SELLING DAD’S HOUSE
One morning in the spring of 2015, my father fell and broke his hip. Fortunately, he was in the master bathroom, so he didn’t fall down the stairs. Even better, the caregiver whom we had hired to look in on him almost every day turned the key, entering the house only moments later. It was she who called for an ambulance, and before long, doctors at Seattle’s Swedish Hospital operated to place a steel plate in Dad’s hip. He would never return home or even see his house again, because even after recovering, he could no longer climb the stairs to the bathroom. This was not entirely unexpected, since he had recently turned ninety-two.
Fifty-five years earlier, Dad had designed the strikingly modern house in Laurelhurst, a leafy neighborhood of traditional, stately homes. The way he chose the lot was as unconventional as the style of the house. He simply scouted the neighborhood until he found the site he wanted, a verdant apple orchard overlooking Lake Washington. Even though no sign marked it for sale, Dad rang the doorbell at the impressive brick Tudor house next door. The elderly owner, a widow named Mrs. Hausman, opened the door, and invited Dad in. Her name’s aptness amuses me to this day because she turned out to be the one with the power to house our family.
I can imagine what Dad must have said to Mrs. Hausman. “Hi, I’m Keith Kolb, architect.” No doubt, he then reached out his hand for a hearty shake. “I want to build a house next door and I’ll pay you for your lot.”
Dad never told us whether Mrs. Hausman put up any resistance, but as soon as he met her, the transaction appeared to be a fait-accompli. She must have liked the money, because a few years later, she sold off another parcel directly behind her house. I was disappointed because I loved to explore its lovely English garden. I particularly admired a sundial at its center, surrounded by low boxwood hedges.
Less inevitable than Mrs. Hausman’s acquiescence was Dad’s construction loan. Being the architect he was, Dad knew that if he simply showed the bankers the blueprints for the house he intended to build, they had good reason to loan him the money because a house would substantially increase the value of the virgin property.
There was only one problem. Dad insisted on a flat roof—one of the primary signifiers of Modernist architecture—and the bankers were skeptical. Seattle was a city of sloping roofs; wouldn’t rain puddle on the roof, causing multiple leaks? Dad assured them that it would not. Trained at the Harvard Graduate School of Design by no less a figure than Walter Gropius, the founder of Germany’s famed Bauhaus school, he had learned how to specify a water-tight flat roof.
The bankers referred to budge. They had not been bossed around by “Grope,” and as far as they were concerned, rain was rain. To keep a house dry, raindrops were supposed to run downwards into a gutter. The facts were the facts. Dad went to every banker in town until the last banker reluctantly gave in. Such were Dad’s impressive, professorial powers of persuasion.
After the builders excavated the lot, the rising structure was quickly dubbed “the glass house” by our neighbors and my grade-school classmates. I was seven years old when the four of us moved in. There was no house like it in the neighborhood then, and there is no house like it now. My brother, Bliss, and I loved to wave at all the people who slowed down as they drove past, gawking up at us from their cars. We spent our days drawing or model-making in “the high space” next to the tall windows, playing on the back lawn, or doing our homework upstairs in our rooms, which were laid out in a row between Mom and Dad’s bedroom and a small guest bedroom.
In July 2012, nine days before her eighty-ninth birthday, my mother’s knees buckled and she died in my arms. She collapsed in the corner of the living room where we used to put the Christmas tree. From that moment until he broke his hip, Dad lived alone in his increasingly tomb-like house. Where else would he have gone? Almost from the moment we moved in, the house had become an extension of Dad’s personality. By now, it was almost like his avatar—an outer body or even a second skin.
Many years earlier, I asked Dad, “Why can’t you be more like Ralph Anderson?” Ralph was another architect, a contemporary of Dad’s, and we could see one of his houses out the front window, beyond a lawn framed by cedars, dogwoods, and a Japanese maple. The fact that I call it ‘one of his houses’ was exactly the point. Ralph designed his family’s houses in sequence. As soon as he grew bored of one, he would build another one and move on. Unlike Dad’s house, Ralph Anderson’s were expendable. If Dad were more like Ralph, I reasoned, maybe it would dawn on him that one can lead a happy life in more than just one place.
