The Basic Story

Places speak to us. What they say affects us and influences our behavior. Their messages stem from the underlying attitudes with which places are planned, made, used, and maintained. Few of us consciously acknowledge these messages, but subliminally we all experience them, are all affected by them.      Christopher Day  

In 2001, my husband and I purchased an American foursquare house. This style of architecture was built from 1895 to 1930 and has distinctive qualities: a boxy shape, five panel doors, simple in design, and intended to make use of every inch of the house and lot. In 1999, rather than being demolished due to the re-development of the village square, the house was moved to a new address, remodeled and put up for sale. It remained empty for an entire year. Our search for ‘just the right house’ also took a year. Perhaps we were waiting for each other.

We named the house ‘Simplicity’. With each home decision we have attempted to keep the intention of its unpretentious character. Whenever possible, the simple lines of the window moldings have not been hidden by draperies. Area rugs, not carpeting, have been laid over the beautiful wooden floors. The three open porches are used as outdoor living spaces. Her front door graces a hand-turned rather than an electric door bell. One of the bathrooms has a claw foot tub and an early style water closet as its toilet. There is thoughtfulness in how this house has been built and appointed. Everything is simple, minimal, and yet enough.

Each of these decisions to maintain its simplicity has invited us to live more focused and intentional lives. The first floor’s ten and a half foot ceilings grace us with expanded space to think and dream. The living room is arranged for storytelling and conversation. It does not host a television. Chairs and sofas, lamps and tables create inviting nooks to hold the entertainment of one or more. Our front room is used as a dining area where we linger over a meal, share with others, and host celebrations around the table. The kitchen is large and in the center of the house. Tall double-hung windows invite natural light from the East and the West into this hub of the home. Here is where people informally gather as food is prepared.

Simplicity has had other lives. Author Stewart Brand’s book, How Buildings Learn, speaks to the development of how buildings adapt to changing requirements over time. Each of the former lives lived in this American foursquare has been recorded in some way. The original builder of the house was Fred Schuman who was the operator of the DeForest Farmer’s Exchange. In time the house became the home of his granddaughter, Irene Schuman, a well-known elementary teacher in the village. Prior to being rescued from demolition and moved to its present site, Simplicity housed a hair salon and tailor’s shop on the first floor with a rental apartment above. In interviewing a previous owner and also the man who saved her from the wrecking ball, it has become clear that Simplicity‘s history is one of thoughtful and caring modification. She came to us with a structural knowledge of how to adapt to new owners and their needs.

People seem to enjoy coming to Simplicity. She listens well and safely holds their lives and stories in her uncomplicated structure. We have tried to honor her spirit in the transitioning from an early nineteenth century home into twenty-first century living. With each modification, she has willingly offered the space for our hopes and dreams, and in so doing, has taught us more about ourselves.