicycles, washboards—an explosion of nostalgic crap. "I used to sell walls by the square foot," he said, "of stuff, didn't make any difference what it was. Like bicycles, pictures, I don't know. I'd just buy what I thought I could sell."
Problem was, the nature of picking led to a lot of overhead, compounded by clients' dragged-out promises to pay the next time around. Bad checks, no invoices, stuck two cities behind a guy who owed you five grand…it was easy to burn out poor in this business, and quickly. For Jay, antique lighting was a way out, or at least a way to slow down. "I don't really know how I ended up in it," he said. "I started doing chandeliers that involved metallurgy, soldering, reproducing casting parts, arms, being able to mend. I started doing it and it worked. There was a need for it."
He kept moving—to Little Rock in '77, the year Barbara's mother introduced them. He and Barbara got married in '86, honeymooned in London, then ended up in Germany for a while. They returned to the States eight years later, and eventually chose Little Rock again, but had trouble finding an apartment that could accommodate the large pieces they'd acquired—a four-poster walnut bed, French Empire dresser, enormous bookcases, a china cabinet—none of which could be angled up most stairwells or squeezed through most doors. One afternoon, after looking at an apartment across the street, they noticed an index card taped to 1020's storefront window: FOR SALE OR RENT, CALL LESTER GAINES.
Three days later, Jay and Barbara moved in. "With 1020 as a base, they began acquiring other homes—six in all, including the mother-in-law cottage behind the building, the house next door, and the one across the alley—as a way of anchoring their end of the block. "The whole thing was a concept," Jay said, "picket fence and all."
By Sunday morning, just a few hours after the fire began, investigators had determined where it had started—with the cruise-control device in Jay's Ford pickup. But they couldn't say exactly what had caused the cruise control to catch fire.
The clue was out there. In 2005, Ford had issued a recall that included Jay's F-150 pickup because of that very device. The recall was an expansion of an earlier one, issued in response to trucks and cars that, even when parked and turned off, were catching fire for no apparent reason. Each fire created small, bewildering disaster areas out of unlikely places, such as driveways, a fire station, even a crowded parking lot. At this point, in the wake of over five hundred vehicle fires and well over a hundred lawsuits, the recall has expanded to include over ten million cars and trucks.
I stopped by the Chester Street station of the Little Rock Fire Department to speak with
Captain Dennis Free, who led the investigation of the fire at 1020. We flipped through photographs he'd taken at the scene—the blown-out Ford; a cloud of flame in the belly of the building; the gaping, smoking south wall.
Scrolling through the pictures, Free described for me the fire's path. Sparking in the engine, just above the brake-fluid casing, flames spread toward the driver's front tire, burned outward, lit the light pole just a few feet away, then crawled up the pole, making a sharp turn where wiring connected it to the building. The fire scuttled along that wiring, and kept scuttling until it was inside 1020's walls, creeping through the conduits and pipes, lighting the dry, now tinderbox-primed Spanish-cedar paneling. Cardboard boxes served as kindling. The conditions for a complete burn were perfect.
Jay is suing Ford, but his case isn't a slam dunk. Free kept reminding me, with a confusing humility, that it was only his opinion that the cruise control started the engine fire. He stressed that none of the evidence we were studying would guarantee Ford's liability. For one thing, he said, the fire department didn't have the funding to take the investigation deep enough to know for sure. Only the insurance companies (for Jay's business, his home, his truck) had enough to spend on nailing down what, exactly, caused the fire, sending close to a dozen people in all, representing every possible angle of vested interest, to comb the site and truck for clues—disproving possibilities, affirming hunches, some investigators working more aggressively than others. No one but the companies themselves—not even Jay and Barbara, nor their attorneys— will know what the investigators discovered until the case goes to trial.
In the meantime, part of what makes this lawsuit so knotted is the very same economic phenomenon Jay exploited to make a living: Who's to say what the ultimate value of a nineteenth-century Empire dresser really is? How tragic is the destruction of a collector's mint-condition Victoriana? How do you calculate the value of sweat equity? How much is ten years of love and labor worth? No matter what the settlement comes to, the amount will be secondary. The plaintiff takes a loss.
About a year ago, last spring, I met up with Jay and Barbara to get a tour of the wreckage, and to find out how they'd fared in the eight months since the fire. They'd been fighting a handful of legal and bureaucratic battles—with Ford over losses beyond what their insurance covered, with their insurance company over the extent of that coverage, and with the neighborhood historic-preservation board over the appropriate fate of the building—just four charred walls and a hollowed inside—and how to fulfill it.
