Home & Design

Green Acre #69: Walls for Home and Garden

Peeking through hibiscus at the garden path. The would-be studio is in the rear. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

MY FOYER has walls, which is a nice thing. It also has doors, which I’m also quite fond of. French doors, these are, of chestnut with many panes of glass and brass knobs. They nicely frame the living room, creating a little air of mystery: Open them and something will happen.

Sometimes I imagine I’m in a Sherlock Holmes novel: Come to my rooms for tea and watercress sandwiches at 4, or a brandy in front of the fireplace at 9. I’ll open the doors and you can have that wing chair and I’ll take this one. You simply cannot do that in a living room without walls; there might be drama in a wide open space—but no mystery. Life is immediately exposed.

I like my house to have walls, and rooms, and doors, presenting pleasant surprises or hiding what needs to be hidden, both inside and out. Open-plan living, the very idea of what you see is what you get, is, to my mind, depressing.

There are also walls around our dining room, separating it firmly from the kitchen, sparing the eye from the inevitable disarray

Granddog Tallula keeps a eye on the writer from her favorite spot in another small room, the solarium. / Photo by Stephanie Cavanaugh.

caused by my enthusiastic and complicated cooking. The thought of cleaning up is suspended until the candles are gutted—though washing up is always The Prince’s job and I still don’t want to think about it.

The kitchen is very small and deliberately has little storage but nice walls and doors. There are no cabinets above the stove, nor a microwave, an appliance I do not understand. Instead, there’s a large and rather ornate mirror behind the range that reflects the cabinets on the opposite wall. These have glass doors to expose china and glassware and a growing assortment of pills. It has, I think, the air of a butler’s pantry. Two people do not work happily here. I don’t care.

If you wander about, you might notice I’m also rather fond of mirrors. Most rooms have at least one, usually large—if not mammoth—mirror, which is heavily framed. They play so nicely with the light, which dances about, and expand what are in truth minuscule spaces. Then, mirrors create more rooms, a looking-glass world to step into. A gift to the imagination.

I imagine a lot, mostly about creating more rooms. I even dream about this.

Like turning the little room under the front porch into an office. Originally used for coal storage to heat the house, the chute still exists in the alley. There’s a row of windows that peek out at the front walk in winter and are muffled by forsythia spring through fall. A wood stove would be nice when the air turns crisp, as the space lacks heat. I see myself sitting bundled in sweaters and fingerless gloves typing my memoirs.

I also imagine a grotto under the back porch where double glass doors lead to a rather charming guest room, though it has always been wasted as another storage area. How nice it would be, I think, to set a bistro table and chairs here, with maybe a fountain on the wall. A much nicer view than the jumble of I-know-not-what that’s now there.

French doors with many panes also open to the back porch, which is reached from the dining room. Last week the termite man came to spray, stepped out and stopped short with the sort of comical suddenness that could cause a people pile-up. “Ungh,” he grunted in surprise, which I took to be a compliment of the highest order.

I am not usually called upon to look at this less-than-vast estate with fresh eyes, but there I was.

The porch has walls too, at either end, making it as cozy and as private as can be in the midst of this tightly packed neighborhood. We live outside when the weather permits, surrounded by newspapers and brunch. This is reflected in a vaguely Moorish four-paneled mirrored screen that sits at one end. I do not look in this much as it is distorted in a particularly fat way.

Fences surround our 15-by-25-foot garden; these are vine-topped and far too high to see over. While there are no walls within, there are clearly defined Areas of Purpose along the river-rock path that snakes its way through.

Like mirrors, a curving path creates the illusion of distance where there is none, while shrubs and trees provide the illusion of walls, showcasing vignettes along the way.

At the foot of the steps is the dining area, with a glass-topped round wrought-iron table and chairs that my parents bought in the 1950s. This nestles between the staircase and the Kwanzan cherry tree that tangles overhead with a white and red rose of Sharon and is lit like a yacht by night with strings of tiny lights.

An overgrown hydrangea and an enormous mock orange flank a hidden patch of white-flowered jasmine that lofts its heady scent at dusk and dawn, like the perfume lady at Nordstrom spritzing you as you pass.

While you can hear it coming, you have to pass an 8-foot mock orange (also divinely scented, though only in spring) to discover the fish pond—and a fountain statue of a Greek-gowned woman pouring water. The raccoon has knocked her over a few times so she lost her head, and part of her torso. These rest on the ground beside her.

There are several spots to sit along the path, each tucked into a curve. A pair of elderly metal rockers, painted flamingo pink, face the pond. Between them is a chalk-white plaster birdbath topped with an ivory granite slab, handy for a wine glass. The Prince lounges here of an evening, feeding the fish and taking a head count. The raccoon again.

Another pair of chairs, these a serendipitously fine blend of verdigris paint and rusted metal, face the opposite way, for contemplating the flower border, which in some years is fine and in others is definitely wanting—and so requires sitting down to contemplate and grouse.

At the end of the path is the garage, which looks quite like an inviting little cottage, with windows flanking an antique door The Prince repurposed from a dumpster on Massachusetts Avenue and painted aqua.

In another fantasy, the garage is called a carriage house and is not filled with more Princely rubbish. It is a studio, where I can do Jules Pfeifferesque dances, all (imaginary) attenuated limbs and thoughtfully dramatic poses. Or maybe I’d paint. I bought a voluminous white linen shirt with this very idea in mind some years ago—it also involved many heavy rings, bangle bracelets and thick eyebrows.

Artistic talent, I felt, would surely follow.

You need walls for such imagining, little shadow boxes to put your dreams in.

—Stephanie Cavanaugh

LittleBird Stephanie writes about home and garden. To read earlier columns, type Green Acre in the Search box at the top of the screen.


One thought on “Green Acre #69: Walls for Home and Garden

  1. Michele P says:

    Beautiful musings, Stephanie. I love your house – always did – and find your references to Greg fun-filled, as are our memories of him.

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