A Red House
I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever lived in a red house. An 18th century Federal style white house with green shutters in Maine. White tract Navy housing in Connecticut (and Pearl Harbor, and Charleston). White Gothicky Revival stucco pile in Dunoon, Scotland (it’s for sale, if you’d like to live there too. I don’t know why they don’t show the ruined greenhouse; it’s quite compelling in the springtime when the foundation is filled with blooming yellow daffodils.) A little split level outside Saratoga. The crumbling hateful house I live in now. All white.
Though there was the sweet little grey shingle house in Maine that I came home to from the hospital where I was born. And our house in Hawaii Kai on the side of an extinct volcano — what was that? A kind of orange stained wood? Or lava rock? One exterior wall (leading to my bedroom and my sister’s bedroom) was sliding shoji screens. The wall next to the front door was all glass and my memory of the rest of it seems to be bougainvillea and other exotic greenery that grew around the koi pond. But definitely not red.
In case you can’t tell, we moved around a lot. I’m part of the lineage of a whole string of houses across the country (and beyond). Which is why I marvel when I read about houses that can lay claim to generations of the same family. It’s remarkable enough that the house itself survives, but to have stayed in the same family for hundreds of years? To have been inherited by a Jakob, or Isaiah and passed down to a Topher, or Thomas who wanted to stay put, and who had the wherewithal and bank account to pay taxes and put on a new roof? What a miracle!
I started a book this morning about a house (a red house) that belonged to descendants of the Hatch family for eight generations (that’s 300 years-worth of family history; to get a sense of this, repeat after me: “this was my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather’s house”). I was hooked after the opening.
Before the highway, the oil slick, the outflow pipe; before the blizzard, the sea monster, the Girl Scout camp; before the nudist colony and flower farm; before the tidal wave broke the river’s mouth, salting the cedar forest; before the ironworks, tack factory, and shoe-peg mill; before the landing where skinny-dipping white boys jumped through berry bushes; before hayfield, ferry, oyster bed; before Daniel Webster’s horses stood buried in their graves; before militiamen’s talk of separating; before Unitarians and Quakers, the shipyards and the mills, the nineteen barns burned in the Indian raid — even then the Hatches had already built the Red House.
In architectural terms, the house my father saw would be described as a five-bay, double-pile, center-chimney colonial. It had post-and-beam, vertical-board construction, a granite foundation, and small-paned windows. The windows were trimmed with chipped white paint, the body of the house was a deep red — Delicious Apple Red, Long Stem Rose Red, Evening Lipstick Red, Miss Scarlett Red, a red that neared maroon. Otherwise, the house was plain, and with its chimney in the middle of the roof against a backdrop of sky, appeared as simple as a child’s drawing of a house: big square and triangle, smaller square on top. The cornice seemed the only detail out of place: attached to the doorway as if to elevate the exterior from utilitarian farmhouse to Victorian estate, it hinted at Greek or Roman Revival, something lofty — like a hood ornament on a Dodge Dart.
The house was large and debauched. Four bushes grown shaggy with tendrils sat beneath the first-floor windows. Lilac trees tangled the farthest ell. The driveway wound around the house to the right, where it climbed a small hill. In the backyard, a man and woman sat in lawn chairs drinking old-fashioneds. It was 5 p.m.
I’ve been told by an architect that we no longer build to last, that the way most houses are constructed today, they won’t last much past the 30 year mortgages taken out on them. Is this the final sign of becoming a disposable society, that we build knowing we plan to tear down?