Interview with Mary G. (Mimi) Dossett OH# 386

Interviewed by Emily Weaver and Dr. Cameron McMillen

Interview Date August 31, 2007

Transcribed by W. Ray


EW:     This is Emily Weaver and I am with Dr. Cameron McMillen and we are interviewing Mrs. Mimi Dossett for the Historic Neighborhood Project.  Mrs. Dossett, do you willingly participate in this oral history project?

MD:     I do.

EW:     Great.  Alright Dr. McMillen, you may begin your questions.

CM:                 How long have you lived in this house?

MD:     I’ve lived here for nine years.  I’ve lived in Cleveland for sixteen years and when my children were little I would walk by and visit LaValle House who was a member of our church.  I’ve always loved it just visiting here and so the first time I really saw the house was about sixteen years ago.

CM:                 Where did you live before you lived in this house?

MD:     I lived on Fifth Avenue.  On the corner of Fifth and Lamar in the house where – I can’t remember who grew up there, but anyway it’s got the white picket fence.  And that house has some good history too.

CM:                 And how did you end up buying this house or living in this house?

MD:     Well, only one family had lived in this house prior to our family living here and that was the House family.  The house was built by LaValle House’s grandmother.  He moved in when he was five in 1925.  The house was built in 1912.  And in the late ‘90’s he had to move to a nursing home.  So anyway, there were some considerations of the house being used for commercial purposes and the neighbors really didn’t want it to happen.  And luckily, we were just in the right place and the right time.  And it takes a special person to love an old house like this because it is a lot of work.  In an old house nothing works except its owners.  And that’s definitely true.  We’ve done a big project just about every year in the nine years we’ve been here.

CM:                 Have there been structural changes to the house?

MD:     We have, from the kitchen back.  And I can show you where that is when we walk around.  The kitchen was just you know like all old houses, a small room basically used for – you know they had servants that came in and cooked for the family.  They didn’t really use the whole kitchen when it was built.  And there was a little breakfast and an L-shaped back porch and we opened all that up and made it a more family oriented kitchen for modern use.  Other than that really the house is virtually unchanged.  There is a sleeping porch upstairs that we converted to a second bathroom.  For the first seven years we lived here we had one bathroom upstairs and one bathroom downstairs.  Both with footed tubs and wooden floors.  So, my dad said he thought I was the only person in the world that would take the siding off my house before I added a shower.  It is a very unusual organization to your priorities, but anyway, we did – LaValle’s aluminum siding on the house which we did take off and we stored the original clapboard siding and then we added a master bedroom back off the kitchen and changed the kitchen structure.  But other than that the rest of the walls are actually the same.  Another interesting thing is that there was a house on this location prior to 1912.  A Victorian house and it burned.  But it burned very slowly for whatever reason – the family didn’t explain this to me.  They were able to get everything out of it including these two mantelpieces and so when Mrs. Clark rebuilt the house, she put the mantelpieces back in.  So these are really Victorian, but they are original to the house.  Anyway.

EW:     Oh, how interesting.

CM:                 It’s hard to imagine taking down the mantels while the house was on fire.

MD:     I know it.  I don’t know if it just smoldered or what.  But anyway, that’s what the granddaughter told me.  LaValle’s sister.  You can see that they don’t look quite of the period that the rest of the house is.  And I’m sure they are just hammered on there.  But anyway, that’s interesting.

CM:                 Any (inaudible).  Do all of them still work?

MD:     They do.  Yes.  I mean I think they could work a little better if I worked on them.  And actually I have taken the brass and I guess you know the little part that opens and closes them down on one of them. Cleaned and polished it and it has never gotten back up.  But they work.  And we have all these doors.  We’ve saved them – we just took them off to make them a little more open.

CM:                 You gave us the documents that LaValle wrote trying to sell the house.  Did you find out the house was for sale through that or because you knew them?

