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PHOTO: RICHARD FRIEND

LAUREL NOIR

History at the Boarding House

A look back at the Laurel Town Lodge

Laurel Noir is a series focused on historic crimes and the darker underside of our hometown.

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By Richard Friend  |  November 7, 2015

While Laurel has its share of historic mansions and fashionable residences, something about the town’s… shall we say… less than tony addresses has always fascinated me. This is particularly true when it comes to places that probably aren’t long for this earth when it comes to redevelopment and expansion.

One that’s always stood out to me is the old boarding house at 41 B Street.

I’ve always known it simply as “The Boarding House”—a low-rent apartment building that’s been home primarily to transient folks, as well as those who simply can’t afford the rising cost of living.

I first became aware of it as a child in the late 1970s, when one of my uncles briefly lived in the top floor southeast corner room overlooking Tolson Alley. It was, for him, a temporary solution for a matter of months until his job relocation to Philadelphia was complete. I vividly remember that tiny room and the equally tiny TV that was showing The Wiz one night while we were visiting. Even more vivid is the memory of the Bee Gee’s Stayin’ Alive playing in the hallway. To this day, anytime I hear that song, the image of the Boarding House comes quickly to mind.

With the arrival of the new C Street Flats within eyesight at the end of the block (on the site of the old police station and City Hall) and the likelihood of business expansion in that area just off Main Street, I can’t imagine that the old Boarding House will be around a whole lot longer. All things considered, I’m really surprised it’s been around this long.

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PHOTO: BILLY WELLFORD

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LAUREL HISTORY BOYS COLLECTION

Believe it or not, the building was once the subject of a postcard.

Built in 1933 under the personal supervision of Snowden J. Athey, the A. & H. Apartment House was noted as “quite an asset to the town” in the 1938 Album Representative of Laurel’s Official, Financial, Professional and Business Interests.

“Snowd” Athey was a well-known local businessman who, along with partner J. Frank Harrison, opened their popular Athey & Harrisonhardware and feed store on the corner of Main and A Streets—the building that would later house Gayer’s Saddlery and now Outback Leather. Incidentally, the faded red gas pump that still stands in front of Outback Leather is a relic from the Athey & Harrison days, once used to fuel their delivery vehicles.

I could count the times I’ve been inside the building on one hand, (and haven’t set foot in it since 1979) but it always loomed large—literally—anytime I’d visit Keller’s/Knapp’s Newsstand or simply walk or drive past along Main Street.

On some level, I’ve always known that a building this old (and with the reputation its acquired over the years) must have a colorful history. One story that jumped off the page was this clipping from the February 20, 1975 Laurel News Leader, which details an argument between residents that led to a fatal shooting.

Notice that the article refers to the building as “a three-story rooming house.” Had this incident occurred just a few years earlier, the story count would’ve actually been four. According to the Laurel Volunteer Fire Department’s 100th Anniversary book, (2002) a three-alarm fire in 1968 resulted in the fourth floor being taken off completely. It notes another major fire there in 1961, and included this dramatic image:

LAUREL NEWS LEADER

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LAUREL VOLUNTEER FIRE DEPARTMENT

Sure enough, if you take a closer look at that 1930s postcard, I’ve highlighted the ill-fated fourth floor.

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Laurel News Leader clipping, 2/20/75.

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LAUREL NEWS LEADER

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With its 40 rooms, the building undoubtedly holds countless other stories, good and bad—most of which will be lost forever when it inevitably meets the wrecking ball, catastrophic fire, or occasional freak tornado that rips through Laurel. How much time it has left is anyone’s guess; but for now, it continues to sit there at 41 B Street, seemingly echoing that Bee Gees’ song that I overheard in its upstairs hallway so many years ago—Stayin’ Alive.

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UPDATE 12/2016:

The Boarding House was demolished in December, 2016. Before the proverbial wrecking ball hit, however, Sorto Construction was kind enough to invite us to explore the property—I’ll be featuring that tour in an upcoming video.

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PHOTO: PETE LEWNES