In 1967, just after my tenth birthday, we moved from a cramped 1940s bungalow in an older Cleveland suburb to a brand new house in up-and-coming Parma, Ohio.
I'm not sure why I know exactly how much it cost, but I do. Was the figure — $29,900 — a constant subject of whispered discussion between my mom and dad in the months leading up to the move? It must have been. Like most young couples, they were on the verge of going over their heads, and it must have been scary. What I do remember was a sense of endless promise. Our house was new. All the houses on the street were new. The streets themselves were new. I had been walking the earth for a full decade, but that fall I felt I was finally assuming my birthright as an American. I was moving into a brand new house.
Until the postwar building boom, Parma was mostly farmland. In 1967, our street marked development's southernmost incursion; for as long as I lived there, uncharted wilderness began at the border of our backyard. It was fun to play in the woods, but better still were the vaguely illegal pleasures afforded by living in what would be, until my high school years, one big construction site, with new houses always under construction and new neighbors always moving in. We entertained ourselves by stealing wood to build clubhouses, jumping into basement excavations, staging massive wars with 2x4s and dirt clods, and — in one memorable incident — rolling a six-foot diameter wooden cable spool down a hill, "just to see what would happen," as I later tearfully confessed to my parents. (What happened was it gained speed, escaped everyone's control, and smashed into a neighbor's Ford Fairlane.)
In an expression of wishful thinking not atypical of northern Ohio, every street in our neighborhood was named after a town in Florida: Tamarack, Tamiami, Sarasota. The houses came in two models: ranch and split level. We lived in a split level. The house to our left was a ranch. The house to our right was another split level. It was identical to ours. The house across the street was a split level too, but with the floor plans reversed. Going in that house was always a disorienting, Bizarro World experience. Differentiating each house was its dominant architectural feature: the decorative element on the garage door. We had a star; our neighbors had moons, windows, abstract shapes. Picking this element must have been a moment of truth for the new homeowners, an opportunity to make a "statement," but I don't remember anyone ever ascribing any significance to these insignia. Like the whole neighborhood, they just seemed to appear overnight.
Everyone on our street lived in what would later be called a snout house, that garage-centric building type so reviled today that certain municipalities have outlawed them. My mom didn't care much about urban planning principles; she liked being able to get the groceries from her car to the kitchen without braving the Cleveland winter. It just seemed modern, like the way our dinette area was three steps up from our wood-panelled den, the television fully watchable over the decorative wrought-iron railing. (During breakfast at least: it was off at dinnertime.)
I lived in that house for the next eight years. Today that doesn't seem that long — as I write, I've been working on a single signage project nearly that long, I'm sorry to say — but by the time I left for college, that house had been my whole life. I concocted homemade gunpowder at a chemistry set in the basement, fought with my dad about haircuts on the stairs, read Catcher in the Rye on the floor of my bedroom, and listened to the White Album on the big stereo console in the living room. More than anything else, I remember that first time we walked through it in 1967. It never looked better than when it was completely new and completely empty.
It will be empty again soon enough. My brothers left for college three years after I did. Four years later my dad died of a heart attack in that panelled den on my thirtieth birthday. He had just finished cutting the grass; a golf game was on the television. My mom lived there alone for the next twenty years. Finally, this fall it became too much, and she moved to a condo near my brother Don.
Vice presidential candidate John Edwards has a new book, Home: The Blueprints of Our Lives. In it, sixty Americans, including Isabel Allende, Mario Batali, John Mellencamp, and Maya Lin, talk about their childhood homes. There are pictures. I note with some relief that our house is hardly the most unpicturesque. Not surprisingly, Steven Spielberg's house in Scottsdale is quintessentially suburban; Jamie-Lynn Sigler, better-known as tv's mob heiress Meadow Soprano, hails from a snout house that is absolutely textbook. The idea of the humble beginning clearly has staying power in our national mythology.
In his introduction, Edwards describes home as "the place that helps to define how we see ourselves and how we choose to make our way in the world." I became a designer, and at first glance that house on Sarasota Drive doesn't seem to have many design lessons to impart. But somewhere behind that suburban facade is the way it was forty years ago: full of promise, and unblemished by time, disappointment or mortality. Maybe design is nothing more than a way to keep making everything new again.
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