MD:     You know it’s interesting. I always wanted to say to him, “You know if you ever want to sell this house I would love to buy it.”  And actually I learned a good lesson because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings or suggest that he was getting old but I wish I had.  And I’m sure he wished I had.  Because instead he hired his realtor cousin, Vera Davis, and for some reason she and I could not negotiate on the house and in the end several other people considered buying it and Louis Jackson’s Accounting Firm bought it.  And then they found out that the people didn’t want it to be a commercial property and so I worked with him and bought it.  So I guess all’s well that ends well.  But I would have preferred to have bought it directly from LaValle.

CM:                 Did he have a family that grew up in this house?

MD:     He didn’t.  Well his own siblings grew up.  He moved here with his parents and LaValle was in the Navy and he contracted polio in Korea.  So anyway, he was in a wheelchair.  Ultimately he lived here with his elderly mother.  And she had a very interesting position because she also worked at the courthouse as I do.  She was head of the draft board for a very long time during World War II and I think straight through Korea.  But anyway, if you didn’t want to go to war you did.  You needed to go talk with Mrs. House.  Anyway, he contracted polio and was in a wheelchair and for  a long time he lived downstairs with the dining room as his bedroom and she lived upstairs.  And when she became ridden she moved down here and there was a hospital bed in this room and she had the living room as her bedroom and he had the dining room.  And you know, I forgot the question…

CM:                 Did he ever marry?

MD:     He didn’t.  I think he was a very young man when he got polio.  And actually this little bathroom is really interesting, I want to show it to you all too.  During the Depression they converted this closet to a bathroom and took in boarders.  And Jimmy Sanders supposedly lived in this house for a brief time among other people.  But when LaValle contracted polio the plumbers sort of made a makeshift handicapped polio in there and the toilet is (inaudible) and the tank is way up on the wall and then the toilet is twisted around a different way so LaValle could get his wheelchair in there.  And it’s just amazing to think that he was able to maneuver in that little tiny bathroom with his wheelchair.  And then the bathtub is under the stairs.  So it was sort of a unique situation.  But they adapted things the best they could with a handicapped living in this house.  There’s a ramp off of the back which we removed.  Which probably one of my little toddlers or young children probably ran straight out the back and off that.  Because we are so used to running on (inaudible).  Anyway, he never married and I’m not exactly sure of the circumstances of why he and his parents lived with their grandmother.  But I think people did that a little more often in those days and moved in together.

CM:                 And what about these two rooms.  It’s natural.  Is it natural throughout the house or did somebody paint it?

MD:     I painted a lot of it.  And actually there’s a closet upstairs if you open it up it has not been exposed to the elements.  It is stained but it was a much lighter color. And over the years as they re-shellacked, it just turned black.  And so room by room, we eventually painted a lot of it just because it was too dark.  This is original to the house.  And really LaValle, as I said he is amazing, he ran this house like a ship.  He gave it wonderful care even though he was in a wheelchair.  An electrician told me the story one time them installing an attic fan up in the attic.  And they said that they carried him up in the wheelchair to sit in the attic and he watched while they installed the electric fan to make sure that – the attic fan to make sure they did it correctly.  At when they went to lunch he didn’t want (inaudible) I’m sure, he didn’t want them to carry him all the way down the stairs so they left him up there until 1:00.  And the electricians said that they just worried to death living a man in a wheelchair up on the third floor in 110 degree weather and went and ate lunch.  But they did it anyway.  Everything was just as well taken care of as he could afford.  And that was one of the great things about the house when we moved into it.  It was so neat that nothing had ever been changed.  There was, what we use as a laundry room is just a little tiny closet which they called the fruit closet.  And I think they just got in there and did preserves and things. And everything is exactly (inaudible)

And that’s unusual.

CM:                 What was his occupation when he came back here?

MD:     Well when he lived in Memphis he was a librarian.  And I don’t think he ever worked.  I think he moved back pretty much to take care of his mother.  And Helen House was a big talker.  Everybody said they would come by and visit her and she talked the whole time.  And that LaValle could never really get a word in edgewise.  But he didn’t really work when he was here.

CM:                 Are they part of the family of the C.P. House that has the gas company?

