The urge to claim yourself by claiming an enclosed private space is something we all do to a point; it’s a landmark day when you buy a house—or just stop having to share a room with a sibling by getting a room of your own. Having a situation that excludes both the elements and unwanted guests of all species is a psychic need for most of us and a practical necessity for anyone whose peace of mind and work require quiet and absolute non-interference.
The apropos horror story that resonates with many more than those who write is the one c. 1834 that concerns Thomas Carlyle and his good buddy John Stuart Mill. Mill got bogged down in writing projects, couldn’t meet a publisher’s deadline, and handed the contract for a three-part history of the French Revolution to Carlyle, who dug in, worked long and hard, finished the manuscript of the first volume, and sent if off to Mill. (This was, mind you, the only copy.) Mill left the manuscript in his study when he stepped out for a moment, and the maid who came in to poke up the fire needed something to start the fire with…
(After no doubt contemplating both murder and suicide, Carlyle re-wrote the whole thing from memory and with the help of friends. The completed set became a best-seller, but the story of an author’s worst nightmare resonates. This pic depicting the awful moment is from 19th century Japan.)
Anyway, it’s important to stake out one’s space, however unexalted. My studio is a simple box of a thing, a no-frills barn both comfy and cluttered, and I anticipate no beseeching calls from Architectural Digest wanting a look-see. Still, I admire and enjoy the more elaborate boxes that satisfy others, whether to design and build or inhabit. I have a non-acquisitive weakness for funky old houses, and I take note when a fine specimen gets a makeover instead of a fatal encounter with a bulldozer.
This one was built, so I was told, most of a century ago. The generous porch and the high ceilings bespeak a time before AC, when summer evenings were spent outside in porch springs and rocking chairs, and the conversations were lubricated with tall glasses of sweet tea and lemonade. Over quite a few weeks, I watched as the house was lifted off the pier and beam foundation that supported it, lowered onto a new concrete foundation, and then stripped down to its bones.
The old met the new in interesting stages. Broken and rotted studs and connectors were replaced and sheets of modern insulation were tacked over the ancient 2x4s. Modern, energy efficient windows replaced the more graceful originals, and the high-peaked attic space was filled with the constituent parts of a state of the art central AC system. A garage and an open-air kitchen pavilion (below left) were added.
I learned that all this was done to create an annex for the small museum just across the street. The museum memorializes Gone With the Wind—the movie more than the book, apparently. I suppose I’ll have to check it out at some point, while maintaining a diplomatic silence at critical points; my Southern ancestry was liberally informed, early on, by an inclination to revere facts over popular mythologies, regardless of the likelihood of blow-back from some of my more unreconstructed kinfolk.
Still, like Rhett Butler, I know that the truth has not and could never set me fully free of my roots. Whether those roots manifest in my seasonal yearning for a good pecan pie or an occasional glance back to long ago evenings spent on a favorite great-aunt’s pine and hydrangea shaded porch as lightning bugs spangled the Louisiana woods, they encompass things that I can only cherish, regardless of the freight attached.
My great-aunt’s house is probably long gone, taking with it all the memories and psychic energies that lives project into the spaces they long occupy. This house, reborn in the 21st century, has been given a reprieve. It will see weddings and book club meetings and Christmas parties and all the uniquely human activities that make an enclosed space sacred even when nominally secular. Maybe it will become, again, someone’s home. It is alive once more, once more a maker and repository and archive of memories.