Sterling Hundley illustration
I confess. I was never Edgar Allan Poe's biggest fan. I respected his place among American writers but pretty much left what I'd read behind in high school. Too many Hammer films and too much Vincent Price had long dissociated me from the body of work that went so far beyond "The Cask of Amontillado" and "The Raven."
Over time, the words of my favorite authors — Borges, Camus, Miller and Mishima — became sacrosanct. Poe, somehow, seemed more Halloween than hallowed. But when my wife Beverly and I moved to Petersburg six years ago, everything changed.
To a newcomer, many aspects of Petersburg seem illogical, if not downright surreal. Not the least of these is the fact that the town possesses more fascinating history per square foot than virtually any other place on the planet. History that is largely unsung and unknown to those looking for the closest McDonald's off I-85.
Like some of our neighbors, we moved to Petersburg primarily because we couldn't afford Charleston or Savannah. With its riverside site and abundant historic architecture, the town's potential seemed boundless. But its chronic inability to tap into that potential can tax one's patience. In time, some folks just pack up and leave — unless they find a reason to stay. For Beverly, that reason became Rivers' Edge, her home-décor business in Old Town. For me, it was Poe.
From the outset, locals told me that Poe had spent his honeymoon at what is now 12 W. Bank St. Furthermore, the writer's parents were actors who performed in one of the many theaters in a vibrant, prosperous Petersburg before he was born. So why were there no historic markers, no tours for Poe fans, no proof of all this beyond an oral tradition?
As if compelled by otherworldly forces, Poe's honeymoon became my secret obsession. Where was the proof, I wondered? If the site was bona fide, I felt perversely compelled to own it, before someone else did.
I decided to approach the owner, who curiously was the same woman who leased Beverly the space for her business. She had quietly done much to revitalize Petersburg through the years. She rarely sold a building, but when she did, it was to someone who cared about history and the town's future.
Over lunch, I laid out my plans. The owner knew about the alleged Poe connection and was pleased that I had done some homework. It looked like we might be able to strike a deal when the time was right, and that time might be sooner rather than later.
"Be careful what you wish for," I reminded myself. Though the building now seemed within reach, there was still the matter of actually proving that Poe and Virginia had honeymooned there.
Frozen in Time
Months passed, and we were given the opportunity to explore the building. While the street-level retail space had been leased for some time, the upper levels of No. 12 far surpassed my expectations. It had not been inhabited by anyone for many decades.
Aside from crude electrical conduits outside the ceilings and primitive bathrooms with claw-foot tubs, the rooms looked just as they did in 1814 when they were constructed. Unlike so many Petersburg buildings, it had never been pillaged; the heart-pine floors were intact, protected in part by piecemeal remnants of art-deco linoleum. At the ceilings, hand-carved dentil moldings were in place and untouched. Of the six fireplace mantels, one with an early shell motif stood proudly against a wall like a relic of Monticello. Remarkably, much of the soft green peeling paint in every room was original. Horsehairs within the ancient plaster confirmed the period of construction. This faded elegance seemed almost habitable but for the layers of dust and pigeon droppings accumulated through the ages.
In addition, an oversize second-level door opened to a curious walkway, which, crossing a silent and dark chasm below, led to a second building few people even knew about. There was a complete rear structure that served as a bakery at some point. The ovens had collapsed into rubble, and a roof now covered the space between the two structures. A little light revealed the dark chasm to be a magical courtyard between the two brick buildings, now enclosed.
Digging for Truth
Whether we could afford the building — and a six-figure restoration — was one issue. Whether it was as historic as suggested was another. I had to know the truth.
The scant historical facts about Poe's honeymoon provided the point of departure. Poe married his 13-year-old cousin, Virginia Clemm, when he learned that her mother, Maria, was considering moving to Baltimore. Marrying Virginia was the logical way to keep his beloved child companion close.
They wed in Richmond in 1836 and then proceeded to Petersburg for their honeymoon. Most biographies end there, with Poe heading back to work at the Southern Literary Messenger. It is a touchy subject, even today. Some accounts, in Poe's defense, claim the marriage was not consummated for years. Witnesses recall Poe and Virginia playing leapfrog in Richmond parks, behaving more like young playmates than husband and wife.
Trying to learn much beyond these accounts led to an informational vacuum. But the Library of Virginia and the Petersburg Court House held clues. Little WPA make-work biographies on index cards, Poe's known correspondence, typewritten personal histories and 1930s journals from the College of William and Mary provide pieces of this historical puzzle.
The image revealed was that of Hiram Haines, editor of the local newspaper, a man with whom Poe had corresponded regularly. He was the man who hosted Edgar and Virginia's honeymoon at his Petersburg tavern.
