Randomly surfing the web (aka procrastinating) a few days ago, something possessed me to do a Zillow search on the home my mother had built for us back in the 60s. I took a look at the pictures of the inside from the last time it was for sale. I DO NOT recommend this.
A little background: In the mid-60s, the interstate had cut through part of our family farm, so my mom sold up to an oil company and built a lovely home in a nice development in the town just to the south of us. She was a widow with three kids — my sister was married, but my brother, a high school senior, and 11-year-old me, still lived at home. And Grandma, Mom’s mother, who had lived with us as long as I could remember.
She built a simple ranch house on a good-sized wooded corner lot. The last one on a street that dead ends at what was then untouched woods. Three bedrooms, two baths, living, dining, good-sized eat-in kitchen, porch, patio and a finished basement with a family room paneled in pine from the old house, a bedroom and bath. I think she built it for between $14,000 and $18,000. Sold it in the late 70s for around $75K.
In my mind that house was exceptionally beautiful and I believe the planning of that house set me on the road to design in general and a lifelong interest in interiors.
As I remember it, (my older sister will tell me that my memories are all wrong) Mom had a friend who was an interior designer (or at least had a strong interest). She helped Mom get a plan together and I got to take part!
You entered a foyer with a white and gold terrazzo tile floor and grasscloth on the walls — but what caught your eye was the living room you looked straight into — walls, carpet, drapes on the three big sliding glass doors that looked out to the woods with a classic fireplace framed in black brick — all white! The kitchen with its American Eagle wallpaper (this was the 60s and Mom loved classic American furnishings) was off the foyer and in the front of the house…pretty unusual for the time.
Mom had always loved Williamsburg — the drapes in the living room of our old house that my dad and grandfather had built (and never quite finished) had been "Williamsburg Potpourri” — so we headed to the Williamsburg department at Higbee’s department store in downtown Cleveland, started looking at fabric and buying a houseful of new classic American furniture.
As I recall, we had lived a good life. I don’t remember wanting much of anything on the farm, but those were simpler times when we happily played “Mother May I” from the neighbor’s front porch; “Mumblety-peg,” a pocket-knife-flipping game, with my great uncle (how did I survive?!); Monopoly and Rook. Kids and adults crowded around a neighbor’s color TV to watch Walt Disney, Ed Sullivan and Bonanza on Sunday evenings. And it was a treat when a neighbor’s nephew came to visit each summer with his Tonka trucks.
Planning, furnishing and decorating an entire house was new territory!
Back to Williamsburg. Our house was what I think of as mid-60s, mid-American design. NOT “Early American” and all that connotes. The white dining room had a chair rail and above it was a deep rose wallpaper with a large gilt pattern. At the far end of the adjoining living room, the back wall of the built-in book cases was painted that same rosy shade. Centering the living room was a turkey red and deep blue floral camelback sofa (I just slipcovered it — so comfortable). Deep blue club chairs faced it across a Queen Anne style coffee table. And there were coordinating end tables and a new buffet for the dining room with matching chairs to go around the antique table we’d had for years. A white shell of a room accented with fabrics, Karastan orientals, paint and wall coverings in beautiful jewel tones. Unheard heard of in a house with kids — even fairly grown ones!
A word about “suites” of matching furniture which my older self now abhors. When you lived through the Depression and WWII like my parents, with not a whole lot of “new,” a suite of anything that matched was pretty cool. My sister still brings that up when I try to get her to replace the bedroom suite she bought for her first home around the same time.
But then, I had my very own suite of white Italian provincial furniture for my new bedroom (I was classy, it wasn’t run-of-the-mill French provincial). The dressers and corner desk wrapped one side of the room. And no awful pink for me (I still dislike that color). Or posters on the walls. My room was a soft yellow with a plush light sage green carpet. We even had a scalloped cornice custom made and mounted on the ceiling in one corner to frame my twin bed. The walls of that little alcove were papered in a dainty bird wallpaper with soft green and white lattice-print drapes at the head and foot. Pretty, but not overly girly. And I had a curlicue rattan headboard and chair. Having always shared a bedroom with my brother or my mom, I was in heaven.
If you have made it this far, thanks for putting up with my design nostalgia.
Back to my old home's pics on Zillow. The living room still has white carpet, but the walls are yellow and the fireplace wall is accented in red. Tacky valances have replaced the elegant white drapes and corduroy recliners, slouchy gray sofas and a pine block of a coffee table — not to mention the prominent flat screen — are the “décor.” The dining room has an awful border above the chair rail, a murky red below.
My lovely room is now…wait for it…pink! With a deeper rose accent wall. The scalloped cornice is still there, but the bed isn’t nestled under it and the carpet is some awful two-tone geometric in a deep rose pattern. The other rooms are even more awful — all in different bright colors like a box of crayons gone mad.
I’m sure the family that lives there now loves it and it may be what they can afford. I’m sure they think, like I did, that it is a beautiful home. But it makes me sad and tarnishes the misty vision I have of that first excursion into the world of interior design.
So take this admitted design snob’s advice. If you have loved a house — don’t try to go back. Hold that gilded vision of a beloved home’s past in your head…and in your heart.
Postscript: My wonderful contractor husband and I have been in a perpetual state of renovation for 30+ years. Guests seem to love our house finished or not. It is now this home that I carry in my head and heart. Not what it was or currently is, but what it will be. They’ll have to drag us out of here some day. If we were to ever sell, I would have to leave town. For to see it changed would probably break my designer’s heart.
Judy Barabas is primarily a graphic designer, though she believes applying good design to everything that touches one's life makes that life all the more enjoyable.