MD:     They are cousins.  And of course Mrs. House was a Clark.  She was Helen Clark.  And that’s an old family from around here.  And her husband, Mr. House, I don’t know very much about him.  I guess he was David LaValle House Sr.  Rosemary Jacobs said that Charlie Jacobs had very fond memories of him taking the boys fishing.  But I don’t really know very much about him at all.  And I don’t really know what he did here.

CM:                 Are there any special architectural features about the house that you can tell us about?

MD:     Well, you know these windows are very huge and unique and the ceilings as high as they are.  And all the ceilings are still original plaster.  All these walls are plaster too which you know (inaudible)   plaster walls that are a hundred years old don’t look like this at all.  There have been funerals and weddings here so…

CM:                 You said you have some pictures?

MD:     Yes, I might have to dig for a little bit to look for them.  But I will definitely track them down for you.

EW:     Okay.

CM:                 Would you allow us to borrow them?

MD:     Yes.  Sure.

CM:                 That would be wonderful.

MD:     I have a wonderful picture.  I need to go find it I guess at the library but I wanted a copy of it anyway, of this house very early on.  And that magnolia tree is not there.  That big magnolia tree that’s out there.  And so anyway, I can borrow some of those pictures too.  But yes, I’ll get some good pictures together and actually, Mrs. Dossett has some wonderful pictures of the house next door.  Because Bill’s great aunt built that.  Virginia Townsend.  And she’s got pictures of him in the house and stuff.  But anyway, this house, we can walk around.  I love the staircase.  Art deco features.  I love the old side panels.  I love these glasses in the middle.  And if you look up (inaudible) there’s a bar right there that had evidently a great big heavy velvet curtain.  So that’s how the person that was bordered had some privacy.

EW:     Oh, so that would have been one of the rooms?

MD:     That was the room.   That was the only room that they took boarders in.

CM:                 We noticed the door as we came in.  It’s gorgeous.  Is that an original door?

MD:     It is.  I had it refinished.  It was painted.  This is an original door too.

EW:     You mentioned weddings and funerals.  Did you own the house or have you…

MD:     No.  Both of the girls – both of LaValle’s sisters were married here.  And everyone all had their funerals here.  I think the coffin was laid out in this room in front of that mantle piece and the weddings took place there too.  And that fireplace has got that iron fireplace cover, it’s got some musicians, sort of a musical theme.  And that was the music room.  It had a grand piano in it and Mrs. House was a wonderful pianist.  But when the kids were teenagers they danced and had big wild parties in this room.  And one of her daughters said she thought that they had danced from here to Memphis right here in this living room.  So they had a lot of fun people growing up here.

EW:     I like this house.

CM:                 Did Bill’s great aunt live there when LaValle lived here?

DM:     Yes.  Yes.  I think Mrs. Clark was here.  Bill’s father was 54 when he was born.  And so it was Bill’s father’s aunt that lived there and he would spend the night a lot and be over.  But he probably was closer to LaValle’s age or maybe a little older.  LaValle was young – even younger than him when he was here.  So they all knew each other.

EW:     So was this house sitting empty?

MD:     Well at the time LaValle moved to the nursing home they were trying to sell it.  When it was sitting empty it had an alarm system and a lot of big old Victorian furniture in it.

EW:     What happened to the furniture?

MD:     The family disbursed it.  Yeah.  LaValle I don’t think he has much furniture because the siblings (inaudible) the daughter said.  And both of LaValle’s sister have children.

CM:                 The house across the street is commercial.  Was it a commercial – was that law office there when you moved here?

MD:     Yes.  It’s been a law office for as long as I’ve been here.  And that house, it’s a brick facade.   That’s sort of brick siding which was something that was popular for a time.  That house really is a wood frame house just like this one.  It’s just that you don’t quite realize – if you look up at the top you can see that really that was just a wood frame house with a big front porch just like this one.  Yeah, everything – the dental office was commercial and all these houses on this corner were all law firms when we moved her.  Gerald Jacks office has now gone back to residential and we are really glad about it.

CM:                 Strange that if everything else around here was commercial that they didn’t want this to be.

