We never really lost touch, the twin town houses at 39 and 41 Princeton Street in East Boston and my tenacious Italian family.
The stately brick homes once owned by my immigrant grandparents, Carmelo and Teresa Iudica, and my Aunt Lillian were part of reverential conversations for decades after they were sold in the 1970s. Milestones important and mundane were concocted, celebrated, and bemoaned by my family within the mahogany-trimmed walls of the four-story houses — “We had your mother’s engagement party on Princeton Street!’’ “Your father ran away from home when we were living on Princeton Street!’’ “Grandma had a bookie come to the house every Friday!’’ “Grandpa raised pigeons on the roof!’’
It is a mystery how my grandmother and grandfather, a shoemaker and father of five who spoke little English, managed a down payment for the $5,000 purchase of number 39 in the late 1940s. (Or maybe not. See “bookie,’’ above.)
The house transported Carmelo and Teresa from tenement transiency to American Dream. They reflected the changing population of East Boston, from entitled Brahmins to hard-working “off the boats’’ looking for a chance.
More than 3,100 square feet of solid construction, the four-story house had five bedrooms, a “piazza” (back patio), and a large, sunny garden for planting tomatoes, peppers, and basil, with schools, corner markets, Italian social clubs, and a bus line steps away.
Our sparse, simple furnishings were never a match for the marble fireplaces, gilt mirrors, and etched-glass chandeliers. On the street known as “Doctors’ Row,” where prominent physicians and their families lived, these houses, built during and after the Civil War, were standouts. Over the following decades, and as the neighborhood changed, it was as if a piece of Boston’s upscale Beacon Hill was plunked down across from a pizza shop, a dry cleaner, and a two-family with a “Mary on the Half Shell” in the front yard. They were roses blooming in asphalt.
When my grandfather died in 1963, Auntie Lil — a legal secretary — became owner of number 39 and lived there with my grandmother. Lil’s sister, Aunt Josie, lived with her husband and kids on the upper floors where, in fine Italian tradition, a second kitchen was installed. Lil later bought number 41 with her brother, my Uncle Bobby, and his family.
There was another decade of continued Iudica family life in the houses before my aging grandmother found it too difficult to navigate the four floors and Uncle Bobby and his family decided to uproot to Revere, Massachusetts, one town away. It was time to let the houses go.
It wasn’t an easy breakup. The hard-earned pride of homeownership cannot simply be relegated to photo albums and rounds of “remember when.” We constantly found ourselves passing through the neighborhood, driving slowly by the houses, trying to catch a glimpse of what the new owners had done with the living room, with the yard.
Some of us did get inside number 39 during a crowded house-and- garden tour in the late 1990s. The antique-loving owners had decorated the house in the style of its original 1864 construction. We were gobsmacked: “Oh, look, Grandma’s bedroom is really a dining room!” The gardens were glorious, planted now for show, not supper.
As the real estate market in East Boston slowly began its steady surge, we worried that “our” houses might be cut up into condos and that all of the beautiful craftsmanship my family had spent decades caring for with elbow grease, Pledge, and Pine-Sol would be lost.
In 2015, number 39 hit the market with the-then second-highest asking price in East Boston real estate history, a whopping $939,000. We were flabbergasted. “The ones that got away’’ had fetched Aunt Lil $25,000 each when she sold them in 1970. Just the same, we fantasized about how many trips to Aruba, luxury cars, and bigger wedding receptions $900K could have financed.
It was time to see them again.
Last winter, through a kooky series of Facebook posts and private messages, I tracked down the couple who had purchased number 39 in 2015, Lara and Jim Caralis. They had loved the house so much that they had gotten married in it. They graciously invited us to come see the place. My grandmother died in 1999, and neither she nor any of the original Iudica kids had ever made it back to see the homes. Clearly, we had to do it for them.
On a sunny Saturday, my sister, three cousins, and I slow-rolled down Princeton Street and stood in for all of the Iudicas past and present. We arrived full of emotion. Lara and Jim let us have the run of the place. We brought an armload of pictures of our family waving, eating, celebrating holidays, hugging, laughing, and enjoying every inch of this home and one another. We touched the wainscoting, the hand railings, the ancient latch on a door — hoping to conjure the energy of a long-faded fingerprint. The house was almost exactly as my family had left it, though the floral wallpaper and second-floor kitchen were gone and the main kitchen had been given a major update.
My cousin Andrea, for whom the visit was also a 60th-birthday present, had lived there until she was 14. She recalled a wooden window valance her carpenter father had made. “Wait!” said Jim. It might be in the basement. We clomped down the narrow stairs and, incredibly, found not one valance but two, and packed them in the car.
Lara and Jim told us that thanks to the owners who had brought the house to period when we saw it on the garden tour, the Boston Landmarks Commission in 1991 designated the Stephen Huse Whidden House at 39 Princeton Street and the Joseph Henry Stevenson House at 41 Princeton Street as their own Architectural Conservation District. The designation reads: “These houses were part of the rapid post-1850 development of East Boston’s economy, which was spurred by the expansion of shipbuilding and service businesses.” Both houses are “in an excellent state of preservation.’’ Let’s hear it for elbow grease, Pledge, and Pine-Sol.
These lucky houses have had amazing stewards who have doted on them, and a city that declared they should always stand just as they are. For us Iudicas, they are no longer “the ones that got away,’’ but forever touchstones — loved ones that aren’t ever going anywhere.
See more photos of the home: