“She wanted a home, and that was how it began.” So opens an essay by Annie Eliza Pidgeon Searing, published 100 years ago in House Beautiful. In her 1921 essay, Searing recounted her journey—scrappy, drawn-out, and often carried by little more than a hope and a prayer—about the old stone cottage at 142 Pearl Street that, in 1919, at the age of 62, she purchased and spent the following two years restoring.
Searing—who wrote under the name A.E.P. Searing and went by her middle name, Eliza— was a Vassar graduate and a working writer who published novels, children’s books, magazine articles, and a regional history entitled The Land of Rip Van Winkle: A Tour Through the Romantic Parts of the Catskills. She was also a political agitator, known for her work in the women’s suffrage movement.
Five years ago, I knew none of this history. Instead: I wanted a home, and that was how it began.
I first saw 165 Pearl Street on a drab day in February of 2016. I was married, but came to see the house alone. She had sat, listed but unsold—the price dropping slightly every couple of months—for over a year when I first laid eyes on her. I stood on the bluestone sidewalk, taking her in. Built in 1850, she bore layer upon layer of old paint on her wood siding, a roof that’s been patched many times, and a foundation made of discrete stones rather than poured concrete. She wore her age plainly, and I loved that about her.
The front yard was winter brown and unkempt, the tall windows on the main floor cloudy with dust. There was no furniture, just empty, echoey rooms; the family that had previously inhabited her having been gone then for nearly a year.
Inside, the light poured in despite the overcast sky, and the house felt tall, so tall with her 13 foot ceilings and her position perched on a rise above the broad back yard. Her walls were plaster, and above them, elegant, voluptuous moldings sang of the deft craftsmanship that shaped the house in her becoming. I was, immediately, smitten.
She was more house than I knew how to look after, and she needed work, but I was drawn to her anyway. Plus, I reasoned, I was gearing up for work of the nesting kind anyway. Newly pregnant with twins, I imagined growing into the house over the coming years, planting perennials along the borders of the half-acre lot and a large vegetable garden in the fenced backyard, and drinking wine on the front porch on lazy summer evenings after my babies were asleep. The vision was intoxicating; a dream of unity, wholeness, growth. Back in Brooklyn that evening, I sat beside my husband and swiped excitedly through the photos I’d taken. We made an offer that evening.
I insisted we get to work renovating right away, before bringing two infants home. We four moved in to 165 Pearl after a month-long stint in the NICU. Opening the front door, carrying two tiny humans, I breathed in the smell of varnish and fresh paint. We were a family, and this was to be the house where our life would unfold. I was exhausted and giddy. It was October 25, 2016, my 30th birthday.
In the years that followed, I learn how to be a mother, and my career as a writer and professor grows steadily. I feel my sense of self and purpose crystallizing. Meanwhile, my marriage begins to falter. The house becomes a source of contention; too big, too dusty, too old; too damp. Too much. Like me, I think. But I still love her, and can’t imagine leaving.
Fast forward to mid-March 2021. We are a year into a global pandemic, and it has been a little over one month since I’ve told my husband I want our marriage to be over for good. I am having trouble focusing on work, what with the relentless upheaval in my life and the world at large. But one afternoon, I determine to tend to my new book project. At my laptop, I attempt to describe how I came to land in this small city, this house, and what’s happened here since. As I often do in the early, directionless days of research, I fall down a rabbit hole, one which leads, eventually, a half a block away an 100 years in the past with A.E.P.—Eliza—Searing.
I feel my skin prickle with excitement when I find an archival scan of the issue containing Pearing’s article. The magazine is clearly dated, with its 1921 copy and advertisements all in black and white. I scroll down, giggling to myself in affectionate mockery of those magazine makers of yore. Scrolling, scrolling, I come to Searing’s article—yes, that’s the house, I think as I squint at the screen.
I read her first lines, and my laughter stops. Suddenly, I feel like the wind has been knocked out of me. Searing’s voice feels eerily contemporary. Her world is one of political division and urgent calls for progress; the desire to make something new of an old framework; a romantic, impractical draw to the worn, the lived-in, the enduring; and, just as now, an incredible influx of Brooklynites into Kingston.
