From House to Home
“Home is the nicest word there is.”
— Laura Ingalls Wilder
A little house in a shaded neighborhood, nestled in a planned suburb for the workers of George Westinghouse’s modern marvel of a company, part of an experimental utopian ideal in which executives, head engineers, and machinists live side by side, their children attend the same schools, dads invite one another to front porch gatherings and backyard barbecues, and mothers host church basement bake sales.
A little house next to other little houses, some bigger houses, and a few grand houses in the eastern hills above the city and rivers of Pittsburgh.
The Wilkinsburg Commissioner campaign flyer found hidden in the walls is dated 1923 — the marker that years later, once the plaster is torn down, reveals when this little house was built. The early 1920s — a time of marvelous inventions, economic prosperity, and the rise of the middle class. So many people migrating to the city, a mass exodus from South to North, rural to urban. So many people seeking the “civilized” city life, the “reliability” of factory and mill jobs, the convenience, comfort, and boundless opportunities.
From the street, this little house looks precisely like the image most five-year-olds scribble in crayon when asked to “draw a house”. Built fast and cheap for the era and sloppily adapted from a mail-order house design catalogue, the house is the most basic of models — one of a row of similar little houses that have popped up quickly across the street from stately Victorian mansions — a house for a family working their way into the middle class.
The new house is built for a husband, wife, and their eight-year-old son, who arrive from Washington, DC. It shelters them during the prosperity of the twenties and the depression of the thirties. During these early years, it stands small but proud, needing only a few refreshing coats of paint, a mangle in the basement to iron the husband’s many white shirts and black slacks, a porch swing, and some new furniture every now and then to keep things current.
The second world war begins the same year the son graduates high school. The mailman delivers letters to the house from Normandy, Belgium, Paris.
Pittsburgh rises to the challenge to build the best and bravest and becomes grayer, smokier, and sootier; some days it snows ashes, which drift from the sky and settle onto the cars, roofs, into the eaves, slinking their way into the cracks and crannies of the house.
In fall of 1945 the country lets out a collective sigh of relief and the house opens its doors for the welcome home party, followed quickly by a wedding. The son and his high school sweetheart move to a different house several blocks away. The father starts planning for retirement and most days the mother wears housecoats. Once a week she drives the large Pontiac parked out front to the grocer and hairstylist — on those days and Sundays she wears her best dress, gloves, and coat.
Further east and south of the neighborhood, to accommodate the many booming families, the green farmland is divided and sold in parcels. “Modern” suburbs are built.
The fifties bring new thinking, ideals, and conveniences. Homes set on one level. Wall to wall carpeting. Connected garages. Open floor plans.
The husband, now in his late sixties, retires on his pension. They move to one of these many developments further east. The soft carpeting, multiple bathrooms, and sheetrock walls are a welcome change from the creaking stairs, tiny bathroom, and yellowing plaster of the quickly aging house.
In 1955, a middle-aged, childless couple make an offer on the house. But before settling in with their upholstered furniture and ceiling-to-floor drapes, they put up a false ceiling in the living room, stairwell, and dining room to save on heating costs and cover up the water stains, and carpet the house with green shag, gluing the mats straight to the wood. Some years later a second story “sleeping porch” is constructed over several weekends, and insulated with newspapers that identify the time period. Robert Kennedy, NASA, and the never-ending threat of communism dominate the headlines. To keep the increasingly colder house warm, they switch to forced-air heating, and a furnace salesman convinces them to surgically insert HVAC in strategic locations throughout the house’s interior and exterior walls. The main vent slices through the house’s structural beam.
Imitating the interiors of their favorite TV shows, the cracked plaster walls in the living room are covered with dark wood paneling; the notched structural beam conveniently hidden behind the layers.
In the seventies, after the husband passes away, the wife hires a local handyman, a friend of a friend recently laid off from the mill, to fix some of the issues cropping up throughout the house, notably mold and moisture damage. He adds a second layer of tile in the shower, more wood paneling, and glues brown astroturf on the front porch.
By the mid-nineties, the old widow is also nearing her nineties. Charitable and kind nieces and nephews help her move into a nearby senior living facility.
The house, by now in desperate need of renovation, doesn’t go on the market, because a kind middle-aged man, a divorced probation officer with two teenage sons, makes the biggest decision of his life and buys it directly from the widow.
