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Onward and upward…

November 30, 2014

[This article was published Nov. 29 in the Bloomington Herald-Times.]

Architecture can lift the human heart. This view is looking down the spiral stair at Shaker Village in Kentucky.

Architecture can lift the human heart. This view is looking down the spiral stair at Shaker Village in Kentucky.

All good things must end. After eleven years, with great regret, I’m handing over this “Homes” column to fresh talent.

Many readers are aware that I received treatment for a rare form of ovarian cancer this past spring and summer. Although it’s in remission and I’m symptom-free, it’s virtually guaranteed to recur sooner rather than later, and I want to enjoy the time I have left with friends and family. I’ll miss writing this column very much, but “Homes” will continue under the able guidance of Lee Sandweiss, whose features have appeared for eight years in “Bloom” magazine.

For my last column, here are a few things I’ve learned during the course of this job.

What is a home?

I’ve toured hundreds of homes ranging from rental units to mansions. The ones that remained in my memory were not the huge ones with vast expanses of rare granite countertops and hand-planed floorboards, but the ordinary homes whose owners had put real love and hard work into them. A house is more homey when it contains evidence of lives lived well: a grandmother’s quilt, a child’s framed painting, objects brought back from vacations, and flowers fresh-cut from the garden outside. A home, ultimately, is not a place to show off your status or wealth, but a place in which you feel most truly yourself.

A brightly-painted old house indicates caring owners who are proud of their home.

A brightly-painted old house indicates caring owners who are proud of their home.

A home is always a work in progress

Homeowners always apologize to me that their homes are not really “finished” yet. But virtually no house will ever be truly “finished.” Even a brand-new custom home will contain, somewhere inside it, a crack along a drywall seam, a slightly dodgy electric switch, or an overlooked corner on one window where a trickle of cold air slowly seeps through. Most older homes need a new furnace, or new attic insulation, perhaps new siding, or a French drain on the soggy side of the yard; and these things get taken care of as the budget permits. The existence of a to-do list does not generally affect the overall livability of a home (or its worthiness to be featured in this column!). Almost nobody achieves 100 percent “finished-ness.” What’s more, nobody is keeping score.

Food for thought

An old house even on the brink of collapse can be brought back to life and made livable again. (Just ask Bloomington Restorations, Inc., or Golden Hands Construction.) Drastic rehab often costs less than demolition combined with all-new construction. Remember, even the “greenest” new construction comes with a big carbon footprint.

Plant a garden

Gardening promotes beauty, creativity, mental and physical health, food security and environmental restoration. You don’t need to lay everything out perfectly with straight lines and labels. All you need is a simple veggie bed, flowers for bees and butterflies, a fruit tree, and a compost system in which to layer kitchen waste with your fall leaves.

Flowers make a huge splash, both in the yard and indoors in boutiques. Flowers by Cheryl Duckworth.

Flowers make a huge splash, both in the yard and indoors in boutiques. Flowers by Cheryl Duckworth.

Beware of radon!

Many basements in south-central Indiana contain unsafe levels of radon. I strongly suggest that readers invest in a good-quality radon meter to make sure their radon levels remain below 4 (the EPA’s cutoff point). Radon gas is the number-two cause of lung cancer in America after smoking, and many basement playrooms expose children unwittingly to this carcinogen.

What I’m proudest of

Over the course of eleven years, despite two serious surgeries, and a five-month course of chemotherapy, I always met my deadlines and succeeded in handing in my weekly feature.

What I’ll miss most

I’ll miss the ongoing interactions with kindly homeowners and talkative contractors. I’ll miss the opportunity to gain ideas that I can use in my own home, such as innovative built-ins, gardening methods, unusual fixtures, and new uses for old furniture. I’ll miss walking through wonderful historic homes, seeing gorgeous landscaping, and meeting skilled artisans. I’ll miss the emails from readers who tell me, “I’m the former owner of the house in your recent column, and I’d love to tell you some of its history.” Most of all, I’ll miss the opportunity to share my ongoing enthusiasm about houses and gardens with my readers.

I am thankful

I could not have done my job without the able support of Sonja Stotler, my compositor at the Herald-Times. It’s Sonja who chooses which of my photos you will see each week in the “Homes” section, and who arranges the articles on the page so they look attractive.

Thanks are also due to my wonderful boss at the Herald-Times, Laurie Ragle. I also would like to thank Jeannette Smedberg, who served as my backup proofreader whenever I was gallivanting on vacation (and who did a far better job than I did). Lastly, heartfelt thanks to the many readers and coworkers who sent their good wishes when I became ill. The stack of get-well cards that I received was five inches high.

I’m retiring now to tend my health. Wish me luck! And I in turn, wish the very best to all my readers. Writing for “Homes” has been a wonderful privilege, and I will never forget it.

I'll miss the opportunity to tour fabulous historic houses like the Guthrie Mansion in Tunnelton.

I’ll miss the opportunity to tour fabulous historic houses like the Guthrie Mansion in Tunnelton.

Some homes have magical ability to draw a visitor within, including the home of Henry Glassie and Pravina Shukla.

Some homes have magical ability to draw a visitor within, including the home of Henry Glassie and Pravina Shukla.

Handmade houses display their builders' creativity and ingenuity. This timber-frame home was built by Keith Uridel for his wife, Aimee Dewar, and their family.

Handmade houses display their builders’ creativity and ingenuity. This timber-frame home was built by Keith Uridel for his wife, Aimee Dewar, and their family.

This home looked ready to knock down, but Blooomington Restorations Inc. rehabbed it and it's now a lovely house.

This home looked ready to knock down, but Blooomington Restorations Inc. rehabbed it and it’s now a lovely house.

Bright color, and flowers, are both good things to strive for.

Bright color, and flowers, are both good things to strive for.

Many people fail to see the beauty of old buildings, like this austere and weathered 1850s house along Tunnelton Road.

Many people fail to see the beauty of old buildings, like this austere and weathered 1850s house along Tunnelton Road.

 

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2 Comments
  1. I do wish you luck. You have a wonderful talent for seeing and a curiosity about the world that I know will continue as you set about the months ahead. It has been a pleasure to read your column every week and I will miss it but I understand you have the ability to live well and you will do so. I love your generosity of spirit and your optimism. Thank you.
    Betsy Mandell

  2. Thank you very much for the kind words, Betsy! I hope to continue blogging and I look forward to describing my encounters with outstanding houses and gardens here.
    all my best,
    Carrol

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