When I was nine years old my parents rolled a huge Victorian house across town to a new foundation and then spent the next year restoring it. It made an impression on me that has lasted for 30 years. Beyond the move and restoration, as a kid I was mesmerized by the meandering house with five staircases, tall doors and windows, and a variety of nooks and crannies. It offered me endless make-believe adventures. Now, as an adult, I realize the house was also an inspiration for my real life adventure.
For the past 12 years I have been the director of a historic estate in Oshkosh—the Paine Art Center and Gardens. Built in the late 1920s in a Tudor style, the golden limestone house is more reminiscent of Downton Abbey than the gingerbread Victorian home of my childhood. While it has never been moved on wheels, the Paine house has its own saga to share and immense character to behold, and I am enchanted by it.
Visitors are often puzzled to learn that no one ever lived in the Paine house. Its creators Nathan and Jessie didn’t have children, and from the outset in 1927 they intended it to become a museum. They did plan to live in it beforehand, but the Great Depression and World War II halted its completion. By the time the world settled down in 1946, Nathan and Jessie decided they were ready to establish it as a museum.
I sometimes regret that the Paine house was never truly a home with a growing family’s story to tell. Fortunately, as a museum its life has been rich and rewarding for generations of visitors, and I believe that every guest is giving it a life story. When school kids visit, I see their fascination with its many facets and majesty, much as I was as a child with my home. I hope the house’s wonders will inspire some of their life adventures.
When my spouse Paul and I moved to Oshkosh, we bought a small, 1920s Dutch Colonial house. Coming from Boston, we were delighted by the bargain price for all of the charm and space. We weren’t as pleased with all of the work the house needed and the related cost, but we loved our little historic home and the experience of living in it. We were proud of the preservation projects we undertook, which we felt the house somehow deserved.
Our first two sons were delivered to our doorstep as infants in foster care while we lived in the house. My memories of my sons’ early years are intertwined with memories of the house—first steps on the hardwood maple floors, washing bottles in the porcelain kitchen sink, hearing their cries echoing down the short hallway in the middle of the night. I am grateful for the character of these memories that wouldn’t be as rich without the character of the house.
Two additional sons later, our family now lives in a bigger 1980s house pretending to be an Early American Colonial. Its greatest feature is a three-stall garage, which I do not take for granted. While it doesn’t have the historic features of our first home, over five years our lives have saturated the house, and it is fully our home. I can appreciate that any house where lives are full and happy is a good home with character.
If our homes told a story of my family’s years in them, the tale would include steps toward gay equality. The latest milestone in our family’s trek just happened in January. Both Paul and I became the legal parents of each of our four sons. Previously, only one of us was able to legally adopt them. Legal gay marriage recognition in Wisconsin cleared the path for the other spouse to adopt, and now our family is legally whole.
Paul refers to our current home as our “thirty-year house.” He says this because of the length of the mortgage, but I know it’s also that he can see the house meeting our family’s needs for a generation. Our sons span ages 3 to 8. While I can’t imagine them as teens, I can imagine the house functioning as well as possible for two adults and four teens. Whether or not we stay put in our home for another 25 years, I am sure our lives will be anything but idle.
A few years ago my oldest son and I watched a house next to the Paine being torn down. I didn’t anticipate that he would be upset by it. He was sad and cried. As I began to think about what he was experiencing, I realized he saw more than a house. He saw a home—a safe and sound place for people to live. He must have wondered if this home could be torn down so easily, was his home also so weak and vulnerable?
As a child, seeing my family’s Victorian house roll down the street and onto a new solid foundation, I was riveted with a dynamic sense of what home could be—courageous and compelling. This uncommon understanding has helped to forge the path for my life, family, and home. As houses become a part of lives they become homes, and the transformation from house to home can be an astonishing journey.