He excitedly moves in, a scant half block from his ex-wife and sons. The rush of first-time home ownership inspires him to add his own flair. He paints the dining room pale yellow and the upstairs bedrooms shades of lavender and bright blue. He fills the home with books, and grows tomatoes and zucchini in the backyard.
He spends summer days and nights on the wide front porch reading and greeting neighbors, shaded by the grand oaks across the street.
To remedy the drafts in the winter, he stuffs newspapers filled with stories that describe the impeachment of a president, the dot-com boom and bust, the fall of the twin towers, up into the long-forgotten fireplace. And just as he’s starting to relax into retirement, his body revolts. The type 2 diabetes that he has struggled to manage for years becomes more aggressive, and, during some exploratory tests, it is discovered that one of the reasons for this is that he has developed a rare myeloma cancer. The two diseases interact with complete animosity; the treatments for the diabetes worsen the cancer symptoms, and vice-versa. So his younger sister, a longtime nurse, moves back from Los Angeles to care for her sick brother.
The house goes through a long period of immobility. Curtains are drawn, lamps lowered, the tv flickers. The man’s sons, living across the country in Colorado, visit several times a year. The eldest son, who takes after his mother in determination and his father in demeanor, cheerfully replaces air filters, light bulbs, leaking faucets, and rickety steps whenever he is in town. The younger son, sensitive and steadfast, moves back to the city to be near family and friends. He is present when his father is put in hospice and returns early in the morning after he passes away. The older son arrives a few days later on Thanksgiving morning. On Friday, a traditional Irish-American funeral and wake are held in Greenfield at the family home. Many people attend, seeking out the sons to share stories.
Stories about how, as a kid, their father stood up to the neighborhood bullies, how he helped bring the bus line to Greenfield, how he brought the best parts of his early training in the priesthood (which he later abandoned) to his work in the schools during the civil rights era, how as a probation officer he later became a caring and indomitable influence that kept many of his wards from prison and life-long sentences.
Now a co-owner of the house, the younger son moves in, pulls up the green carpeting, and puts a fresh coat of paint on the walls. He takes on a roommate and makes do in this shabby circumstance for nearly five years, but the house is in fast decline. All the wood paneling, white tile, and blue paint can’t hide the obvious crumbling state of affairs. Major decisions must be made quickly.
Driven by a need for change and a desire to get ahead, the eldest son and his Colorado wife pull up their deepening roots in the mountain west and begin their move on a fall afternoon, east bound towards Pittsburgh and the Appalachian hills. Possessing the vague outline of an idea to make cosmetic repairs and then rent or sell the little house, the plan slowly evolves into a more permanent situation.
As the eldest son works alongside his brother, first to organize, clean, and consolidate, then to explore, extract, and demolish, the bones of the house are made visible for the first time since 1923.
The issues: instability, wiring problems, mold, and rusted pipes — issues that had been hidden by plaster, wood paneling, and tile for so long — are now revealed.
They carry load after load of sooty plaster and lathe, bricks and rubble; they snake wire and pex piping through the joists and bays; they build a new structural wall and back deck, and the eldest son, and his somewhat sad but resilient and imaginative wife realize that this neighborhood and city have begun to feel like home. Though by no means comfortable or picture-perfect, the vibrant little basement kitchen they’ve created — albeit far too near the shower and “Pittsburgh Potty”; the deep, white cast iron tub -sitting next to a makeshift plywood bathroom counter perched upon a new plywood subfloor; the garden out front — full of perennials that bloom spring, summer, and fall; all of this and more make it clear that this shabby little house is, in fact, a home.
A little house, in a shaded neighborhood, nestled in a planned suburb for George Westinghouse’s modern marvel of a company, continues on as part of an ambitious utopian experiment.
Executives, machinists, teachers, lawyers; straight, gay, lesbian, young, old; all live side by side and host front porch gatherings and back yard barbecues. And beyond this, the geography: the hills, ravines, valleys, and rivers; the structures: steel, iron, brick, and glass, come together as parts of the whole that make up this mystical and gritty place.
It is home.
Article originally published December 20, 2019 on The Little House in the ‘Burgh blog: https://littlehouseintheburgh.wordpress.com/2019/12/20/from-house-to-home/