In July 1923, one year after visiting their maid’s brother Ernesto Ballardini in Smyrna, Gilbert returned to what was left of the once bustling city. Four months earlier, Gilbert’s friend Carl Blegen, Assistant Director of the American School, had sailed to Smyrna on an American destroyer, since there was no longer any regular steamship service, to look into conditions at the American excavations at Kolophon (Deirmendere) in the Anatolian interior. Blegen wrote on March 5, 1923, to the American excavator Hetty Goldman that no workmen would be available since all the Christians were gone and the Turkish men were in the military. I published the text of this letter in the book thanks to the kind permission of the American School Archivist, Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan.
By the time Gilbert sailed into the harbor at Smyrna in July, rebuilding had begun. He reported that Ernesto and his family, who had a summer home across the bay in the suburb of Kordelio, “are very well & are still doing a lot of work. He is still one of the ones who is in the best position. His son-in-law is building bridges on the railway & in a month he made 40,000 lire. His son-in-law’s brother is making the Italian school, so they are all quite well & do not need anything.” (Wednesday 18, July 1923) Gilbert’s carefully worded letter did not inform his mother or their maid Italia that Ernesto’s blade sharpening shop on Maltezika St. had been destroyed in the blaze. Ernesto undoubtedly gave Gilbert a vivid description of the fire as seen from across the bay in Kordelio, but this too he spared his mother.
Gilbert’s newspaper article on “Smyrna Today. Life Amid the Ruins” offered more general observations. “Words cannot convey a true impression of the desolation of the city. The principal streets have indeed been cleared, but that is practically all. A few buildings in ferro-concrete have survived the fire, but nearly all the private houses have been utterly destroyed. Frank Street, formerly the busiest street in Smyrna, is now the centre of the wilderness, and a wide clearance marks the spot of the British Consulate [where Gilbert had visited Sir Harry Lamb and his wife].
Along the quay a few cafes have sprung up in the ruins of the greater buildings, and the Italian Government has started to repair the larger portion of its schools, but this is all that has been done so far towards rebuilding the city. The Turks have drawn up a regular town-planning scheme, and anybody who engages in building must sign an agreement by which he renounces all claims to compensation if the Government finds it necessary to demolish the building. This is naturally far from encouraging to enterprise of any kind, and Smyrna is urgently in need of legislation of a character somewhat more elastic.”