But what I’m most drawn to is the parallels to my own life: This woman, who lived a stone’s throw from where I sit writing, was unimpressed by the life paths she’d been offered, the roles into which she felt she’d been unwillingly cast. She struck out on her own and chose the long way around.
In my second floor office, I stand from my chair and crane toward the window that faces Pearl, turning my head hard to the left and pressing my forehead against the pane. Yes, I can see it from here, I think excitedly. I can see her. I sit back down and re-read Pearing’s opening line and laugh again—an earnest laugh of recognition, this time. It’s so good, she’s so good! I feel—unreasonably, I tell myself, even as I think it—that we’re peers. I would have liked to know her. I think we would have liked one another.
Searing was finicky and discerning by nature. When she determined to purchase a house of her own, she was chagrined by her choices. “Her soul rebelled” against the sameness of the new houses, “so close together that one could hear one’s next-door neighbor spank the children or grind the coffee in the early dawn.” She had a visceral aversion, too, to the oversized Victorian manses scattered throughout Kingston that would demand “a corps of servants.”
Instead, “her heart turned lovingly” to the 1750 Dutch stone cottage on Pearl, despite the fact that it was crumbling from age and years of abandonment. Her House Beautiful essay, “How One Woman Solved the Housing Problem,” is a feisty and detailed manifesto of autonomy and resourcefulness disguised as a fluff piece. On the surface, she was merely renovating a house; in reality, she was writing of self-determination, of becoming the architect of her own life.
I read her lines again and again, struck by a feeling of comfort and validation from this neighbor spirit, as though, across time, I’ve been singled out and seen. As though, unbeknownst to me, she’s been keeping me company all this time. This woman, long gone, whose name my daughter bears. That is sheer coincidence; or, if you prefer—as I do—kismet. She is so like me, and I am so like her: headstrong, particular, and precise with our words. A hundred years and half a block apart. This is sheer coincidence or; if you prefer—as I do—kismet.
In the days after I find Searing’s article, I try to find out more about her. I’m hungry for the details of her life: I find the name of a husband, but he’s never mentioned in her essay. Did he take off? Did she give him the boot? Was there a child? I’m left to wonder, for it seems that she, like most women, is largely lost to history.
Since buying 165, I’ve found myself both more in love with her, and more irritated and overwhelmed. It feels, in many ways, like a symbol for my marriage: an idea I will always love with a core of goodness, but the incessant damage and ruptures just keep piling up: there’s water in the foundation, and I can’t keep up with the dust. She’s impossible to heat. Most importantly, the marriage, and family, for whom I bought and restored the house have fractured. More and more, I find I’m left wandering rooms painfully freighted with memory, the shell of the place and the dreams that once filled it, the ones we fed with increasing desperation to try to hold it together.
165 is too much for me on my own, I know, both financially and in terms of the upkeep she demands. I have limited energy and time; these days, I practice putting things down where I can, paring back and doing less. 165 Pearl feels like an obvious thing to let go. She’s worth so much more now than when we bought her, and I could make a killing, easily facilitating a move into something smaller, less daunting. But I’m not sure I have the emotional reserves to weather another great loss.
I wonder if I can, if I want to, stay. I wonder if I can renovate again—spiritually, this time— and make new meaning of this place. I’d been leaning towards going, but when I discover Searing, something shifts. As spring greens the lawns, I’m not sure I want to leave anymore. I feel her fierce, unflappable presence so acutely all of a sudden.
If I stay, will she guide me through the doubt and uncertainty?
In her essay, Pearing wrote of the neighbors’ opinions on her decision to pour her resources into a house they deemed as worthless rubble. “The one thing about all which were agreed,” she wrote, “Was that the woman was crazy.” “Crazy” is what we call women who publicly shirk convention, who lead with their proclivity for the beautiful and impractical, who make their own decisions and stand by them. “Crazy” is what we call women who dare to put themselves first.
I’m that woman now—crazy with grief and questions and decisions so fraught I feel paralyzed to make a move. I want a clear path, to make sense of things that, perhaps, will never make sense. But maybe clarity isn’t the point. Maybe, instead, it’s about patience while everything falls apart, about excavating the ruins and rubble, about the persistence of the human spirit.
Maybe it’s about allowing for a different ending than the one we had in mind, about remaining open to, in Searing’s words, “what faith in human nature can do.”