Simple Life

The Definition of Home

By Jim Dodson

 

Not long ago I realized that this is our fourth summer in the old Corry house, the charming midcentury bungalow my wife and I purchased in October of 2016, two doors from the house where I grew up. As a kid, the Corry boys were my pals, their mom my mother’s closest friend on the block, and their house my favorite in the neighborhood.

In an older neighborhood where many homes for sale never even reach the marketplace, it seemed almost providential that the Corry place sat for several months until a certain couple happened along who understood what a hidden gem it was. Big Al Corry was one of the city’s top home builders who built the house for his wife, Mama Merle, and their four kids. He considered it to be his dream home, a handsome green bungalow that looked more like California than suburban Carolina. He even gave it an appropriate nickname – “Casa Verde.”

The only problem with it – at least in the minds of many younger house-hunters who toured its rooms — was the passage of time and changing tastes. The Corry house was essentially frozen in time, built the year “I Love Lucy” debuted and the first color TV sets went on sale in the Year of Our Lord, 1951.

“This house was just waiting for you two to come along and realize what a jewel it is,” said Cookie, the real estate agent, who laughed out loud when she learned of my boyhood connection to the place.

All it needed was some TLC and thoughtful updating inside and out.

Inside, we pulled up (pink) shag carpeting and pulled down a classic lacquered room partition straight from the Donna Reed era. That opened up the living room, prompting us to polish the beautiful hardwood floors we found beneath and ponder what to do about the original hand-cut paneling that was unique but made the room darker than we liked. The solution was a simple coat of elegant linen-colored paint that unified the rooms and invited the light throughout the house.

Since I’ve never warmed up to gas fireplaces – too many years feeding a big woodstove in Maine, I suppose — we had the gas fixtures removed from the house’s two fireplaces and made them wood-burning again, as they were when the house was built. A good fire, as they say in the North Country, warms you twice.

Another casualty of early updating was the foyer’s wildly exotic wallpaper, a tableau of tropical scenes depicting jungle foliage, plumed creatures and birds of paradise that looked like Carmen Miranda’s erotic dream. When a designer pal learned that we painted over original wallpaper by legendary Greensboro designer Otto Zenke, she was horrified – pointing out that we could have covered the cost of a complete bathroom reno job had we cared enough to take the time to steam the wallpaper off the wall. We didn’t.

Happily, the fact that our house had “good bones”, in the parlance of shelter rehab gurus, meant that other “big stuff” – heating and cooling systems, plumbing and electrical, the roof, the roomy attic and vast basement, and the large capacity emergency generator outside – were all in good shape owing to the house’s original owners and a grown son named Chris who served as caretaker for his widowed mom for many years. Much of the work was cosmetic in nature.

Not counting the peculiar toilet in the basement, both bathrooms were original and could certainly benefit from a makeover somewhere down the road, but for the time being they were perfectly serviceable, not only of high quality workmanship but even kind of retro chic. We decided we could live with them a while.

The cozy den (where once I played a million board games with the Corry boys) underwent a facelift that made it even cozier with the addition of bookshelves and a refinished cabinet topped by a beautiful slab of polished white oak.

The three bedrooms simply needed their own fresh coats of paint to spruce them up. Ditto the recently updated kitchen, which featured new directional lighting and granite countertops and just needed brighter paint and breakfast nook shelving to make it strikingly fresh and new.

A new house always brings surprises. Especially a new old house.

In our case, a nice surprise turned out to be the large screened porch that spans the rear of the house, a rustic space that reminded me of old fashioned porches you find on mountain lake houses or at summer camps. My initial thought was to remove it entirely and create an expanded outdoor entertaining area, but my intuitive bride suggested that we simply “live” with the porch for our first winter “Just to see how we feel in the spring.”

As the warm weather arrived, she suggested we move our antique farm table out to the porch and use the space for a dinner party with friends. We painted the brick floor a rich woodland green, strung up some Italian lighting and moved several comfortable wicker chairs and a nifty couch we picked up for a song at a local consignment store to the porch. A painted antique buffet completed the update, and the result was nothing short of transformative.

