Tour de Force: What Happens When You Open the Doors to Your Historic Home to Strangers

My spouse and I recently invited 2,000 strangers into our home.

Friends roll their eyes when I admit this, but for me, the only weird part about throwing open our home to thousands of visitors was that so many of them felt compelled to peek inside our clothes closet.

Our clothing was not meant to be on display during the F.Q. Story Historic Home Tour earlier this month. Yet people kept opening the closet door and gasping at the neat rows of shirts and trousers arranged inside. Apparently, most people keep their clothing wadded up in a pile on the floor.

"Disgusting!" our friend Ruth yelled when I told her about the closet peekers. "But what do you expect? All those looky-loos tromping through your place!"

"You're asking for trouble," our neighbor Eric, a lawyer, carefully explained. "A certain number of the people who tour your home will be burglars who've come to case your home."

We're not especially brave people, and we're unusually fond of our things, so we found this last comment briefly troubling. But then we remembered that most of what we own is worthless; our television is 15 years old; our laptops are ancient. We figured thieves who came back to steal our old appliances would be doing us a favor, as these items are insured. The rest of our things — the stuff that really matters to us, like my record collection and my spouse's many boxes of vintage greeting cards — are valueless and would only be tempting to other deranged homosexuals, not to housebreakers.

It was these great piles of carefully displayed things — the salt shakers and the Fisher-Price circus animals and the several cabinets filled with china (service for 420!) lining the walls of our dining rooms — that we wanted people to see. We're house-proud and shameless, and maybe more than a little smug about our junk and the old place where we keep it.

Our home, known by many as The Monkey House because the people who lived there in the '80s kept monkeys and snakes in the formal dining room, was built in 1924. It's a California Craftsman Bungalow, one of those houses that looks large from the street but is, in fact, what our real estate agent, when he showed it to us seven years ago, referred to as "cozy."

In most cities, an 85-year-old house would just be an old building. In Phoenix, where our architectural past is routinely bulldozed, it's an attraction, especially for people who live in the suburbs. And so we set aside several months to make our crib worth the 15 bucks people would be shelling out to see it. In fact, the main reason we'd agreed to participate in Home Tour, an annual fundraiser that pays the exorbitant historic preservation fees that protect older homes like ours, was to force ourselves to finally finish those household projects we'd been putting off for years.

And so we'd landscaped out front and remodeled the upstairs bathroom and painted the stairs and patched the hole in the kitchen wall. Ugly ceiling fans were replaced with antique light fixtures; 80-year-old thresholds were torn out and replaced with shiny new ones. My spouse, who'd never so much as mended a sock, stayed up all night the Tuesday before the tour, sewing elaborate Austrian shades for the kitchen, breakfast room, and guest bedroom.

Eventually, we ran out of improvement projects and threw open our doors to what my friend Nathan called "women in Christmas sweaters and dangly earrings — the NPR tote bag crowd." They wandered through our bathroom and our bedrooms and our kitchen, ooh-ing and aah-ing and asking startled questions about the height of our baseboards and our other "old-fashioned" things.

Nathan was one of several friends who agreed to stand around for hours while strangers shuffled through; we had been coached by the maniacally organized Home Tour Committee to "post volunteers throughout your house, to answer questions and to keep an eye on your valuables." This proved to be quite a lot of work, because though none of our things is valuable, many are peculiar and incited questions. The gumball machine filled with fake barbiturates and the glass vases crammed full of vintage Ken dolls especially flummoxed people.

"People seemed taken with the vintage framed romance novel covers," Nathan — who'd spent three hours talking to strangers in our upstairs library — confided later. "Expect to see the same treatment in every other Phoenix home a year from now."

Nathan grew tired of people describing to him their own first-edition hardcover Hardy Boys mysteries, but he was polite. He was relieved midway through the Home Tour's second day by our friend Paul, who later reported over martinis, "People kept walking in, looking around, and announcing, 'I've never seen so many books!'" Apparently, Paul told me, the public library is something of a secret to these people.

More than one person took my spouse aside to ask where in the world we had ever found such lovely draperies; such magnificently overstuffed chairs; so many pristine portable record players.

"Cleveland," he always replied.

Judging from the comments I overheard, most people live in empty boxes decorated with hard benches and hung with Nagel prints.

"Oh, look," folks called out to one another in our kitchen. "An old stove! Do you think they really cook on it?"

We do.

"Come look!" we heard people exclaim from our tiny hallway bathroom. "They've got a green sink!"

Yeah. So?

Many visitors were confused that our refrigerator is inside our pantry, and several seemed shocked that we have two dining rooms.

"What," one overly made-up matron demanded to know late on the second day of the tour, "do you do with two dining rooms?"

By this point I'd grown bored with being nice. "We eat meals in one of them," I told her. "And in the other, we sacrifice babies."

One fellow, decked out in a baseball cap topped with fuzzy, plush reindeer antlers, cornered me in the kitchen and insisted I tell him how we managed to make our house so "gosh-darn pretty and well organized!"

"We're homosexuals." I whispered, leaning in close. "If we don't keep our houses elegant and tidy, they force us to sleep with women."

He fled.

His companion, who wore a light-up brooch shaped like Frosty the Snowman, lingered. "I can't believe your clothes closet," she told me. "I even took a picture of it!" She held up her digital camera as proof.

"Look!" I said, pointing to the tiny photo in her digital display. "There's my shoes! And that pilly sweater I keep trying to get my husband to throw away!"

"Incredible," she said, smiling and shaking her head as she walked away.

I don't know. I find my home completely credible. I'm a middle-aged man who owns 12 sets of dishes and keeps his clothes closet tidy. What, I wondered, must these people's lives be like?

Maybe someone should launch a Non-Historic Home Tour, so I can check out how the other half lives.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela