SETTLING IN AND FIGURING IT OUT

 

I’ve been reading a book. A really good book. Geography of Home by Akiko Busch. It’s about houses and how they live and move and have their being; about “how people fit in buildings and buildings fit in landscapes;” about “not only the physical dimensions, but the moral and social ones as well.”

The book came to hand several weeks ago as Ann and I were making the old house in Saranac Lake our sole residence. It has prompted ways to understand the most irrational and impulsive act we’ve yet committed—deciding to buy, after one quick walk-through, a decrepit Carmelite monastery/former tuberculosis sanatorium that was far too large for any use other than institutional. From the beginning, we and others puzzled over “why?” or (almost the same) “to what end?”

With Ms. Busch’s aid, the answer became clear. (If we were half as smart as we think we are, it wouldn’t have taken so long.) We bought the house for the same reason anyone buys a house—to discover and celebrate our defining narrative. Friend Jim wants to buy one of those “tiny houses” that are in vogue just now. Acquaintance Milton is proud and grateful to live in a gated community. The flower children of yore preferred teepees and yurts.

The stories embodied by houses are usually more obvious and less complex than ours is. There are two reasons for this. We were pretty much unmoored when we came upon the monastery, so we had serious need of a narrative. Also, the house, with its century or so of varying incarnations, offered an unusually large amount of material for a story.

It’s possible, of course, that the early observation, “you’re crazy,” is the whole story.

* * * *

 What we saw looking up from the curb was not at all what we expected. The advertisement was for a monastery, and that suggested institutional, masonry construction that looked in some way ecclesiastical. This building was a yellow (I say the shade of ball-park mustard, Ann says lemon) Queen Anne Victorian with mullioned windows. We knew right off. This was the house—in fact, the life—we’d long sought. Looking back, I can see (perhaps “imagine” is the better word) some reasons for this.

First, the big picture.

Importantly, it was on high ground, and it was big (approximately twelve times the size of the one I was embarrassed to grow up in). I hadn’t had a paying job or a respectable identity for years. I’d been a corporate wife/ trailing spouse as Ann moved about among world capitals doing very big-deal legal work. Never mind that feminism had been changing the world for a while, that was a disrespectable, low-status way of being. It made us both uncomfortable. Living on high ground in the biggest house around would raise our status quite nicely, thank you. We joked that the real estate closing included my investiture as a squire and she as Lady Ann of Saranac Lake. (Echoing this bit of fun a few years later, a man working on the house preferred to address her as “Miss Ann.”)

The house was old. Not simply old, either, but old in a way we valued. Its history was not only interesting, it was of a piece with compassion and reverence. Ann was between jobs and not sure she wanted to continue being a Wall Street galley slave. Such a house appeared as a safe harbor.

Also, it held out the possibility of permanence and stability that had proved elusive in the new starts and rebuilding that had always been a prominent feature of our marriage. It would give us that. But like much about the house, neither the process nor the result would be simple. We would discover an oxymoronic maze; throughout its long life the house had been simultaneously unchanging and evolving.

Now a close-up.

For sixty-four feet across the front of the house and forty feet down one side was what had once been an open porch. It was  mostly enclosed when we first saw it, but we could still discern and (want) the porch that could (easily) be restored. (Sure.  Nothing to it.)

Standing proudly in the middle of the facade was a grand oak door, four feet wide and eight feet tall, two solid inches thick, with mullioned windows in much of the top half. Except that—as I didn’t notice until I set about writing this piece—it’s not in the middle at all. It’s off center by nearly eight feet. Anyway, this door that may have moved itself since I first saw it (the house has very strong juju) was flanked by two windows, each three feet wide and five feet tall. It opened into a vestibule the inner wall of which was similar to the outer—with a large mostly glass door flanked by large windows. The vestibule opened into another intermediate space, a foyer. You don’t just walk right into the fullness of this house, you progress through stages.

At the time, we just saw a handsome door in a wide entrance, but I doubt any part of the house had stronger appeal. No feature has contributed more to our identity narrative. Here’s what that’s about.

In the first place, this door that is used far more than any other was in the front of the house, not on a side deck or inside a garage as is common with newer houses. The size and location speak of openness and welcome. That’s us.

Not inconsistently, it offers this welcome with some formality. It suggests ceremony. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see it answered by a butler. It has an anachronistic feel. That’s us too.

