December 7, 2017, a day that will live in infamy for Charles Teas. That day, the office he occupied for 46 years was devastated by a three-alarm fire. It not only housed Teas Real Estate, but was also home to more than two dozen residents who occupied the apartments maintained in the expanded Victorian. Estimated damage was more than a million dollars.
The sight of the burned-out building on the corner of Hanover and Maple has been bothering me. I reflexively pulled into the parking lot behind the building the other day, just to take a closer look. I couldn’t understand why five months later it is still standing as a monument to what has been lost.
Piles of charred rubble remain heaped between the main house and the apartments – remnants of furniture, shingles, boards, an old TV and other stuff burned beyond recognition. And just behind the house on a little through-street there is a new accumulation of junk – a red vinyl sectional, a box spring, a table and some other furniture. It’s been dumped there by someone who must have figured nobody would notice.
Or maybe they figured nobody would care.
I felt angry about it – angry that as our city transitions from spring to summer there is a high-profile shrine to the devastation of fire, a signpost in the middle of a busy intersection that sends a message of neglect.
I decided to call Charles Teas to find out what’s happening with the property. I learned how tough the past five months have been for him, including the realization that he’d have to give up on resurrecting the place.
“It doesn’t look like it will be rebuilt,” Charles said to me, the disappointment resonating over the phone line.
He had hoped it could be salvaged and restored to its previous splendor. But the fire was too much. It started in Apartment 5, where a tenant who had brought someone else in to live with him, was trying to dry some clothes or a pair of shoes in the oven. Whatever it was caught fire, which spread quickly to his office via a gas line.
“My office was demolished,” he says. “If my office were not destroyed I’d probably try to rebuild.”
He’s had a couple of offers for the land, which is valued at $98,400.
“Someone will buy the land and rebuild apartments. I’ve already had two people over to take a look. I have a year to figure it all out,” says Charles, answering my question about why it’s still standing there, untouched, five months after the fire.
Charles tells me he’s moved his office to another property he owns on Ash Street. Real estate has provided a good living for him. Like every business, it has its ups and downs. Even so, it’s not easy to be a landlord these days.
We talk about the risk factor, especially when someone you’re renting to brings someone else into a place, as was the case with the tenant in Apartment 5. “You have to know who you’re renting to, and as a landlord, you also have to know that it’s difficult to get someone out, even if they don’t belong there.”
He tells me a few stories about other properties he’s had issues with, one that was damaged by fire near the Elliot Hospital, a nine-family apartment building that burned when someone decided to use a grill on a back deck, and another, where the original tenants had vacated, leaving a woman he didn’t know in their place.
I asked him about the new pile of junk outside the building. He said he was aware of it.
“It’s not the proper thing to do, but for as long as I’ve had that place people for some reason think it’s OK just to dump their junk in the back alley,” says Charles.
In a city that is struggling to redeem itself after being named ground-zero for a national opioid crisis, it’s situations like this that bring the “broken windows theory” to mind. It’s a metaphorical theory of how unchecked neglect breeds crime and more neglect. In this case, there are literal broken windows and a million-dollar trash dump on a well-traveled corner that leads directly to City Hall.
Aggressive panhandling, graffiti and homeless camps are on the city’s short list of persistent problems with no easy remedy.
My impatience with the mitigation process on Hanover Street was tempered by Charles’ immediate situation – he has had to let go – physically and emotionally – of a century-old building that was his home away from home, a place where he’d linger after hours to watch sports on TV and relax, because he loved it so much.
He is thankful that he was well insured.
“Miraculously, there was quite a bit of rent money in my desk that somehow was not burned in the fire,” says Charles. “But all the mementos gathered over 46 years, so many things gone, just like that.”
He loved the busyness of that corner, the sound of the traffic and the din of the neighborhood which, heading north on Maple, leads to Central High School. In a city that continues to evolve, there is a renaissance bubbling just below the surface of the obvious negative headlines – a revitalization of the millyard and the economic boost that goes with it is also making headlines. The high-tech industry is attracting bright young professionals to our city, a trend that city and state officials would like to accelerate.
For that to happen, there needs to be more perks – affordable living with interesting things to do, and other ingredients that make for a delicious quality of life. People who care about it, for one thing. Big cities will always have pockets of poverty and blight, but to thrive, it’s time for those who’ve already given up on the city to move on, and make room for those who are interested in being part of the solution.
I know Charles will be OK, and despite how things look right now, I also believe our city will be OK. Charles reminded me that sometimes it takes patience and understanding on the way to action and improvement.
As we wrapped up our conversation, Charles mentioned that the demolition process is tedious. There’s asbestos from the furnace that needs to be properly removed first. Whoever purchases the land once the building is gone will construct something that fits the character of the neighborhood, says Charles.
Whatever they build it will never match the quality of the grand old house with the wrap-around porch, bumped out windows and majestic profile, he notes.
“It’s been a landmark and a beautiful corner for all these years. I only live a half-mile from there, but I try to avoid the intersection now,” Charles says. “I’ll never get over it.”
Carol Robidoux is a longtime journalist and publisher of ManchesterInkLink.com.