The Story of My House

The Story of my House


The following essay was written by Olive F. A. Arms shortly after completing her residence at 648 Wick Avenue in Youngstown called Greystone. Miss Arms presented the essay to the members of the Friday Literary Club of Youngstown. The essay was transcribed in 1993.

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     There is a Turkish proverb which says “a house without a woman is a house without a soul.” And George H. Ellwanger has written a beautiful and most complimentary tribute to “Woman.” (quote) “There is expressed from the grapes that ripen on the sunny slopes of Ay, a wine called “Fine Flower of White Ay, a sparkling, golden, perfumed nectar, to sip of which is an exhilaration. In every ideal home there exists an essence that likewise diffuses its fragrance–the fine flower of noble womanhood, without which the house is a habitation, not a home. Alone under the ministering care of woman may the routine of daily life be relieved and varied and the course of the household made to flow free from friction.

   Caressed by her gentle touch, order ranges itself, beauty finds a dwelling place, and peace enters as an abiding guest. Preeminently it is woman that idealizes the home, and with her sweet refining presence, creates its atmosphere of serenity and content. To the gentler sex, therefore–to the old and to the young, to the dark and to the fair, to all who woo for us the sunshine of the home–a health to the Fine Flower of Ay!”

It has been truly said, we must build three times, to obtain the perfect dwelling–and still there will be room for improvement. So many things go to make up the ideal house, it is beyond human possibility to combine them all; even during process of construction, your tastes are liable to change. So when building, there should be nothing to divert the mind from the task; it is the work of a lifetime crowded into a year.  Someone has said (Richard Jeffries) “Our so called architects are mere surveyors, enginers [sic], educated bricklayers, men of hard straight ruler and square, mathematically accurate, and entirely devoid of feeling. You call in your architect, and he builds you a brick box.” As true as this may be in many cases, still house building is not a simple process for one who is inexperienced: there are details that come up for decision, that only the technical expert can answer.

Architects are more or less specialists, building well, only one type of architecture: one mans [sic] taste is for the severely classical, another for the picturesque, so I would select one whose taste and style of architecture I like best. But it must also be remembered that an architect may have excellent taste in making an attractive exterior, and unable to plan a practical interior–and as we are unable to have two architects, it is best to see to it yourself, that your house is planned completely ere the foundation is laid, if you are not to be disappointed later. The hall that looks so spacious on paper, is sure to contract, and ordinary sized living rooms will shrink, when they come to be furnished. It is important that the spaces between the doors and windows, their height, be planned by the occupant, also the placing of fireplaces, registers and lights, and not left to the architect; a poor architect will hang the doors so that they will come together, or open on the side you do not want them to open on: if he concedes you a spacious hall and library, he will be a miser when it comes to the space for the vestibule, the stairway landing or the pantry; he dos’ent [sic] remember to provide a closet for hats, coats and wraps, so that some halls must be littered with that contrivance called a hat rack, when at the touch of a panel in the wainscot, might be made use of. As to the question of pantries and closets, I would plan them myself, as each one knows best his own requirements. If you leave the house to the architect he is inclined to build merely for himself–he builds his house not yours. Every house should possess its distinctive character, and this depends less upon the architect and the professional decorator, than upon the taste reflected by the occupant. A house must be conceived by those who are to live in it, modeled according to their taste, their refinement, and their conception of the useful and beautiful. By different persons this is approached in different ways, according to the individual taste of those who create it, and I might add, there is nothing so unattractive that it will not please some and there exists nothing so perfect as to please all.

It is wise to weigh and ponder before we decide upon the location of our house. There are many things to be considered: pure air, sufficient elevation, pleasant views, the most suitable exposure, freedom from noise, and the natural protection from wind afforded by trees. The first requirement of architectural beauty, is suitability to situation. A house should seem to belong where it stands. The colonial house should be placed on an elm bordered street, on its own wide lawn, against the green of wooded background; the thatched roof cottage should be on a wooded lane; the picturesque house is especially suitable on a sloping hillside; the Norman French and the modern English house, whether it is Tudor, Elizabethan, Jacobean or English cottage, is characteristically irregular in outline, and it therefore looks well on an irregular site or rolling ground.

