Peter Callaghan: We lived there 21 years, but it wasn’t ‘our’ house

Staff WriterJuly 6, 2014 

It’s just a house.

I know. But without sounding like an insurance commercial, you don’t realize it’s more than that until it’s empty of the items that make it a home.

The walls, the floors, the way it sits on the lot, that frighteningly steep roof, the way it opens to the backyard — all that make it more than a building.

This one was built in 1937, in the midst of the second dip of the Great Depression. The owners were fortunate enough to have the means to build a place that the Census reported was worth $7,500.

Its existence, however, told stories of that depression. It lies on what had been part of the yard of the house next door, subdivided perhaps for badly needed cash.

And unlike the older houses on the block built during the more-prosperous teens and ’20s, this one lacks the showy trim work and finishes. I speculated that the prospective owners didn’t want to display their relative good fortune when so many others lacked it.

But it was well-built, a Cape Cod amidst the Dutch Colonials, American Foursquares and Tudors, many of the latter designed by Silas Nelsen, the architect responsible for dozens of homes, commercial buildings and schools in the city.

That 1940 Census reveals that the owners, an emigrant from Switzerland who was president of a wholesale paper company and his wife, earned $5,000 a year, that they lived there with her mother and their two children. Further evidence that they were among the lucky is the notation that their oldest daughter was attending college.

Some years back I was contacted by a man who had grown up in the neighborhood – across the street in one of the Nelsen-designed Tudors. His father had been the air-raid warden for the block, walking the sidewalks at night to make sure air-raid blackouts were obeyed.

A photograph shows his father standing just across from our house, in front of another lived in by Louis F. Hart when he was governor between 1919 and 1925. The warden wears a doughboy helmet, a gas mask protecting his face and lungs.

The lot at the end of the block where a house was built shortly after the war had been the Victory garden for the entire neighborhood, the former neighbor told me. And he was among the kids who collected scrap metal to help win the war, much of it coming from nearby Puget Creek gulch.

A second family took possession in 1960, living there until the mid-1970s. It was this family that lost a son, along with three others, in a car accident in 1974 – an event that left emotional scars on this neighborhood for years. Just a few who remember that night four decades ago are left, just a few who knew the four high school boys who died. Soon there will be one fewer.

Like any established neighborhood, there is an ebb and flow to the generations. When we moved in, our two daughters were the toddlers. Now, we’re the older ones, watching young families move in with toddlers of their own.

You don’t need stuff for memories, but all that stuff certainly triggers them. That explains why packing up a place where 21 years have been lived takes so much time.

When did we put the Christmas tree in that corner instead of in front of the window? Whatever happened to that best friend? And that one? Which grade were they in this first-day-of-school photo? Those trees were so short when we moved in. That wallpaper was even worse than we remembered it. The pea gravel under the old swing set made great sense – at least until the cats discovered how it made a great litter box.

We call it “our” house, but we were here for barely a quarter of its existence. Others have used it as a stage for their stories and their tragedies and their milestones. Part of the privilege is that each improves and maintains it so as to hand it over to the next family to write new chapters in the history of what might appear at first to be just a house.

Of course, it is much more than that.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657

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