April 28, 2013

Shabby House not so shabby after all

“It’s only a shanty in old Shanty Town. The roof is so slanty it touches the ground.” 

Those words are from a song introduced in the 1932 movie “The Crooner.” The music, in part, is attributed to “Little” Jack Little (no relation). 

John “Jack” West, a 92-year-old World War II hero and friend, sat across from me at a pancake breakfast and began the conversation by asking, “What do you know about the Shabby House?” I shrugged and answered, “Nothing.” He smiled and related 79-year-old details about a tumbledown shack that was moved to downtown Plattsburgh from Upper Rugar Street in 1934, rehabilitated, sold in a raffle and moved to a permanent site on Grace Avenue. 

My appetite was whetted. I rushed home to do the research, promising to pick him up and take him on a tour to see what the house looks like today. Formerly, I had to frequent libraries and pour through microfilm images of old newspapers. Nowadays, the information is available with a few keystrokes on the computer at sites where such papers are archived. 

Locating the Plattsburgh Daily Press from 1934 and ’35 on the Northern New York Library Network was a snap. I began recording notes and calling Kaye with her eagle vision to help me decipher the sometimes blurred print. I then scoured numerous Press-Republican “The Good Old Days” columns written by my friend, the late Frank Provost, who often penned retrospective stories about the “Shabby House.”

The nation was in the throes of a Great Depression, and a survey showed 16 million American homes in sad need of repair. Clinton County bought such a house on Upper Rugar Street to reportedly “show the public to what extent deterioration exists in millions of homes in the U.S.”

It was decided that local merchants would bear the cost, and union members would do the work. Materials would be donated. A Plattsburgh Better Housing Committee headed by K. C. Bowman was formed, and the project was under way. It was dubbed the "Shabby House,” and amid much ado, the shack was moved by Harry Carpenter with county equipment on Dec. 13, 1934, to a spot “on the City Hall terrace.” The 26th Infantry Drum and Bugle Corps played, and people cheered as power and telephone lines were cut and spliced to make way along the route. 

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