Ruffling Poe fans' feathers

House: Plans to raze one of the `Raven' author's homes in New York provokes squawks.

January 19, 2001|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

NEW YORK - Maybe Tony Siragusa and some of his fellow Ravens behemoths can link arms around the forlorn little house in Greenwich Village and defend it. Or maybe Ray Lewis can run through the Washington Square arch, cut over to West Third Street, leap into the air and intercept the ball.

The wrecking ball.

The house that Edgar Allan Poe lived in when he won renown as the author of "The Raven" could use help from the football team that draws its inspiration, or at least its name, from the poem. The former boarding house, Poe's home for about half a year from 1845 to 1846, is threatened with demolition by New York University to make way for a law school building.

As Poe fans celebrate his 192nd birthday today and Ravens fans anticipate the team's appearance in Super Bowl XXXV, activists are negotiating to get NYU to relent on its plans to raze the building and preserve something of the author's one-time home.

"Poe is just as popular and just as relevant in 2001 as he was in his time. We're expecting more than a thousand people to come to his birthday celebration here this weekend, and the Ravens are going to the Super Bowl," said Jeff Jerome, curator of the Poe house in Baltimore, which was saved from demolition, operates as a museum and is the annual host of what it calls the world's largest celebration of the author's birthday. "What does that tell you about the enduring popularity of Edgar Allan Poe?"

Many alterations over years

But from NYU's standpoint, there's no longer a there there, at least for the Poe house that the university owns and once used as office space.

The three-story red-brick building, at 85 W. Third St., has been altered so often and so drastically that Poe would no longer recognize it, said NYU spokesman John Beckman.

Beckman will direct any Ravens fans trolling Greenwich Village to head uptown instead - the author also lived in a house on West 84th Street, a stretch of which has been renamed Edgar Allan Poe Street, when he wrote the haunting poem. (The house he lived in on 84th Street has long since been demolished.)

A reputation is launched

"The Raven" was first published in a New York newspaper in January 1845; Poe is believed to have moved downtown to Third Street between August and October of that year and lived there until March 1846.

"Urban mythology can be a very compelling thing. One myth is that Poe wrote `The Raven' here," Beckman said as he stood on a midday dreary outside the Greenwich Village house.

"That has as much validity as the myth of the giant alligators in the sewers."

Poe scholars, however, say the author tinkered with his famous poem and others while living in the Third Street house, readying them for their first publication in book form. "The Raven and Other Poems" was published by Wiley & Putnam in November 1845 and quickly launched Poe's reputation.

"He was catapulted into literary society," said Michael Deas, a New Orleans-based artist and writer who has fought to save the Poe house. "He had had some success, particularly while living in Baltimore, but that was minor compared to when `The Raven' was published in New York."

A period of success

Deas, author of "The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe," said it is particularly important to save the house in Greenwich Village because it is the last remnant of his presence in Manhattan. Poe's tenure in the Village, he said, coincided with a particularly satisfying time in his life:

The author owned a literary journal, met the young Walt Whitman, mingled with the other writers in neighborhood salons and he perhaps began another of his legendary works, the great short story "The Cask of Amontillado."

In other words, the master of the melancholy might have been happy during his time here.

And that, perhaps, is why so many have been drawn into the fight to save his one-time home. Hundreds have come out for protests in front of the house, such as mass "Raven" readings or "our rhythmic recitation of the debate between Eddie and the great black bird," as the Reverend Billy of the Church of Stop Shopping - Bill Talen, a performance artist who organized the demonstrations - calls them.

"There is this mystique of Poe as a tragic artist, in the mode of Vincent Van Gogh - he had such a hard life, and so people have a tendency to want to protect him," Deas said. "And it's the general reading public that has risen up and signed petitions to save the house."

NYU says it is straining at its seams and needs more classroom space. The school's 37,600 students and faculty are spread among buildings in cramped Greenwich Village, a neighborhood of narrow streets and small-scale buildings. The law school building is expected to be 13 stories tall, another bone of contention in the neighborhood.

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