My wife was out of town that day. Shopping or something. So I decided to take the kids on a little adventure. “Pile into the car, kids!”
“Where are we going?”
“It’s a surprise!”
We drove just a mile or so, and I pulled over at the side of the road.
“OK, everybody out!”
“Uh. Dad? This is a cemetery.”
It wasn’t just any cemetery though. It has a monument telling the story of the man who built my house, but who never managed to live there.
Back in the 1830’s there was a general store in town. And the proprietors did very well. So each of them decided to build a nice house on the main road from our town to the next. (It’s not the main road any more, but it was back then.) Our guy was engaged to be married, and he was a bit of a show-off, so he chose a lot that had a natural plinth. (That means kind of a hill so the house appears a little above its surroundings.) There was already a house on the lower half of this lot, though, so he had that moved across town. Apparently this was quite common back then. I once took a walking tour with the town historian, and every other house “used to be over there…”.
With the house moved, he hired the hot architect of the time, a guy name Elias Carter. This fellow was big into Greek revival (columns, like on southern mansions), but unlike others of his period, he preferred the simple Doric capitals (at the top of the columns) over those fancy Corinthian ones. So if you are in Massachusetts or New Hampshire and you see an 1830’s house or church with columns and Doric capitals, it’s probably one of his.
The house was built over the course of two years, 1838-1839. There is a main house and an “ell” behind it, all built at the same time. When it was all ready for him to move in, our hero went to New York to buy furniture. Apparently Boston furniture wasn’t good enough for him. Or maybe he wanted to consult with the 1830’s Queer Eye guys. Who knows.
Anyway, he and his furniture pile into a steamship called the Lexington, which blows up in Long Island Sound. His body is swept out to sea, never to be recovered.
Since he wasn’t married yet, the woman the house was built for never lived here.
Cheerful story, right? So that is all spelled out in etchings on this monument in the cemetery, and I thought the kids might find it interesting to know that their house has an interesting story like that. Nope. “Dad, this is boring. Can we go home now?”
How I came to own this house is another story. Not quite as tragic.
When I got out of college, I decided to stay in Massachusetts and work for a defense consultancy in Cambridge. I had worked there a while, and become rather indispensable, when my wife decided to go to law school in Michigan. So when we moved there, my employer decided to keep me on as a telecommuter. This was 1991. Telecommuting was a lot harder back then. But we made it work.
Every now and then I’d have to come back to Cambridge for a meeting, and one of these times was near Thanksgiving, so I decided to spend the holiday with my wife’s family, who lived in a small town in the middle of the commonwealth.
On my drive out there, I noticed this big, ridiculous mansion with a “For Sale” sign in front of it.
When we returned to visit her family at Christmas, the sign was still there. And when you are a young couple, in the middle of nowhere, spending time with in-laws, you desperately need to find something else to do. So my wife called a realtor friend, who agreed to let us go explore this place. It was unoccupied.
One step into this house, and I had to have it. We were living in a small ranch in Michigan, which had the same footprint as this place’s pool. We had no kids, and so there was no reason we would need the 4200 square feet this place offered, but I just knew I was home.
My wife felt the same way. She had ridden the bus by this house every day on her way to school, and would see the grand chandeliers through the huge front windows, and dreamed of living there.
There was only one problem. She had just passed the Michigan bar, and moving back here meant she’d have to take the Massachusetts bar. Oddly, she was OK with that. Her sister is an attorney in town, so she could join that practice and get a leg up on being the kind of a small-town lawyer she really wanted to be. (She was working as in-house counsel for a slumlord in Michigan. Hey, it’s a living, right?)
So she had no hesitation. And I had no hesitation. I called my mother, who lived only an hour away from me in Michigan, to tell her the good news.
Have I mentioned that I lack empathy? This is a good example of that. It did not occur to me that my mother would not be positively thrilled to learn that her youngest, whom she got to see almost every weekend, was going to move 800 miles away. After only just moving back a few years ago. Oh well. It’s not like I wasn’t going to move because of that. But I probably could have broken the news to her a little better than I did. Shrug.
So we bought the house. It had been sitting empty for several months, and it was owned by a relocation company that really wanted to unload it. It was costing them $3000/year just to heat the place. It was unsellable. We got it for a song.
We didn’t have to do too much work. Storm windows, some insulation, paint. My wife’s father built the stone walls you see in that picture. It was his retirement hobby.
After about 5 years in the house, that marriage ended reasonably amicably, and I kept the house. She got absolutely everything else, plus some. Seemed like a fair bargain to me.
So that left me, single, alone, in a big ridiculous house. I was basically living in three rooms. I entertained a lot. Without furniture, it was pretty much like owning a gymnasium with walls. I was very happy.
When I finally found the true love of my life, she gladly took on the role of interior decorator, and antique home restorer. We’ve added a garage, mudroom, and deck. We’ve repainted inside and out multiple times. Insulated properly and thoroughly. Replaced the 1950’s converted coal furnace with a modern little Buderus. After griping about the antique windows for 13 years (they are beautiful, but completely impractical), those are being replaced in a few weeks.
She is so sick of this house. Talks about selling it the second our youngest goes to college, and moving to Hawaii.
Do you suppose they have big ridiculous houses in Hawaii?