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Monday
May212007

The House on Bishop Street

This morning, as I sat in the apartment waiting for the electricians to come switch our wiring over to the building's new system, I decided to read this week's New York Times Sunday Magazine, which focused on new trends in eco-tecture. This article on the history of organic architecture tickled my nostalgic bone. I spent my early childhood growing up in a similar house to the one he describes, with working shutters and a sloping roof, built to conserve energy, to heat and cool itself.

Obviously the six-year-old me never fully appreciated the intrinsic architectural value of growing up in a 125-year-old house, but enough memories were created there to give it a lofty importance. I can remember counting my toes under pale blue bedsheets in the cavernous bedroom I shared with my sister, waiting for my father to come and tuck us in for the night. I recall the cool breeze that shifted across the front porch, where we sat swinging when the first fireflies started to come out at night. In the yard, honeysuckle bushes and dandelions; inside, the smooth banister rising up to the second floor. A shutter supporting a gleaming spiderweb against the hand-skinning rough white of the exterior wall.

A historical record of this house found on my hometown library's website fills the architectural gaps in my memory:

Date(s) or Period: circa 1855
Style or Design: Federal
Foundation Material: rock-faced plain ashlar
Wall Construction: wood frame
Roof Type & Material: gable, wood shingle
No. of Bays: Front 3, Side 4
Wall Treatement: stucco over wood frame
Further Description of Important Features: Symmetrical front (east) facade with one story full facade wooden porch supported by square pillars. Brackets and decorative trim in porch cornice. Trabeated front door - possible original door. Old shutters at all windows that are 1/1 double hung first floor and 2/2 double hung on the second. Inside end chimneys. Plain frieze panel in the cornice.
History and Significance: When the Memorial Presbyterian building was constructed, James R. Patterson had three houses moved from the vicinity of the former church and these now stand on Bishop Street between Church and Withrow.
About ten years ago, my sister and I were walking through the northern part of our town, and decided to pass by the old house. We noticed that the brick patio where we once helped our mother pull weeds, behind which we once grew wild strawberries in ceramic urns, was now paved over, a parking lot for residents' cars. Our dear house had been converted by its current owners into a split-level rental.

We walked up to the front door and rang the bell. I pressed the sides of my hands to the glass and peered inside. The grand hallway from my childhood, with doors leading to the purple room and the yellow room (I remember the rooms of my childhood by the colors of their walls), was now a landing strip for the types of things college students own: bikes, mounds of jackets, backpacks, and running shoes. The doorways to the rooms on either side were sealed shut, completing the division of my former house. No one answered the upstairs bell, which is a shame. I wanted to see if the frosted glass dividing the two upstairs bathrooms was still there. How much our bedrooms had diminished in size from our colossal memory of them. Or if they were even still bedrooms. If the banister still felt the same to my adult hands as it did to me as a child.

We went round to the back and decided to try our luck downstairs. A college kid in athletic shorts answered the door, and after a quick explanation of who we were and why we wanted to see the house, he ushered us inside.

"Has it changed?" he asked us.

What an innocent and loaded question. We were standing in our former playroom, where we once drew pictures with crayons on sleek beige drawing paper illuminated by the glow of the sun ricocheting off yellow walls. It was now littered with beer cans and primary colored plastic cups. They'd had a party the night before, and the carpet, once a vibrant and youthful orange, now seemed to be sighing with old age beneath our feet. A partially-filled giant gray utility garbage can evidenced a half-hearted attempt at clean-up. One wall was covered with a poster calendar: Coors. The smell of college boys was thick in the air — cologne deodorants and gym socks.

If only we could have wrenched open the shutters again, thrown up the sash and let the wind carry dandelion seeds in through the window, the scent of the honeysuckle trees, the dormant strawberries. If only we could seed the yard again with a blue plastic swingset and green garden hose, bubbles from a pink wand. If only our youth could reinfect places. If only we could build these places in our memory again, like repurposing old houses to do what they once did best. A house that was meant to heat itself, to cool itself; a house that was meant to raise children.

I would have thrown open that window, torn down the poster from the wall. I would have restored my childhood to that space. An organic childhood. Not in today's sense of the word ("children can only be happy if they're raised on chickens that were also happy") but the old sense: a childhood built from the ground up, day-by-day, with balogna sandwiches and whole milk, by parents who did their best to furnish each room of our impressionable minds with whatever we might need for the unforeseeable future.

Date(s) or Period: circa 1976
Style or Design: Female
Foundation Material: Scotch-Irish, German, Welsh
Wall Construction: bone frame supported by two loving parents
Roof Type & Material: a good head on her shoulders
Further Description of Important Features: Retains layers of memory like wallpaper. Sometimes asymmetrical and impatient. Gutted and restored in 1997; extension currently under construction.

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