A structural engineer had examined 1020, and had left Jay and Barbara with a dreadful choice: They could, in theory, save the building—at least, the bricks could be used as a façade over a new structure. But that would cost an unreasonable amount of money, and guaranteed endless haggling. (As one architect told them, "If you're going to rebuild this building, the board's going to be right in the middle of it. You'll never get rid of them.") The other option was to tear the building down. The mortar was already weak from age, and the fire's intense heat had all but ruined it. Jay and Barbara struggled with the decision a long time, and at one point had committed to rebuild 1020. But it took only a few sessions with the preservation board to dissuade them. After so many years caring for the building and the block—with a stubborn independence, Jay and Barbara were emotionally tapped. That afternoon, Barbara was scheduled to meet with the board to seek permission to tear down 1020.
It was no consolation, but it did cross my mind that, having survived tornadoes and even a couple of lightning strikes, a hundred and twenty years was a pretty good run. And in spite of the fact that it was blackened and crumbling—or, somehow, because of it—1020 still possessed the dignity of a long history. In 1890, around when the building was constructed, Rock Street had only a smattering of homes. On perspective maps from that year, Rock and 11th streets mark the edge of the city. Almost the entire block belonged to the Baers, German immigrants who worked at the armory (now the park that flanks the neighborhood's east end) and who served as undertakers, tinsmiths, butchers, even the city's first firefighters. 1020 was originally the neighborhood dry-goods store, run by Louis J. Baer, who sold seed, chicken coops, horse collars, saddles, dishes, cloths, just about any and all provisions his neighbors needed. The business thrived, and rumor has it that after shutting down, once the Baers dissolved, it reopened briefly as a grocery store again before Lester Gaines made it the headquarters of a microfiche business.
Picking through the wreckage, Jay seemed less despondent than I'd expected. The day was lovely, bright with a slight wind; fire trucks whined in the distance, someone else's emergency. We high-stepped across the crunching junk, dodged where the floor had been gouged out. Staring at all of what was rusted and ripped-apart was calming, in a way.
I asked Barbara what attracted her to the building in the first place. "It just had a presence," she said. "It had lots of possibilities, no restrictions on it. Just a nice big open space." But it came with hazards, too. Jay said, "I kept a file on what happened around here. A woman pistol-whipped her husband going down the middle of the street at two in the morning. Some gal shot her husband in the alley across the street. I had a list of this stuff, and I went to the police and said, 'Here's what's going on, what can we do about it?' The officer said, 'You can move.'''
Jay's gruff style led to butting heads with the board, whose mission is to protect the historic integrity of the neighborhood. Where Jay and Barbara sought to speed up certain improvements to the building—for the sake of their own safety, they say—the board held fast to its procedural pace.
"Their intentions are well-meaning," Barbara said of the board. "But as an entity, they really don't understand this neighborhood. They can't appreciate what people go through to live down here. It's why I had to fight them just to get a fence. I told them: I've known one person who was murdered, three women who were raped. I couldn't leave a garden hose out because it would disappear. I had to carry a screwdriver or a box cutter in my pocket when I was outside gardening just to feel safe. You have to put up with that to be able to live down here."
"So why did you want to live here?" I asked her.
"They asked me the same thing," she said, with some venom at the ignorance of the question. "'Why do you want to live downtown?' Well, where do you find this anywhere else? You don't. So you have to balance it. You have to ask yourself what you're willing to give up or tolerate in order to have it."
Birds chirped in the warm weather. Metal clinked underfoot. Jay called us over to where his shop had been, where a massive parts cabinet—oak, twenty-seven card-catalogue-sized drawers, hauled by Volkswagen to California and back—seemed to teeter forward. He bent down and picked up a ruined brass clip. "That came off a chandelier we nicknamed Cow Pasture," he said, "since that's where we found it. I got it in the '70s outside of Benton, Mississippi, from an old guy who was a lighting picker. I never could remember where he lived. I had to go to the county courthouse and find his daughter so she could take me to him. He had two lights, this one was for Barbara. Antebellum, gas, eighteen lights, six arms, three lights on each. You got one piece of it right there. Just throw it down over there, don't worry about it."
"Or you can have it," Barbara offered.
"Or, sure, you can have it. Don't be proud."
We didn't spend much longer sifting around, but in that time Jay and Barbara kept returning to what would, in the days that followed, turn out to be a painful frustration for them. Making a building disappear is hard enough work, but 1020's historic significance guaranteed rounds of quorums and approvals. The irony of not being able to demolish the building quickly, despite how dangerously brittle it was, would throw Jay and Barbara into a depressive loop.