After Dad recovered from his hip operation, we found him an assisted-living home in Seattle’s Wedgwood neighborhood. There, he joined five ailing elders on Naugahyde reclining chairs in the living room, where he was waited on hand-and-foot by a team of cheerful young African women with charming accents. Occasionally, the son of one of the residents treated us to a Sunday concert of early American folk music. When an art therapist came to visit, I was shocked at the painting Dad produced. In bold red, yellow, and orange smudges, it looked like a child’s finger-painting produced by a man who had once mastered the art of watercolor, expertly delineating Midwestern grain elevators and French wartime villages.
Months slipped away, and it was impossible not to notice that Dad’s money was slipping away with them. There was no way around it: we had to sell the house to pay for Dad’s room and board. I was tempted not to tell him, because what he didn’t know would not trouble him, but as his older son, I felt I owed him the respect of informing him.
“Dad, your money is running out. We have to sell the house,” I blurted out one afternoon as we watched TV in his little room, where a warm abstract painting smiled from the wall and a flowering dogwood beckoned out the window. Three photos of Mom at different ages were placed strategically on a shelf opposite the bed.
“Don’t do that; take out a loan,” said Dad, with a frown. His animus toward bankers, left over from their long-ago foot-dragging over his construction loan, took the form of borrowing from them whenever he had the chance. Re-payment was strictly optional.
“Okay,” I said, to divert his attention and restore his good humor. What Dad didn’t know was that we had already taken out a loan to prepare the house for sale. Our real estate agent had insisted on certain changes that would have made Dad cringe. For example, he commanded us to remove the gold carpeting in the living room and replace it with hardwood. When I inspected the new oak floor, I noticed to my horror that it rose a good half-inch above the surrounding white terrazzo paving. I knew that Dad had been proud of the way the river of carpet stretched on a level line between its terrazzo banks. It was one of his subtle, Mies van der Rohe-style details.
“Remove the built-in shelves in the library and paint the interior window frames white,” ordered the real estate agent. I knew what he was getting at: the protruding charcoal window ribs made the house look darker inside, but when we painted them white, they contrasted awkwardly with the charcoal outer ribs, still visible through the windows. I don’t know why my brother and I consented to all the agent’s demands. I suppose, after decades of learning to obey our father, we felt a perverse joy at betraying him. Like the bankers who told Dad they couldn’t finance a house with a flat roof, the agent suggested he couldn’t sell a house with dark window-frames. But unlike Dad, we didn’t search for a more compliant agent. We simply gave in.
Exactly one year before Dad’s money ran out, we began cleaning out the house. This effort took up every Saturday afternoon for fifty-two weeks. There was no doubt that Dad was a hoarder, but he was what I’d call a tidy hoarder. A tidy hoarder is one who can fool visitors into thinking that he’s not a hoarder. Dad accomplished this by piling everything at tidy right-angles like the perpendicular walls on his architectural drawings. Every horizontal surface became a desk, and every room became an office.
Despite the apparent tidiness, I stopped counting after we had dispatched eighty-nine truckloads of stuff, piled on four floors, to the dump or Goodwill. It took weeks just to remove towers of carpet and tile samples stacked high against one wall of “the cargo bay,” my name for the vast, tall-ceilinged garage. Once all Dad’s drawings had been sent to the University of Washington Special Collections library, we came upon decades of his correspondence with a French woman he had met while on leave in Paris during World War II. I kept a few of her letters in her tiny script and threw away the rest. Bliss and I wondered what, if anything, Mom knew about her.
After an estate sale in which many family heirlooms reappeared after years of hiding behind Dad’s piles of papers, we finally put the house on the market in May, 2016. Seeing it go was even harder than the year of emptying and cleaning. Of course, we could have kept it, but my brother already lived in a house that Dad had designed for him and his girlfriend, and my husband and I decided not to move in. Beyond the practical considerations of having to buy out Bliss’ half, only to pay the high property taxes and heating bills from all those single-pane windows, it didn’t feel like the house belonged to our family. It felt like it was Dad’s house. I couldn’t get beyond the idea that any alteration we decided to make would be an affront to him. Even though he didn’t know about it, I felt we had already disturbed him enough with those white window mullions.
Dad’s wood frame and steel avatar left us three years before he did, but the new owners were ecstatic. Their eight-year-old daughter beamed with delight. “We can’t wait to hang a swing for her from the ceiling in the high space,” her parents exulted. “The only thing that would make the house better would be built-in bookshelves in the library.”