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Part Two

Eminent Domain


Tuesday night is a perfectly fine time for a cocktail party at the Tuckahoe.

The early evening rain doesn't delay any of Roman's guests. They need only take the elevator or stairs. Promptly at six, the progressive cocktail party begins. Roman looks famously European with his shoulder-length hair tied at the nape, and he wears his signature sterling belt and Gucci shoes. He is, as he contends, at home when hosting. The finest Georgian silver and porcelain have been selected. Rare roast beef, salmon, eggplant and champagne are served. The parlors in Roman's house - which once catered daily to simpler appetites as a tea room open to the public - shimmer with the silver stretch of mirrors and light pouring through crystal sconces and chandeliers.

Beneath a Picasso charcoal of bodies intertwined, George Bass and John Burnette — who last month "upgraded" to a new larger unit — sip champagne and listen to Roman's musings. "Oh, there are lots of stories at the Tuckahoe …" he remarks teasingly.

Before an anecdote is offered, Burnette playfully finishes his sentence: "… and many we don't want to tell." It's perhaps what's untold - everything from ladies' ages to salaries to illnesses and death - that appears to keep the Tuckahoe elusive.

Soon, with cocktails and champagne, the dozen invited guests let their guard down. Some gently compliment one another at what appears to be the first social occasion of the season. If pretense once shaded previous parties, it is noticeably absent tonight. Instead, the well-dressed group makes a concerted effort to be casual. Still, there are those who meet outsiders with skeptical curiosity, however polite and reciprocal. It's clear the Tuckahoe is hallowed ground — particularly to those residents whose lives are invested in it day in and day out — and it's easy to see how a scandal, here, would never make the news.

Even so, to an outsider, it's hard to respond to the formality. At a time when any impropriety seems destined to turn up as fodder at the water cooler, it's unexpected to see that in some places reticence is still the rule. There are no whisperings of stock tips, political endorsements, religious affiliations or extramarital affairs. There are no gasps of disbelief or reproachful scowls. And the wild imaginings of what goes on inside these walls are dispelled. There is a tinge — however slight — of disappointment. What remains is an elegant building and a community of regular people — people who graciously turn out for a cocktail party on any given Tuesday.

Seated in the front parlor, Melanie Trent, a jewelry designer, and Susan Armstrong, an attorney, talk about art and decorating, and the importance of keeping age a secret.

"I let go of a big house on Three Chopt," says Trent, who bears a striking resemblance to an older Sarah Jessica Parker with cropped red hair. When her age is asked, she smiles demurely and forces a guess. When 37 is offered, she turns to Armstrong and exclaims "OK girlfriend, I'll take that." A three-year resident of the Tuckahoe, Trent spends half of her time on the West Coast where she's working on a new line of jewelry. "My mother said 'Melanie, you're downsizing so young.' But I feel that smaller spaces are so much more intimate. This is like New York living - and I've lived in New York and Europe - with all the graciousness of Southern heritage and architecture. This to me is art, and I appreciate it."

Armstrong, another young blood and newcomer to the Tuckahoe, seems to agree. For both women, it's their first experience in condo living. But for Armstrong, a Richmonder of 21 years, it's perhaps more an issue of practicality. "I had a little house in Stonewall Court. My house was perfectly fine, but it wasn't perfect for me." On a whim, she put it on the market and it sold immediately. "There are lots of little things that I didn't know if they'd irk me," she confesses, like noise from the people living above or below her unit. But so far, Armstrong says, it's been a perfect fit. "I've had more people over and more dinner parties than I had in my house." What's more, Armstrong adds, she likes the community that living in a condominium can afford, especially for single professionals and retired people. Still, Armstrong admits she hasn't yet met everyone, and that's OK. She enjoys the privacy. "I hardly ever see people on my floor. But sometimes, when I've come home, there'd be someone down front having a drink with the guard. The guard wasn't drinking, of course, but it's made me feel, well …" she trails for a second trying to think of just the right way to put it. "I think they do it because they're lonely," she says sympathetically. "But I haven't seen that in a while."

[image-1](Chad Hunt / Style Weekly)Since moving into the Tuckahoe, attorney Brad Cann has fielded questions from friends who wonder why he chooses to live in a condominium. But for Cann, who doesn't want the hassles of a house and yard, the living here is easy.

While the Tuckahoe insists its image is changing, dutiful matriarchs who make its community timeless prove they're as lively as ever. New image or not, they're not going anywhere. While there are those at the cocktail party who approach outsiders with a polite but distanced manner, it is not these ladies. Listening to their conversations is like being asked to join a quilting circle. You're a friend just by being there.

"There's a silly joke that goes around that [the builders] had to keep digging and digging, and the basement has such high ceilings and is so deep because they needed to make sure it had a firm foundation," laughs Mary Jane Giles Kirkpatrick, about the extraordinary weight — real and imagined — of the Tuckahoe. Kirkpatrick, a longtime Tuckahoe resident, moved recently to Westminster-Canterbury. Still, it's here she feels at home. "So many of the units turned out differently. My corner cupboards wouldn't fit because there were no right angles," she remembers. "They tried hard to rent them during the Depression. Some were even divided to allow lower prices."

"I remember the tea room as a child," adds Betty Dementi, an owner on the fourth floor. "Oh, yes," says Kirkpatrick. "The city closed it and the people who lived here were incensed. You know I never learned to cook. I never needed to know how. But I'm learning now and it's fun."

Without a moment's delay Kirkpatrick and Dementi skip with grace onto the topic of computers - a modern convenience they acknowledge is perhaps more necessary than cooking. "My brother is supposed to get me a computer and teach me," says Kirkpatrick. "I just feel that my brain can only handle so much and it's overwhelmed now," she laughs.

"They really are wonderful," urges Dementi. "But sometimes they act up. I've learned the only thing to do is unplug it and leave it alone for a while and it may settle itself."

Kirkpatrick places her champagne glass on the coffee table. It's nearly her time to exit. She has a bridge game at 7 p.m. at Westminster-Canterbury.

"You know it's really quite genuine that we like one another," says Dementi nodding to her friend. They grew up in an extended neighborhood where people were connected by the friends they shared in common. "It's Richmond," explains Kirkpatrick. "But being 'Very Richmond' is pejorative, now, isn't it?" asks Dementi. "Well, I guess it is," agrees Kirkpatrick, "but it's not how it's intended."

"You know what it is?" asks Dementi. "We have bonds about children, our schools and our neighborhoods. And here at the Tuckahoe when the sun shines on the front of its brick, it seems to smile like it belongs."

"It's such a welcoming place," adds Kirkpatrick.

"In time, my eyes won't be what they are," Dementi confesses about driving. "I can walk to the University, to St. Catherine's and St. Christopher's — anywhere I want to go. I can't say it's relaxed, but it is in a way. The Tuckahoe has an aura about it that it's a grand old lady," she suggests, adding that the metaphor isn't popular with other residents who find it too austere and outdated. Still, she insists, it's true.

"It's really a prestigious place, wouldn't you say, Betty?" inquires Kirkpatrick.

"Well, I should hope so," she replies.

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