Worse, even after finally getting a demolition permit, they still had trouble finding someone willing to tear the building down for the right price. Just a few days before a scheduled demolition, Jay told me that the deal was off with the company he'd hired to do it. His insurance company refused to cover the job, and he couldn't afford it on his own. The setback sent him into fits of recalculation and haggling. When we talked a couple of weeks later, he was almost agonizing over the fact that 1020 was still standing. "This building has not died a gentleman's death," he said. "I want it to die a dignified death, but that doesn't look like it 's going to happen."
What's a dignified death for a burned-out shell like this? Any way you look at it, 1020's presence on this corner would be consigned to memory, with less to mark its history and contribution than the Baers' hitching post, which survives today just a couple of lawns down the block.
But 1020's time had come. What remained of it—the brick, the wood, the ironwork—would be disseminated into other structures. Jay eventually found a demolition company he could afford to do the job, a married couple named Glen and Debbie Boblett. They'd arrived early one Monday morning to hose down the site, to mute the dust and asbestos, before knocking a hole in the south wall big enough to fit their equipment through. A Hitachi Excavator 120—a long-necked earthmover with about twenty thousand pounds of torque, and which Debbie usually operated—waited in the street. A dumptruck was parked where the Ford had been, under the pole.
Glen gave us a primer on his attack strategy for the floor, where a solid, twenty-seven foot beam of heart pine acted as the main support. It would fetch a good price if he could save it, and he'd have to maneuver the excavator carefully so as not to crush the thing, timber at least a century older than the building itself.
The wood was his to sell, as was everything else. "Up until I signed that contract," he said, pointing to the papers in Jay's hand, "I didn't care what fell. But from here on out, if anything goes wrong or anybody gets hurt, I'm liable. So it's my building." He had ten days to knock it all down and smooth it over and salvage what he could—brick, copper wiring, wood, whatever. He'd use the excavator to scoop out the rubble, then use it to topple the walls carefully enough to save as many bricks as possible and sell them. At about fifty cents a brick, it was decent money.
Jay isn't a religious man, but he called upon an old friend, the Reverend Howard "Flash" Gordon of First Presbyterian, to administer the building's last rites. Gordon, strikingly tall and good-humored, arrived punctually at ten. He seemed almost giddy to see Jay as they worked a geeky sarcasm on each other. The jokes flew, the mood was bittersweet.
Things finally settled down, and we gathered near where the bathtub used to be. "Only the nonbelievers take off their helmets," Gordon said. Heads bowed, the Reverend began:
"Gracious God, we give thanks to you for this place and this building. We give thanks to you for all the people that worked here. We give thanks to you for all the customers that were served here. It is with sadness that we see it go. We ask, Lord, that you will continue to use this place not only to serve people, but as something beautiful in the community, to be with those who rebuild and give them vision. Thank you, Lord, for what you've given us. Thank you, Lord, for what you will give us. The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord."
"That's pretty good," Glen said.
"Straight to the point," Debbie said.
"Jay, any final words?"
"No, I'm speechless. You know me."
The Hitachi cranked up. It lurched and groaned, and at the scooper's touch the south wall wobbled like a piece of posterboard, then crumbled. Day laborers crawled across the mess to load the flatbed by hand.
It took a day or so to gut the building. Glen discovered that there was much more brick than he'd realized-about sixty thousand bricks, total. Some prizes surfaced in the rubble: a Victrola record player, along with a stack of 78s (mostly fox trots, all perfectly intact); more chandelier pieces; lots of brass. The building's original paneled windows, removed during renovation, lay flat in the courtyard, saved there so Debbie could haul them home to finish a greenhouse. Whatever bricks she and Glen didn't sell or donate would be used on their own project, a small house connected to a large tornado shelter, a bunker of sorts. Even the bathroom's glass blocks would be put to use, as Christmas gifts—a small light drilled and set inside, with red ribbon wrapped around it.
People kept stopping by and asking about the bricks. In fact, all that week, anytime I mentioned the demolition, people would show a kind of curious excitement. Folks were blunt about their plans to swing by and maybe grab an armful of bricks to take with them—for a patio, or a wall, some remodeling or decoration.
Why the fuss? Clay, straw, shale—a brick's ingredients haven't changed much since the nineteenth century, and ones made today are just as good, if not better, than those made a century ago. The hook is aesthetic. An old brick's deeply weathered face can't be duplicated on a mass scale. Companies have tried.