We like dressing up, we disapprove of uninvited use of given names by strangers, we’re Anglo-Catholic. How’s that for old fashioned, formal, and closed?  We support the ordination of women, we delight in swimming naked, and we’re vegans. That’s the welcoming and open us. The massive off-center door protects and welcomes in the same way we deal with life in these times. A hollow core door from the garage just doesn’t work in that way. (See Geography of Home for further discussion of doorways.)

I don’t recall any such heavy-duty reflection at the time. I do recall thinking immediately of friends Frank Epps and Marsha English. He owned a former YMCA camp in South Carolina; she, a former girls’ camp in the Texas hill country. We’d heard alluring reports of good times there. This was our chance.

 * * * *

The monastery was going to need a lot of work, and fixing even small problems usually required design choices. It seemed like we couldn’t replace a faucet washer without deciding what we wanted the building to be when all the work was finished. (At the time, we actually thought being finished was possible.) So we wouldn’t get it wrong, we engaged an architect. His first question was whether we intended to restore or renovate. Not being burdened with architectural training, we recognized that right off as a does-not-apply question.

Restore it to what? The single-family residence it was when built in around 1897? That would require removing all the cure porches, other rooms that had been added across the back, and many more the nuns had created by erecting partitions, If we wanted to do a thorough job of it, we’d have to disconnect from the village sewer system and return to use of the cesspool that is still under the floor of the boiler room. On the other hand, mere renovation suggested leaving it pretty much as it was. Just replace some sash cords and install a new boiler and that sort of thing.

We didn’t give the question much thought; just bought some tools and started fixing things and making adaptations.That seemed to be what each successive occupant of the house had done, and it was how we would arrive at our own defining narrative.

In the early part of the twentieth century, new owners changed it from a single-family residence into a sanatorium (cure cottage, in local parlance) by hanging cure porches from the second and third floors and enclosing much of the front verandah. Patients would more or less live on these porches breathing the cold (as low as forty below), clean air that was thought to be curative. Living quarters for employees and a second kitchen were also added.

When the nuns moved in at the end of the cure-cottage era, they turned part of a side porch into a sacristy, added a confessional, divided large rooms into small ones, put a saint’s name on most doors, installed radiators on cure porches, and in  various ways closed the house off from the world.

Both nuns and cure cottage operators made gross changes to the front porch. So have we.

The cure-cottage owners enclosed it with fixed-glass, large-pane windows to offer a bit of protection from wind and snow, but they left it unheated. With just a little imagination, it’s still possible to see heavily swaddled patients there in a row of chaise longue-like furniture known as cure chairs, gazing out on winter whiteness and breathing deeply of frigid air.

The nuns in their turn built guest bedrooms on the porch and enclosed another part for use as a confessional and sacristy. For many years, they were cloistered, so they added a privacy wall in the middle of the foyer, and covered the windows around the front door (and most others) with opaque film.

Ann and I removed the film, we’ve not put up curtains except in the small parlor, and we took down the wall. Now, anyone on the porch can see well into the house and up the center staircase. We also removed the guest bedrooms and the cure porch enclosure that was across the front, and converted the sacristy and confessional on the side to a solarium. We hung a porch swing, set out wicker furniture, reinstalled the many-balustered porch rail, and hung containers of geraniums from it.

None of the three types of adaptation have been entirely satisfactory.

The environmental fit that Ms. Busch calls attention to makes clear that a long open verandah was never quite the good idea it seemed to be—not when the house was first built and not now. It’s a charming bit of Americana to look at, but regrettably, its utility is somewhat limited. Such porches are for the purpose of getting in out of the hot sun and feeling the breeze. Around here we don’t have much hot sun, and if there’s a breeze, you’re probably going to need at least a sweater.

My guess is that the architect who designed the house once had an enjoyable vacation somewhere in Georgia and, without thinking, tried to recreate some of that happy experience in the frigid north.

The conversion of the open front porch to cure porch was probably the most effective adaptation in the house’s history.  As a cure porch, it could be used year round. It offered good light and a refreshing view.

The guest rooms that the nuns built on the porch were not such a happy adaptation. Because their floor was over a crawl space, they were difficult to heat. When the outside temperature was cold, the floor was cold, and the added-on radiators had little effect. We know this from hard experience. For her office, Ann chose a room in a latter-day addition to the house that has crawl space under it. She uses it much more often during summer. (For some reason, the nuns picked that room to house a dental office.)

After we bought the house, we immediately opened up the porch again. Like the architect who designed the house, we didn’t think through what having it would be like.

