I’ve neglected to post for the past several months, hence the title. …but it’s more than just not writing for a while – there is now a notable absence in my life. You see, my mother passed away peacefully on June 20th after a brief, but valiant, struggle with cancer – leaving a gap, a void, an absence – an empty place that used to be occupied, but is occupied no more. While the death of a parent isn’t typically a topic I would expect to find on a blog describing what it’s like to find oneself living in an architecturally-unique home, there is a thread connecting these two topics. The connection? …understanding the origins of my appreciation for thoughtful design, architecture and the building process itself.
It started when I was rather young – probably between 7 and 8 years old. My parents had purchased a lot about 3 1/2 miles from the center of town, and my father – a draftsman at the time – had labored over the blueprints for many hours to make sure every room, every surface, every single detail had been carefully thought through before the first bucket of earth was disturbed on the site. With little more than a mechanical pencil, a ruler and several drafting stencils, my father memorialized on paper, (at quarter-inch scale), what would eventually become our home. I remember seeing a rather large sheet of paper rolled out on the kitchen table with completely indecipherable lines and arrows, shapes and words, (all in my father’s very draftsman-like hand), but not really understanding what I was was looking at. Comprehending blueprints came a little later in life, but well before I was old enough to drive a car!
Fast-forward about four and a half decades…
As I was carefully going through my mother’s filing cabinets in late June, (shortly after she passed away), I stumbled across a thin folder with a number written on the tab in pencil. Hmmm… That number seemed vaguely familiar… Indeed, it was familiar – inside that folder were copies of the floor plans for our house – the first house my parents built! That’s right, it was the house number on the tab of the folder! I hadn’t thought about that in years, then suddenly it all came flooding back – an absolute tidal wave of fond memories – the street name, the ZIP code, the name of the family-owned construction company hired to build the house, followed by an endless series of hazy, almost dream-like, recollections I’d tucked away as a 7-year old child.
Unfortunately, I really couldn’t pause very long that day in June because I had so many other files to go through, so many boxes to pull down off shelves, so many cabinets and closets to dutifully inspect and inventory before we could proceed with the administration of my mother’s estate. I made a mental note of which cardboard banker’s box I dropped that precious folder in and kept sorting and organizing – so little time, so much to do…
Now, some 90 days later, with the most pressing issues attended to, and with the sadness that accompanies the passing of a parent starting to dissipate a tiny bit, I began digging through the boxes of files shipped halfway across the country from where she had lived to where I live. Ah, there it is! I’d run across that same folder and now I could unfold the floor plans, smooth out the creases, linger over them, then study the black and white photographs and even marvel at the mortgage deed there in the folder. Wow, I couldn’t believe how inexpensive it was – at least to 21st century eyes – to build this house! That was when the idea for this post began forming – while I was sitting there on the couch flipping through these treasured remnants of my past.
I have vivid memories of making that 3 1/2 mile drive many, many times over the course of the year it took to complete construction – first to see the excavation for the foundation, then to see the forms for the footings all staked out and ready for pouring, and then a few weeks later I watched the steady upward creep of concrete block walls from what seemed to a 7 year-old to be a very, very deep hole in the ground! To this day when I encounter the smell of wet concrete, freshly-cut lumber, the acrid smoke wafting up from a recently-soldered joint connecting two pieces of copper together, an entire room of curing plaster walls and yes, even freshly-applied latex paint, my mind immediately – and invariably – drifts back to those first memories of encountering every one these for the very first time at “‘The’ House”. Long after my family left Ohio, if anyone simply referenced “‘The’ House”, we all knew which house they meant – there was no need to explain.
Excavation began in the late fall. I remember my mother saying she wanted us to attend the elementary school serving the subdivision where the house was being built the next fall, and that meant we needed to move in before Labor Day, which was about 11 months away at that point. The footings were poured, the concrete block walls went up, gravel was spread and the entire basement was capped off with the first layer of sub-flooring before construction was halted for the winter. That didn’t stop us from making the occasional visit to the site though… In fact, I still remember my father telling my mother about having to evict a family of raccoons happily hibernating in the darkened corner of the basement when he’d gone to the site to chip out several inches of ice that had formed in the basement after a cold snap interrupted the spring thaw! The fear – at least this is the way I remember it – was the ice would put pressure on the footings and/or the concrete walls, thus causing premature cracking, hence the decision by my father, (with no small amount of urging from my mother), to go chip the ice out… This was the first of what turned out to be several rather arduous clean-up efforts we would engage in over the course of the next 9 months…
Spring arrived, the ground thawed, the site dried out and framing commenced. The smell of freshly-cut lumber is probably my favorite remembrance. I also remember the stacks of 2 X 4’s, plywood, the mounds of sawdust and framed-up walls that seemed to spring out of nowhere between successive visits. As an adult, and having had the privilege of watching three different houses built for my wife and I, I still enjoy the framing stage the most of any phase of building a house. I remember scampering up the stairs to the second floor, wheeling around through the doorway into what would become my bedroom and looking though the gap where a window would go. After being constrained to the first floor for what seemed like an eternity to a 7 year-old, it was thrilling, (and a little scary because there wasn’t any sheathing up on the exterior walls at that point), to gaze out across the street and imagine this was going to be my room!
