This past weekend, I attended a holiday homes tour in the St. Anne’s Hill historic district of Dayton. They hold their “Dickens of a Christmas Holiday Home Tour” fundraiser every other year (and in the other year they do a spring tour). You have a guided tour through the neighborhood, along with admittance to 6 or so beautifully decorated and cared for historic homes, mostly Victorian era. The tour wraps up with delicious bread pudding inside the well-known Bossler Mansion on Dutoit Street.
I had been on the Christmas tour once before (in 2011, I think it was), but the homes change from year to year, and it is worth repeating. I was particularly enticed to attend the tour this year because it was approximately 60 degrees, unlike the chilling cold and snow/freezing rain that I walked in last time. (Our poor tour guides in their Victorian winter dresses and capes were sweating it though!) I also chose a daytime tour this time, instead of an evening one, which made it easier to see what I was looking at outside!
I’m not going to tell you all about everything, and I don’t even have many pictures to share with you. After all, these are people’s homes, and although we were told that we could ask to take pictures and see if the owners would approve, I was just thrilled to be allowed inside at all..and quite frankly, I probably spend too much of my “tourist” experience looking through a camera lens, so in a way it was nice to just “be.”
You’re probably wondering what I came here to write about, if I’m not going to tell-all on tour details or show you photos of these gorgeous old houses in all their magnificence.
Well, there were a few snippets I want to share — these things that have stuck with me, following the tour. Most of these things have to do with the homes’ “stories” (you know how I love stories). In the interest of privacy, I will try not to “out” the owners or the house precisely, though if you were part of the tour (or are a member of the close-knit neighborhood), you’d likely be able to figure it out.
When you first enter each home, the owners usually have a brief introduction to share with you about the house — what they know about its history, what has been done to restore it, etc.
In one of these stories, the owner mentioned that his home had been lived in for several decades by a pair of unmarried sisters, prior to his acquisition of it. He said they didn’t do anything to the house for most of that time. So, on the one hand, they hadn’t made any improvements, but on the other hand, they also didn’t do anything BAD either. They just didn’t do anything, really…so they didn’t screw it up!
This story made me think of my Dad. I feel like I’ve heard him make a similar statement. The historic home I lived in when I was little (described in the previous blog post) had been occupied for decades only by two spinster sisters, whose father had the house built so it had only ever been in 1 family for its entire life of about 80 years. When my Dad got it, not a lot had been done to it over the years. Nothing good. But also nothing bad.
People do a lot of interesting things to houses, historic or not. The older the house, the wider the window of opportunity has been for someone to have done something interesting to it. Now, my high school best friend and I had an inside joke about the word “interesting.” One of us would say something was “interesting,” and the other would say, “Interesting like chocolate-covered grasshoppers, or interesting like So-and-So’s hair?” One was good, the other bad. (I’ll let you guess which was which.) But the point is, yes…sometimes people do good things to houses, and sometimes people do bad things.
Now of course, the homes we saw on the tour were all full of interesting good things. They’ve been loved — and lived in, some for 150+ years. Some had been “rescue” jobs, but they’re looking pretty good now (wonderful even!). Anyway, the point is — all of these homes, whatever their past, they are now being lovingly cared for by people who wanted a historic house to love and care for.
Believe it or not, that’s actually not quite where I’m going with my whole “kindred spirits” thing. I love old houses…to look at. I love to look at them. But I’m not sure I would love many of the realities of actually living in one. I want insulation and drywall and central air and brand new electric. Yeah yeah, I know you can put all these things into old houses, but it’s a lot harder.
Although, at least one couple on the tour actually did all that. When they purchased their house (for less than $10,000) several years ago, they said it was the neighborhood eyesore. It had not been well-loved for many years, and it needed a total gut-job (truly). (By the way, they bought it like 8 years ago and just moved in.) They kept a lot of it looking old — and even managed to keep a few original features, like the 1850s stair railing — but they also have drywall. (I know I probably seem to have this fixation with drywall, but let’s just say I’ve had enough of plaster walls from my 1949 Cape Cod, thankyouverymuch.)
One thing I remember thinking in that house was how much fun I think my uncles would have if I turned them loose on creating beautiful ornate woodwork that was actually new but made to look old. (Now would probably be a good time to tell you that my uncles are extremely talented finish carpenters as well as general contractors.) Or, maybe they would look at me like I was crazy. We’ll probably never know.
