by Bing McGilvray
From her 5th floor window, Kathleen Burke can see just the top of the Victorian house she once bought and restored, at least during the winter months when the trees are bare. The house, with its unmistakable tower, is one of my favorites in Gloucester, rising improbably above all others like something from a fairy tale.
I live on the 2nd floor and I met my neighbor Kathleen when I helped her carry a large box to her apartment. That’s when I saw the paintings of the Loring B. Haskell house, named after the eccentric fellow who originally built it.
Prudence Fish wrote about this Queen Anne wonder in her book Antique Houses of Gloucester, now out of print. But I wanted to hear Kathleen’s story of how she happened to acquire the place. Graciously, she agreed to this interview.
Bing: OK, we’re recording. I’m sitting here with Kathleen Burke, my upstairs neighbor. Let’s see. We first met at the mailboxes, I think.
KB: Yes, I think so.
Bing: Eventually I learned your name was Burke and you were originally from Quincy. I wondered if you were related to Patricia Burke from Quincy who married my uncle Charles McDermott.
KB: I grew up in Quincy but no, no relation.
B: The most fascinating thing I found out about you is that you once owned and renovated, brought back to life really, one of my favorite buildings in … well, anywhere.
KB: You have excellent taste.
B: Thank you. So tell me about this towering Victorian – the Loring B. Haskell House. On the corner of Marchand and Spring.
KB: Yes. We were living in Ipswich at the time …
KB: My significant other, Lou. We were driving around Cape Ann. We drove by the tower and I just fell in love with it. Such a shame that it had fallen into disrepair. Such a beautiful building. It had been on the market for a year and no one had made an offer on it. To make a long story short, I was with Pru Fish, who wrote that fabulous book.
B: Antique Houses of Gloucester. Yes, it’s out of print and selling for big bucks on Amazon.
KB: I hope it will be reprinted.
B: Me too.
KB: After talking to Pru, I made an offer of $95,000 and they accepted it.
KB: We were all so stunned we went out for a pizza.
B: So now you have this house and it’s in pretty tough shape.
KB: No, that’s the surprise, the unknown quantity. Structurally it was very sound.
B: All you really had to do was decorate?
KB: Well, there was a lot of scraping, painting and scrubbing.
B: You have an article, full page from the Gloucester Daily Times dated April 22, 1985 … “High Tech Meets Victorian Gingerbread ~ Consultants translate computer argot into English in old Gloucester home”. So you were working with computers way back in 1985?
KB: What we were doing was advertising new products. Back when parts that are now tiny chips were as big as refrigerators. I had a knack for understanding the tech talk. For example, when I was helping them sell the latest controller …
B: You had to understand the controller and translate that into laypersons language. That’s very interesting.
KB: Yes, it was. This is something I never get tired of saying, the engineers are the unsung heroes of women’s lib. They didn’t care about male or female, you just had to understand the product. Wonderful people to work with. I had been doing this technical work before I bought the house. But I could justify buying it because I wouldn’t need to rent office space.
KB: And then I got into throwing wonderful parties. It was a house just made for it. People would come and get lost in the upper stories.
B: Do you know who owns it now?
KB: I don’t but they’ve done a wonderful job keeping it up.
B: Yes, still beautiful. I’d love to get up inside there sometime. When we met, I knew nothing about you and the house but I did know you lived for awhile in Haiti. That’s fascinating. Of course, this was long before the hurricanes from which they have yet to recover. Your time there was rather enchanted, right?
KB: Fabulous. They had cleared up the political mess. Someone decent was in the White House. Americans flocked to the Oloffson, a gorgeous old hotel, run by an imam whose mother was a Haitian dancer and father was a Yankee college professor. He put his hand to restoring the murals. Those were happy days.
B: Your cat even has a Haitian name.
KB: Dambala is named after the Haitian voodoo god of motion and dance. I went with a friend to adopt a cat. We decided pick a name once we saw him. Well, he danced right out of the cage! That was it. Dambala!
B: Tell me about these three paintings behind you.
KB: The one to the far left is by Ward Mann, a noted Gloucester artist whose studio was on Rocky Neck. Through someone I knew, I got a message from him. He wanted permission to paint Main Street from the tower.
B: Very cool.
KB: When we saw the painting, it was so lovely we bought it.
B: Terrific painting.
KB: Isn’t it? It has the spirit of Gloucester. The one in the middle is by Edward Hopper. In his time it was in the same lousy condition that I bought it.
B: So, when you bought it, it was boarded up like that?
KB: No, it wasn’t boarded up because there was a nice couple living there. But it was shabby.
B: That’s a Hopper print, right?
KB: They said if I sent them a picture of the house, they’d send a print.
KB: Oh, sorry, the Whitney Museum.
B: Aha. A very nice print indeed.
KB: They were very kind.
B: Now, this third picture shows the full height of the house… which you can’t really see anymore because the trees are now so large.
KB: That’s also by Ward Mann. We became great friends.
B: There were also people who thought it was folly to fix up the place. Lots of graffiti along the sidewalk walls. You’d fix it up and the vandals would return soon after.
KB: There were two opposing philosophies on that. I had the broken window theory, if you fix something others will follow your lead. And that’s what happened. No more graffiti. This happened with the ‘Painted Lady’ Victorians in San Francisco too. The pessimists were wrong.
B: Thanks so much for sharing a bit of your life, Kathleen.
KB: Thank you, Bing, for the attention.
Bing McGilvray is an artist, flaneur, raconteur and bon vivant living in Gloucester.