illustration by Giselle Potter

My Highland Park House Is a Tear-Down

My house may be kindling, but for the moment, I’m sticking to it.

My house has an expiration date on it. I suppose, in a cosmic sense, we all do. But my house is a tear-down, and the moment it passes to a new owner, it is a certainty my little paradise on the corner of Versailles Avenue will be smashed to smithereens.

I wonder if other people who live in tear-downs think about it as much as I do. It’s hard not to take as an insult that the building one calls his castle is universally regarded as kindling. A few years ago, I hosted a gathering of friends in the real estate business at my house. There was a lot of marveling about its gracious arches, floor-to-ceiling windows, and winding Loretta Young staircase. Questions: “When was it built?” (1928!) Comments: “Mind if I take pictures of your kitchen? So many good ideas here.” (Shoot away!) Then the Greek chorus: “Too bad it’s a total tear-down.”
A total tear-down? (Why the need for “total”?) This was the first I’d heard that my house was destined to be a pancake. A kindly agent reassured me that the house wouldn’t be scrapped if I made some changes to it: “All you need to do is rework the facade, create a new master suite, link the guest house to the main house, and replace all of the windows and the roof. Pools are iffy these days; you might want to fill yours in. Oh, and the front door needs to be about three times its size.”

Now these were friends and, in a way, I was glad they were straight with me. I know, in time, I will downsize. But, for the moment, this is my kindling, and I’m sticking to it. The dilemma for tear-down owners is that unless we are going to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to make our smaller, older houses look like gigantic new houses, any minor improvements we make are a folly. Regular people think about improvements in terms of how much value one effort or another might add to a house. New kitchens, bathrooms, landscaping: they’re all investments. For those of us who live in tear-downs, there is no payoff in installing new hardwood floors. Or getting a professional closet organizer. Or buying new countertops. When the wrecking ball comes, even the ghosts will be chased out of the house. Why would I plant perennials?

Except I do, and I have. In fact, since realizing that my house’s days are numbered—as an act of defiance, or insanity?—I have remodeled the entire house and landscaped my backyard. My house may be kindling, but it is also where my daughters’ intellectual formation resides in books on wall after wall. It’s a repository of hard-won trophies and battered pots and pans that tell the stories of a thousand family dinners. Our mailbox, just an oxidized copper container to anyone else, has housed acceptance letters that changed our lives; rejections, too. Our house is not an architectural landmark, but it is the landmark that matters most to the five of us who belong to it.

Maybe knowing that our house is a tear-down has created an even greater poignancy to how we live within its walls, where so much has changed, and gone right, and gone wrong, and been created. And been torn down.

This weekend, I think I will plant some perennials.


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