The Architecture of Life: Letting Go of Home

The Architecture of Life - Christopher K. Travis

Friday, November 16, 2007

Letting Go of Home

(Reprinted from the Summer 2004 Round Top Register)

Near one corner of the garage, scratched into the concrete by little hands, are the names of our children. The boys scribed their own, but our daughter had already flown from our arms to Austin and the University of Texas, so a heart in her memory was pressed into the masonry while it was still wet.

Even that bit of ourselves will pass away. A jackhammer or bulldozer will one day raze our futile attempt at permanence, and all sign of our years in that home will be rubble in some landfill.

Such is life for the human mayfly.

All that we care about – all our dreams, all our loves and losses, all our triumphs and failures – in the end come to naught. The best and worst of our lives are passed down in stories from one generation to the next.

Most of those tales fade to nothing in a generation or two, and those lucky few that live on change over time until they no longer resemble any part of the real years that were lived.

That is one of many lessons I learned from that old house by Possum Gully. I could not wail about the fading of my own fleeting legend, when the faint voices of so many past lives echoed like faint zephyrs through its dim breezeway almost nightly.

In the heart of that house is a sturdy log cabin built in 1844 by a man who had come to the Texas frontier from far away Germany.

His name was Winkelmann, and as felled that stand of Texas walnut and raised it into a home to shelter his young family, I am sure his 0dyssey from his homeland and his hard first days in that virgin country loomed large in his imagination.

It must have seemed a story like the legends of old. He must have assumed it would trail down through time in great detail, an oral tradition told by his children and neighbors that would live forever.

But had it not been for the dusty pastime of some latter day village historian, his name, like the life he lived, would have disappeared like a long forgotten storm – full of thunder and roiling winds at the time – but a lost irrelevancy soon after.

In later years, those great fallen logs sheltered my dining room table and as I sat in my robe sipping my morning coffee I was glad I did not have to tell him how it turned out.

The cabin had been built near the hamlet of Frelsburg, and in the 1880’s what history remains claims the Winkelmann family built a farmhouse around it. Civilization had come to the Texas frontier and those still living in cabins were considered provincial. It was important to keep up appearances. Wood lathing was applied over those rustic walls, and beaded siding was nailed to it. For over a hundred years, the cabin’s voice was silenced.

Time passed, and so did the ownership of the farm. Another room was added to the front of the house around the time of the First World War. The war brought hard times. Those of German lineage had their loyalty questioned by their Anglo-American neighbors – despite a generation working side by side – and German-American communities turned inward and cautious. They became clannish and distrusted strangers.

Through the first half of the century, the house survived in that remote backwater, the home of subsistence farmers who were some of the most productive in the world. It survived the depression, hurricanes, and another war with their homeland that further estranged them from mainstream America. The community intermarried and developed strong bonds. The old ways persisted but were hidden from strangers.

But times remained difficult. The children began to leave home for the big city and better jobs, and with no strong sons and daughters to carry on their traditions, those close-knit communities began to fade and die.

By the end of the 1950’s, the cities began to invade the countryside. Strangers with strange ways began buying up the land, and one day a wealthy preservationist bought the old house.

A swarthy crew of roughnecks wrested it from its wildwood home, loaded its weathered frame on cold steel and carried it off to foreign soil.

To those men and the wealthy dame who directed their work it was but one more empty old house to be bought and sold like a pie safe abandoned in a farmer’s barn. She collected them from all across the countryside and for many years, wretched old farmhouses could be seen creaking down the narrow country lanes towards her farm in Round Top.

She dreamed of building a preservationist’s empire, perhaps her own attempt at fighting back the tide of time. I imagine she too dreamed of building a legacy that would live beyond her own fleeting life.

But those houses were not empty, though they might have been abandoned.

In my mind’s eye I see them crawling down the highway, bits of the lives that had filled them flying out their windows and doors like debris from a the back of some irresponsible contractor’s pick-up…littering the highway…laughter and tears, joy and pain, caught in weeds and wrapped around tree limbs, flapping in the wind and forgotten.

I also imagine those old bungalows crying out in silent pain when they were wrested from the site upon which they were built. Houses are not like furniture, designed to be carried from place to place on a whim. Houses are rooted to the ground. They are watered and nourished by the lives of their inhabitants and grow into the soil beneath them. They become part of the countryside.

Winklemann’s old house was set on concrete blocks in a “temporary” site atop a hill in Round Top…and sat untouched for many years.

