My First Home: Brick and mortified

My First Home
. —Doug Chayka for The Boston Globe


The first house my husband and I bought together was an 1850s money pit on the Cape with a leaky roof, faulty heat, failing cesspools, and a really unwelcome surprise.

A swastika, or at least what looked like a swastika in every way but one: the legs bent counter-clockwise, not clockwise.

It appeared when we started ripping down the thick tangle of vines covering the chimney (and growing into our son’s bedroom). At first, with only part of the design visible, we were excited to have discovered an interesting Arts and Crafts architectural detail. But then, as we pulled away all of the vines, there appeared what certainly seemed to be a swastika, 18 inches wide, made from bricks embedded in a concrete square about 8 feet off the ground.

We learned it had been installed as part of a chimney makeover around 1900, when the pattern was still just an ancient symbol that was au courant, and well before the Nazi swastika, the icon for the persecution and murder of millions, including about two-thirds of the Jewish population in Europe.

Whatever the design’s origin, it was not a welcome addition to our neighborhood. “It was quite an issue during the war,’’ a neighbor later told me. Hence the vine, I suspect.

We debated what to do. It was, after all, a historic feature on one of the most historic houses in town. It wasn’t intended as a menace. Even without the vines, it wasn’t visible from the street; just a curiosity that made the house unique.

Then in 1991, Hurricane Bob knocked down the trees blocking the busy street, and we had a whole new identity. “Oh, you live in the house with the [pause] symbol. It’s historic, you know,’’ people would say, as if to reassure us they knew we weren’t hatemongers. The local weekly even did an article to explain that it was all a matter of design.

But soon we had a polite call from a local rabbi saying that while he appreciated architectural history, people were, to say the least, upset by the symbol.

Yet, removing the swastika felt like we were allowing something sick and evil to usurp the house’s heritage. So, for the next 20 or so years, we kept it covered with baskets and stone ornaments or faces. Occasionally we’d get a call from a neighbor — or the police — saying the covering was missing or awry, and we’d hurriedly hide the swastika again.

Then I made what was probably a critical error. I showed it to a group of local high school students on a walking tour of the historic district. Perhaps it was coincidence, but a few months later I came downstairs to window glass sprayed across the living room like shaved ice. Someone had tried to throw the 10-pound stone face covering the swastika into the house.

I called the police. They treated it as an isolated case of vandalism. A few nights later, someone spray painted “666’’ across the chimney. This time, the police installed a camera. And then on a third night, my son-in-law heard noises and chased someone off the porch. No one ever returned, but no was ever caught, either.

And so, I relented. By then, I was living in the house alone and thinking of selling. I had a mason knock out the swastika, leaving a blank concrete square. Historic or not, the swastika was a nuisance and a hurtful one at that.

But I still resent the evil that stole part of the house’s story, both the monsters who corrupted it in the first place and the fools who later thought it all a prank.

Susan Moeller is a freelance editor and writer who lives on Cape Cod. Send comments and a 550-word essay on your first home to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue. Subscribe to our free newsletter at