The great beauty of the English house is its effect of spacious and friendly comfort. Its honest use of materials, is for the purpose of durability; whenever possible its choice is for stone, and its color is supplied by natural unpainted materials, which time beautifies; it accepts every kind of interior decoration and furnishings; having no varandas [sic], open terraces are most inviting, with trees for protection and when not practical, there is the living room with its casement doors reaching to the floor.

     Had I my personal choice, as I drive up to the house my first view of it would be the entrance wing and beyond that the kitchen wing; this would be accessible to the butcher and the grocer, and would leave all the remainder of the house unmolested, and be reserved for those, who through ties of family or friendship, are admitted to your house. Near the main entrance, it would be an advantage to have a small reception room, for receiving those who invariably present themselves at the front door, to force a passage within. Beyond the entrance hall would be the living room, connected at one side with the dining room and at the other side with the library. In so many of our houses the library is placed in too close proximity to the front entrance, where anything like repose is impossible, because of the friction of passing inmates, and the possibility of visitors thrust upon one; it should be placed in the part of the house farthest removed from noise and disturbance.

Geo. H. Ellwanger goes still farther and says “the ideal haven cannot hide itself amid the turmoil of the first floor,” that the true place is on an upper floor, and he would have it a spacious oriel approached by a hidden staircase. Hawthorne’s idea was a study in the tower or upper story of his residence at Concord, which he approached by a ladder and trapdoor, pulling the ladder up after him, and placing a weight over the door for additional security;. here he could look out upon his favorite walk, amid the evergreens, bathe in the sunshine and set about his chosen task without interruption. Wherever we have the library, it should be a comfortable restful and inviting room: bookcases should occupy all the spaces possible from floor to ceiling; and have books that you like.

Elwanger [sic] says of his library. (quote) “When a dryness of soul comes over me, my library is always ready to instruct and charm–even sickness loses its sting; and often a good book may prove a more efficient remedial agent than a physicians [sic] draught. Somewhere among the volumes for nearly every ill–books to stimulate and books to sooth, books for instruction and books for ennui. Unfortunately everyone may not sail around the world, but very many of us must be content with a voyage around our room; and wise farseeing Pascal long ago, told us, that nearly all our troubles arose from our not knowing how to remain in our own room. Perhaps this, on the whole, is the pleasantest ways of journeying. You have but to step on board one of the numerous crafts in waiting, and with no further trouble than that of turning over pages, set sail for any part of the universe, all this with merely nominal price for passage, and relieved of every discomfort of travel. May I not with Simons, muse upon the staircase of the Propylar? Do I not visit the most romantic of all castles with Thompson? And what wood so cool and shadowy to stroll in, as the forest of Arden? With Jennings, I ramble among the Derbyshire hills: with Higgins I lounge about the Old port wharves. Arm-in-arm with sweet Merietta, Merger again leads me through the Latin quarter and the old lilac scented gardens of the Luxenbourg [sic]. Reposing in my easy chair, I may almost make the tour of the world in the sprightliest, most instructive company it is possible to imagine. Duma is my guide, philosopher and friend. The delightful dinners he invites me to, the delicious wines he sets before me, the sparkling anecdotes that are ever bubbling from his entrancing pen! What an entertaining raconteur I have in Francis Francis to explain the traditions of manor and castle, and discourse upon British scenery! and what lovely trout I catch when, rod in hand, I follow him by lake and river! Hawthorn raises his wand and I am sauntering through the Borghesa gardens! with Jefferies I accompany lovely Amaryllis at the Fair! There is no dust, the sun does not glare, I require no courrier [sic] in these easy voyages! My rambles never fatigue, however long, or steep the hillside! I need not worry over the departure of trains! dispute with landlords, or bother with luggage. At a signal my ship is waiting, ready to stop at the port I designate! in an hour, a smooth roadbed carries me across a kingdom, without a delay, without a jar. There can be nothing more delightful that these imaginary journeys.” (end of quote)

More than all rooms in the house, I would wish the dining room to express cheer. The decorations of this room can be as colorful as you wish, the walls are equally suitable, with much decoration, or none at all; a plain walled diningroom has always been looked upon as a most suitable place to hang old portraits, and equally appropriate are senic [sic] papers.

