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A HAUNTED HOUSE, CLINGING TO SECRETS
"Der ingen kunne tru at nokon kunne bu."
Every winter, when the trees drop their leaves, a certain house in Laurelton, Queens, comes into full view. It is a decrepit Victorian on a cul-de-sac at 141-36 222nd Street, a structure whose condition has made it known as "the haunted house."
To say the condition of 141-36 is woeful seems, well, woefully inadequate. Its siding is weathered to the marrow, and most of its windows are boarded over. An "X" painted on the cupola warns of weak floorboards. A locked chain-link fence seals it off from society. A small armada of boats lies beached in the yard under a sea of blue tarp.
Three yellow traffic signs posted at the corner announce, with a Cassandra-like quality, "Dead end," "End," "Dead end."
For all its decay, 141-36's most haunting detail might be that it is listed in city records as "owner occupied." The prospect of finding life behind its boarded windows seems slim indeed, though that hasn't kept passers-by from lingering when they see it, and daydreaming about what might be inside.
"That's my favorite house," said Aaron Fox, a drug counselor who rents a place nearby. "It looks like it's got so much to say. But it can't."
Everyone who comes across 141-36 sees something different: a junk heap, a mansion, a victim, a survivor, a house. The once elegant house's rotting condition inspires some to concoct stories of how it came to be, or to dream of the time capsule of collectibles that surely lie inside.
"He's an outdoor type or something," Mr. Fox surmised about the owner, indicating the boats in the yard.
Just how long — and why — 141-36 has been neglected is anyone's guess. These are the months when commuters on the Long Island Rail Road, whose tracks run along the southern edge of the property, can see it from the train, and some drive by on weekends to inquire about it, neighbors say.
"The haunted house," said Roger Allick, who lives nearby and fields frequent queries about 141-36, though he knows nothing about it. "Everybody's curious about that house."
There are other dying Victorians in Laurelton, a frayed patch in the southeastern hem of Queens. Yet none have the faded majesty of the two-and-three-quarter-story house that is 141-36.
Long before the borough's arcane street, road, drive and avenue numbering began, 222nd Street was known as College Avenue, 141st Road was Lincoln Avenue, and 141-36 sat amid a scattering of large three-story homes for well-off families.
Small clues survive: Census data from 1930, which is the most recent detailed information publicly available, shows it was then the home of a family named Gross. The father, Albin, who was unemployed (it was during the Great Depression), had paid $11,000 for 141-36, and lived there with his wife, Katherine, their teenage daughter, also Katherine, and his brother, Walter, a mail carrier.
A Municipal Archives tax photograph from around 1940 shows a hardly recognizable 141-36: wholesome, well maintained, a perfect example of suburban tranquillity.
Now 141-36, in all its fading glory, towers over tidy houses thrown up in brick and vinyl, some sprouting satellite dishes that hint at how many apartments a home has been carved into.
Neighbors offer a few more tantalizing clues, though any reality becomes hard to disengage from the myths that 141-36 can't help but inspire.
Martha Barfield, who moved into her home nearby on 141st Road in 1971 with her husband, Oscar, and two children and is one of the last old-timers, recalls the couple who used to live in 141-36.
The husband was German and the wife stayed in most of the time, she said. She could not recall the family name. One of the sons, who appeared to be mentally handicapped, was friendly and waved when he walked to the corner store for cigarettes, she said.
"The wife got sick, then the husband got sick — they weren't friendly people," she said. The parents died, and that son eventually went away to live, she said.
The house was left in the care of the other son, she said. Already weathered, with a porch and yard teeming with castoff items, 141-36 fell into even greater disrepair.
The block association wrote to the city's planning board, which once sent a tree-trimming crew.
Otherwise, the property has been left alone, and is still owned by the surviving son.
"He's in there," Mrs. Barfield said. "We all know this."
In — there? That seems very unlikely. The gate was padlocked, the windows boarded up, and there was no apparent heat or electricity. The next express to shudder by seemed to send it toppling.
Mrs. Barfield offered one hypothesis circulating among neighbors: the bunker. Years ago, she said, when the roundabout at 225th Street and 141st Avenue was being dug, the father and sons were seen at night hauling stones back to their house to build what the neighbors thought — though they had no evidence to support it — was an underground chamber.
That piggybacked on other baseless rumors that were fueled by the fact that the father was German and that in 1964 an otherwise ordinary German housewife in Maspeth, Queens, was unmasked as a former guard at a Nazi death camp.
Nevertheless, rumors, a reality in every neighborhood, persisted.
Milly Fountain, who has lived across the street from 141-36 since 1964, said she could not recall a single day when the house was in good condition. Speaking through a locked screen door, she said she was exasperated at finally being asked about the house after her years of complaints had fallen on the city's deaf ears.
Whether or not there was a bunker, she could not say, but she did say that whoever lived at 141-36 burned wood for heat.
Some years ago, after complaints from neighbors and with the house in increasing disrepair, Sally Martino-Fisher, the district manager of Community Board 13, called Adult Protective Services to check on the elderly father.
Caseworkers who went to the house were unable to get beyond the fence, she said. A spokesman for the agency confirmed this account, and said that the father had apparently died. (This reporter's query prompted the agency to send caseworkers to the house again; they, too, were unable to gain access.)
An operator said a telephone in the house was working, but no one answered the many rings. And no one ever appeared during this reporter's visits to the home over two weeks.
It was time to check records. The deed to 141-36 revealed the owner to be Oswald E. Bauer. The Web site of the Department of Buildings showed three violations relating to the house's condition, but all were listed as closed.
The Department of Finance Web site showed that in 1998, Oswald Bauer appeared at the department's office in Jamaica, Queens, and a woman named Emma Bauer gave him power of attorney and, for $10, the deed to the house. She signed the documents with a slightly shaky "X."
Since 2004, the property taxes for the home have been paid in cash, a city spokesman said.
And what of Mr. Bauer's parents? According to city and Social Security records, Alfred Bauer, a previous owner, died in 1996. Mrs. Fountain, the neighbor across the street, said she remembered the elderly mother being taken away one day to live elsewhere.
There was one more thing. Mrs. Barfield, the neighbor, said that the remaining son worked for the New York City Transit Authority. Could he be Oswald E. Bauer?
Finally: a chance to solve the mystery of 141-36.
A call to Mr. Bauer was placed at the transit authority, where a spokesman located him and said he worked a day shift in the field on capital projects. A message was left for Mr. Bauer about the interest in his house.
Mr. Bauer returned the spokesman's call, but he declined to be interviewed, leaving intact much of the mystery surrounding a house that keeps attracting attention as much as its owner seems to shun it.