134

Blue Bathroom

This past January my parents told me and my brother that they would be selling 134 Steele Rd—our house—this spring. The news prompted sentimentality, tears, and a Google search: “katharine hepburn west hartford.” Under Images, I did not expect but maybe hoped to find a golden hour snapshot of my front yard in the snow. I clicked Visit Page:

Saturday, January 8, 2011 – “Katharine Hepburn at One Degree of Separation.”

According to the blogger, an apparent resident of the neighborhood, the four-time Oscar winning actress—the one with the transatlantic accent, the trousers—convalesced in her sister and brother-in-law’s house, the house pictured, after a “bad automobile accident.” My mom had told me it was a broken ankle and that she’d stayed in what became my childhood bedroom, whose walls we painted light blue. When I clicked on the image, at first glance it seemed possible that the photo was an old one, taken some years before we’d arrived, while that Golden Age star was still alive, as the exterior has looked practically the same for the past hundred years. We changed very little about the house because we couldn’t change very much. It’s brick, after all. The picture’s Christmas wreath—fluffed with extra hand-cut greens from our backyard, adorned with a gold-trimmed red bow, hanging on the front door—gave away the present tense, and so did the lack of once-rampant ivy, a leafy beard we’d shorn from the brick.

Saturday, January 8, 2011 – I cannot quite recall what I was doing, but I was fifteen. I imagine I was taking a walk through my neighborhood with the boy I was then crushing on. We walked a lot that winter, often with his dogs and once while I was wearing only low-top Converse Chuck Taylors to trudge through the snow. I thought I might lose my toes to frostbite. But I had a key to the brick house in that picture, where I’d let myself in after the walk and go upstairs to the blue-tiled bathroom and, under a warm tap, soak my feet in the tub where Katharine Hepburn once soaked her ankle. I read the comments:

EG Wow said…
You live in a nice neighborhood!

Randy said…
What a beautiful home!

SRQ said…
Beautiful. If one must convalesce, this wouldn’t be a bad place to do it.

Youth_in_Asia said…
Interesting story. I love that house, regardless of who lived in it. Having a back story like that is just icing on the cake.

Jacob said…
Beautiful Connecticut home! I’m surprised that you didn’t just walk up and knock on the door and say, “Hi, I’m Jack. Is Katharine home?”

Living Room

Katharine had been dead for eight years by the time Jacob said that, but when I first walked up and knocked on the door, she was still alive. It was March 2003, and I was seven. My parents were taking me and my brother, nearly five, to see our new house. We disembarked the Volvo at the curb and for the first time walked up the winding brick path, up to the ivy, up to the brick and the door with brass eagle knocker. There was no doorbell, and we never bothered to install one—a fact that would irritate friends, package deliverers, and suited proselytizers for twelve years and nine months. “Knock louder” was our motto.

Inside, Henry and I first noticed tiny holes in the glass panes on the interior vestibule door, little punctures from BBs launched long ago from guns held long ago by people who lived long ago, in what seemed to us a mysterious old manor. After we stepped through the cracked door, nothing we saw belied that first impression.

Heavy oriental carpets, dim lamps, two white-haired people sitting in armchairs by the embers of a fire with afghans on their laps. In March. I recall them as the sort of elderly eccentrics who populate the periphery of Wes Anderson’s films. His pipe, which he smoked indoors, filled the grand living room with haze. My parents told us later that they thought Ellsworth and Virginia, his wife after Katharine’s sister died, were sizing us up that day—making sure we fit the house, making sure the house fit us. There were streaks of soot on the walls where the smoke had leeched into the paint and the sheetrock and the brick. When it rains, you can still smell his pipe.

We moved in that June, and June looked good on West Hartford. Past the fruit blooms of April and pollen film of May, the trees were green and expansive. They eased the transition from the rural corner of Connecticut we were moving from. West Hartford was a proper suburb, in the old trolley car sense—the gridded extension of a once golden city where wealth left a crowded, immigrant center, got off and stopped where it pleased, to stay the night and the rest of its life. Our new house was only two blocks from the city line but had its own woods. An old oak in the back, protective with its shade and complete with a swing; a beech at the side, bark silvering; and a cherry or peach or some other fruit, wilting out front. The beech still stands, leaves ripening gold in the fall, and the oak and its swing gave us seven years more, but the fruit tree died just after we moved in. And so did Katharine.