If I had my choice of furniture I would avoid duplications, as it makes a much more interesting room to have Chippendale chairs, a Sheraton sideboard and a table in the style of Phyfe–just as china of different style for each course, is more interesting than a complete set of china used for all the courses. It is considered good taste, at the present time, to have only a very few chosen pieces of silver, to ornament the dining room sideboard or console; the furnishings should be centered in the table. With beautiful china and glass and lovely linens and laces, would make a dining room almost perfect.

You dream of a living room, filled with plenty of light; a room in which a big wood fire burns on cold days and evenings, and where many lamps are lighted at night; chairs and sofas should be comfortably restful and invitingly arranged; there should be tables of magazines and a writing desk, one that invites you to write on it; and there should be flowers; a house should never be without flowers, they are the brightest sunshine. The tone of the living room should be soothing, rather than exciting gard [sic] against vying with the shops of bric-a-brac and curios. If we happen to have an abundance of ornaments, we can do as the Japanese do, select a chosen few, and then bring out others to take their place–but we must not have our rooms so filled with furniture and ornaments, that you would wish to flee from them, to a place more restful. If we have ornaments or furniture for which we have sentiment, even if we should not consider them good, but if we like them, and it would not be home without them, then we should use them, and try to build around them a background becoming to them. Make your home personal, by having in it, things you really take an interest in: this makes the atmosphere of your house express you. Remember the house we love to go into, is not necessarily [sic] the house of the greatest splendor, it is the house whose mistress has vision enough, to have the surroundings pleasing in color and friendly in arrangement and which has the quality of comfort that compels you to make yourself at home in it.

The living room is the real house and those you wish to see most, are admitted here, and it is always the room where family and friends would wish to congregate; the casement doors opening on the terrace, so delightful in Summer, and in Winter, the great hearth would blaze. From this room you should have the view of the garden and attractive views; this is the way the Japanese plan their gardens, with its lillies [sic], irises, peonies and azaleas: The advantage of this, is that it is an actual part of this house.

In Summer we have the advantage of being out–but when Winter comes, so much of the time must be spent indoors, so I would wish to place my house, so as to have lovely views from the windows. The windows are our finest landscape paintings; the sunset sky, is a weather report for the following day: the blazing fire and orange afterglow tell, that you may expect fair weather, just as the leaden sky, which screens the sinking sun, tells of the coming storm. You cannot regret the vanishing Summer, for the hillside glows as it never has in Summer; the brilliant October splendor will loose [sic] little of its beauty as Autumn wanes; the bear [sic] branches of the trees are extended, with an effect that the green entanglement of Summer never knew. Under the trees the squirrels are scratching, storing their nuts for the Winter; you hear the chirp of the chickadee and the solem [sic] tap of the nuthatch; the wings of the wild geese are bearing them, hour after hour, on their long journey of migration

When the snow comes softly from the sky, what magical effects are obtained amid the dark hemlocks; and beneath the refuge of the evergreens are the downy woodpecker, the titmouse and the quail; all wild life of the woods is here. In Winter there is a hush upon the landscape that has a charm of its own. Soon the sun comes and with its great strength, it clears the Earth of its coverlet of snow and warms where it falls, bringing out the shrubby dogwood into flames, the golden willows and the willow catkins; it carpets the hillside with hapaticas [sic], trilliums and violets, sending forth each blossom at the appointed time. Which is it we hear first? the robin the bluebird or the song sparrow? Suddenly the first bee hums by–the first butterfly flutters past. Is it not beautiful–this resurection [sic]? What is there on Earth to compare with the miracle of returning spring?

I cannot think of a house by itself without including as an essential part of it, its outward surroundings and external nature: the woods that provide its joist and rafters, the earth that supplies its mortar, brick, and stone; the coal whence it derives its heat; the lake that provides its water; the trees that ward off the wind in Winter and shield it from the sun in Summer; and the garden that provides its flowers. All these contribute their part to the completion of the ideal home.

But when all is finished, how few there are, who are fully satisfied with their result of labor? The perfect house exists no more than the perfect man or woman. All we can do, is to set up an exalted standard of excellence, to approximate as nearly as we can.

If our house is large enough for our domestic requirements, for our personal comfort and for the entertainment of our chosen friends, it should be the ideal house to us.

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