The phone rang and pinged and whirred that week, two years ago this month, while I unpacked a lifetime of inanimate objects. The interruptions were all the same: voices and voicemails and text messages and instant messages and emails, asking over and over again a single, outraged question: “Did you see what they did to your house?”
I wanted, each time, to reply, “Leave me alone, I am trying to unbox 11 sets of dishes.” Instead I said, “It’s not our house anymore. We no longer live in F.Q. Story.”
We had lived there, though — for nearly 17 years, in that big green California Craftsman on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Willetta Street, a hard-to-miss house you glanced at as you were heading onto the interstate two blocks behind. People knew that house, which has stood there since 1924, because it was so visible, or because they’d heard about the monkeys and the snakes that had once lived there. In Phoenix, an old house isn’t just an old house; it’s a curiosity, designated “special” by signage, protected and coddled by city preservationists.
My husband and I knew the house before we bought it, too, in a wouldn’t-it-be-nice-to-live-there-one-day sort of way that quietly acknowledged how we’d never be able to afford such a place as we shopped for our first home together in summer 2002.
It turned out we could afford it. The couple who’d bought the place in the 1990s as a forever home had fallen on hard times and had priced to sell. They’d purchased the house from a pair of firemen, brothers who restored and flipped historic homes. The firemen had sanded its floors and replaced its windows and commissioned from a man named Marvin a gigantic and uncommonly ugly travertine fireplace in the living room. The brothers had bought the house from a bank after the two nice hippies who’d lived there in the ’70s and ’80s had been foreclosed upon. The hippies kept snakes and monkeys in the house, we were later told, and the house had become known in the neighborhood as the Monkey House.
“I know that house,” my housekeeper said when I told her we’d bought it. “I’ve driven by it for years; it’s too big, don’t ask me to clean it.” She changed her mind after we convinced her that the Monkey House’s mass was mostly a mirage. The rooms were large and there were two separate dining rooms, but the colossal wraparound porch and porte cochere made the place look bigger than it really was. We pictured parties on that porch and imagined ourselves lounging there with books and maybe a vodka stinger, comparing notes with neighbors about the best way to restore tongue-in-groove wainscoting and other old-house things.
We liked our new, like-minded neighbors just fine (except for the couple next door, who were monsters), but it turned out most of them were too busy making their homes look newly old to do much hanging out. We waved to one another at Historic Preservation meetings and stopped to briefly chat at nurseries and antiques auctions and architecture reclamation sales, but we never lingered. Our ancient homes beckoned. They needed their sagging foundations re-poured, their tacky granite countertops jackhammered and replaced with vintage soapstone.
We, who recently had renovated my great-grandparents’ Victorian millhouse in northeast Ohio, happily joined the F.Q. Story fray. Outside, we ripped out flagstone flooring from the side patio, jettisoned a pair of concrete-and-river-rock planters, and scraped an outdoor fountain that some wiseacre had grafted onto the base of our chimney in the ’80s. We hired someone to remove all the wrought-iron and chain-link fencing, to chop down the randomly placed trees, to stain and seal an ocean of ancient concrete patio. Inside, we yanked up low-pile, dusty rose carpeting and sanded the subfloor beneath until it glowed; tore out wall-mounted washbasins from Lowe’s and replaced them with pedestal sinks from antique malls; ripped down fluorescent tube lighting and replaced it with fixtures from auctions and special-order reclamation shops.
Other people lived in suburban neighborhoods and apartment complexes and condominium high-rises, but we were preservationists. We didn’t just live in our homes, we rescued them from crap foisted on them from former owners who shopped endcaps at Home Depot and thought the only thing wrong with an old house was that it didn’t look like last year’s model. Our houses weren’t real estate investments so much as they were wrongs that needed righting; our work was an apology to dead architects whose designs had been blighted by “updates” that embarrassed us because they weren’t “period correct.”
We were inordinately house-proud, we F.Q. Storyites, welcoming photographers from glossy home-and-garden magazines to document our every plaster molding, each of the windowsills we’d painstakingly restored. We threw open our doors every December to thousands of strangers who wandered our homes, marveling at the 13-inch baseboards and crazy forced-air-furnace vents in our shiny walnut floors. (One visitor to the Monkey House during the 2009 F.Q. Story Historic Home Tour eyed our wall of built-in glass-fronted cupboards piled with Harkerware and announced to her companion, “Homosexuals live here.”)
It was worth all the work. No one who lives in a newly built semi-detached condo in Glendale has ever opened his door to an 87-year-old woman and six of her progeny who are there because Grandma was raised here in the ’30s, and could they come in and look around? This happened a lot. I met one of the firemen who rescued our house from ruin when he stopped by one day to ask why in the world we’d painted the place such ugly shades of green. (He made up for his rudeness by handing me six photo albums filled with before-and-after pictures of our house from 1987.) And one of the hippies himself showed up on a Saturday to announce that he’d once lived there, had since kicked drugs, and wanted to show me where his monkeys had been kept. (They had had the entire top floor, it turned out, where they had shat on the floor. The snakes had lived in the basement, in homemade cages. One of them, a small python, might still be down there, this nice man told me. She’d gotten out and vanished one day in the early 1980s.)
It wasn’t fear that a rogue snake might devour our housecat that convinced us to sell the Monkey House and move into a midtown high-rise built in the 1960s. In the end, it was the monthly $400 summertime water bills, because our Craftsman sat on two lots which, according to the City’s Historic Preservation department, had to be lush and green, year-round. It was the fact that even the best air conditioning couldn’t adequately cool the top floor of our nearly-100-year-old house. And perhaps that we lived in a house with two dining rooms yet ate dinner each night off the coffee table in front of the television. And maybe a little bit that each day we walked past hundreds of square feet of wraparound porch that we never used.
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The Monkey House comes to me in my dreams. Last month, I dreamed that it had been completely modernized and was on the market again. “Why would they do that?” I asked my husband in this dream, referring to the nice young couple who’d bought our former home. “Why not just buy a new house instead of ripping apart an historic one?”
The next day he, unaware I’d had that dream, texted me a just-posted real estate listing for the Monkey House. “Take the virtual tour,” he insisted. “They’ve completely renovated the place.” I refused, having already done so in my sleep the night before.
We were not sad to have left F.Q. Story, to be living in the sky instead of in a notorious and well-loved old house. Friends and former neighbors seemed to mind, though. When, only a few weeks after we’d moved away, the new owners painted our former home white with black trim — a terrible choice for a Craftsman, particularly one with a chocolate brown shingled roof — people were outraged on our behalf. For weeks, they phoned and emailed and texted their indignation.
I was secretly glad that the Monkey House no longer looked like itself. When I glanced over at it now, heading toward the freeway, I thought our former home appeared embarrassed to be caught in public wearing the palette of a saltbox or a Colonial. It looked like some other place than the home we’d restored, even while it continued standing. This made being gone from it so much easier to bear.