MD:     I think it was mainly the Routeman’s and the Adam’s.  And in order, and actually I happen to be on the Planning Commission and we are trying to get a little more sophisticated about that kind of thing.  But the parking requirement for a structure this size are so large that they would have to basically concrete the whole yard, and still have trouble getting enough parking. And that was one of the objections.

EW:     (inaudible) about turning the house..

MD:     Right.  And I’m sure the zoning had been restructured since these buildings were in place.  The parking requirements for this were much greater than those.

EW:     It would have destroyed the look.

MD:     Yeah.  And really, I mean you know this is helpful information for your thing, especially in this day and age.  It is very expensive to maintain old houses like this.  Besides that every month practically there is a $300 plumbing problem.  We pretty much have fixed a lot of it because we’ve mostly rewired and replumbed the house and you know, redone the kitchen and the bathroom.  But it is very hard.  Especially if you are young enough to have the energy to want to do it, then you really don’t have the money.  And actually for us we were willing to live in it for seven years without a shower, which is unusual.  But some of us don’t have that interest and passion.  But anyway we’ve got it all pretty much done and we really love being here with it.  Well worth it.

EW:     Was this the first old house that you’ve redone?

MD:     No, I grew up in an old Victorian home and then, really just being 6’1”, I can never get used to lower ceilings, than the ones in the house I grew up in had fourteen foot ceilings.  Anyway so I love tall ceilings.  I lived on Fifth Avenue and that house was probably built in about 1930 – ’33 maybe.  The Sledge’s, Mrs. Sledge grew up in that house on Fifth Avenue.  So anyway, this is the old house I live in.

CM:                 How tall are these ceilings?

MD:     Eleven feet and ten inches.  Just under twelve.

CM:                 (Inaudible)

MD:     You know I can’t ever remember measuring the ones upstairs but they are probably almost as tall.  Maybe they are eleven feet.  Tall enough that it is really a pain to change the lights in the ceiling fan when they…

EW:     (Inaudible)

MD:     Well to me it is very obvious that there used to be a light in the middle of this.

CM:                 And the paper said there was a chandelier stored in the attic.  There were two.  One for the living room and one for the dining room.  Is it that one or was it…

MD:     It is this one.  It is right here in the hall.  I put one in the upstairs hallway and one downstairs.  I had refinished the one upstairs and not finished (inaudible) but I do have them.

CM:                 Has the neighborhood changed much in the nine years that you’ve been here, or do you know stories about the neighborhood?

MD:     It’s a wonderful neighborhood.  We love it. It has changed a little bit but not much. You know we still the enjoy things about the neighborhood that we enjoyed nine years ago.  Particularly the Adam’s.  You know having our dentist’s office and our decorator live across the street.  She is not really a decorator but we always joke that if we use Dr. Adams for our doctor so if the neighborhood blew up there’d be no records to identify any of the doctors.  Cause all of our bills and medical ethics and things are right here.

EW:     And you get to walk to work.

MD:     I walk to work.  Bill walks to work a lot of the time.  Especially at lunch.

EW:     That’s great.  You normally don’t get to do those type of things either.

MD:     I know.  It really is great.  And I guess I assume (inaudible)

I’d like to get them to pave the alley between here and the courthouse but I don’t think that will happen.

CM:                 Do you know the name of the alley between here and the courthouse?

MD:     I don’t.  Is there a name for it?

CM:                 There isn’t.  And Julia, we talked to Julia Moore and she told us the name of the alley.  Do you remember what she told us.

EW:     No.

CM:                 I can’t think right now but anyway she told me that the alley behind Victoria, that part of it was called Echo Lane.  And we’ve heard different names but I was just wondering if it ..

MD:     I don’t know.  But old houses (inaudible) when it is thundering and people in the bedroom are like (inaudible)

CM:                 And I don’t remember, I just know that’s not what Julia said.

MD:     That’s nice to know.  I like to find out the name.  I like Echo Lane.  Well, I’m trying to think. That’s about all I think of.

CM:                 Do you have any other questions?

EW:     Make we take the pictures and look at them?

MD:     Sure.

EW:     We’ll stop the recording now.

Tape Ends