Something New Under the Crane’s Roof

Asbury Park’s historic Crane House — where the great 19th century author and journalist Stephen Crane wrote some of his earliest work — is about to get its second-ever “writer in residence.”

On a residential block of Asbury Park’s Fourth Avenue, a strike’s throw from Asbury Lanes and convenient to pinball, pizza, public transportation and places of worship, sits one of the Upper Wet Side’s best-kept secrets — a place with more cultural history in its walls than the fabled Upstage; a place with more rambling nook-and-cranny “character” than the quirkiest of rescued boardwalk landmarks, and very nearly as many “lives” as its ever-resilient, fallen-but-elegant host city.

Built in 1878 — only about seven years after Asbury Park itself was founded — the former Arbutus Cottage has been a boarding house called The Florence; a summer home, a year-round residence and, by the final years of the 20th century, an uninhabitable (and allegedly haunted) wreck slated for demolition. For about ten of those 19th century summers and a handful of seasons between, the 19-room “cottage” was home to a young reporter and aspiring writer of fiction by the name of Stephen Crane.

A dynamic (and usually dirt poor) new voice in a battle-scarred nation without a defined literary tradition,  the “American naturalist” author and war correspondent best known for The Red Badge of Courage was a son of a prominent Methodist clergyman — as well as a man with a passion to see the world, a taste for the bohemian (and the Bowery), a history of bad health (and even worse luck), and an affinity for sex workers that would bedevil him more than once. During those years in Asbury, he would pen a fistful of short stories, possibly lay some groundwork on his first novel (Maggie: A Girl of the Streets), and file scores of stories (including “Ghosts on the Jersey Shore”) for his older brother Townley’s news service — one of which, a wry account of an earnest little civic event. nearly got him run out of town on a rail.

While Crane would go on to survive a shipwreck, personal scandals and the frontlines of several foreign conflicts (ultimately succumbing in Europe to tuberculosis at the age of 28), the house he lived in with his mother Mary and sister Agnes has, since the turn of the current century, found a new life as the Crane House — and this summer, the old place will be getting its second, more or less official, “writer in residence” — an authentically struggling scribe whose work you’re reading right this very moment.

Crane House owner and curator Frank D’Alessandro continues the tradition of literary-minded movie nights on Saturday, June 4, with a Thomas Hardy party. (Photo by Diana Moore)

While your humble correspondent can’t lay claim to a tenth of the talent and determination of Mr. Crane (and indeed, we feel that we almost have to apologize for not having a novel, play or volume of poetry in progress) we have made the chronicling of the arts community in and around what we’ve playfully dubbed The Upper Wet Side of New Jersey something of a vocation in the past ten years — through our continuing tenure as theater critic and arts/entertainment correspondent for Gannett’s Asbury Park Press (for what it’s worth, a descendant of Townley Crane’s original Asbury Park Daily Press), contributions to scads of local/regional magazines and weeklies, work with local arts entities, and the inevitable transition to the paperless pages of blogs and websites like this one. It’s a decade (following a stretch where we worked in publishing and advertising in Manhattan) in which we reconnected, at first out of necessity and then out of a genuine fondness, with the area in which we’ve lived nearly all of our life. A decade in which we’ve had the very real pleasure of meeting some of the most amazing people we’ve ever known. And it became evident to us, pretty early on, that Asbury Park boasted more of those people per square inch than any other municipality on the Magellan.

One of those folks with whom we’ve reconnected in recent times is Crane House owner and curator  Frank D’Alessandro — retired high school math teacher, veteran of the city’s Board of Ed, longtime community activist, advocate for the arts, civic-minded gadfly, lover of classic films and books, and a true son of Asbury. It was D’Alessandro who purchased the house in 2001 from Tom and Regina Hayes, who themselves had saved it from razing and renovated it into the museum it would become — and it’s D’Alessandro who’s continued operating the Crane House as a venue for meetings, writing workshops and arts events of a literary (and somewhat eccentric) bent.

Come July, we’ll be taking up actual residence in the Crane House — and yes Virginia, there is a residential portion of the house — with our wonderful and oh-so-patient wife Diana “Stuffy” Moore, to say nothing of our somewhat less patient cat Dot B. Already in the works is a newly organized and catalogued movie library for the house, and among the more immediate projects will be the creation of a Civil War Library room, and the establishment of a formal Crane House office (from which this blog, as well as many other endeavors, will emanate).

We’ll also be assisting in the planning, hosting and promotion of events inside the house’s intimately scaled (but expansively visioned) Lecture Room — a stepped-up schedule designed to help the Crane House pinpoint its rightful place within the cultural magnificence of this bucolic/bombastic, seedy/splendid, historical/hypercurrent city by the sea. Caretaker, cryptkeeper, coffee maker, conductor of tours, cleaner of toilets — whatever it takes, we’re here to be part of something bigger and even older than we are, and we think we’re going to love being part of Asbury Park.

Of course, we promise to be respectful at all times of the Crane legacy (with a nod, of course, to Stephen Crane’s own healthy disrespect of hidebound convention) — and of any or all permanent occupants of the premises, such as the rumored spirit of Mrs. Crane, the former head of the local Christian Temperance Union who’d surely frown upon such activities as imbibing a Yuengling or blasting a favorite record by The Fall.

Regular viewers of the SyFy Channel’s Ghost Hunters series might recall an episode from a couple of seasons back, in which the intrepid team of ecto-slime sleuths camped out at the Crane in hopes of busting some ghost and/or myth (D’Alessandro, wanting no part of the whole thing, invited former owner Hayes to step in as spokesman for the house). While the G-men managed to make a whole half hour out of the usual nothing-much (a snippet of the show can be seen here), the Asbury Park Little League did manage to get a $700 donation from the producers — and D’Alessandro came away with the observation that “no unwarranted apparitions appeared in the circa 1878 residence aside from some enormous paranormal dust bunnies.”

That jewelbox performance and screening space in the old first-floor dining room has hosted its share of warranted apparitions over the past several years — some of the most memorable of which have been a one-woman version of Jane Eyre, the first local full-length performance by singer and spoken word artist Rock Wilk, a “tea party” with Lizzie Borden (as channeled by the amazing Marjorie Conn), a salute (by Michael T. Mooney) to the Paper Mill Playhouse, and a fascinating film series hosted by actor Bill Timoney (where attendees included triple Emmy winner Bryan Cranston). Seldom predictable and far from slick, the place is a genuine treasure; a place just off the beaten track, where new friends are always welcomed.

This coming Saturday at 5pm will find D’Alessandro welcoming one and all for the latest in his ongoing  and informal series of movie nights — this one a celebration of Thomas Hardy‘s birthday, in which one of the earlier, lighter novels by the British author of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and The Mayor of Casterbridge hits the screen in the form of the 2005 BBC adaptation of Under the Greenwood Tree. Come cheer on the fetching schoolmistress Miss Fancy Day, as she meets handsome suitor Dick Dewy — refreshments will be served and there’s no charge for admission, but seating is of course on the limited side, so the Crane House accepts reservations (at cranehousereservations@gmail.com) as well as those much-needed donations to the local Little League.

Check out Daniel Wolff’s excellent book Fourth of July, Asbury Park for a good take on Stephen Crane’s context within the timeline that runs from James Bradley to Bruce Springsteen. Have a look at webmaster/designer Eric Revilla‘s handsome and illuminating new Crane House website — and by all means, keep watching this space for exciting developments on the (literal) home front.

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