481 Laurel Avenue
Dick first encountered the birthplace site when it and the building at 475 Laurel Avenue were the deteriorating San Mateo Flats. Built in 1893, the once prosperous Pullman-style residences had long ago been divided up into smaller rooms for rent, with tenants sharing a bathroom in the hall. Dick called the divided spaces "rabbit-hutch apartments." The entire Selby-Dale area was in decline, reeling from crime and drug-related problems. These buildings were declared uninhabitable and soon would be torn down. A nonprofit preservation group hoped to save them, although any potential restorer would have to face multiple pages of building-code violations. In March 1975, Richard and his wife were interested enough to go for it, to become one of twelve buyers. They thought of themselves as "urban pioneers." The course of rehab and occupancy, however, rarely does run smooth. Costs were double the original estimates, and the new owners resorted to doing their own demolition work, removing plaster and trim and rusted box springs on weekends. The first owner moved in, and soon original wood was uncovered under layers of paint, and a fireplace found behind poorly built dividing walls. Dilapidated cars near the buildings began to disappear.
The twelve owners drew lots to determine who would live in which unit. Dick ended up on the west side of the second floor, and soon received confirmation from neighbors, including a 90-year-old woman across the street, that his was the Fitzgeralds' old apartment, where the famous author had been born. It was no exaggeration, he remarked, that this "happenstance" of living there transformed his life.
I came to know of Dick and his special residence a few years ago, shortly before visiting St. Paul to participate in a poetry reading. My wife's stepmother learned of my upcoming trip, and told me I should visit her cousin, who lived in F. Scott Fitzgerald's birthplace. When I think about it, I can still feel my initial reaction in my facial muscles, as a courteous smile works hard to restrain deep skepticism. Was it really possible that I had a relation, even an indirect one, living in Fitzgerald's birthplace? But before I knew it, we had arranged a visit. I first thought it was a special thing that Dick would allow a distant relative he didn't know to stop by, but soon I realized that he welcomed in practically anyone with an interest in being there. This meant a dozen visitors a month sometimes. If he were on the second-floor deck watering plants, and he saw someone below looking around curiously, he would invite him or her up and give a tour. Over the years, there accumulated a large folder of thank-you notes, addresses, and business cards.
During the weekend of the poetry reading, I enjoyed a delightful visit with Dick. Approaching 481 Laurel Avenue, I first noticed the stone porch, above which were decks on the second and third floors, with planters hanging in the open spaces between the columns. A "Friends of Libraries" plaque on the outer brick announced the building's inclusion on the Literary Landmarks register. The inside of the building was beautifully restored, with a grand oak staircase and paneling immediately noticeable. Dick's condo was also elegant and immaculate, with high baseboards and some period furniture. The residence seemed more accurately curated than lived in. He clearly enjoyed sharing the building's history, and his personal connection to it, and I enjoyed hearing it. And we both had fun talking about all things Fitzgerald. His enthusiasm led him to compile quite a collection of Fitzgerald's books, as well as critical works about him and memorabilia relating to him. He showed me a framed copy of the author's birth certificate. I also found memorable Dick's enthusiasm for the Twin Cities' other literary luminaries: Garrison Keillor and, at the University of Minnesota, Patricia Hampl and Charles Baxter. Nick Carraway, the narrator of The Great Gatsby, is at one point told by his father to refrain from criticizing others and to remember "a sense of the fundamental decencies." That phrase, too, fit Richard McDermott well. His hospitality and sweet energy were a highlight of my short trip.