Friday, December 10, 2010

On Freemason Street

Freemason Street Ginkgos, 2003

It’s funny how pictures trigger memories. I went back into the files the other night looking for older pictures that gave me great joy when I took them.

It turns out there are lots of them. They aren’t all great pictures. What defines them, though, is the way they surprised me at the time I took them. Freemason Street Ginkgos is a good example.

From the early 1930s until the late-1950s, my widowed grandmother operated a large boarding house on Freemason Street. She and her three children lived there, cooking for and helping a small staff look after a changing roster of shipyard craftsmen, government workers, traveling salesmen, clerks and others, some of them war veterans, who really didn’t have any other place to call home. (The boarding house occupied the two residences in the middle of the newspaper picture below.)

Freemason Street Boarding House Profile

Boarding houses were a more respectable category of lodging in those days. They didn’t have names. People just got sent around to see Mrs. Jones when they needed a place to live. Some stayed long enough to become part of the family. One of the boarders married my mother’s older sister and they lived at the boarding house with their first child until they could afford a place of their own. My mother and father met in the choir at Epworth Methodist Church, just down the street, and were later married there.

In those days the Norfolk waterfront was not the tourist attraction it is today. There were no fancy condominiums lining the shore. My sister and older cousins spent a lot of time playing at the boarding house and remember that they weren’t allowed to play in the street, for example, because so many rats wandered in from the passing ships.

Along Freemason Street, 2003

My grandmother closed the boarding house just about the time I was old enough to remember much about it. But I can still remember the taste of the fried chicken that was a staple of Sunday dinner at the boarding house. And I know that I have a life-long affection for iced tea glasses with horizontal colored rings around them because that’s what the iced tea glasses at the boarding house looked like.

Our family’s connection to Freemason Street continued for many years. One of my cousins and his girlfriend lived in the next block during the 1970s. I worked just a block away during the 1980s.

Converted to Offices, 2003

During the late 1700s and through the 1800s, Freemason Street was one of Norfolk’s most stylish streets. There was a Carnegie library in the next block up from the boarding house, and the Elizabeth River was at the end of the next block after that. The street fell on hard times during the 1950s and 1960s, the victim of “white flight” and the suburbanization that occurred following WWII. By the late 1970s, though, the neighborhood started coming back. Upscale residences started being built there again. Professionals began to move into the old family mansions.

In the fall of 2003, I had just purchased my first digital SLR camera. I was anxious to find something to shoot with it and happened to be in downtown Norfolk. So I parked the car and walked those familiar blocks of Freemason Street. The ginkgo leaves has just started falling and I knelt down and captured this low perspective shown above.

I don’t know if it was the composition, the color of the leaves or the thrill of seeing the photograph so fully realized on the computer screen later that day. It’s not a great picture. But it was and remains a favorite shot that gives me great satisfaction whenever I look at it.

Roper Residence, 2003


  1. Oh, I like all of these! The ginkgo trees always seem to drop their leaves in one fell swoop and guarantee a golden carpet, I think. These photos and your memories are wonderful!

  2. Your photo gives me pleasure, too. I always longed for a ginkgo tree mostly for that dramatic fall performance. Interesting post.