Saturday, April 21, 2018

One Point Four

Display at Heller Nature Center, Highland Park, Illinois

We moved to Highland Park when I was ten. Looking through eBird checklists from northern Illinois, Danny asked if I'd ever been to Heller Nature Center where there were a number of good bird sightings being reported. I had to confess that I'd lived just down the street from the place, had routinely rode my bike past it, and still never summoned enough curiosity about the world around me to bother going in.

We'd planned a day for hiking and birding, but the fickle Midwestern weather had other ideas. Alternating between sleet, freezing rain, and eventually snow, we tried braving the 40 mph winds but quickly understood it wasn't going to be a nice day for a walk in the woods. Earlier, we'd tried to explore the lakefront by the remains of what used to be Ft. Sheridan, but conditions were even worse at the shore. Defeated, but unwilling to just head back into Chicago, we stopped in the visitor's center at Heller.
Reading space well stocked with nature books, bird guides, etc.





After my initial shock at how nice it was, I understood that's what taxes go to in well-off towns. We spent some time birding from a window that looked out on some feeders and Danny managed a checklist, keeping the day from being a complete loss. As we were just a few minutes down the road from where I lived, Danny asked if we could see the neighbourhood. Not to see where I lived, but to see the monstrosity house built by one of our "famous" neighbours. We called him One Point Four, because that's how much his house cost in millions.

It had come up, as Danny was talking about a sports team outside of Illinois. "Our neighbour used to own that team", I mentioned casually. I'd never thought that was strange. Successful businesspeople (in this case, someone that made a fortune providing the most mundane service) often go on to buy  sports teams. I mean, why work so hard if you don't get to spend it on something you'd like?  Anyway, other than remembering the school bus stop was at the corner of his front lawn, and he always waved to us as he left for work, I can't say much about him as a person. Oh, there were rumours of wild parties, but I was never invited to those😀. Anyway, Danny had never seen a truly over-the-top posh neighbourhood, so off we went.

When we moved to Highland Park in the 70's it wasn't because my parents wanted to. After several heart attacks and eventually a triple bypass (a fairly new surgery at the time) my mother wanted to live in a home where she wouldn't be required to climb stairs. Unable to find an existing home they liked in Skokie, someone suggested they see a new subdivision being built in Highland Park where they could buy a lot and custom build the house they'd like.

At the time, Highland Park west of the highway was still rural. I mean, rural. Like horse farms, and fields rural. There were about a dozen homes already built in the newly developed area, and the street where we eventually built our house was only partially paved. The sidewalk wasn't even completed, ending abruptly in a pile of mud. The few existing homes were very, very, fancy. My mother caught sight of one, like a miniature version of the White House complete with white columns and a sprawling horseshoe driveway in front. "We don't belong here." She observed. We didn't, but went ahead and did it anyway.

In the decades since, the area has been completely built-up with newer, larger estates. As we turned in, my husband noticed the house that had so intimidated my mother back in the early 70's. He was struck by the state of disrepair and the pretentions that must have inspired someone to build such a horrible thing in the first place. The lawn was a wreck, the paint was all peeling, and the overgrown bushes, now trees gave it a Grey Gardens vibe. You couldn't possibly use that driveway without doing serious damage to your car.

The people that built homes in that subdivision weren't from "old money" families. They were newly rich in the era of WIN ("Whip Inflation Now") when the rest of the country was struggling. Where it might have been gauche to flaunt wealth in most places, no such social prohibitions existed there. I'd never encountered people that would start conversations with a stranger by asking how many square feet your home had, until I moved to Highland Park.

I've always been thankful that my personality was pretty much formed before we moved  to Highland Park or I might have had a harder time with the fact that I absolutely did not fit in. I'm not always in the right, but being the sort of person that is willing to believe I am, despite any evidence to the contrary provided just enough insulation to get through eight years of living on the North Shore. I'm always struck when I run into people that grew up in Highland Park how they end up in the extremes. One person became an investment banker, another a Catholic Worker. Highland Park does that to people, I guess.

The house I lived in didn't look too bad, and I noticed they built an addition because...it wasn't already large enough?! The quince bush/tree was gone, understandably as unless you particularly liked quince it would quickly cover the lawn in fruit each autumn. The other trees that were mere twigs when we planted them were now fully grown and offered shade and privacy dwarfing the one-level ranch style house. I couldn't see the backyard, but I'm certain they didn't leave it wild prairie as my parents had. I'd guess there was a pool, and possibly a tennis court back there by now.

We drove through, looking at the homes that seemed so opulent in the 70's but had aged poorly and in another town with favourable zoning might have been divided up into several living spaces. Where older homes in established neighbourhoods can blend in without drawing too much attention, even being desirable housing stock, these properties, each more outrageous than the last and secluded in a subdivision appeared a museum of bad taste-and not in a kitsch sort of way. Not every home was in a state of disrepair, but enough of them were, to dissuade anyone from wanting to buy there when so many newer, modern McMansions are being built just down the road. What will they look like in 40 years? I wonder how long it will be before the subdivision is razed for something newer to be built atop all that 70's brick?

We found One Point Four's house. It still looked like a windowless office building, but someone had replaced the strange panelling on the outside to give it a bit of a face lift. It was raining heavily, and the outside looked like someone had splashed water on a slate and the chalk had smeared in places.

