8/10/2005

A ‘nonsense’ case of eminent domain: Portsmouth (NH) Herald, 8/7/05

By Elizabeth Dinan

Evelyn Marconi was a fisherman’s wife and pregnant with her fourth child in the early ’50s when her family’s Puddledock home was taken by eminent domain.

Today, a month after the Supreme Court ruled that municipalities can take private property for public gain, Marconi is "scared to death (eminent domain) is going to raise its ugly head again."

Established over an entire city block and bordered by Charles, Marcy and Liberty streets, as well as Newton Avenue, the sprawling colonial Marconi residence was circled by a white picket fence in the early 1950s. It was "a perfectly beautiful home," Marconi remembers.

Holding a black-and-white photograph of the homestead, she recalls when she and her late husband, Geno, bought the place.

It was 1951, she says, "just before they started the nonsense."

The "nonsense" was called urban renewal.

"In 1952, urban renewal was running rampant in the city of Portsmouth," she recalls. "They were kicking people out of their homes and using the excuse that it was either a health hazard or a slum."

But as the old photograph proves, the Marconi home was neither.

Regardless, the city notified the Marconis it was taking their property by eminent domain for the development of Strawbery Banke, a historical tourist attraction.

"It was going to be a boon to the city of Portsmouth and clear up a slum - quote, end quote - and dispose of the terrible Puddledock area," Marconi says. "It was primarily a Jewish section and there were junk yards galore. I admit some areas were run down, but they were decent people."

History shows that ridding the South End neighborhood of junk yards trumped the decency of property owners. It also shows that "perfectly beautiful" homes, like the Marconis’, were ripe for the taking.

"In 1953, Cecil Charles Humphries put into the New Hampshire Legislature eminent domain law," Marconi says. "The law passed so swift it would’ve made your hair curl. And when it became law, we received notice that we had two weeks to vacate the premises."

By then, Marconi had four children - including her newborn daughter Francesca - a mortgage on the home she was losing and "no cash." It was the same time the city informed the Marconis that if they wanted to continue living in their own home, they’d have to pay $250 a week.

The city also made an offer of $11,000 for the property. Marconi says the fence alone was worth $10,000.

So they ignored the offer, moved the family across Marcy Street to Marconi’s mother-in-law’s home and hired a pair of lawyers.

They were then issued a "no salvage" order, meaning they couldn’t remove pieces of their home. Meanwhile, some locals took to looting.

"I stayed over there with my little baby and watched them tear my house down," she says. "And I watched local people go in and steal my chandeliers and pull up my hardwood floors."

She also watched as a demolition team struggled with the railroad tie-reinforced cement foundation, which remains on Strawbery Banke grounds today.

"They found out just how well that house was built. They could never get that foundation destroyed," Marconi says. "We refer to it as Marconis’ revenge."

Because eminent domain was New Hampshire law and the Marconis were becoming its first victims, legal advisers suggested their only recourse was to take their case to a judge and plead for more money.

It worked.

They won "a sizable amount of money," Marconi says, declining to be specific.

"The next day the city called and said they were short on money and couldn’t pay," she remembers. "I said, ‘"That’s OK, I’ll take the $1,000-a-month interest on it.’"

In the meantime, Thomas "Bim" Dale, the son of former Gov. Charles Dale and also one of the Marconis’ attorneys, died. Marconi says Charles called their home before the funeral to say Bim wanted his Mechanic Street real estate offered to Geno Marconi "because he’ll appreciate it."

As Marconi recalls the dying wish, she makes the sign of the cross.

So the Mechanic Street property, then an electrical device business, was purchased for a friendly fee and rehabilitated into the Marconis’ new family home upstairs and Geno’s restaurant on the ground floor. And the family was eventually paid in full.

In the five decades that have passed, Geno’s waterfront restaurant has been known for its chowder and sandwiches. It’s equally recognized as a lure for visiting Republican heavyweights, including U. S. presidents who stop in to pay homage to Marconi, now an influential, tell-it-like-it-is player in the first-in-the-nation state.

Up the street at Strawbery Banke is an American elm bearing a brass plaque memorializing Geno. When Marconi looks in at the historical visitors center and sees a new restaurant, she remembers when the exact spot was Morris Cohen’s shoe repair shop.

Looking back, Marconi remains astonished that eminent domain took her family home.

"I kept saying, ‘This can’t happen. This is America,’" she says.

The deed remains in a safe deposit box.

"All I know is that they took the world from my parents," daughter Francesca says.

Looking ahead, in light of last month’s Supreme Court eminent domain decision, Evelyn Marconi makes a prediction for Portsmouth, the city where her family has lived for four generations.

"I think it’s going to raise havoc with private property owners," she says. "And I’m betting they will take the Pier II (former restaurant) from the developers for the riverfront walk."

Marconi also cautions against duplication of her family’s eminent domain saga, advising, "you’ll never build anything successful on the tears of other people."


Portsmouth Herald: www.seacoastonline.com