Its new owner had so many…and others interested her more. Buzzards moved into the attic. Mice and other varmints found it a cozy accommodation. The house bided its time, acquainting itself with its new inhabitants.

Then one day an itinerant carpenter who was fascinated by old buildings pried open the door and walked in the half-light across the littered antique pine floors. Truthfully he was trespassing, although he had rationalized his actions in his own mind, for he knew the wealthy preservationist. He had asked the aging real estate agent who represented her and lived next door to where the old house had been waiting, if he could “check it out.”

As he walked through those old rooms, wiping spider webs out of his way, he began to feel that the old house would be his salvation.

And he was right.

In 1991, I came to Round Top with nothing except the love of my wife and children. A high-flying career in Houston had fallen into ruin with a downturn in the economy in the 1980’s.

One year, I had over sixty employees and business that was growing so fast it made the front cover of the Sunday business section of the Houston Post. The next I was bankrupt and building a deck in a friend’s backyard just to keep my bills paid. It was the hardest time of my life, and since we had to start over from scratch, my wife and I decided we would move out of the big city and build a new life in the country.

Since I had no credit and was living from paycheck to paycheck, it would take a series of miracles to make it happen.

The first miracle came along right on schedule. My wife’s sister, who was a successful real estate professional, had become enamored of a small compound of historic buildings in a tiny hamlet called Round Top. She needed a restoration builder to fulfill her dream, and we needed a way to make a living in the country. It was a marriage made in heaven.

I came to Round Top with my carpentry tools in hand to supervise the restoration of what is now known as the Round Top Inn. We rented a little house in town, and our two boys moved from big Houston schools to a district with less than two hundred children at all grade levels.

We saw no way to buy a home until one day another miracle appeared. A close friend from Houston approached me and said that she was interested in finding a home in the area. She offered to finance the land and a modest home for my family if I would find a place big enough for both of us.

I trespassed on property all around that tiny town until one day I jumped a fence and discovered a big wooded gully that led down into Cummins Creek in the far western corner of the town limits. Where it crossed Round Top Road, the locals had used the gully as a dump, and old bottles and other strange objects peeked from the banks on both sides. For reasons I still cannot fathom, I fell in love. Beyond the gully was a small hay meadow that led down to the creek, where tall water oaks reached for the sky.

It was eleven overgrown acres of bramble, litter and flood plain…but to me, it looked like the Promised Land.

I found out the man who owned it was an eccentric old school teacher and blacksmith named Joe Knutzen. I had already met “Old Joe” and found him charming. He lived just of the town square and was a storyteller of grand proportions. He loved to enrapture city folk visiting the tiny town with his tales, some true and some fictional.

The truth is that I adopted his style of storytelling in later years when I accidentally began publishing a small quarterly magazine in the area. Like Joe, the Round Top Register merged fiction and the facts, and was never particularly truthful about which was which.

Joe had been the fifth grade teacher at the elementary school and a solid citizen until his wife had died a few year before. After that, he seemed to grow more eccentric.

He wore threadbare clothes, though he could well afford better. He often hunted raccoons and coyotes at night and hung their ears and pelts in random locations. He kept a pack of ragged dogs on his front porch and refused to mow the grass on his acre by the square, which made him the butt of considerable gossip.

He was a source of constant consternation to the buttoned-down German housewives in town.

He seemed to relish his role as an eccentric and I loved his rebellious attitude. Joe was also very kind to children and had befriended my youngest son who was just entering the fifth grade. Joe would tour him through his old blacksmith shop, tell him wild stories and make him think about things, as I imagined he must have done when he had been a teacher.

When I told a few of the locals I had met that I had fallen in love with old Joe’s land, they said there was no chance he would ever part with it. He had owned it for seventy years and still grew hay on the meadow at its heart. Besides, they said, he didn’t like city people…they informed me with a knowing glare.

When my friend offered to finance the purchase, I worked up the courage to ask him and to my surprise, he said he would be willing to sell. The only problem was that he had already given a half interest in the land to his son, and would have to get his son’s permission to sell. “Don’t pay a nickel over $2,500 an acre for that land,” he said. “It’s just not worth it!”

Douglas was willing to agree to his father’s wish to sell, but had a different opinion about the value of the land.As I was convinced the eleven acres was my stairway to heaven, and had no money of my own to pay for it anyway, the negotiations were short. Joe’s son got his price.

A month later, before the land purchase was closed, Joe died suddenly. His son completed the sale, despite my fears that he would not, for it had been his father’s wish. Joe made such an impression on me that his ghost appeared for years in my little newspaper as the wild “spirit of old Round Top.”