I remember so many of the construction details: the tongue and groove plywood used for the sub-flooring being screwed down to the joists beneath so the floors wouldn’t squeak, the hand-troweled plaster walls and ceilings, the precision of the mortar joints… It all seemed so interesting to me at the time – I didn’t know why I found it so interesting, I just knew these details mattered. I’ll share a couple of my favorite stories here:
Shortly before the plasterboard – yes, I said plasterboard – was to be installed, the entire family spent part of a weekend at the job site sweeping up the sawdust that had accumulated between the 2 x 4 studs on top of the sole plate. Mildly OCD? Maybe, but the rationale seemed to make sense – no need to have a bunch of material that would absorb moisture sitting there trapped inside the wall, right? I guess if you did happen to have a leak, it wasn’t going spread because the trapped sawdust was soaking up water! So there we were, my sister and I sweeping the sawdust out onto the floor, with my mother carefully following us with an ancient Hoover canister vacuum sucking up the last little bits in the tiny crevices, then my father would work a push broom from the far side of the room toward the doorway pushing the sawdust into piles out in the hallway where it got scooped up and disposed of as we moved from room to room. Did getting rid of that sawdust really make a difference? It’s hard to say, but I’d like to think so.
The walls and ceilings were hand-troweled plaster over lath attached to plasterboard. I remember the four of us visiting one afternoon after the plastering crew had gone home for the day. We made our way from room to room, marveling at this wet, gray material smeared all over the walls and these strange metal corners stretching from the floor to the ceiling. Days later, as the finish coat – a brilliant white color – was being applied. The ceilings in every room were decorated with patterns in the plaster. Perfect circles with varying patterns radiating out in concentric circles in the formal rooms downstairs, (Living Room, Dining Room), and upstairs in each of the bedrooms. In other rooms, the patterns traced the perimeter and inside this illusion of a “frame” a wavy pattern would wind back and forth from one side of the room to the other. Make no mistake, these were master craftsmen who were extremely proud of their work, (and, as it turns out, so were we). And, as is the case with many trades, these were secret methods – methods that weren’t to be carelessly divulged, especially to neophytes! My father made it a point of telling the family about witnessing the entire plaster crew simply stop whatever they were doing whenever a stranger would pull up to the job site, including him! To this day, the best guess any of us made was that there were different sponges used to create those patterns, but that was the extent of what any of us could figure out. Try as we might, and even after studying the finished product for years, all we knew was it took a bucket of water, a special sponge, an extraordinarily-practiced hand and many, many hours to create these wonderfully-textured ceilings.
One final story, then I’ll wrap this post up. I suppose it was ten or twelve years ago at family gathering of some sort when we were reminiscing. I don’t know if it was one of my sisters, (the youngest being born while we were still living in Ohio), or my brother – maybe it was me – but one of us started sharing childhood memories. At some point in the conversation the subject of the builders came up, (I’m referring to the three brothers who owned the construction company that built “‘The’ House”), and our mother proceeded to share what I think is probably one of the most poignant moments she experienced in that entire year-long building process.
She said one day, not too long after the framing stage was drawing to a close, both she and my father were out at the job site when one or the other of them noticed this seemingly-odd ledge formed by the top course of the concrete block foundation and the cap enclosing the floor joists. To their eyes, (and their interpretation of the blueprints in their hands), that 2 X 12 cap was supposed to come out and end up almost flush with the exterior surface of the concrete block walls tracing the perimeter of the foundation, leaving just enough space for the clapboard siding to meet the foundation and overlap just a fraction of an inch. Instead there was this odd ledge set back about 5 inches, leaving a much, much wider gap. Uh, oh. Had there been some terrible mistake made when the foundation was poured? Worse yet, had the concrete block walls been built too far apart on all sides? …or had the framing of the first floor been miscalculated in some way?
You can imagine both of my parents reluctantly approaching the eldest of the three brothers and asking him to explain what this odd ledge was all about… After a brief pause, he glanced around, pretending to examine the foundation and this ledge, then looked back up and confidently announced, “Well, you see Jane, this is what’s referred to as a ‘brick ledge’!” What?! There must be a mistake – my parents hadn’t specified brick – brick veneer was a luxury they just couldn’t afford! The house was supposed to have clapboard siding from top to bottom! What happened?! …another brief pause, a squint, a slight shake of the head and he said with a smile “Well, you see Jane, my bothers and I, well, we just decided we were going to brick the first story of your house at no charge because you’re such nice people! Your house deserves to be done this way! So that’s what we decided to do.”
Tears welled up in my mother’s eyes, her chin quivered and her voice broke as she finished the story – those same emotions welling up now decades later, just as they had on that special day, some 40 years before. Simple, heartfelt appreciation for an incredibly generous act. It meant the world to a young couple just starting out – certainly struggling – but proud of what they were able to do with what they had, however modest it may have been. People willing to put the time and energy into doing something just because it was the right thing to do – to find satisfaction in the result, even if the result was going to be hidden from view, (e.g., no sawdust trapped behind the plasterboard). Yeah, that kind of young couple; those kind of people. They were my parents.