Here is my dream house. I have dreamed it for decades. Let me know when you have stopped laughing, and then we'll move on.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, houses and properties that had been the great estates of the wealthy were changing hands all over the east coast. Those who had built them had passed on; the heirs did not want them. Older houses are expensive to maintain and heat. Fashions in geographic desirability change. It might be nicer to have a place in Sun Valley. And sometimes there were no heirs at all, which I think may have been the case here.
Developers often bought these properties, and, subdividing the land to surround the main house with split-level ranches and cape cods and the like, would sell the mansion at a rather low price to whomever would take it on.
Enter my parents. My mother, with her eye for beauty, and my father, with his longing for home, saw this place for sale in Ridgefield, Connecticut, and fell in love with it. They did not have all that much money, but, as I said, these so-called "white elephants" were going cheap. The house (on two acres!) cost less than $1000 a room. Quite suddenly, we lived in a 28-room house. Now, my parents did not have the money for the kind of staff the property had once employed, but they had the energy of their youth, and they dug into the task of keeping the place from biodegrading around us.
The Big House dated from 1901, and was built for the Maynards (sisters, we were told, maiden sisters (true? Who knows? Good story? Yes, especially in light of the French novels I once found behind a sliding panel in the library). There were marble fireplaces in every room except the kitchen on the main floor (parlor, library, dining room, mahogany-panelled ballroom). There was a tiny elevator that my sister and I were forbidden to use, and a dumb waiter (also off-limits). Our kitchen had been the butler's pantry – the real kitchen was in the basement, and it was enormous. I dimly remember a multi-burnered stove and a huge coalbin still half-full of coal; get rid of that stuff, I thought, and it would be a perfect box stall for my promised someday-if-your-grades-are-good-enough horse.
Up a gracefully curved staircase from the main hall (or a smaller boxier one off the pantry) were two more full stories of rooms. The second floor held six or seven large bedrooms and – I think – four full baths. The third floor held two more large rooms, another bath or two, a series of much smaller chambers that were once servants' quarters, and the door to the forbidden attic.
Memories drift over me like spring petals falling from apple branches when I think of this house. My mom, leaning up and out over the railing on the second floor to plant the star on our Christmas tree. My sister and I dressed in poufy petticoats, singing together, and dancing with great spinnings and leapings in the enormous ballroom to the original Broadway cast recording of West Side Story. Me, practicing a simplified version of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata on the grand piano in the front hall.
I remember my rooms. Under the portico in the photo above, you can barely discern a balcony and two windows. Those were my bedroom windows, looking out at the elaborate tops of the Corinthian columns, one of which thrummed with the song of honeybees that had hived there. I had my own bathroom with a clawfoot tub. There were birds-of-paradise on the wallpaper. I remember reading in that room on soft summer afternoons. Reading, and dreaming.
I did my Important Writing in a different space, a maid's room up on the third floor, where I had a chair, a little wooden desk, and a window. My dad used to bring office supplies home in his briefcase, and I was entranced by the sound of my Sheaffer cartridge pen gliding across onionskin paper. I wanted to be Jo March.
Zillow.com describes the house as an 8,950 square foot single family home. It also calls this three-story Greek Revival beauty a two-story colonial, so bring grains of salt. Whatever it is called, the sheer size of it explains why we didn't stay. My dad had been transferred to the British division of the company he worked for, and we moved overseas to live in Solihull, England for almost two years. When we came back to Ridgefield, there was an enormous amount of repair needed on the stucco exterior, and the grounds were a mess. Then, in a few months, we were transferred again, to Paris, and while we were there, my parents decided to sell the house. My sister and I never saw its interior again.
My family continued to move frequently as we always had done, and as an adult I have carried on in the same way, racking up 53 moves in my life so far. But in all our relocations, only once did we ever return to a house we still owned, and that was to the Big House, in the summer of 1963, between England and France. In a way, it was our last happy summer as a family, for it was in Paris that my sister and I started to hear our parents arguing in the night.
One or both of these may explain why we all still dream about it. I dream there are secret rooms that I can access by going through the back of the closet, Narnia-style, in the bedroom my beloved grandparents lived in when they visited us. My mother dreams of going into the attic and finding there all the furniture one could ever want for the many rooms we could never afford to fill.
Though the furnace was noisy and made scary clanking noises, the house itself was not haunted. But we are. I am. It truly is my dream house, and I am still there, as surely as if I was upstairs, at my little desk, writing to you on onionskin paper.