What’s old was suddenly new, surprising us and delighting our dinner guests by turning out to be the most popular and versatile room in the house. Until Covid-19 shut down such affairs until further notice, our “porch suppers” regularly ran from early spring to late autumn. “Don’t ever change that porch. It’s like stepping back to my childhood at summer camp,” one friend insisted.

Even so, we made plans to eventually replace the screens and winterize the space with oversized windows that would make it a four-seasons affair.

In the meantime, the peculiar little room that leads from the dining room to the porch, a former patio with its own outdoor fireplace that Big Al Corry enclosed at the rear of the carport not long before he passed away, became the home library I’ve always wanted, a quiet retreat for 800 books and their owner.

The larger transformation happened out of doors.

Back when we were originally house-hunting, I had my heart on finding ten acres in the rolling countryside outside the city limits, someplace I could re-create the hilltop house and garden that I built with my own hands on a forested hill in Maine, a process that involved clearing several acres of a coastal forest of birch and hemlock, rebuilding the stone walls of an 18th century farmstead, and creating a faux English estate garden and arboretum over two full decades.

My ruthlessly pragmatic wife had other ideas, however. “If you have that kind of land again, dear boy, you will never come in the house. One day I’ll simply find you face down somewhere out in the flower beds.”

“Exactly!” I came back joyously. “Can’t think of a better way to go! You can just plant me on the spot with a nice little brass plaque and a quote from William Wordsworth to remember me by!”

She didn’t buy it. Nor, alas, my vision of a new and improved redneck English estate garden in the country.

Instead, within days of our taking possession of Casa Verde, I pulled down an ancient pergola in back that became a simple brick terrace, liberated a magnificent elderly maple from being strangled to death by English Ivy, and basically removed a small jungle of shrubs and dying trees from all sides of the property.

Over the next three years, I planted 20 flowering trees, bunkered the place with lush hydrangeas and a variety of ornamental grasses and several kinds of water-frugal sages. Out back, I created half of an Asian-themed garden and put in an ambitious perennial border along the sunny east side of the property.

By this spring – the one we all missed due to a worldwide pandemic – my gardens hit their stride, bursting into bloom under skies that were reportedly clearer than they’d been since the days I knew Casa Verde as a kid.

If there is any such thing as a silver lining to this strangely altered time of life, at a moment when thousands are losing loved-ones to a killer virus while many others are losing the roofs over their heads due to lost jobs, it may simply be the importance of embracing a renewed definition of home as any place the soul finds peace and the heart feels grateful to be in the midst of a storm.

For as old William Wordsworth himself reminds us in his famous Ode to Immortality, life is subject to change without notice. “Thanks to the human heart by which we live,” he advised, “Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears.”

Matter of fact, I was thinking of the wily old bard a couple weeks ago after our fancy German dishwasher unexpectedly blew up and flooded the kitchen. Casa Verde’s once-lovely kitchen now sits thoroughly gutted by an abatement team that removed every cabinet and appliance in order to scrape out decades of asbestos subflooring from the 1950s.

And so, for the unforeseeable future, we are living like true redneck royalty on the big old porch that fondly reminds our friends of their beloved summer camps. The dogs seem to be thoroughly enjoying the crisis, it must be said, having a regular busman’s holiday amid stacked-up cabinets, cook books and half a ton of gourmet cooking paraphernalia. For her part, the estate’s lady wife is bravely soldiering through the crisis with excellent wine and visions of the new appliances and shiny hardwood floors to come.

As for me, I’m simply grateful to be a few steps closer to my backyard garden, where there is always another task waiting, and a gardener’s job is never finished.

Which reminds me, I’d better get on to that new perennial border so she’ll have the perfect spot for a nice brass plaque cast with a snippet of Wordsworth when she finds me face down in the peonies.

During these months of restricted movement and staying in place due to Covid-19, garden nurseries and home supply retailers report booming sales. Jim Dodson’s account of an old house finding a new lease on life seems appropriate for these times. This story was adapted from Spring 2020 Seasons Magazine.

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