A Poet's Poet
To me, historic preservation means more than shoring up old buildings. It means remembering the people who inhabited those buildings, the lives they led, the things they thought. Hiram Haines was indeed a man worth remembering. His coffeehouse, or "restorative," a place for food, drink and lodging, not only hosted Poe but intellectuals, poets, journalists and politicians at a time when the country was still young, still defining its place in the world at large, politically and artistically.
As a teenager, Haines wrote and read aloud a poem written for the Marquis de Lafayette during the Frenchman's 1824 visit to Petersburg. Later, Haines self-published a book of poems, one of the first to draw attention to Virginia's natural beauty. In time he became editor of the American Constellation, while Poe was editing the Messenger in Richmond. It was during this time that the friendship developed. A mutual love of poetry and the need to promote each other's publications brought them together on several occasions and prompted regular correspondence. (In one letter, Haines offers Poe and Virginia the gift of a fawn, which the couple declined.) They both died at around age 40, and one of Haines' four children went on to edit the Baltimore Sun. Virginia died at age 25, two years before Poe, and is widely considered to be the inspiration behind Poe's famous poem, "Annabel Lee."
If its historical significance was confirmed, the building in question needed more than a plaque, more than a paragraph in a guidebook. The place that existed in 1836 needed to return, and to do so in 2009, the year of Poe's 200th birthday. It required resurrection.
What Dreams May Come
As my body of collected evidence grew, so did my enthusiasm. Still, certain locals claimed that the honeymoon site was destroyed long ago. Some reference materials pointed to "East," not West, Bank Street. Others claimed that the couple stayed at Haines' home, not his coffeehouse. Then, in an off-limits room in the Petersburg Court House, a kind of Holy of Holies place for the older, more fragile documents, I found the answer I sought.
In the old deed books, written records and little hand-drawn diagrams showed the place clearly on Bank Street, off Sycamore, where the adjacent buildings all still exist in a row. Clear as day, the words "Haines Coffee House" appeared on building No. 3, and to my surprise and delight, Haines' "manse" was right next door. There was no "East Bank Street," though today the buildings are 12 and 16 West Bank. I later observed that the buildings were interconnected on all levels through doorways that were filled in. So the documents that claimed Poe and his bride stayed at Haines' house or his coffeehouse were both correct.
The couple spent two weeks in Petersburg. While other small-edition books further confirm the coffeehouse as the place they returned to each evening, the fact that Haines lived with a wife, four children ages 1 to 8, and probably a few barnyard animals left the coffeehouse rooms the only logical option for visitors.
I retained this secret knowledge for many months, as I fell into the habit of staring at the building from a distance, nearly every day. I imagined carriages pulling up to the coffeehouse on muddy streets of the 1830s. I envisioned curtains blowing in the open windows, and the look of the original lower-level façade, hints of which I had seen in early insurance drawings. I looked up at the windows and imagined Edgar and Virginia looking out onto the street on a moonlit night.
I thought of the other "poet's taverns" in the world — the White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, where Dylan Thomas took his last drink and I took my first; in Paris, Les Deux Magots, where Oscar Wilde and Jean-Paul Sartre whiled away the hours; and Harry's Bar in Venice, of Hemingway lore. And as I sat and pined over a building, the dream of a literary tavern, a revival of Haines' original coffeehouse, his restorative somehow began to restore my very soul.
I fed this desire by studying Poe. Having slighted him early in life, I read everything he had ever written, and most of his existing biographies as well.
Poe suffered things that could not be put into words. His characters often reflected a sense of unreality and anxiety that I myself had explored in the book I had co-authored with a psychiatrist in 2004, Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self. Poe almost certainly experienced fleeting, if not chronic, depersonalization — a relentless sense of detachment and dissociation from reality that is often misdiagnosed as depression. Many gifted people use writing to express this condition, as a way of creating some kind of reality. Often, self-medication with alcohol or drugs offers a temporary sense of ego, of self, while ultimately worsening the situation overall. Reading Poe completely, in light of the psychological material I had studied for so long, helped me connect with him on a level that would not have been possible otherwise.
Poe once said, "All that we see or seem is but a dream within a dream." I tend to agree. We purchased the building in August and relocated Rivers' Edge to its main-level retail space, as restoration begins. A Poe-inspired vignette in one large window previews what's to come. For the moment, Hiram Haines Coffee House is a dream in progress. To have learned about and acquired it within a few years stretches my own sense of reality. But if things play out, the resurrected restorative will be something of an anachronism in an age wherein America has become "Generica." It promises to be a place of live conversation, rendezvous and "restoratives" for the mind and body. A place in which the spirits of Edgar and Virginia and Hiram would feel quite at home, in 2009 or for evermore.
Jeff Abugel hopes to have the coffeehouse up and running by this fall.