Wednesday, March 11, 2009

"684" Interiors

Nothing of the exterior of 684 suggests the character of the interior living space, which evinced nearly half a century's interaction between its occupants and its brickyard-owner's inception.  Of course, by the time this photo was taken at Christmastime, 1965, not only the carpet but the walls (papered, but had been cream paint on plaster) and the woodwork (painted off-white rather than stained light-chestnut brown) had been changed.  And in the mirror, showing the far wall of the dining room about 30 ft behind us, the knowing eye now sees the hutch that my grandmother had long craved, of mahogany (not 'Philippine' substitute), which my grandfather had made for her: nothing on PBS's New Yankee Workshop was beyond his skill.  He made whatever he couldn't repair.  The small hanging shelves for tiny objects and souvenir spoons, to right of the hutch in the photo, for example, were made to order.  The chairs, and many not visible in any photo, were gradually acquired by restoring specimens supposed to be beyond repair, all in the right woods and finishes, all with historical joints.  These were not people who went antiquing.  After he retired from teaching woodshop in the schools, my grandfather opened (in a former Nazarene Church one-room building) his own shop.  He never had to advertise.  Fixing what moving companies had damaged may have helped financially, but beds and chests, tables and chairs, some really fine, others merely rather nice, arrived unbidden and unannounced.  Work of his kind cost far more in Santa Barbara, for example.  When only half a chair arrived its owner might say that it wasn't worth fixing and leave it behind.  If it was really nice and not too large for their house, it came home with them.  So long as she could, my grandmother did the refinishing, my grandfather the wood work.  Similarly, their books were not valuable as auction objects.
The pair of windows, eye level indoors, above eye level from the brick walk outdoors, were a common feature of the time (they were echoed in the far dining room wall).  A 1918 house in the block where I now live about 2000 miles away has them; perhaps the brick houses were a little older than 1926.  The drawers to the right of the fireplace held a collection, wonderful to a child, of pens and pencils and rulers and erasers, two tin whistles, to name only what I might look at.  At far right,  a let-down hinged writing surface revealed cubby holes for letters and notebooks.  The cupboard below held large books, not expensive, but with Rembrandt etchings and with Doré illustrations to the Divine Comedy, for instance; I think these came from book clubs.  The conch shell, the clock, and the portable radio were recent when the picture was taken; I hated the radio, because it coincided with my grandparents circumscription of life, and preferred the old clock, which had ceased running (being an early electric one), shaped like an elongated bell curve about a foot long, of mahogany, but I loved the conch shell.  The andirons were real brass, and they'd always been there, I think.
Now the tiles.  The patterned ones above the opening, about 8" or 15 cm. square (not the dinky and sloppy ones used on Mexican restaurant tables today), were those imported Mexican tiles that were so popular in California in the 1920s.  I do not know whether the crazed glazed blue ones, "irregulars", imperfectly fired, were imported or from Henry Faulstich's own brickyard or some other supplier.  The blue, also, was grayer and darker than the somewhat garish turquoise blue of perfect ones.  The hearth, too, was paved with them.  In the bathroom, the splash area above the tub and the bathroom floor was of similar "irregulars" but in tans and browns.  The draining boards in the kitchen were in white hexagonal tiles, the common ones of old bathrooms and of the bath establishments at Hot Springs, Arkansas, but edged with rounded off apple green tiles.  Apple green was also the color of some appliances of my childhood, not exactly the institutional green of school restrooms, not so near aqua nor yet lime.
This characteristic tile work (also seen later in Henry's own house, which I never visited beyond the front room and briefly in childhood, and on the undulating kitschy brick and stucco garden wall running down his side of the driveway, decorating it in Mexicali fashion ("It happened in Monterrey a long time ago...") made my grandparents' little house different from other fundamentally Ladies Home Journal interiors of the time; before the War it had a pair of Maxfield Parrish prints over a sofa against the wall at left (windowless, backing up against the hall and bedroom closets) and after the War a pair of pale water-colored floral prints in their place, so perfectly in accord with LHJ.
Of course, when I grew up I was right that my grandparents had innately somewhat better taste than most of their Ladies' Aid and Presbyterian synod cohort.  They certainly acquired their own notions of niceness independently, not only in chairs but in music.  The whole remains noteworthy because it's not as if they read, e.g, Kolodin for music or periodicals beyond, e.g., the Saturday Review.
The only reason it is relevant here is that it is what I looked at, closely, too—I studied it, that it is what I loved, that it departs, as any particular example must depart, from the movie and television representations of the typical.  Our possessions (and whether we care about them) are both an important part of what we are and an ineluctable depiction of each of us and of all of us.
The other night I saw an Act of La Traviata on television.  Based on a house like the Lumière house at Lyon (true, a little later than La Dame aux Camélias), it was a lovely set.  Of course, in an opera, both the room and Renée Fleming's costume were a little over the top, as if forgetting that the Maison Lumière is restored as a museum, but a large family originally lived in it.  And, I thought, I wonder whether Toll Brothers can afford to continue underwriting the Met and, at the same time, how Toll Brothers would adore imitating that style more perfectly than they do.  Designers, though, study the professionally furnished and designed interiors (and exteriors) of every period, the publsihed ones.  Ensembles like that of "684", neither stereotypically shabby or trashy nor done by even a local interior designer, tend to go unrecorded.  No one with the FSA would have even looked at it.