At last, after three long years of remodeling, we will spend part of the holidays in the historic Bullock House in our little mountain village of Georgetown. The work wasn’t supposed to last this long, but you know how restoration goes. We figured it would take a year. Oh, right. It took three. And it cost three times as much as we figured, too.The Bullock House, which we’ve named for its builder, Charles Bullock, a lumberman, was erected in 1881, and with its tower and its fanciful wooden trim, it was once a Georgetown showplace. But over the years, the house had become—how can I put this nicely?—a nightmare. The foyer and parlor walls had been knocked out, turning three rooms into one, the pocket doors and virtually all the interior Victorian charm destroyed. Only the staircase and a plaster medallion in the dining room ceiling (which fell off after we bought the house, of course) remained. Half of a house had been shoved up next to the north side of the place and was resting on an I-beam. We could see daylight through the roof, and raccoons had taken up residence in the tower. Snow and wind had sanded off much of the paint, and junked cars were parked in the yard.
I’d always loved the house, at least its beautiful Victorian exterior, but who would take on such a mess? We would, as it turned out. Just minutes after touring the house and praising ourselves for being smart enough to turn it down, we ran into preservation architect Gary Long. Just our luck. We wouldn’t touch it, we said. “Let’s think about that a minute,” he replied, a remark that changed our lives. We toured the house again with Gary and Kathy Hoeft, his wife, who is also an architect. When he saw the staircase, Gary threw up his hands and said, “It’s a bride’s house.” My husband, Bob, decided at that point, we might as well buy the place. I thought I could write a book about it, called, naturally, The Bride’s House.
I have to say we got a lot of pats on the back from Georgetown people, who were delighted that we going to undertake restoration of the Bullock House—and they weren’t.
We bought the house in September, 2007 and being impatient and unrealistic (along with ill-tempered, arrogant, and selfish, and those are just some of my good qualities) I figured we’d be done by Christmas, 2008. Ha! Right off the bat, we got some surprises. “Did you know there’s never been a sewer hookup?” the contractor asked one day. Another time, he told us a tree had fallen on the tower and all the upright supports were askew. Of course, each one had to be strengthened.
Not all the surprises were bad ones—an old sled, a Mickey Mouse spoon, 1940s girlie cards stuffed into the newel post. The seller, a wonderful man, gave us a square grand piano that had been in the house. A baby fox fell into the foundation and couldn’t get out, so the workmen spent part of a day feeding him and constructing an escape ramp. Once everybody left, the fox disappeared. Then the contractor called to tell us a workman had discovered a strong box stuck into the dining room wall and papered over. There was no key, so we took the box to a locksmith, hoping it would contain gold coins or jewelry or at the least, the house’s original plans. We opened the box and found—viola!—a single burnt match.
Taking a house down to the studs, we discovered some of its secrets—the original floor plan, for instance. We found ghost marks that showed that the living room had once been two parlors with some sort of stove between them. There had been a door from the back parlor to the kitchen. When we tore off a sunroom at the back of the house, we discovered the remains of tall, narrow kitchen windows. We also learned from burned beams that there had been a fire in one of the upstairs bedrooms. More than once during that restoration, we wished the fire had done its job.
Of course, there was the fun part—the decorating. After 47 years of marriage, we had accumulated almost enough art and furniture to furnish the place, which meant major savings. I found a western chair made from some kind of horns, probably cow or antelope, at a Georgetown auction, and had it we reupholstered. We bought Oriental rugs and dining room chairs at an auction in New Orleans, where our daughter Dana lives. (I’m addicted to that New Orleans auction now, because, even with shipping, things are cheap.) I made curtains from Victorian hand towels that had been in Bob’s family for a hundred years. I even found some great Art Nouveau valances in a textiles shop in Istanbul last summer. They went into the front parlor. To my delight, decorating is a never-ending responsibility, calling for continuous shopping.
As the interior came together, we tackled the outside. We built a gazebo, using a kit, which came with no instructions, and topped it with a weather vane Dana found in New Orleans, added cast-iron urns from a mansion in Salt Lake City, a Gothic cast-iron bench from New Orleans, put in a patio and lawn where the abandoned cars had been parked. Next summer we’ll add flowers and a lilac hedge, because lilacs are important in The Bride’s House.And finally, we painted the house three shades of green. That’s when people sat up and took notice.
They gawk. They take pictures. They come to the door asking for a tour. And they can’t believe anybody actually lives there. One couple thought the place was a hotel or restaurant, or at least that’s what they told us when without knocking, they walked into the foyer. But we live there, and I can imagine generations of others who might have made the Bullock House their home, too–three brides, in fact. In the next issue of Piecework, I’ll tell you about these residents of my upcoming novel, The Bride’s House.
Meanwhile, we hope you view the holidays with as much happy anticipation as much as we do. –SD
Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron
You know I’m a sucker for Stephanie Barron’s Jane Austen mysteries. Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron is the 10th and maybe the best. Barron is four up on Austen, who wrote only six novels.
In this one, Jane and her brother, off on a trip to Brighton, rescue a young girl who has been kidnapped by that hedonist Lord Byron. Lord Byron, it seems, may be a poet of major stature, but he’s also a jerk.
The poor girl is later murdered, and Lord Byron is the primary suspect. A friend begs Jane to solve the murder, and of course, she does, although without the help of her true love, Sir Harold Trowbridge, who was offed a couple of books back.
I love a good mystery, and that’s what this is, but even more, I love a book that teaches me something while it entertains. Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron tells all about Regency England, the attitudes and manners and the nitty-gritty, all of which transport you back to Austen’s day. –SD
Recently, I was asked to list my five favorite books, by a bookseller who wanted to display them at a signing. The task was harder than I’d thought. Truman Capote is my favorite author, but I have to say that I don’t go back and reread his stuff. And I love anything by James Lee Burke, although I don’t reread his novels either. I decided my favorites have to be books I return to time and again. So here’s the list. (To Kill a Mockingbird doesn’t count since it’s everybody’s favorite book.)
Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. Lamott’s nonfiction is wonderful, and it’s hard to decide between this one and Bird by Bird. But Travelling Mercies is the one I turn to in tough times. Lamott makes me laugh while she makes me think.
Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Haruf’s books evoke such a sense of place. When I read them, I can hear my dad speaking.
Stampede to Timberline by Muriel Sibelle Wolle. This Colorado ghost town book was the first book I bought when I wrote my first nonfiction book, Gaslights & Gingerbread nearly 50 years ago. I still use it when I explore the mountains.
The Portable Dorothy Parker. A sorority sister in college introduced me to Dorothy Parker’s poems, and I never outgrew her. I love her voice and sense of irony.
Westering by Thomas Hornsby Ferril. It surprised me that two of my five favorites were works of poetry, because I thought I didn’t like poetry. Ferril was Colorado’s best-known poet, a friend of Carl Sandburg, and reading his poems transports me back to earlier days in Colorado.