When Brunswick native Bill Brown, 95, says to me, “Jump,” I ask, “How high?”
When he has a request of me, I listen and try my best to perform and obey his challenge, then show results.
During a recent visit, Bill asks me if I know about the ugliest house on Union Street. Recognizing that I was being outdone by this man of great Brunswick knowledge, my little Northern ears about twisted off my head as I leaned in and strained to hear. My limited 24-years knowledge of one of the most splendid streets in all Glynn County, let alone one of the most desirable and historic streets in all of Georgia, scrolled through my mind. Ugliest house? I couldn’t imagine an ugly house on Union Street.
I was eager to hear more. He’d questioned me mid sentence while I was telling him about a friend’s cute carriage house apartment on Ellis Street. Her apartment sits behind Mrs. Betty Hafner’s house at 1000 Union at the corner of London Street. I said that my friend could see the newer addition to Mrs. Hafner’s big Victorian, the rear glassed-in sun porch that was added during filming of the 1974 Hollywood movie Conrack, starring a young Jon Voight, father of actress Angelina Jolie. He portrayed well-known and successful South Carolina author Pat Conroy when he was a young teacher on a rural coastal island.
“This year would make it the 40th anniversary of Brunswick’s famous movie role,” I tell Bill excitedly.
“Oh,” Bill says, stopping me, “you know when that house was being built around 1900 the man building it wanted ‘the grandest house on Union Street’ for his family to enjoy. He was proud of his business success and he’d planned for it to be the most beautiful house anyone could imagine.” This story had been told to Bill as a young man, no doubt, and I watch him closely as he reflects back.
“He’d say to everyone when the house was nearing completion that he would throw a party for all the curious onlookers to come see the marvelous workmanship inside. The expansive staircase and the beautiful “His” and “Her’s” bathrooms with two different-sized bathtubs were his pride and joy. The grand rooms were sun-filled, expansive and impressive, and the owner planned and prepared for his party.”
Then Bill paused for dramatic effect before adding softly: “And then no one came. No one ever showed up!”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing as I imagined the beehive of workers and craftsmen laboring day-by-day on that beautiful home. Stately Georgian columns surrounding its wide porches; the grandeur of multiple stories rising into the boughs of live oaks while the carriage and buggy drivers rode up and down the two streets eyeing the daily happenings and activities. During the long process of building there must have been more than a few conversations among the towns’ folk about the progress on the big house.
“What happened then?” I ask Bill, my curiosity beyond peaked. With a sly smile the seersucker-garbed Southern gentleman seated before me spins his hat round and round his well-veined hand and then says, “The man was so mad at his neighbors’ actions that he declared he’d sell that house as soon as he could and built ‘the ugliest house on Union Street’ just to show them, he was so enraged. And he did.”
Readjusting a bit in my chair I thought of all the wondrous old houses I’d viewed on my drives up and down Union Street on my real estate outings. I’d seen a mixture of styles but nothing I’d consider to be ugly. The wide and oak-lined street was the subject of my secret desires, as I’d pined for 20 years reminiscing about the old New England homes we’d left behind. You see, while we lived on St. Simons, our entire neighborhood of St. Simons Heights was smaller than our whole yard in New England. But that’s another story for another time. I love all the old Union Street homes. I can’t imagine an ugly one. There’s no way!
“He did?” I exclaim to Bill. “Which one?”
I prod dear Bill to tell me, as I assume it has to be one that gave up its life to become a church playground or something, but I was wrong.
“You know it,” he teases me. “It sits at the corner of Monck and Union streets. It’s painted a mustard yellow color, and the city might still own it … .”
He trails off, lost a bit in his thoughts.
“Not the Lissner House!” I marvel. “No way! It’s not ugly at all.” I cannot hide my disbelief. “Why, that house is beautiful on the inside and out, especially now that it’s been redone and repainted. It’s listed in the town’s records as the ‘Brunswick History Museum,’ isn’t it? My daughter helped with some of the historic exhibits there. “Ugly? I just don’t get it.”
Bill sees my incredulity to its conclusion before continuing. “You see, Mr. Jacob J. Lissner built that house in 1905. He was well-off and owned quite a bit of Union Street back then, and did as he pleased. He was considered a successful businessman in this town, and he was Jewish. His family was from up North, I believe,” he says.
Bill looks down at his hat again, pausing before he continues. “At the time in Brunswick, when he was building his big showy house … it didn’t have a thing to do with anything he was building, not really.”
Then, after a long sigh, Bill wipes his chin with his handkerchief.
“Mr. Lissner just didn’t fit in with ‘the crowd’ and so they snubbed him. That’s all.”
The old Realtor closed his eyes for a brief second, places his hat to cover his thin gray hair and stuffs his hankie in his pocket, signaling his nearing departure. I stand and reach for his arm to help him up and out of his chair. But he stands still, as if to readjust his balance before turning to me. With a slight nod he says: “Ugly things can happen in the most beautiful places.” And then he leaves.
His story haunts me still.