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Tuesday, August 26, 2014


Today, I took a trip back in time. Back 86 years to be precise. I didn't need a time machine. All I needed was a house key....and a real estate agent. With the help of those two components, I was instantly transported into another era....back to an unseen period of my ancestral family history. It turns out that the enchanting, old house that once belonged to my maternal grandmother and grandfather and lived in by them along with my own mother and her five brothers and sisters....86 years up for sale.

My grandparents....John and Cecelia Grotenrath....built the charming Tudor style home in 1928.  At the time the house was built, the area consisted mostly of fields and vast forested plots. It was an up and coming, desirable new neighborhood. Today, the house is nestled on a pleasant, tree-shaded, quiet street in a modest-income, residential neighborhood.

Over the years, I've walked by this house many times. I always wanted to take a peek inside but the opportunity never arose. The yard usually seemed well tended but we never saw any evidence that people actually lived there. Today, the house is vacant, abandoned. The elderly seller has moved away. Yet, even now, 86 years since it was built....the house remains fascinating from the outside. Red brick construction with Tudor style architecture, decorative half timbering, gracefully arched windows and a steeply pitched roof give it the look of a quaint English cottage. A colossal oak tree, planted by my grandparents, towers over the front yard.

The realtor unlocked the heavy, solid mahogany front door. The very same front door that my grandparents excitedly opened when they first crossed the threshold 86 years ago. My husband and I stepped inside. Suddenly, we found ourselves catapulted backward into the year 1928. Incredibly, the interior is almost exactly as it would have looked nearly a century ago. I could not believe my eyes! What an astonishing time warp!  After ALL these years and a multitude of was painfully obvious that very little updating, remodeling or maintenance had been done to the house. The house seemed exactly the way it might have looked when my mother and her family lived there.

Sadly, the once beautiful home is in distress and disrepair. It's literally falling apart. Decades of encrusted grime, gaping holes, peeling plaster, rotting wood, ancient plumbing and dangerous electrical wiring reveal a home in wretched demise. It has not been well cared for....perhaps not well loved. All the walls look like they had not been painted in fifty years....maybe longer. Surprisingly, the kitchen and bathrooms retain many of the original cabinets and fixtures. I shined my flashlight up toward the ceiling, behind the doors and into the corners. Even the cobwebs looked one hundred years old. It was surreal.

My grandmother had wonderful design sensibilities as did my grandfather. Together, they must have spent an extraordinary amount of time designing this house so many years ago. Amazingly the magnificent, original architectural features....chosen by my grandparents....still remain.

Gently curving cove ceilings give height to the interior rooms. Dramatic, multi-paned arched windows highlight the staircase landing. Handsome etched glass doors framed in beautiful mahogany wood, stand tall and stately throughout the entire home. Not a single glass panel was broken in any of the doors. The narrow-planked, maple wood floors glow with a golden patina from nearly a century of wear. Classic French doors lead out from the dining room to the back yard. The extra-wide mahogany staircase radiates a classic refinement with its shapely, hand-tooled spindles....not a single spindle missing or broken.  As I gazed at the lovely staircase, I noticed how the deep mahogany color had faded in sections on each step....delineating where countless footsteps had trudged up and down every day for 86 years.

In my mind's eye, I visualized my mother (who is now 93 years old) as a vivacious young girl along with her fun-loving down the stairs every morning to eat breakfast before walking the short distance to their elementary school. In the spacious living room, the original wood-burning fireplace still remains....surrounded by a simple yet gracious mantle. I envisioned the family on cold winter nights, huddled around the hearth, telling stories or listening to the radio. I pictured my young aunts and uncles playing hide and seek in the cubby-hole storage spaces that line the lower walls of the upstairs bedrooms. I imagined my grandmother's pretty dinner plates in the custom-made niches off the dining room.

This was a well-built house. Sturdy. Structurally sound. A thoughtfully planned home....with loving attention to detail and constructed with solid, top quality materials. It was hardly a mansion. Yet it was a home of distinction for the times. It even has sizable clothes closets! Back then, most ordinary homes were not outfitted with built-in closets. A needless extravagance. I'm guessing this house must have cost my grandparents a small fortune back in 1928, especially factoring in all the wonderful decorative details. They were not a rich couple. They were not flamboyant or pretentious. They were staunch and determined and always hard-working. Growing up, my grandmother led a harsh and often sorrow-filled childhood. By the time they moved into their new home, my grandfather had become a successful businessman. My feisty grandmother was 37 years old and a devoted mother of six rambunctious children. My own mother was about 7 years old. They were a boisterous, happy family living in the home of their dreams. Two years after they settled into the house, the Great Depression devastated the entire country. I recall my mother telling me that she had only two dresses to wear to school for an entire year. Her mother sewed them for her. Yet somehow, my grandparents managed to financially hold on to their beautiful home.

My mother and her siblings (my aunts and uncles) grew up in this charming house during their formative years. They attended grade school and high school in this house. They did chores together. They played together. When my mother was eight, she fell on the bank of a nearby creek and severely gashed open an artery in her arm. Blood splattered everywhere. My uncle, Len, who was with her, raced home through the fields and got help. He actually saved her life. The three sisters towel-dried dishes together in the kitchen every evening after dinner while they shared secrets and giggled over silly girl talk. This morning as I stood inside the now dingy, forlorn inner halls of the silent house, I listened carefully. But the walls were not talking.

It's sad to see the deterioration of this once lively home. I don't know how long it's been in disrepair. I'm sure many other families lived wonderful lives here also. But it's hard to fathom the dismal lack of upkeep and non-refurbishment over the decades. The reasons will remain stories forever left untold. Yet on the positive side, it's astounding and heartwarming to discover how many original features of the home have survived intact. The sense of my ancestors' presence here is resoundingly evident.

Since the house was for sale, my husband and I considered purchasing it as an investment and to preserve a piece of family history. It was about to go into foreclosure. No doubt, my grandparents are turning over in their graves! The asking price was up for bids. With the help of a designer and contractors, we figured we could rehab the house back to its original glory; updated with modern elegance and state of the art conveniences. We'd either resell it, rent it out or possibly move into it ourselves after a while. However, the decaying structure needs monumental reconstruction. New roof, all new wiring, new walls, new ceilings, new kitchen, new baths, new plumbing, central air-conditioning ductwork installed throughout, structural reinforcement and on and on. Nothing is up to code. After plunking down hard cash to buy the place, we estimated it would cost several hundred thousand dollars more to completely renovate the house to where we could feel it was safe to live in as well as be aesthetically pleasing. Basically, we would have had to update by almost an entire century. Unfortunately, the current and future market value of the existing neighborhood does not warrant anywhere near such a lavish investment. We prudently passed on the deal with no regrets. However, I am thrilled to the moon and back that I had this wondrous and unexpected opportunity to see and touch and savor a rare glimpse into my family's living history. For me, it was a fleeting but poignant, sentimental journey back almost 100 years, to my mother's childhood home.....remarkably still frozen in time.
My mother's childhood home. Photo taken 10 years ago with my son, daughter and myself.

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