The old house from Frelsburg was rolled down the hill and into the clearing I had made in the trees. My Houston friend kept eight acres and the three that remained became a symbol of my dream of a better life.

We had little money to do the extensive improvements that were required to make the house habitable. Every weekend for two years I worked on that house. I would restore other old homes during the week. Slowly, the house slowly began to come to life.

The original front room of the house - the one that had been added after the turn of the century - was now a wash house for the aging restorationist who had sold it to me. I decided to add a bigger room where it had been.

During its construction, I fell off the roof while framing the roof and was forced to have my fourteen-year-old son and a friend of the same age put the tin roof on the house while I screamed in frustration from below, my arm in a sling and my blood pressure soaring.

Over the years, we added to the house several times, but perhaps the greatest improvement we made to the house was filling it with laughter and life.

My two sons were raised in their attic room, the loft of the log cabin. The oldest was married there.

It was there that my wife and I became “Paw Paw” and “Grandma” when my daughter bore our first grandchild.

It was there - after I had broken my leg badly in a head-on collision with an 18-wheeler - that scribbled out the first Round Top Register, which gave this “closet” writer who never before had the courage to submit his work, the gift of readers.

In that old house I designed the homes that led to the architecture and design firms which support me today. My unruly extended family of relatives and friends spent untold hours on that porch swapping stories of “Round Top Magic” and building bonds that will never break.

It was that "experience of home" that was the source of what later became the Truehome Workshop and my Internet startup.

It was there that my wife and I first envisioned and founded what has now become the Round Top Family Library.

It was there that our family rose like a phoenix from the fire, and built a successful life after we had lost everything. All that magic, all that love, all those dreams fulfilled, leeched into the walls and floors, and brought old Winklemann’s cabin back to life.

We rebuilt links in a chain that had been forged in the fires of pioneer Texas and had held lives in place for over a century and a half. While we were doing it, we healed our own hurts and refilled our hearts with hope.

Everything changes. It is the way of the world. Not just human lives, but in the life of every living thing this hard truth must be faced. The very substance of the universe is constantly changing, building up into mountains and then wearing down and rushing to the sea...

All life on our planet lives on the light produced by the slow death of the sun. Only change is eternal.

A day came when we knew it was time to sell our wonderful house. It took years to make the decision and will take years to overcome its result. One day, a nice lady walked across the little footbridge I had built to the front yard. When she saw the house, she stopped…and just knew.

Her husband was wise and had learned to trust the intuitions of the woman he loved.

Just as every step in our relationship with that old house had been magic, so was its parting. There was none of the cagey jockeying for position that so often goes with real estate transactions. They made no attempt to hide their desire for the home and we made no attempt to hide its idiosyncrasies.

We spent a wonderful night drinking wine together and sharing our dream - before the sale was completed - without any concern that it would derail the process. Both buyer and seller had a sense that it was meant to be. Like many things that happened in that house, the events seemed to be orchestrated by higher forces.

When we got the offer and realized it was a fair one, my wife cried.

Later, as we were moving out, a deliver man drove up to the house and after walking around a minute asked her “How can you sell this house? It’s so beautiful?” I found her in the house a few minutes later sobbing.

It was not that we wanted to sell, any more than we wanted our children leave home and make their own lives. It was simply that we knew the time had come.

Both experiences were frightfully hard. It was difficult when our children “left the nest” and it was almost as difficult to leave the nest itself behind.

Ultimately, we could not really leave that house. It lives on in our hearts and memories. Warm images of Christmases past, cats and dogs on the front porch, the joyous hearts and laughing eyes of friends. The walnut and pine, tin and antique glass are not really what made it so special anyway.

It was that time in our lives that was so intimate and profound, not just the building itself.

I can see now that we were but a link in chain that connects the past to the future, one of many. Old Winkelmann is long dead and one day I will be gone too…but if the gods keep it safe from fire and flood, the old house will remain. As it has for more than a century and a half, it will nurture the lives of all who live within its walls.

Perhaps the details of the lives of its inhabitants will fade into the ocean of time, but those who lived within it left their mark. Their lives are etched into its wooden walls as though worn by wind and rain...

Maybe my family’s ship will have passed over the horizon and no sign of its proud sails will be visible to those who pass through those warm and gentle waters in days ahead, but I like to think we will have left tiny ripples in our wake that will lead later sojourners - like us - to new and better lands.

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