After many delays, Churm House is finally open for business, and while we wait for our first guests to arrive, I thought I might show you around.
Every time my students read William Faulkner’s “Rose for Emily,” I think of seeing our house for the first time:
It was a big, squarish frame house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of that neighborhood; only Miss Emily's house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps-an eyesore among eyesores.
Our house is brick, not wood-frame, and Italianate, not Queen Anne, so it doesn’t have as much gingerbread as all that, but several around it do. It too was built in the 1870s, on what was once our most select street. The neighborhood’s nineteenth-century enterprises—railroad roundhouse and repair shops, newspaper office, drugstore—have been torn down or have become health-food store, Thai restaurant, lawyer’s office. The sense of a past that’s not just past but deliberately ignored is nearly complete.
One day, six years ago, I was walking back from our polling site when I first saw the For Sale sign stuck in the mud in front of a grim, heavy house. The sign had been there six months before our real-estate agent begged us to see the place. She was hapless as an agent and a survivor of breast cancer, and we felt sorry on both accounts so we agreed but had no intention of buying. We changed our minds as soon as we got in the door.
The house was built by a former mayor of Inner Station, and state senator, as a wedding gift for his son. He also owned an enormous hotel next to the main railroad line that he had helped bring to Inner Station. The railroad was the first step in his campaign to bring the newly-conceived Hinterland University to town, and without his brilliant lobbying, Inner Station would have remained a cow-and-corn village on a swell in an undredged swamp. Yet few here have ever heard this man’s name. Except for a nearby street of two or three blocks that’s named for him, and this house, he’s forgotten. On the other hand, half the town is named for the family of his political and business peers, who founded a thriving bank that’s recently expanded to South Florida. There must be a lesson on legacies in all this, but I’m not qualified to draw it.
Much of the house’s original interior had been retained, a minor miracle in a college town that guts itself periodically, baring the viscerals in dumpsters at every new owner’s renovation, for cheap student housing. The young bride of the third owner of our house had moved in at the start of the twentieth century and was removed to a nursing home only after nearly 70 years in the house. Two subsequent owners were sensitive to preservation, and though there were movie posters on the walls on that first visit, the impression was from Tolstoy:
…just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes—all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. [The] house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.
Like Ivan Ilych, I thought it was all comme il faut. (French was the language of intellectual pretension for Russians of Tolstoy’s time, as Russian and French are for American intellectuals-in-training now: “We’re the looming intellegentsia, n’est-ce pas?” grad students say, waiting in line to make copies on a busted Xerox machine in the English department.)
Students laugh when I illustrate Tolstoy by describing what my house says about class anxiety. The wainscoting in the entry hall, described by the realtor as “hand-tooled leather,” turns out to be Lincrusta-Walton, an early linoleum product the middle class used to copy the Carnegies and Rockefellers. (It’s still handsome and now valuable in its own right). The students stop laughing when I say their own families’ suburban McMansions are simply another form of the same pretension. I say it nicely.)
Churm House was built in three stages, over several decades. The front, original, section is very post-bellum with its gasoliers, segmented arch doorways, and an enormous rose window that helps to relieve the monolithic bulk. When I stumble out of bed each morning, I stay the hell away from the banister around the curved front stairs that rise gracefully from the entryway, since it hits only somewhere between knee and groin, and I don’t want to pitch over.
The middle section, upstairs and -down, is labeled on the original plans as Maid’s Room and Dining Room. We use them for laundry and dogs. The back section is the kitchen, originally detached, since the Victorians feared that the smell of their own food cooking would mark them as vulgar. (If the heavenly fragrance of Churm’s Special Braised Beef Burgundy is vulgar to you, you ain’t fit for good company anyway.)
Throughout, old pretensions have been overlaid with new ones. The kitchen is a small version of any house porn you might see today in Gourmet or Architectural Digest, with its impractical plank floor, stainless appliances, maple butcher block, and saucepans hanging from exposed beams. These things co-exist with nineteenth-century trompe l’oeil woodgrain (painted over actual wood), and big cast-iron fireplace covers. One of them shows a vignette in relief of an oxcart and peasants gathering hay.
I have a confession: I’ve never gathered hay. Neither has Mrs. Churm, nor anyone, for that matter, who ever lived in this house, which is a palimpsest of life and ambition. That’s what a home becomes, when allowed to shelter generations without much interference. Churm House is oversized and comfortable, authentic and faux, and Mrs. Churm and I believe we’ll have a hit on our hands with paying guests.
To be continued….