Problems appeared immediately. It faces west and north where the snow comes from that starts in October and lasts through April. Painting and replacement of weather-damaged wood is a constant requirement. This year the blackfly season has gone on several weeks longer than usual, so sitting on the porch was unthinkable before about the third week in July. We’ve now had our annual chat about screening it in. Ann is more open to that idea than I am. I don’t care for the way screens reduce the sense of being outside. On the other hand, the screened porches we both knew growing up in mosquito-infested coastal Texas were happy places. In any case, we haven’t yet added screens, and so we keep watch for sufficiently warm days that are breezy enough to blow the bugs away. When we do get such a day, there’s still a good chance we’ll have to put up with the noise of cruising Harleys, jet skis, the neighbor’s music, and outdoor concerts from the nearby park.

But when the stars align, sitting on the swing with a good book or having a quiet conversation with friends, enjoying a minty summer cocktail, the problems of the porch melt like snow in spring. I suppose the infrequency of such days makes them all the dearer when they do occur.

We’ve also made numerous adaptations inside the house.

The original butler’s pantry—used by the nuns as a second sacristy—is now a bar. The summer kitchen of the sanatorium is a dining room. We took down the dividing walls the nuns had put up. We turned the main sacristy and confessional into a solarium.

And so here we are, living in an old house that is a physical hybrid of its three predecessors. It also combines the “moral and social” (Ms. Busch’s words) elements of what came before. And more than a century of mystery.

When we moved up from New York City, I thought about King David. Upon his death, it was recorded that he “went to lie down with his fathers.” I rather like that phrase. It’s more evocative than “he was buried in Jerusalem.”

Not that we were coming to Saranac Lake to be buried, though. Quite the opposite. We were starting a new life that would include long visits from distant friends and family. And in a way not readily encountered in most houses, we would enjoy the company of loved ones separated by death. We were going to lie down with our fathers just like King David did, but without having to die to do it.

The former monastery is not just a large structure; it’s also a dormitory for departed spirits. One nun famous for the peacefulness of her passing while sitting in a rocking chair in the St. Joseph room simply refuses to leave. A carpenter named Keith has seen her. Kathy, a friend of a friend, has seen her. Shaaron, visiting from Texas, has seen her. None had prior knowledge of her presence. In the room where she died, we keep a rocker that was already old when I knew it as a boy.

The house was sanctified space when the nuns were in residence, and when they left, there was no ceremony to return it to a secular state. For half a century or so before the nuns, it was a place of healing. No wonder it could compel us to buy it without hesitating.

Now that we live in it, rather than visiting it on weekends and holidays, the full force of its spiritual essence is becoming more evident. It’s like going to lie down with our fathers.

As soon as we had repainted some walls, we began hanging family photos. Walking in the second floor hall is a virtual family reunion. I say hello to Ann’s people, even the ones I never knew, and thank them for creating Ann. To my family, living and dead, I also say thanks and renew my intention to be worthy of their love. One especially dear picture is of five generations, ranging from my great-great-grandfather (born in 1848) to my brother. These photos are more than just photos; they are a sacrament-like presence.

The house has also allowed us to entertain living friends and family for extended periods. Summer get-togethers during the blissful, all-too-short period between blackflies and chilly autumn have been a joy. The oldest grandchildren are now teenagers, and they’ve been coming here from Texas since they were born. The adapted monastery/sanatorium and its life will forever be a part of their beings.That’s a sort of lying down with our fathers paid forward.

For most of the century before Ann and I bought the house, it was public space, a civic asset in which the whole village felt a sense of ownership. That didn’t entirely end when we bought it. Sometimes people still come in unannounced. I once found a priest wandering about on the third floor. He had celebrated Mass here on occasion, and he wanted to have a look around. I got the impression that private ownership of the building was pretty much inconceivable to him. Mothers and daughters have come in bearing luggage and insisting that they were in a college residence hall. One Sunday morning, I discovered a number of faces peering in front-porch windows. A family elder had been a patient in the cure cottage, and they were curious about it. Friends and neighbors come in and out in a way that’s like the Leave It To Beaver growing up I was blessed with. All this openness resonates with my past strongly; it seems like lying down with my fathers.

One more instance—the strongest one I know. My father died fifty years ago after a life of sacrifice, frustration, and more than his share of unhappiness. I think he’s found peace here, and he’s made it his job to pass it to me. To Ann as well,  even though he never knew her in life.

It’s a special house.

That’s as far as the story goes for now. I’m looking forward to what comes next.

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