I remember my great aunt and uncle’s home with a nostalgia, which is part fantasy and part warm remembrance of a wonderful time when I was growing up in Ames, Iowa.
The house at 522 Crawford was built by my grandmother’s father. He built it with 8-foot tall doors and very high ceilings because he was a tall man and did not want to bend over as he walked through the door. I usually entered through the back porch, which had normal sized doors.
At the time I knew the house it belonged to my grandfather’s brother and his wife. I walked there every noon for lunch and on Wednesday evenings for supper because that was one of the evenings when my mother went “out.” She went “out” on Saturdays also but those nights I stayed at the “Aunt’s” – Three of my grandfather’s sisters who had never married still lived in the “home” place which their grandfather had gotten when he came to Ames in the 1800’s.But, I digress.
My grandfather’s Brother – Uncle “Lew” put a red brick veneer on the house. I can still remember him doing this. He just laid the bricks over the house from the ground up and when he was finished he had a red brick house that looks the same as it does today.
It is a tall, imposing house which looks as if it came to the neighborhood for a visit. A visit with poorer relations as most of the surrounding houses are smaller and not so impressive. At least not to me.
The house is made more impressive as it is not built on flat ground but rather on a little hill so that you do not just walk straight in from the street. You had to climb three steps – then three more and finally up the front steps to the porch entrance. That hill was not fun to mow and was the cause of many a sprained ankle as I played around the house.
Every noon (during school) I would walk the four blocks to this house from my school for lunch. At that time the school system did not have a hot lunch program and we were given an hour to go home for lunch. I went to my great-aunt and uncle’s because my mother and I lived a mile and a half east of town at the Hog Cholera Research Station where my grandfather was the head veterinarian.
I would walk down Crawford and would turn on Sixth Street and enter by the back porch door.
This was not an ordinary back porch for sitting and sipping summer days away. It was rather a large enclosed room with lots of storage space. Cupboards and cabinets filled with accumulations of their lives. Everything was stored neat and clean with everything having a place and woe to anything that got out of place. My Aunt Kate “Mike” ” (-so called to differentiate her from my other Aunt Kate, her maiden name having been McMichael) had little tolerance for dirt or clutter.
The porch also served as a “mud” room where you could clean your feet and hang your coat before entering the kitchen.
The kitchen was the first “real” room in the house. It was a large, high ceilinged room that was set over the basement garage. As you entered the room to the right was the refrigerator. The round compressor on the top kept you aware of its presence in the room. Moving north toward the small window in an alcove was the sink where you would do dishes and watch the traffic on Sixth Street.
To the left of the alcove was the space for the stove, serviceable and sturdy. A gas stove where my aunt would do her cooking. Continuing on you would come to two doors – One on the north and another on the east. The one on the north led to the bathroom. An interesting room as it had a combination bath, sink, stool and shower that my Uncle had installed. Ahead of it’s time and very modern. You could also pass through to the bedroom from there and continue around to the living/dining room.
The door on the west wall led to steps that went down to the basement. Another place for storage. (The most interesting things stored down there were large sacks of hard candy. Larger than the sacks you get a Sam’s Club today. Occasionally I was allowed a taste) Again this was kept neat and clean. You could also enter the garage from this area but it was not used much as a garage by my uncle who would pull his Nash up the back door on the driveway.
The entire west wall of the kitchen was shelves and a door. The shelves were closed on the bottom with painted doors below a black counter top and the ones above had glassed doors where my aunt kept some of her antiques. Not that they had been antiques when she had bought them at the five and dime when she was a girl. They became antiques as she had possessed them for a long period of time.
In the center of the kitchen was a small table. Room for four at which to eat comfortably. I do not remember a time when there were more than three of us at the table. And at most noons there were just two of us.
The south wall of the kitchen served as an office with two desks, file cabinets, a green glass desk lamp and a Burroughs Adding machine which fascinated me with its ability to add up numbers which I was still trying to master.
The other interesting (to me) feature of the kitchen was the “pass through”. Originally intended to pass food from the kitchen to the dining room it now served as a place to place the telephone so that you could use it either in the kitchen or the living room.
At the center of the house was a large room. It had a 12 or 15 foot high ceiling which kept it cool in the summer and it was the place where my aunt and uncle would share companionship in the evening and where, when I visited, my uncle would carve up an apple with his pen knife and we would have an apple “party” spearing the delicious fruit with toothpicks.
