a sense of deja vu
“Here it is,” my young friend Sarah Forsythe gleefully announces as she moves aside to usher us into her newly acquired cottage on Highway 30 along the Florida Gulf Coast.
I duck into the tiny light-filled living room. Something feels strangely familiar although I’ve never been here before.
Sarah chats away about how there was no kitchen before so she had to carve it out of a corner of the front room. I agree it’s charmingly done, glancing around with chills of déjà vu running up and down my arms. We move into the bedroom hall. Sarah continues her merry monologue about the effort it had taken to transform what had been a hoarder’s shack into the exquisite beach cottage we now admire profusely. The hallway ends in a wonderful surprise. The entire back half of the house is one enormous master bedroom looking out over a small lake. Our friend has bought a house no one wanted because it was in such bad shape, and now she owns a home set between the ocean and a lake.
ah, it’s the paneling!
“It’s incredible, Sarah,” I say. “And somehow it feels familiar.”
She smiles. “It’s the paneling.” She points to the ceiling, which is covered in knotty pine.
“Of course,” I reply. “It reminds me of our beach house in Indiana.”
“I felt the same way the first time I saw it,” she tells us. “It was one of the reasons I knew I just had to have even though Bill (her finance) thought I was crazy to take it on. The Indiana house was my favorite home ever!”
My daughters, I knew, feel the same way she does. “Carrie and Betsy often say they really wish we could have held onto it.”
“Why did you and my parents give it up? We all loved it so much?” she asks.
“There just came a time when holding on didn’t make sense any more, but that didn’t make it easy to let go. The weird thing is none of us set out to buy a beach house in the first place. Yet, it was one of our best moves ever. One we never regretted.”
Almost half a century had passed since Sarah’s family, the Forsythes and we had purchased the ramshackle house in Michigan City on the Indiana Dunes. Eventually we fondly dubbed the place, “1618,” its mailing address even though we never received mail there. Desperation drove us to buy it in the first place.
In the autumn of 1976, Jay and I undertook the renovation of the 1895 Chicago row house we had bought the year before. What started as a fairly simple project ballooned into a blueprint for a major restoration. We originally envisioned updating the electric and plumbing throughout the house while remodeling the kitchen and bathrooms. By mid-October and after multiple sessions with our architect, John Drummond, we had a very different design. It now included restoring all six fireplaces to working order, reducing the four bedrooms on the third floor to two, stripping and staining every bit of woodwork throughout the 5200 square-foot house, and installing a new heating/air-conditioning system.
In the same week we committed to this major makeover, we realized I was pregnant with our fourth child. The new baby was due in May. Caring for an infant while surrounded with workmen sounded horrendous to me. I pressured Jay and our architect to get the project going. Finalizing the design work, getting work permits, and lining up contractors, however, proved to be a long-drawn out process. By January we knew that the beginning deconstruction would not happen until May. Our baby’s due date was May 15. John, the architect, thought the renovation would take about four months.
close to drowning
How, I wondered, was I going to get through a summer with four children under the age of eight with our home literally being torn down around us? The answer came to me as I waited to pick up my youngest daughter Betsy from preschool. On the bulletin board, an index card offered a four-bedroom cottage on the dunes in Michigan City, Indiana, for rent. Maybe we could live there for the summer. Jay liked the idea. I called the cottage owner.
We drove out to see her place, but knew as soon as we stepped in the front door that we couldn’t possibly live there for four months. Yes, it had four bedrooms, but each was minuscule and the common room was just as small. The miniature kitchen appliances were at least forty years old. This little cottage was meant to be a two-week summer refuge for a family who would “live” at the beach the whole time. A family of six, however, would be crawling all over each other by the end of less than two weeks. By the end of a whole summer here, we’d be at our wit’s end. Yet, as much as that house disappointed us, the idea of living at the beach for the summer still sounded like a good plan.
At first, we read classified ads in our search for a summer place, but not full-summer rentals turned up. So, we hired a real estate agent who did rentals as well as sales. For several weekends in a row, Jay and I drove over to Michigan City to look at possible rentals. We stuck with Michigan City because the South Shore Electric train rail ran from that town into Chicago’s Loop and provide an excellent way for Jay to get to work. For a thousand reasons I no longer recall, none of the houses that the agent showed us seemed feasible. February was almost gone. Panic took over.
“Let’s consider buying,” I told Jay. “If we hate it, we can sell next year. But we might love it. The beaches are lovely and it’s close enough to have a permanent summer house there.”
“Are you kidding me?” Jay exclaimed. “We barely know how we’re going to finance this renovation of our house and you’re talking about buying a second one?”
I pushed back. “We have to come up with a solution for the summer. We can’t stay here. It’s not like we’ve never talked about a cottage on the dunes. Whenever we go up to Michigan to rent a place for a couple of weeks, we talk about buying a place someday. So do Bill and Mary Florence. They’d love it if we found a place on Lake Michigan.”
“We’ll look, but I’m not committing to anything,” he said.
The next weekend I felt certain we’d find a lovely spot just right for us, but the homes we loved were way beyond our price range and ones we could afford were too far from the beach to make the purchase worthwhile for us. By mid-March, our whole scheme looked like it would go down the tubes.
a crazy idea
“Maybe there are families who are ready to sell but haven’t contacted a real estate agent yet,” I said.
“That could be true, but how would it help?” Jay asked.
“Well, we could put letters in the mailboxes of all the houses we like. We tell them we’re interested in buying or in renting for four months. If they are open to an offer, please contact us.”
“Maybe. But what can it hurt?”
The following weekend we slipped our letter into fifty mailboxes up and down Michigan City’s Lake Shore Drive. On Wednesday, we got a call. When we arrived at 1618 Lake Shore Drive on Friday evening, we immediately fell in love with the location. The house sat several steps down from the road and away from what little traffic noise there was on that quiet street. A small sand dune sat between the house and the lake, protection the home from Lake Michigan’s winter storms. Up and over the dune was a two-minute walk to a deep beach lapped by lake waves. At this point the lake offered enough shallow waters for children to play safely.
The house took our breath away quite differently. It was jammed full of furniture and people and appeared to not have been cleaned in some time. Still, it had a long, spacious living/dining room, a good-sized if badly furnished kitchen, and five good-sized bedrooms. From the front bedrooms, you could see the blue-grey lake turning scarlet under the setting sun. Best of all, every wall and all the ceilings were glowing knotty-pine despite the poor upkeep of the rest of the house. We both knew we wanted this house. The asking price of $52,000 was, however, way beyond what we could swing.
The owner agreed to wait a week to hear from us. The minute we arrived home, Jay called Bill Forsythe, “I’ve got a deal you can’t pass up,” he said.
cross your fingers.
The next weekend, the Forsythes drove out to the beach with us. They walked slowly around the house with us and the down to the beach, where we could see a faint outline of the Chicago skyline at the edge of the horizon. As we mounted the steps back to our car, Mary Florence said, “It’s one of the ugliest houses I’ve ever seen, but, of course, we’ll buy it!”
So, we did. Over the years, Mary Florence transformed the “ugly” house into a beautiful home for all of us – the home that became everyone’s “favorite house of all.”
Of all the places you have lived, do you have a favorite? It would be great to hear about it right in this space?
“The ornament of a house is the friends who frequent it.”