Paneled Room

The house is 4,169 sq. feet on a 0.52-acre lot in an area of West Hartford zoned R-10, for single family homes. It is brick. Construction began in 1915. There are wooden shutters, painted matte black. Three dormers rise through the slate roof. Two chimneys. In 1917, the brick Georgian with the gambrel roof was complete. The first owner moved in and stayed 21 years. In 1938, the keys changed hands. Two small additions were made. A small mudroom and a sizeable sunroom, whose footprint eclipsed half a sunken flower bed—or perhaps it was a pond—in the side garden. Someone chose an awful shade of yellow for the kitchen. The Sixties and Seventies miraculously spared most of the interior décor. The Grants, Ellsworth and Marion Hepburn, lived there together until 1986, when she died. He kept on living, not leaving until June 2003, when we moved in. My mother had the kitchen gutted, the carpets ripped up, and the walls drowned in fresh Benjamin Moore.

Just below the light switch, in rooms on every floor, were little, black, push-button buzzers, which when pushed make a satisfyingly mechanical Brrrring! My parents had the foresight to disable them when they moved in with two children under eight. Servants were part of the original floor plan. They lived in the partitioned third floor suite, which during our tenancy became the playroom, then my room, then my brother’s.

One floor below, there was even a study for the master of the house, as if the library weren’t enough. It has a buzzer just below the light switch, set into wood paneling. Not the faux-wood vinyl wall coverings of 1970s basements but the authentic hardwood square panels, the color of browned caramel, covering all four walls and the ceiling. We call it the paneled room. It’s where my parents sit almost every night after work, weekday or end, and watch television—probably The Good Wife or Charlie Rose—and cuddle with our two tabby cats, brothers, Gus and Pepper, orange and white and black and white, respectively.

I tuned in recently to a broadcast of Where We Live, the CT-specific NPR program, when they were discussing a new Connecticut mandate regarding the construction of affordable housing. The phrase “community character” recurred several times in the hour, but was never defined. The housing units have to fit the community character of every town, they said. That’s why it’s so hard to get Connecticut to build affordable units, they said, community character. They wondered, how can we define community character? No one ever did, but I can guess that sprawling green lawns qualify and asphalt parking lots might not.

The community character of my neighborhood is R-10, defined as: single-family homes only. Though 134 Steele’s square footage, historical claim, and servant-buzzers may seem to be the markers of an opulent lifestyle, the house, and my real privilege living in it, lies in the discriminating lines of the zoning map. They are fortress walls, impenetrable to all but those with at least one doctor or lawyer per household, and the occasional, anomalous businessman—like Ellsworth Grant, or my dad.

Harry Potter Closet

“Harry was used to spiders, because the cupboard under the stairs was full of them, and that was where he slept.” I had already read the first four books by the time we moved, and the Order of the Phoenix, the fifth, came out on June 21, 2003. Our new house had a little trapezoidal door on the side of the main staircase—an architectural fact not lost on me when we toured it for the first time: I would be living a floor above Harry Potter’s closet.

The majority of the “imaginary games” I played as a child were period pieces. I was a child of the American Revolution, or a frontier pioneer-settler, or a kid planting a Victory Garden for WWII. Other times, I took friends back to the swamp behind the garage where we would pretend old scraps of wooden fence or rusty metal, which we’d exhumed from the muddy pond, were really parts of an old whaling ship that had lost its way up the Connecticut River and foundered near our eventual backyard.

Having a history of its own, my home legitimized my play. Physically, it looked enough from another era to make me believe I was in one. Spiritually, it exhaled the stories of the previous owners and their famous relation, like stale pipe smoke from brick walls on rainy days. After my parents told me about selling the house, I was doing some nostalgic combing through of the Grant’s detritus, or what we kept of it. Ellsworth’s self-published history books survived the best; some still had their shrink-wrap. As I looked through the piles, I imagined him sitting at a desk in one of the dark interiors of our house hunched over a typewriter, tapping out “The Miracle of Connecticut,” or “Yankee Dreamers and Doers,” or “The City of Hartford: 1784 to 1984.” Ellsworth Strong Grant was a direct descendant of Connecticut’s founder, Thomas Hooker, and proud of it. 

Attic

But they left more than just books. They left 35mm film and a projector. Ellsworth made his own movies, too. A filmmaker, an author, and mayor of West Hartford for a time, he was able to do all this, instead of working a regular job, because he was wealthy, rich in a personal, inherited way. Money made from his family’s invention of the Allen wrench. Today you get a free Allen wrench—or in non-proprietary terms, a “hex tool,”—with every piece of Ikea furniture you buy, for easy, at-home assembly. He even had time to write a book about the tool.

