One Christmas many years ago, I received a PLAYMOBIL Grande Mansion from Santa Claus. The beautiful Victorian dollhouse was nearly as tall as me, and it was love at first sight. I spent hours rearranging the furniture (including a miniature piano that miraculously still plinks Ludwig Van Beethoven’s “Für Elise”), planning large doll dinner parties and switching the dolls’ outfits from day attire to tea-time attire to evening attire.
Even after my sister was bestowed with a PLAYMOBIL medieval castle (and then a princess palace and then a modern-decor house), my heart still belonged with my old-fashioned three-story mansion. As recently as last summer, I was tempted to pull out the pieces and set it up one more time.
My attachment to this dollhouse turned into a love for all old houses with the aid of my dad’s purchase of “National Geographic’s Guide to America’s Great Houses,” a compiled list of old, significant homes in America. Some of the catalogued houses are obvious — the White House, the Hearst Castle, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater — but some are obscure, like the Captain Frederick Pabst Mansion in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. This house, which is touted as “the finest Flemish renaissance revival mansion in America,” belonged to the founder of the Pabst Brewing Company. Oddly, it has yet to find its true calling as a mecca for hipsters and frat boys.
During our family vacations, my dad would plan the trips around which houses from “the book” we could see. We made it our mission to see every house in every state we visited. So far, we have a pretty good track record — we’ve been to all fifty states and have seen at least one house in every state.
While I’m sure this kind of tourism sounds boring to a lot of individuals, to me it was heaven. Instead of playing with a four-foot tall plastic house with plastic furniture and plastic people, I was stepping into gigantic multi-story mansions littered with priceless artwork and antique furniture. Houses that had been peopled by America’s movers and shakers — Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, George Washington Vanderbilt II’s Biltmore Estate, Wright’s Taliesin West and many others. I was in direct contact with these individuals through my interaction with the objects they owned and the places they inhabited. It gave me the shivers every time.
Interestingly enough, one house that didn’t make the NatGeo guide is the Ralph Waldo Emerson House. Located in Concord, Massachusetts, the two-story, white-clapboard building is where the writer and philosopher lived with his family from 1835 until his death in 1882. Even though the house didn’t make it into the guide, The New York Times certainly thought it was newsworthy. Earlier this month, I went to their website and find an article entitled, “In Emerson’s House.”
The article introduces us to the two recently hired caretakers for the historic estate, Taylor Bemis and his fiancée, beauty school graduate Andrea Lieberg. The couple lives in the house — for free! — and maintains the interior and garden. Bemis, who has landscaping experience, maintains the grounds while Lieberg, who has no extensive domestic experience, is charged with vacuuming, dusting and cleaning the roomy house every night.
When I first read this article, I was insanely jealous. I’ve never been a diehard Emerson fan, but still, it was more the idea of having direct access to a beloved historical figure that made me envious. If I were the caretaker of a Laura Ingalls Wilder home or Jefferson’s Monticello, it would be like going on tour with my favorite band. It would be a behind-the-scenes, private encounter with something previously inaccessible. And it irked me that the couple hired for the Emerson house didn’t seem to share this same excitement/creepiness. The article states, “The couple tried to read his essays and to listen to his work on audiotape, but it was only after watching a DVD about Emerson that they began to understand him.”
A DVD?! Really? Bemis and Lieberg have been handed a unique responsibility that almost any Emerson nut would kill to have. And they don’t seem to appreciate it. Lieberg says that they took the job because they “were like, O.K., he’s cool, nonconformist. And we like that.” Anger.
But I’ve calmed down now. I’ve realized that living in an historic home, especially as a caretaker, would not be the dream I’m imagining. These homes are not like my PLAYMOBIL dollhouse — I could never rearrange the furniture on a whim or host period-appropriate dinner parties. I hate cleaning and yard work. And all too often, when you come in contact with something you love so much (like your favorite band), it can’t live up to your hype, and disappointment is inevitable. So for now, I’ll put my jealousy aside and content myself with just visiting.