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The Amazing Mr Block

Updated on June 9, 2010
Steven Block, art collector
Steven Block, art collector

He came to my Inn during the horrific ice storm we had in February of 2009. He had his belongings in several different plastic bags. As he started up the walk I could see that he might end up flat of his back on the icy pavement, so I sent my house keeper out to help him. He was wearing an old red Louisville Cardinals jacket and baggy pants. Ashley helped him up the stairs and he stumbled through the door, spilling his wet plastic bags onto the hardwood floor.

He squinted at me through thick, wire-rimmed glasses and stammered out his name. "I'm Steven Block, the one who called you about staying with you for a few days" He was shaking from the cold, and appeared to be somewhat confused. He continued talking for the next ten minutes telling me about the ice storm and how it was ravaging the neighborhood.

The pervasive ice had silently stolen the power of 177,000 local residents in Louisville. It had engulfed nearly every tree and caused the demise of a large Magnolia tree in Steven's front yard, which fell against his house damaging it severely. He had to leave his icy home, which had no electricity or water, and move to a temporary residence. He went on and on in a series of run-on sentences, repeating himself over and over. He was very distraught.

I offered him a cup of hot tea and asked him to sit a while in the parlor, while we got his room ready. I had other guests who had called in desperation, because their power was also out and a few friends, who had no where to stay. The phone was ringing off the hook with calls from freezing people, who had tried to tough it out in their icy homes in front of tiny fires in fireplaces or wood-burning stoves. They were desperate to have a little relief, a shower, warm hands & feet, and a home cooked meal.

My heart went out to my local guests, reluctant to leave their homes, their pets and their plants...... throwing a few night clothes and sundries in plastics bags (too cold to go search for the suitcase in the storeroom) and searching for warmth and comfort.

I had never met Steven before, although we both lived in the same neighborhood. So, of course, I had no idea that he was a collector of art, much less that he had owned a major collection of etchings by Picasso, Grant Wood, Currier & Ives, and James Whistler. In addition, his collection included a rare Rembrandt etching entitled “Christ Before Pilate” . I say he had this collection because, wonder of all wonders, he gave it all away!

And why would he do such a thing? For money? No, although he did get a small partial payment for some of them. For philanthropy? Well, partly, but that was not the motivating factor. For fear of having them stolen? Maybe, a little. But mostly, he was growing old and wanted to find a safe place for them, one where they would be well taken care of. And what better places than the JB Speed Art Museum and the University of Louisville?

All of this he revealed to me over and over at breakfast, in the parlor, in the reception room, and in the kitchen. H e would even come down, while I was entertaining my friends and interject himself with stories about his collections and pictures in catalogs he held up over his head for all to see.

Every day, it became more and more apparent that his memory was being affected by old age. In some ways he was annoying, but he was also charming, informative and brilliant. Yes, he had been a collector, but, as I spent more time with him, I discovered more about him. He became a collector many years ago, by happenstance. But it was not his primary profession.

He received his undergraduate degree in sociology, before going off to Harvard grad school to study community planning. After working on a city planning project in Italy for two years, he ended up in Washington DC. He stayed in Washington 40 years designing and implementing a national, community service program by the name of Vista, now known as America CorpsVista. He returned to Louisville in 2004, when he was 70 years old, and bought a house in Old Louisville, 3 blocks from my bed and breakfast.

He spent an entire week with me and when his home was ready, he packed up his things and checked out. He left me articles and a Whistler catalog, naming all the 30-something etchings he had donated to the university. His Rembrandt and other etchings went to the JB Speed Art Museum.

I watched Steven walk away from my window on the second floor, aware of he shhhhing sound of huge branches falling from my beautiful Magnolia tree; branches heavy laden with ice and snow, falling one by one across the icy front walk leading to the house, thankful that I am away from the storm, warm, cozy, and quiet and have electricity.


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