They also left portraits, one of Ellsworth, one of his father. The former hanging in the dining room, over the head of the table, and the latter half-decayed already, languishing in the attic with the trapdoor stairs. There was a set of Harvard Classics, bound in bottle-green and shelved in the living room. There were dried out paint cans, a cabinet with handles made from the wood part of shotguns, either a dog house or a playhouse, rotting in the backyard. There were stains and burns and BB holes and lots of lead paint. There was an enormous old sink that I thought was a bathtub.

Like most artifacts of the past, many were condemnable. Like most artifacts of the past, nearly all were relics from the lives of men. Each book and each gun—the physical materials that allowed a girl like me to happily imagine herself into other times and places that actually would not be very good places or times for a girl to live. Each mason jar and each kitchen sink—the elision of women’s realities out of those times and places. Times where the Harvard Classics were considered your comprehensive lifetime reading, places where men hung portraits of themselves over their dining room tables. Although schools were coed and coverture illegal long before 1917, when we hired a dumpster, the portraits were the first to go.

My Room (7-12, 17-20)

Katharine Hepburn and Marion Hepburn Grant were daughters Katharine Houghton Hepburn, suffragist and co-founder of the organization that became Planned Parenthood. KHH’s granddaughter and Marion’s daughter, Katharine Houghton grew up in my house and went on to act alongside her aunt, Katharine, in the famous 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I grew up in her bedroom and went on to decorate the walls with newspaper and magazine clippings about feminism and gender parity in film. I replaced Ellsworth’s residue with my own.

At sixteen, I decided to become a filmmaker. My mom said, “shame we donated Ellsworth’s 35mm prints and projector.” I agreed. But I could’ve gone to the CT Historical Society, and called up the movies if I’d wanted. I never tried. It took until my parents told me we were moving for me to even go to the West Hartford Public Library and call up Katharine Hepburn’s most famous films. Bringing Up Baby—that’s the only one I finished. I made my parents watch it with me over the holidays. I think I also checked out The Philadelphia Story, but we never made there. Bringing Up Baby, a 1938 Howard Hawks picture, stars Hepburn opposite leading man Cary Grant in a screwball comedy about a ditzy heiress, an ambitious paleontologist, and a pet leopard named Baby. Much of it actually takes place in Connecticut. We watched it together in the paneled room, curled under afghans, in armchairs, snuggled up with our own pet cats.

My mom called it stupid, my dad fell asleep, and I couldn’t stop making excuses. It’s dated! Screwball comedy isn’t that funny anyway. The critics called her “box-office poison” after that one, so even then people knew it wasn’t her best. And I kept telling myself that after my parents retired to bed.

About the same time we were watching Bringing Up Baby, my room was getting repainted. It’s cream now, and all the clippings are gone. When I went home a few days ago, my mom warned me, on the drive from the train station, that my room would look like a museum. A museum, curated, with a few representative objects from each stage of my childhood. I walked in. There were American Girls and nesting dolls, un-nested and ordered big to small. There were yearbooks and cookbooks and all the Harry Potter books. There was a poster from a musical, a graduation cap, a black-and-white baby picture. There was a vase with fresh daffodils, either from the garden or the store. And it had been so long since either the Katharines or I had lived there.

French Doors           

The slow process of estrangement began when we had the living room furniture reupholstered. It was supposed to make us feel more settled, but to protect the fabric from the claws of our cats, we closed the French doors and, except for holidays, kept them closed. Three years ago, my brother moved up to the third floor, to what was our playroom, what used to be the servants’ quarters. Then he shut the door and left it that way. And when I last visited home, I saw the doors to both the paneled room and my room were no longer left ajar. The cats might mess up the pristine curation.

My grandma, my mom’s mom, has been worrying, audibly, frequently, whenever I talk to her on the phone, about us selling the house. She thinks it will be “so sad” for us. But I will tell her the next time she fears: The doors have been closing one by one, for several years now, and when shut, they make us beholden to them—we have to do something active to reopen that space. And anyway, behind each closed door is merely the idea of the room, the room perfected, rather than the room real and inhabited. So, Grandma, I know I will not be “so sad.” For this house—with all the history, grandeur, and privilege it makes available to each new owner—exists better symbolically. It is more legible that way.

I opened the door to my closed room the other day, and found inside a diorama of a life that I recognized as mine, as if I were a literary character. It was a concise life, like a short story rather than a documentary about me. A black-and-white baby photo. Nesting dolls. Harry Potter. Yearbooks. Fresh daffodils in a vase. A Yale pennant. Someone had placed everything there to be seen. Much like a movie set. The realtors do call it “staging” for a reason. And keeping everything consistent with the “community character” takes hard work.

 

 

Kendall Teare’s house is still for sale. If you’re interested, contact her at kendall.teare@yale.edu.

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