Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Americanah gently mocks our obsession with the social, racial, and class signifiers encoded in our homes. Ian Baucom admires both Adichie’s sweeping historical vision and her attention to the details of everyday life; I find her gentle satire of manners evocative of Jane Austen. Arguably both George Eliot and Austen would appreciate Adichie’s descriptions of the clash of tastes between wealthy Nigerians and US intellectuals that seems to recapitulate the old conflict between understated old money and the brashly unsophisticated nouveau riche. It is a clash that plays itself out in the body of my parents’ new home: ostentatiously renovated in the 1980s and since deteriorated, it has been owned since 2000 by several families with last names of Hmong or perhaps Vietnamese origin. My, and my sisters’, embarrassed responses to the home’s facade reflects what Adichie calls “the haughty confidence of a person who recognize[s] kitsch.” This blog entry gets right to the heart of the big questions: how precarious is our class identity, anyway? Will it survive our parents’ unintentional acquisition of faux stucco columns? And what, if anything, should be done about the beautiful structural beams and tongue and groove midcentury modern ceiling that appear to be hidden under the main floor’s sheetrock?
Adichie’s exploration of cosmopolitan style specifically addresses many of Rocky Butte’s conflicting architectural features. Near the end of Americanah, Obinze tells Ifemelu “‘Your aesthetics have changed.'” Ifemelu has returned to Nigeria, leaving behind a successful career in the US as a blogger. “‘Did you cure your own meats in America?'” Obinze asks, and continues, “‘But really, tell me how you’ve changed.’ [. . .] And so she said, in a breezy voice, ‘My taste, I guess. I can’t believe how much I find ugly now. I can’t stand most of the houses in this city. I’m now a person who has learned to admire exposed wooden rafters.’ She rolled her eyes and he smiled at her self-mockery [. . .].” The homes Ifemelu is referring to include the “ugly house” of a wealthy woman whom she interviews for a Nigerian magazine: “It was monstrous, with two alabaster angels guarding the gate, and a dome-shaped fountain sputtering in the front yard.” When Ifemelu’s friend responds, “‘The house is beautiful!'” Ifemelu replies, “‘Not to me.'” “And yet she had once found houses like that beautiful. But here she was now, disliking it with the haughty confidence of a person who recognized kitsch.” Sure enough, a Google Image search for “Nigerian mansion” immediately draws up images of McMansion kitsch of modest? (first) and immodest (second) proportions.
The visual parallels to my parents’ new home are hard to miss:
Elsewhere Adichie describes a version of the American taste Ifemelu has learned to appreciate that strikes uncomfortably close to home: a lesbian couple, friends of Ifemelu’s Yale professor boyfriend, “ticked the boxes of a certain kind of enlightened, educated middle-classness, the love of dresses that were more interesting than pretty, the love of the eclectic, the love of what they were supposed to love. Ifemelu imagined them when they traveled: they would collect unusual things and fill their homes with them, unpolished evidence of their polish.” This description of collecting evokes for me the habits of colonialists past, whose cosmopolitanism reflects the planetary scope of European empires. I inherited many of the furnishings in my own first apartment in New Haven from an art historian, now the curator of a small but prominent modern museum. Without the cutting edge art and organizing style he brought to the apartment, his discarded Korean and African masks, juxtaposed with the matching leopard print wallpaper he installed in the (blue) kitchen and (pink) bathroom threatened to devolve into another kind of (racist, imperialist) kitsch. When we moved to our second and even more awesome New Haven digs my wife wisely suggested we tone it down.
