Things that make me wish I was a better writer

You know how every now and then you run across a geode of a factoid – from the outside, interesting enough (Oh, look; a perfectly round rock.), but packed with Teh Shiny (Ooooh… shiny!)? Take this recent one I stumbled across, from a TODAY Show segment, Empty mansions are legacy of a mystery heiress.. Sounds like pretty fertile terrain in and of itself, doesn’t it? Rich, reclusive heiress; abandoned but immaculately maintained mansions across the country; family history of wealth wrenched bodily from the earth – and other humans. From such stuffs are all manner of literary goods woven, high and low. But for me, it was the first slide show of accompanying photos that had the info-geode.

It’s an unremarkable photo, really. Taken in 1910, it depicts a parlor or sitting room of some kind, overstuffed as only the wealthy Edwardians could do: damask and brocade everywhere, plaster rosettes and swags on the ceiling and wall panels, imported tiles on the fireplace, a tiger-skin rug. It’s really Gilded Age excess at its finest, workers-and-students-unite, to-the-barricades, excessiest:

1910 NY Times photo of Clark mansion, NYC (via The TODAY Show)

But it isn’t the photo as such that provided the geode moment. Sure, this would be the perfect setting for a Holmes vs. Moriarty encounter, or an outtake from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but those tropes are pretty well established. No, it was the photo’s caption:

High tech, 1910 style
Inside the childhood home of Huguette Clark. The Fifth Avenue mansion was a high-tech marvel for 1910, with electricity and central air conditioning. Powering it required seven tons of coal per day, brought in by the Clarks’ private subway line. (The New York Times)

Did you see it there? A private subway line. Where did it go? How many stops did it have? How many other private subways and rail lines were there under NYC? It wouldn’t have to be that big of a train – 7 tons of coal would need 300 or so cubic feet of space – but still… Private rail lines! Under Manhattan! And, implicitly, private steam generating plants! What more could a mad, Victorian genius want?

And for me, this will just be an irritation, a nagging little factoid laden with imagery and implications, begging to be incorporated into some steampunk fantasy or Victorian noir. Such beggary will fall on deaf ears; it joins a host of ignored, neglected, or otherwise ill-treated images, anecdotes, and impressions. The hidden shininess will have to wait for someone else to discover it.

2 Responses to “Things that make me wish I was a better writer”

  1. Chris Says:

    That’s an amazing story. The obvious moral is that, as cool as a private subway line would be, it won’t make you happy :-(

    Although I suppose if you were already happy, the addition of a private subway line wouldn’t hurt.

  2. Chris Says:

    I don’t know if you saw, but Huguette Clarke passed away this week.

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