This room had probably been a dining room to begin with. George Underwood, the tall man who built the house, was a lawyer and once was mayor of Ames. I am sure that the room was at one time the scene of dinner parties and when he was living there with his six (?) children it would have been full of family. By the time I knew it my Aunt Kate “Mike and Uncle Lew used it as a sitting room.
In the northeast corner of the room was a table with a lamp and a radio and the telephone. To the right of the pass through and table was a large overstuffed easy chair and ottoman where my aunt would sit and do her tatting with her large cat “Tom” on her lap. My uncle, who walked with a cane, would stretch his leg out on the sofa and eat candy from the dish on the long coffee table in front of him.
This room was large. In addition to the “living” room portion of the room there was a large bay “Picture” window which looked out the south. There were “shear” curtains to diffuse the light and keep out the sun. A large round dining table sat in front of the window. It held a Christmas cactus which bloomed occasionally, some of my aunt’s treasures and a candy dish with white mints with green centers. I don’t remember ever seeing anyone eat at that table. We always ate in the Kitchen. My aunt was a good cook but I don’t think she “enjoyed” cooking…Not like my grandmother who was a wonderful cook. Aunt Kate “Mike” could make great cornbread however, and even today a slab of cornbread smothered in syrup will send me back to those lunches. She hummed the song “I Had A Dream” while she worked.
Aunt Kate and Uncle Lew never had any children so large family meals were held in other households.
A large sideboard for dishes and treasures stood on the left side of the window. A Nippon nut dish and nut cups from Japan has become one of my “treasures” today.
To the right of the window hidden behind one of the 8-ft. doors was the old Edison record player. I loved to wind the crank and play the thick records. My favorite “Yes, We Have No Bananas” - the “William Tell Overture” was also a great tune – reminding me of the Lone Ranger which I could listen to on the radio when I went upstairs to visit my friend, Loren.
Loren and his family lived in the upstairs of the house, which had originally been bedrooms and a bath but was now their apartment. You would enter their place by one of two ways. A long, steep stairs from my aunt and uncle’s place or by a free standing brick staircase, which was on the south side of the house. The staircase had a little storage room where lawn mowers and gardening tools were kept.
After dinner I would open the door and ascend to the second floor where I was allowed to “hang out” with Loren. He was a few years older than I was. I think he “tolerated” me because I was the great-nephew of his landlord. It was great to go up there however as he had neat things in his room and we could listen to the dramas on the radio. Dramas featuring the Lone Ranger, the Green Hornet and blood red moons.
You could also access the attic and the flat roof from the upstairs but I was not to enter those places until after my aunt was killed in a car accident and I was the designated person to clean the house and get ready for a sale. As with the other storage places in the house, there were many things boxed, bundled and tied with string which she would never have used but which, in her thriftiness, would never have thrown away. It was also exciting to go through the trap door on the roof and look down upon the neighborhood from the tallest building in the area.
The remaining room in the house was the parlor. It was entered by one of two ways. Large double doors, which stood open from the dining room or from the front entryway, which had two eight, foot doors side by side. One to the dining room and the other to the parlor. The parlor was not a comfortable room like the living area of the dining room. It was obviously for company or entertaining. A fireplace, never used, was one of its features. The room was oblong with lots of windows. Another large picture window faced the west through the front porch. This porch was not much used, except as a place to put up large wooden curtain dryers over which the sheer curtains would be stretched to dry after washing.
The furniture in the room was formal and nice but nothing which would lead you to curl up in the room with a good book. I seem to have been impressed with this room but it is murky in my memory. I do remember a horsehair stuffed seat on the North wall and of course the green (now blue) covered his and hers chairs which had belonged to the Meekers. Mrs. Meeker was my grandmother’s sister and when she broke up housekeeping the chairs wound up in the parlor. Perhaps it was when she lived for awhile at 522. I particularly loved the one chair because it had carved lions on the arms and those lions represented my great-grandfather Underwood whose family motto was “Noli Irratari leonum (sp) “Do Not Irritate the Lions.” These were my favorite chairs and I still enjoy them today, as they were part of my “pay” for cleaning my aunt’s house after the accident.
Today this house looks much the same as it did when I was a child. It started out as a home for a large family and then became two apartments. One downstairs and one up and now it houses four apartments. The tall 8-foot doors are gone; the great high ceilings have been lowered. The picture windows are still there although each is in a separate apartment. I went through after the remodeling and a friend lived in the downstairs front apartment for awhile I visited him once to see the place. I generally try to keep those memories out of my thoughts however as the memories of the time when I was growing up in that area can still return when I drive by the “House at 522 Crawford.”