My own parents’ style is best described as plain. They spent their twenties and early thirties helping run homeless shelters, meditating, and living communally as part of an esoteric Christian community. Later they moved to the country to raise us, and my father worked in HVAC and appliance repairs before buying, renovating, and renting out a very dilapidated five-plex in Sandy. My father grew up in a large Craftsman bungalow built by prominent architects Green and Green, while my mother’s family’s modest postwar home boasted tasteful midcentury modern interior design. Raising us on a tight budget, however, my parents’ focus was on the practical and the utilitarian, something that may have either led to or complimented their stylistic tone-deafness. Our amalgam of antique hand me downs, Goodwill, and Fred Meyer particleboard furniture never quite achieved a cohesive design. Perhaps my parents’ interest in the plain and functional is related, in part, to their religious commitment to service. Certainly their small business capitalism has always sat in uneasy relationship to their desire to help others. When their renters get in trouble, it is my parents who have driven them to social service agencies to sign up for Section 8 housing vouchers and food stamps. But for whatever reason, design was never a priority in their personal or professional lives.
So when the Rocky Butte house was advertised for a relatively modest price–foreclosed, carpets peed on, debris of the old grow house still in the basement–my parents decided to bid on it. And they did so entirely with an eye to the windows—that view! all that light!—and the square footage—so much!—and with no thought to the snout house design or McMansion-style EFIS pillars on the main porch. And when they think about what to update, all the questions are about flooring, HVAC, insulation, and costs. Design questions barely enter in, and when they do, the impulse is towards a nondescript style. When I suggested we expose the beams, my mother was immediately nervous. Would it be too dark? Too rustic? Given that we cannot afford to remove the EFIS faux stucco siding and rounded exterior columns in favor of something closer to what was probably originally cedar siding and plain beams, wouldn’t restoring the inside clash with the outside?
After many deep breaths, and talking it over with my sister, I realized that we need to learn more about the history of the house before making any decisions on the magnitude of revealing the old beams. I had been imagining that the beams, if they had been originally exposed, had sheetrock between each beam, but a peek into one of the closets revealed that the ceiling (shown in the first photo as it is today, finished in sheetrock) was originally made of tongue and groove wood, and probably looked something like the second photo, drawn from Google images. (Note also the round column visible through the window in the first photo):
So until we learn more, we will stick with the sheetrock: leaving aside the history of the home, until the sink and hot water heater work aesthetics must remain secondary. But the questions of design at the heart of the project remain unresolved: What are the project’s basic goals? For my parents to live somewhere beautiful, to have a place to entertain guests? To not let them lose their shirts on resale? And, in relationship to both questions—beautiful by whose standards? This project will inevitably reflect an uneasy compromise between these goals. And because as Adichie so beautifully documents design is deeply tied to our identities, all of these compromises will be bound up with strong feelings—mine, my parents’, my sisters’.
I hope in the coming months to document this process, as well as to reflect on the history and sociology of this home in relationship to the history of its design. Some of the questions I hope to address include the following:
– In order to reach my parents’ goals, should we in part restore or revise the house’s design, or (the most financially feasible option) leave it essentially unchanged?
– Who were Lawrence and Tonya Stebbeds, and were they the original owners? Who was J.L. Monte, the name on the original architectural drawings?
– This home appears to have been one of the first built on Rocky Butte. What did it look like back then, and what kinds of parties were held there?
– What is the relationship of the home’s design to the rise of the so-called “snout house,” and the recent banning of this design style in Portland?
– Our family friend Linda’s co-worker’s mother used to live in the house; she reports that it did indeed have a tree growing through the ground floor. (Does this mean that the fountains on the original architectural plans were also built?) I hope to have the chance to interview her or her mother about the house in more detail.
– What was the relationship between the Huynh and Nguyen families, who lived there during the 2000s, and the rest of the (primarily white) neighborhood?
– How does the bust of the basement grow house, incarceration of several of the Nguyens, and the government’s attempt to claim the home through civil forfeiture laws reflect the ongoing violence and racism of the war on drugs, so that a Vietnamese family was targeted even as marijuana is becoming progressively decriminalized?
– What happened to the two children of the arrested subjects between the age of 4 and 8 who were taken into protective custody and released to DHS the night of the drug bust? How does their experience compare with that of other children of incarcerated parents caught up in the drug war?
. . . stay tuned!