"No manufacturer today has been able to put color into a new brick that a used brick has," said Dave Garner, of Antique Brick & Block, who has the best brickyard in town. What remained—the brick, the wood, the ironwork—would be disseminated into other structures. In his office, he flipped through a catalogue that listed thousands of companies, dating back to the early 1800s, that have come and gone making bricks, some lasting just a couple of years. Thousands, because until the 1960s most brick manufactures operated within a local radius. Who wanted to haul bricks that far anyway? In the brick's heyday, not much distinguished the strength of one made in Florida from one made in Oklahoma. The difference lay in the finishing touches, in the brickmaker's stamp. Throughout Garner's offices, stylish bricks were displayed on the shelves and wide crown molding. Nearly every one included some kind of insignia: O.T. (Oklahoma Territory), I.T. (Indian Territory); names of such brickmakers as MERCIER and CLIPPERT, etched in raised or sunken relief. One brick had a savvy architectural swirl; another flashed sunflowers; yet another was shaped like a hobnail boot. My favorite was etched with instructions from a Dodge City physician—DO NOT SPIT ON SIDEWALK—intent on stopping the Spanish flu.
Garner led me out to the stacks on his lot. I asked him what a collector's brick was worth these days. "Monetarily, a single brick has zero value," he said. "But I get collectors in here once every couple weeks or so, traveling across the country to visit Aunt Pootie or whatever, and they'll look me up, come by, and we'll trade bricks." A stack of Chicago Lights (wheat colored, brittle looking) stood next to a stack of Detroit Reds that glowed with a burnt-orange patina, a loud visual snap to this gray afternoon. Even now, that orange brick is still hard to forget. It had the look of some ruddy gem plucked from a mythic creek.
If a chandelier is old enough, and valuable enough, and its restoration requires deep knowledge and an expert touch, Jay tends to find out about it. In the Senate chamber of the State Capitol building hangs a chandelier bought sometime around 1910, rumored to be a Tiffany but which Jay told me was actually made by Mitchell, Vance & Co., long defunct. The mission-style fixture hangs at the end of a fourteen-foot chain comprising twenty links, each made up of four parts. The lamp itself is an ornate trifecta of arms that clutch a wide bowl of alabaster glass, from which six more bowls hang from six more brass chains. Figuring out the chandelier's worth is tricky, and Jay won't provide an easy answer ("Worth means nothing unless you've got two people in a room and one wants it more than the other"), but he admits that in order to work on it, he had to insure it for at least a million dollars. The fixture adds a heavy elegance—a bright note—to an otherwise cold, august room. It is, as Jay affectionately puts it, "the finishing touch to the Industrial Revolution."
Jay's skill, his lights, can be found across the county and beyond—at a bed-and-breakfast, a doctor's home, in several churches (Baptist, Catholic, Methodist, Presbyterian), at the convention center, the Governor's mansion, in a county courthouse, in restaurants. Not very many people in this part of the country know as much about antique lighting as Jay does; fewer share his reputation. Between the Coasts, he's got the market cornered. If he can put the fire behind him—that phrase, the fire, he still utters it with an unsettling familiarity, like talking about a friend in trouble—he can dig back into his work, where he's happiest.
We had dinner recently. He was in town quoting a job for a historic hotel, a city landmark (where Ulysses S. Grant is said to have ridden his horse through the lobby, into the parlor-sized elevator, and up to his room). Our conversation was a dizzying mix of local history, personal history, flirting with the hostess, political ranting. Driving him back to his motel (he'd sold the mother-in-law cottage, the historic joint didn't put him up), Jay explained the differences among various types of sleeping pills, which he'd been prescribed recently. Without them, he said, he didn't sleep much. "If I hear a siren," he said, "no matter where the hell it is, I'm up for the rest of the night."
Just outside Little Rock's city limits, well past the industrial park where a mix of mills and fender graveyards and roadside joints meld with a scrappy forest, behind which a railroad runs, Glen and Debbie keep what remains of 1020's bricks on a ten-acre compound where they live and work. The day I visited, the giant industrial tools of their trade were spread out like statuary on a miniature-golf course: the Hitachi excavator on the bluff, dumpsters in a row, poles, a pontoon boat, a couple of work sheds. A bright brick path wound to a greenhouse walled with clear visquine, its roof made from the paneled windows that had once been 1020's storefront. It took Debbie just a few days to lay the brick in a patchwork to form the floor. The greenhouse was modest, not too many plants yet, this still being winter, but it was certainly pleasant, meditative. A pane had buckled from a storm a few days ago, but Debbie wasn't too worried about it.
"There it is," she said, and pointed past the greenhouse toward a patch of tall pines. Bricks—most of them stacked neatly on pallets, others strewn among the nettles—formed a low, orderly ruin at the base of the trees, like some pagan arrangement. Here was 1020 dismembered, and the collection had already been reduced. One neighbor had about a thousand bricks, which would be used to build a barbecue. Another neighbor planned to use his ten thousand to finish a house, replacing one that had burned to the ground.
Stacked in short piles, scrubbed clean to a bright red, the bricks that remained evoked a sadness over all that had been wiped out—a home, a dream, years between a husband and wife. Under the pines, they seemed restless, begging to be put to use.