The house with the drywall and the 1850s staircase also featured a Christmas tree with a train running in a circle under it. The man said his father bought him that train for Christmas in 1949. “I was seven months old,” he said with a grin, “so you tell me who really wanted to play with a train.” That reminded me of Dad. And as if I needed another reason to like these people who had brought a 150-year-old house back from the brink and made it beautiful again, I noticed a copy of David McCullough’s The Wright Brothers on an end table. Kindred spirits, indeed.
At another house, addressing us from a few steps up the staircase (as most of them did if there was a staircase in the front hall, which was many of them), the owner started off by saying that when they agreed to be part of the tour, they actually didn’t really know anything about the home’s history (and they hadn’t been the ones to restore it either), so she wasn’t sure what she would tell us for the introduction.
I was just making a mental note to approach her later to let her know that the library (either the one where I work at the university or the public library where I used to work) had plenty of great resources to help them learn more about their house, if they wanted to…when whipped out a piece of paper and continued, “…but then we received this letter in the mail.”
Out of the blue, the great-granddaughter of some previous owners, who had lived in the home for 50 years and raised several children there, had written to them, with memories of the house and pictures.
Of course everyone in the room, including myself, ooh’d and ahh’d. I mean, what an awesome thing to receive a letter like that! What an awesome thing to have thought to write it. I would love a letter like that. “Here, have some history of a place that’s now special to you, that has also been special to me.” (Of course you can see why I would love something like that, even just a story about such a thing; seeing as how I basically wrote a love letter to my childhood home in my previous post.)
But not everybody would care about something like that. Some people might not be interested in receiving such a thing. And far more people would even think to write such a thing, let alone actually do it. Some might even call it crazy.
But not me. And not that woman telling us the story from her staircase. And I dare say not the other 30 or so tour-goers standing around me, making the same murmurs of awe that I was making.
So, standing in that crowded living room, hearing that story and mentally telling myself don’t cry in public don’t cry in public (and I succeeded), I think that was the moment that gave me the “kindred spirits” feeling I used in the title.
Historic homes people? People who love them and live in them? People who love them enough to drop $22 for a chance to see inside just a few? Yep, these are my people, and this is our jam.
I should have probably saved that revelation for the end, but I’m writing this as it comes to me, with very few notes ahead of time. And the last two items come at or near the end of the tour, so…
At one of the last houses on the tour, the couple who lived there had actually gotten into character, portraying the Victorian doctor and his wife who had previously lived in their house. That in and of itself was great, and they both looked fantastic. They even had a little exhibit on “quack” Victorian medicine!
But something about the wife kept giving me this de ja vu feeling. I couldn’t figure out what it was. Even her name seemed familiar to me. I noticed a certificate on the wall with her name on it and checked it out to see what it was for, thinking perhaps she was a fellow library professional or something like that, who I might have heard of somewhere. Nope, totally different profession. I thought maybe she was someone I had helped when I worked at Dayton Metro Library, as I did a lot more reference desk work there than I do now; I saw a lot more people, I’m sure.
It came to me a couple of days later, while I was lying in bed trying to fall asleep (isn’t that always the way?). She had been a library patron, but at the university library where I work now, not at the public library. (Well, I expect she went there too, but it’s not where I met her…) I looked in our researcher log to confirm. Yes, that was it! She looked so familiar to me because she had come in last summer to research for this house tour—she mentioned it specifically. (I wonder now if she recognized me. She probably just wondered why I kept staring at her.)
It’s a pretty cool experience any time you get to see the amazing results of something that you, as a librarian or archivist, “helped” with — whether it’s a published book, a school project, or in this case…a performance!
That was actually the anecdote that first occurred to me as something I wanted to write about here…and then I thought of the others.
And finally, without further adieu, no post centering on the St. Anne’s Hill Dickens of a Christmas holiday homes tour would be complete without a mention of the spectacular Bossler Mansion. And that I have a couple of pictures of.
As we were standing on the sidewalk in front of the home, one of the things our tour guide said about the house was that she had a special connection to it herself. In a previous life, the mansion had been converted into a multi-unit apartment building (this being an example of the “interesting” things people sometimes do to old houses). And during that era, her grandmother and her toddler-age mother had lived in one of the apartments. She said it was very emotional the first time she visited the room (yes, room, singular) that had been their apartment, and she got a little choked up just mentioning it to us. (Seriously people, stop making me almost-cry in public!)
So that’s the anecdote I have to share about the Bossler house. The true highlight of this stop on the tour, however, is the bread pudding (omigod, seriously so delicious) and the view of downtown Dayton out the little round west-facing window in the 4th story cupola. (Another reason I’m glad I chose a daytime tour this year!)
So I’ll just leave you with that.