I learned from a very early age that words others may have used as virtual synonyms actually had quite distinct meanings. Take, for example, the words “lady” and “woman.” As my stepmother made quite clear to me, every lady is a woman, but not every woman is a lady.
Similarly, I try to be quite specific in my use of the words “house” and “home.” A house is a physical object, with its own distinct roof and walls. An apartment is not a house, but it may well be a home, for home, as we all know, is simply the place where our heart lives.
For some reason, I’ve been writing about both houses and homes for most of my professional life. When I write about design and architecture, I’m mostly writing about houses – how they function, why certain kitchen decisions make sense, how furniture placement makes a space work more effectively. This blog is a place where I can write more about home – the emotional response a structure and its location can evoke.
I’m also fascinated by the sub-genre of personal memoir and essay writing that focuses on personal relationships with buildings. Artists are often said to “live” in their works in a metaphorical way, but those who restore, renovate or build a home from scratch – and then write about the process – live in their creations in a very real way. New England seems to have spawned more than its fair share of these works, and I thought I’d share some thoughts about some of my favorites.
“The Outermost House,” by Henry Beston (Henry Holt & Company) isn’t really about a house, but the house is certainly a character in this masterpiece of naturalist writing, which has sadly become almost a cliche. Thanks to the book’s notoreity, the word “outermost” has become ubiquitous in Cape retailing. But stop on a walk out along the National Seashore some deserted autumn day and open this book to almost any page, then imagine living in a 20-ft. by 16-ft. uninsulated structure in this setting through all four seasons. Beston’s little dune shack became both a master to be served – sand climbing its outside walls had to be regularly dug away – and sanctuary, especially when howling nor’easters threatened to tear it board-from-post. When the house finally blew away in a 1978 storm, the Cape lost an important touchstone in its inhabited history.
“Cottage for Sale* *Must Be Moved” by Kate Whouley (Commonwealth Editions) documents a beach shack of a very different sort. Whouley fell in love with one of those cute little vacation-park cottages from its listing in a classified ad. The land upon which it and several neighbors had sat had been sold off for redevelopment, and Whouley was convinced the unit would make the perfect, ready-made addition to her existing 3-room cottage on Cape Cod. She spent the better part of 18 months, along with a fair amount of cash and no end of detail-tending, making this relocation happen. This is an obsession with which I can completely relate. I moved myself 1,200 miles to live in a house I’d fallen in love with, and she moved a cottage 20 miles to create a home in a spot she already loved.
At the other end of the size spectrum, “The Big House” by George Howe Colt (Scribner) tells the story of one of those massive shingled piles whose original owners had the audacity to call a “cottage.” The 100-year-old structure is about to be sold after a lifetime in Colt’s family – it needs a major overhaul and the family’s fortunes aren’t quite as fortunate as they once were. Colt wraps 42 years of summer memories in this tale told so well that you can feel the sand-worn floors under your feet and smell that salty-mildewy scent that defines summer on the Cape. You also can feel the vodka-and-tonic-infused tension as family relationships shift and reestablish themselves in the house through each year’s three-month tennancy. It’s like a soap opera told in stop-action format.
“Red House,” (Penguin) is an epic, of sorts, spanning the more than 350 years during which the author’s family home has stood on its Marshfield, Mass., foundation. Sarah Messer’s parents bought the place, called New England’s oldest continuously lived-in house, from a direct ancestor of the original builder in 1965, and Sarah grew up among its horsehair-plaster walls. It’s difficult to explain the ghostly presence this house and its former residents seem to assume in the Messer family’s life, but Sarah tells a compelling story of how intertwined these entities become. The original builder, Walter Hatch, stipulated in his will that the house should never be sold to owners outside of his direct decendants, and there’s often a sense that the house, itself, resents the presence of these outsiders. But the Messers are as devoted to the structure as the Hatches, as proved in their eventual restoration efforts (following two near-catastrophic fires), which may help keep the place standing another 350 years.
“Home: A Short History of an Idea,” by Witold Rybczynski (Penguin) is a bit of a cheat on this list. It’s not a memoir at all, but it does fit nicely on any bookshelf devoted to houses and their admirers. Rybczynski’s an architectural historian, and he explains how we can thank the Dutch for our current differentiation between house and home. It seems the culture known more recently for legalized pot and prostitution also is responsible for making domestic life comfortable. As the Dutch became trading masterminds, a middle class emerged with budgets large enough to afford homes with specialized rooms – rooms for sleeping that were separate from rooms for eating, for example. Purpose-driven furniture design followed, and, voila, 300 years later we had the Lazy Boy recliner, complete with cupholders.