From house of horrors to family home

Erica Bauermeister’s latest book is a thoughtful, entertaining memoir of the time she and her family spent renovating the mother of all fixer-uppers.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“House Lessons: Renovating a Life” by Erica Bauermeister, Sasquatch Books, 225 pp.

What makes a house a home? For Erica Bauermeister, who had fallen in love with a wreck of a building on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, the answer came through the final item on a long checklist of inspection concerns: “Does it feel right?” 

In “House Lessons: Renovating a Life,” Bauermeister tells how she and her family came to fix up a 1909 house on a hilltop in Port Townsend, “a small Victorian seaport that clings to the northeast corner of the peninsula like some exquisite limpet.” 

The four-bedroom property could have served as a horror movie prop, with its live electrical wires and a ghastly decaying area dubbed “the yuck room” that required respirators to enter. While clearing out junk, the family started tallying the number of bowling balls they unearthed versus the number of both live and dead rats. (Rats won out.) 

Bauermeister is probably best known for “The Scent Keeper,” a recent pick from Reese Witherspoon’s book club, and for “The School of Essential Ingredients,” about a restaurateur’s cooking school. In this book, the house is as much a character as Bauermeister, her husband, and their two children, who are 10 and 13 when the book begins. 

As the couple prepares to walk inside the building’s front entrance for the first time, she writes, “The key turned with a simple click, but the door resisted our polite and then increasingly forthright pressure against it. The ancient Romans said even doors have a spirit. This one seemed to be warning us – or snarling. I couldn’t tell which. I put my hand against the worn paint of the doorframe and felt it peeling beneath my touch. ‘Let us in,’ I said under my breath.”

Bauermeister has a Ph.D. in literature and is a former college writing teacher. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t take long before she goes beyond her personal story, branching into history, architecture, and the nature of community. References range from classic children’s picture books to Thoreau, from Marie Kondo’s tidying up to geographer Jay Appleton’s theory of prospect and refuge. 

A through-line is the method that the Roman engineer Vitruvius used to determine a good building, requiring that it possess “firmitas, utilitas, and venustas,” Bauermeister writes. “These Latin words have been translated in different ways, but I like this version best: stability, utility, and beauty.”

The transformative project arises after Bauermeister’s family has returned to their home in Seattle after two years living in the walled town of Bergamo, Italy, “a fairy tale of cobblestones and bell towers” with a sense of history, and where their apartment had a sun-drenched living room that was “an invitation to gather, a domestic equivalent of the piazza that lay in the center of the old town.” Seattle’s busy, tech-fueled lifestyle no longer seemed to fit their needs. 

Leading the house renovation in Port Townsend became a way for Bauermeister to reexamine her role as a wife, a mother, and a wage earner. 

The house “had shown up like a big asbestos-covered marriage counselor” just when needed, she writes. Revelations about letting adolescents find their way in the world fit seamlessly into her account, along with instructions about feng shui, and Bauermeister is wise enough not to overextend her use of metaphors to illuminate her points. 

The book is clearly set in the modern era, but throughout most of the narrative there’s a sense of timelessness. It’s surprising near the end, when the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, intrude, to realize that everything we’ve heard so far is set nearly 20 years in the past.

The intervening two decades gave Bauermeister some valuable perspective. It took years, in fact, for her to live permanently in the house even after the renovation; in the interim she became a real estate agent and then a novelist. Those experiences are described so quickly that they feel off-kilter. But that’s a minor complaint. Bauermeister has given us a skeleton key to unlock ideas about self and space and place, about encouragements that say to us, as she writes, “This is who you can be.”

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