All I know about Mr. Lawson is what we kids heard in the neighborhood and what my parents have later confirmed. I never spoke to him, he was as old as the wind that whipped through his white hair and we only saw him while he worked in the yard at the big brick house next to mine. The immaculate yard boasted giant oaks in the front, a perfect lawn, a perfect square hedge, a field of tiger lilies in the back and a single pear tree along our shared driveway. Mr. Lawson let my Father pick all the pears one year for pear wine in return for a bottle of it but I don’t think it turned out very well because we never did it again.
Mr. Lawson was born in that house. His father owned Lawson Furniture and before the turn of the century built the house for his wife and his only son. In fact his father built most of the homes on our street including ours designed for a Doctor in the late 1800s and the two story stables turned garages that ran the length of the block behind all our back yards. Our home had an odd little corner ledge half way up the stairs used for setting the end of a casket on while wrangling it up the long and winding staircase. Knowing this spurred my 10 year old brain into action dreaming up stories about ghosts of children that had died in the Doctors parlor in my living room at night and coffins in the front hall.
To our disappointment Mr. Lawson had no children to play with and he yelled at us when we crawled through his tiger lilies pretending to be Indians sneaking up on our enemies. His house was the largest on the block. We longed to play on his grand old porch with its triple pillars and incredible bricked shelves but we didn’t dare step foot into the yard, as we never knew when he was home. My Father said Mr. Lawson was married once and his wife died. He couldn’t stand to live in the house without her, but when he missed her he’d come back and stay there for a time. Each visit he was in mourning, perhaps that’s why he didn’t care to have us chasing our kickball into his yard. Or perhaps it was a reminder of his son who had also passed away before him.
His withdrawn demeanor only fueled our childhood stories. We imagined buried treasure in the basement, gold coins garnered from a trip to Egypt hidden in the walls and jewels encrusted into the chandeliers that we could see from the street and ghosts guarding it all with a curse. Each separate tiny beveled pane of glass drooping and warping through time invited us to climb up and gaze into the house, yet we knew Mr. Lawson could be looking back or worse yet the spirit of his wife or son.
Dad talked to Mr. Lawson once in a while during his sad stays at the estate. Through the years we learned Mr. Lawson’s son had gone to Europe right after WWII and bought a tremendous amount of art hidden from the Nazis during the war. It hung inside the enormous brick home next to scrolled woodwork and polished banisters. The son would’ve been the only heir to the fortune and he didn’t have any children himself when he died from diabetes. I think the sadness from it killed Mr. Lawson and the home eventually sold to someone outside of the family for the first time in 100 years. They held an auction at the estate and among the rooms of antique furniture and art, two Picassos and a safe as big as a piano holding thousands of dollars cash. Our childhood fantasies were true. There was treasure in the home and it seemed no body inherited it.
When it was sold the developer didn’t care about the estate and turned it into low rent apartments. My teenage mind used to picture the developer in a polished grey pinstriped suit and hair slicked back with a cigarette clenched between his teeth and giant gold rings on his fingers. He rented it to a group of college boys who had partys there every night, smashing beer cans into the tiger lily patch and burning cigarette holes into various spots on the parquet floors. Shortly after, the rest of the houses on the block sold. Converted into low rent apartments the neighborhood lost its professors, art dealers, antique book sellers and me. My parents sold too.
If I find myself in that part of town I am often compelled to drive down Gregory St. to see which trees are gone and what windows are boarded up. It always makes me a little sad but yesterday I read this story in the paper about the Lawson Estate and my heart broke a little more: “Shabby Rockford House Lands on City’s Demolition List”
Photo: AMY J. VAN HORN RRSTAR.COM
Jim Pankhurst says he’s glad that the city intends to get rid of this eyesore next to his property in the 500 block of Gregory Street in Rockford.
"...The condemnation notice was posted again this week. city spokeswoman Julia Scott-Valdez said, and two garages behind the house, which are open and full of junk, also have been condemned.
Tenants moved out of the house within the past month and left huge piles of garbage next to the curb that the city hauled away.
Who’s responsible: The owner of record, David Lejeune, is deceased, and no one has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the property, Scott-Valdez said.
What’s been done: The house was condemned in 2003, and a city code hearing officer fined the owner $24,000 for various property-standard violations. The fines were never paid. The city obtained a judgment in circuit court to enforce the fine so the money can be recouped via a lien when the property changes ownership.
The house isn’t likely to change hands, though, because it is on the city’s list for demolition. How soon the wrecking ball will visit Gregory Street is uncertain. The city is relying on federal money to pay for the job, and three other shabby houses nearby — on Catlin, Bremer and Third streets — are competing for the cash. One of the requirements for spending the federal money is that the city first study what effect tearing down all of those houses would have on the immediate neighborhood.
“If the house on Gregory can’t come down this year, then next year,” Scott-Valdez said. “We may be able to deal with the garages behind the house sooner.”
Pankhurst said he’s glad the property is on the city’s radar.
“It’s been a problem for a long time,” he said. “I’ll be glad to see it go.” -Story by Isaac Guerrero"
Other links about the neighborhood
Greogory Street and Where I'm From