When I interviewed for a vacant seat on the local historic-preservation board, no one mentioned a word to me about intrigue, romance, and murder. I was told that the board met once a month and that its primary job was to protect the city’s best historic buildings. I would serve with a group of fourteen other citizens that included lawyers, teachers, architects, and courtly Dexter Davidson, a former state senator. It all sounded very straightforward.
No one warned me I’d also be asked to avenge poor, dead Captain Flagg.
It began when someone named Alice Flagg, a gaunt woman in her late forties, asked to speak to the board. “It’s the house on Overhulse Street,” she said. “It makes me so angry I want to spit.”
The house she meant was a frothy confection of fish-scale shingles and spindle work, one of the rare Queen Anne houses built in this buttoneddown town. A few years back it had been placed on the local historic register and marked with a round bronze plaque that called it “The Joshua Martin House.” It wasn’t the house itself that had worked Alice into a passion; it was the name on the marker.
“Joshua Martin,” she declared, “was a two-faced coward and thief.”
According to Alice, he had never even owned the house. It had belonged to a widow named Clara Flagg, the grandmother of Alice’s husband, whom Martin had courted and married. He had moved in after the wedding and may have thought of her home as his castle, but Clara Flagg Martin had never actually put his name on the deed.
“Why should he be remembered in bronze,” Alice demanded indignantly, “when Captain Flagg never got so much as a decent Christian grave?”
As a rule our meetings are pretty sedate. We do not go looking for trouble. But Alice Flagg looked like trouble, and somehow she had found us.
Before we knew it, Alice had whipped out a sheaf of sepia photographs. “This is Captain Ezekiel Flagg, and this is his tugboat, Cheyenne .” She had a leatherbound ship’s log as well, and a look on her face that warned us she was about to drop a bombshell.
“Joshua Martin was Flagg’s first mate.”
She paused to let that sink in.
“One day the Cheyenne came back to port without Captain Flagg on board. Martin said he’d been lost in a storm, that no one had seen him go. Then Joshua Martin married Flagg’s widow, moved into her house on Overhulse Street, and took command of the tugboat.”
Well, you could see why the plaque upset her. Although the Flaggs hadn’t owned the house for more than three generations, seeing Martin’s name on the place was salt in an old family wound. Joshua Martin had never been brought to trial for the captain’s murder, but clearly Alice did not need a jury to tell her what he had done.
“We’ll pay for a new bronze marker,” Alice Flagg assured us. “Just get his name off the house.”
Of course it wasn’t that easy. While none of us questioned Alice’s sincere belief in her story, we could hardly begin recasting plaques on the basis of family legends. Under the circumstances, there was only one thing to do.
“I move,” said Sibyl MacDonald, the white-haired matriarch of the board, “that we form a new committee to study this subject further.”
“Second,” said Dexter Davidson. And we all voted “Aye” and went home.
But we couldn’t avoid it forever. Three months later the house on Overhulse Street was back to haunt us, this time in the form of its present owner, Harriet Harrington. Twenty-five years ago it had then been no more than a crumbling shadow of its original self, and she had spent her retirement doggedly nursing it back to health. She was as proud as a parent when it had first received its historic marker. But now, unnerved by the whiff of scandal surrounding Joshua Martin, Mrs. Harrington found she could no longer bear to look at the plaque.
“The house needs to have a new name,” she roared. (Mrs. Harrington was slightly hard of hearing.) “And I think a good name would be Harrington .”
You couldn’t blame her for trying, but customarily we christen homes after original owners. Since our committee had traced this house back past Clara Flagg Martin to a family named Hoyle, our decision should have been easy.
But then Dexter Davidson did what Dexter can’t stop himself from doing. He started being chivalrous.
“I move,” said Dexter, “that we name this place ‘The Hoyle-Harrington House.’”
“Second,” said Sibyl MacDonald, and beamed at her close friend and neighbor, Harriet Harrington.
Perhaps it was the Pandora’s box of trouble I saw ahead, as all the historichome owners in town demanded their names on markers. Or maybe I was just jealous. After two years of scraping off layers of wallpaper until my knuckles were raw, I wouldn’t have minded a plaque on my own house telling the world what I’d done.
“I don’t like this,” I heard myself saying, acutely aware of Mrs. Harrington seated directly behind me. “It’s bound to blow up on us later.”
For moment the board said nothing. And then Lisa Tibb, of all people, a woman so timid and quiet that most of us couldn’t remember her name, adjusted her glasses and said in a small voice, “She’s right.”
It was an electric moment. The discovery that Lisa Tibb could talk shocked the board back to its senses, and within a few minutes we’d hammered out an acceptable compromise. The house would be officially known as “The Hoyle House,” but Mrs. Harrington’s work would get a nod in the text of the plaque.
“Thank you for coming,” our chairman said kindly to Harriet Harrington, relieved that this issue was settled. Mrs. Harrington smiled back blankly. She had not, we discovered later, heard a single word that we’d said.
We were two items farther down our agenda, racing toward an early adjournment, when suddenly there was an explosion that rocked us all in our chairs.
“ What on earth do you mean by this? ”
It was Harriet Harrington, trembling with rage. The news had just gotten through. “Why can’t you call it the ‘The Harrington House?’”
All fourteen board members stared at me, as though they’d forgotten the reason. And then, God bless her, Sibyl MacDonald stepped in.
“Just let it go, Harriet,” she shouted. “I’ll explain it to you in the car.”
Before I joined the local board I thought that historic preservation was merely about saving buildings. But preservation, it turns out, is all about people too. It’s tugboat captains and merry widows and dogged descendants willing to fight to the death for the family name. It’s people who somehow find the time to make it to monthly meetings—the obliging Dexter Davidsons and the gentle Lisa Tibbses—in order to set aside for the future a little bit of the past.
When we phoned Alice Flagg to tell her that we’d voted to cast a new marker, she was able to control her rapture.
“It’s your decision, of course,” she said. “But unless you call it ‘The Flagg House,’ we won’t pay for the plaque.”
In the end the board had to pick up the cost, out of our own meager budget, of removing Joshua Martin’s name from the house of his rival’s wife.
Rest in peace, Captain Flagg, wherever you are.