“I am convinced that a good building must be capable of absorbing the traces of human life and taking on a specific richness…I think of the patina of age on materials, of innumerable small scratches on surfaces, of varnish that has grown dull and brittle, and of edges polished by use.”—Peter Zumthor
Soon after I was born, my grandparents moved out of their home and back in with their four other siblings, reuniting the family under one roof for the first time in 20 years. My father moved us into that same house, in which he had grown up. The interior decoration remained the same as my grandparents left it, including the old scratchy wool couch, a big built-in white lacquered shelf that fit into the corner of the dining room, the china cabinet that had been in the family since the 30s, and my grandfathers creaky, big black leather ottoman that stood in front of a faux fireplace. The faux fireplace was complete with a broom, pan and stoker, despite the lack of flames. There was even a standing ashtray. My mother did not smoke, and my father only did so in the evening, a single cigarette before bed. I would notice the red cherry of his cigarette floating in the darkness through the curtains of the door to my parents room as I walked up the stairs.
In the hallway outside my parents room there was a small side stand. On top of it sat a massive Webster’s dictionary, the edges of each page were die-cut to reveal the alphabetical directory. Tactile as well as visual, it created a satisfying system for finding your way through the massive tome. Did this experience of rummaging through the dictionary, heavy and dusty, point my mind towards a future love-affair with books and printed materials?
The electricity in the house was from the turn of the century, with knob and tube push-button switches. I loved playing with them, pretending I was controlling an escalator or elevator. In the dining room there was a cuckoo clock and a grandfather clock. I liked to hide between the small nook of the plaster wall and the dark wooden side of the clock. Most rooms did not have lighting built into the walls, and were instead illuminated by standing lamps.
This pre-war lighting, warm, minimal and reminiscent of candle light in the evenings, along with the layers of old wall paper and the lingering smell of my grandfather’s pipe, gave the home a certain feeling that I can only describe as time having stood still. My home did not feel like the houses of my friends who I visited to play Nintendo games or watch cable TV.
My Grandparents bought the house when they moved to Port Richmond in the 1950s from the other Polish area of Philadelphia, Southwark, also known as Stanislawo. Neighbors who had lived on Belgrade Street for 50 years before that told them that the house had been at one time a doctors office, and later a stationary shop. Small family run businesses were part of the fabric of Port Richmond, and much of Philadelphia. By the time I was a teenager, scant few small shops like this would remain, most of them owned by the most recent influx of entrepreneurially minded Poles that arrived in Port Richmond after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
When I was 13 my Dad began to remodel the home on his own. The electricity was out-dated and dangerous, and the wallpaper showed signs of the years of indoor smoking and dampness of old Philadelphia row homes. He built bookshelves in the living room and master bedroom, put in a new kitchen, and refinished the basement, tearing out the wood paneling and formica floors which had become a hideout for roaches. All of this was done on weekends and in the evenings after work. I was frequently recruited to assist with painting, cutting wood and carrying things. He also added a second-hand enamelled kitchen table that he bought at the Salvation Army thrift store at K&A, as well as a piano.
During my 20s I would meet my father for breakfast every Sunday. One such Sunday when I was 25, my dad suggested that I buy the house from him so that he could buy a different home, out of the neighborhood. It felt less like a suggestion, and more like a completed fact. It had been seven years since my mother had passed away, her last moments passing in a bed we had made for her in the living room. My sister and I had both moved out, and I can only imagine he felt lonely in that old house, having spent the majority of his life there. So many memories of people that had left his life had transpired in those rooms, the floors my grandfather built, the old metal cabinets and plaster walls, and wall sized mirrors all absorbing traces of those interactions. My father does not talk about his emotions much, if ever, but even at 25 I could tell that he needed to move from this structure.
The idea of owning a home was outlandish to me. I was paying 350 dollars a month to live in an apartment near the Italian Market. I had just started my design business, and no real savings to speak of, just a couple thousand dollars. My father had different plans. I thank him to this day. If I did not take on that responsibility, I would not be where I am today. But it was more than about the money — if I did not move back to Belgrade street, I would have not been forced to return home, to return to the neighborhood, to deal with the house and the memories held within it.
This is what a house is after all. This patina, unique to the people that have inhabited any individual home. The feeling will extend to specific rooms. It’s not only a physical patina but a metaphysical one, created by the residue of all the human interactions that have transpired there, and which invite us warmly to create our own.
Today we see the same patterns of how we imagine the spaces of our homes repeated over and over, disseminated through Instagram and Pinterest. I have a friend who works as a property manager and he has had people literally show him an image of an apartment from Pinterest and tell him that that is what they want the apartment to look like. But something is missing in these easily copied aesthetics. What made that house on Belgrade street into a home was the layers of history, the passing dramas and interactions, the Wigilia dinners, the time I ran head first into my sister as I ran out of the front door, slamming my two front teeth into her forehead. The arguments my grandfather had with my aunt about the prospect of marrying someone without a Polish last name.
I consider all these things as I think about finding a home for myself here in the Netherlands. I am reminded that a home is not about money, or the type of stove you have or how well you can arrange your ficus in your home office or sneaker collection in the walk-in closet. Location and proximity are always important, but not the end of the story.
No house exists in isolation, even if it is physically separate. Inside our homes, we have our first experiences with other humans, our first introduction to society. We create a universe of patterns there that will then echo out into the rest of our lives and affect everyone we meet. Rowhomes in Philadelphia are tightly packed together, and when I was a kid much of life took place on the street outside. The way we learned to speak with and interact with our parents and siblings was the same way that we did so with the other adults and kids on the block. Our habits and way of approaching the world, good and bad, would be then amplified throughout the neighborhood.
I’m privileged to be able to make some choices about where I live, but I want to make those choices in a way that will allow the most flexibility around what happens in that house, about the experiences and interactions that happen between family and friends that create the layers of paint on the canvas of the house.