The interesting thing about the house was what you couldn't see from the outside and would only know if you'd either been inside, or had seen it being built, as I had. The entire structure, which I can only describe as a gigantic, multi-storey box, is built around an equally gigantic boulder. No, not a "rock." A giant, maybe 20 Ft. tall boulder.

I remember when it arrived on the site. Naively, I thought it was something they'd put in the garden, and that it arrived prior to building so they could get it properly situated. Nah, they were going to build their house around the rock, and still leave room for an indoor pool. In comparison, spending your money on a sports team seems like a more reasonable investment. They were runoured to have paid cash for the house as well, which might have been true as the stagflation years of the 70's weren't a good time to be asking your banker for $1.4 million to build an ugly house around a boulder in the posh suburbs.

These days, the homes in planned communities have very little to tell them apart. Working off a handful of floorplans, a few exteriors to chose from, and a standard landscaping design you would be unlikely to find a builder willing to build a house around a rock, or stick a swimming pool in a courtyard. As crazy as some of those homes were (40ft. gold lion statues at either side of the drive?) at least they were distinctive. They weren't especially well built though, and less than fifty years on they look ready to collapse. I wonder about the people living in those houses today. Would a Highland Park address really be worth living with a giant boulder in your living room? I'm willing to bet they couldn't get $1.4 million for it today. Imagine the real estate listing.
"Six bedroom, four bath home in Highland Park. Indoor pool, eat-in kitchen with updated appliances, giant boulder in living room."

A better writer could find a lesson in all this about the impermanence of wealth where all that remains is a giant boulder, but I'm struggling to do it without sounding like a moralising prat. If my parents were still alive to see the decay of the neighbourhood it would undoubtedly bother them. Being the least ambitious person I know, seeing the present state of things felt pleasingly levelling to me. Perhaps for the first time in my life I felt successful. Not in the financial sense, rather in that I've never been so full of myself that I would entertain, much less follow through on building a house around a giant boulder, just because.



12 comments:

Bibi Maizoon said...

I recall you mentioning that Ferris Buhler's Day Off was filmed in your neighborhood? Doesn't Micheal Jordan have a home there too?

Goody said...

@Bibi
Only the driving scenes were filmed by us (easier to drive in a subdivision, I guess). The Ferris Buhler house is on the oter side of town. No idea about Jordan-I was gone before he started playing.

Anonymous said...

My Polish friend in Glenview IL sent this-

Thanks for sharing the Blog.Very interesting.Somebody asked if Mike Jordan lived there. He had a residence East of RT 41,North of RT 22.Just on the corner there.It was priced over 20 million some time ago.

Goody, have you seen the Illinois postage stamps? They are lovely!
JanF

beate grigutsch said...

your report about your old neighborhood sounds like a cool, independent film about the late capitalism..... and the moral is already there - for everyone who can read properly. talented you!
although i can imagine, an airy, california style bungalow build around a nice boulder, with a pool for a quick swim, would be something i like ;-)
still in awe about danny´s love for nature - not very common today - but something that makes me glad! (nature lover that i´m)
xxxx

Emily from Etsy said...

What a wonderful travelogue! It's amazing how some neighborhoods seem to get better with age, others not so much.

Your story reminds me of the time my husband and I went to Snoqualmie, Washington, to visit some of the filming locations used for "Twin Peaks." We could have stayed at the Salish Lodge, whose exterior was used as the Great Northern Hotel on the show, but instead we chose to stay the night in the nearby town of North Bend at a lovely bed and breakfast called the Roaring River. Our room was called the Rock and Rose Room because it had a rose theme and because there was a huge boulder sitting there at the foot of the bed.

The boulder had been discovered underneath the original property in the 1930s. At the time, no one could figure out how to move it or destroy it with dynamite, so they just left it alone and built around it. I loved how the boulder was later incorporated into the B&B as a point of interest. It gave the room so much personality, and that personality was 100% authentic because the boulder had always been living there like a wise, ancient elder who should not be disturbed. I slept so peacefully that night, and in the morning I felt utterly renewed, like I was ten years younger! I'd like to think it's because the sheer size and age of the boulder had a grounding effect on my psyche overnight.

This is why it seems peculiar to me that someone would pay good money to bring a boulder from elsewhere and then build a mansion around it. Oh sure, I bet it looks really cool, but if the boulder weren't already on the property from the start, it wouldn't feel the same. It would be like bending nature to your will instead of allowing yourself to be in harmony with the nature that's already around you.

And that brings me back to Danny.... It is so great that he's constantly birding, everywhere he goes. He's someone who's growing up to be in harmony with the natural environment.

Mim said...

The giant boulder at least sounds interesting. I'm not a fan of new builds - though that could be because here in the UK we're now building the smallest homes in Europe. old homes have more space. And old homes usually have more personality, even if they also need extra work.

Polyester Princess said...

Have you ever considered writing professionally? This is so good! I too grew up in a newly developed part of town, although it wasn't as posh as Highland Park. My parents built their house in the early 1960s, and it was the least traditional one in the whole street. It was also one of the first houses built there. We moved in just before my 3rd birthday. By the 70s it was all built up, and new streets were being deveoloped. The houses built there were less traditional and - even though none of them was built around a boulder - had some typical, sometimes quite outrageous 1970s features. Looking at them now, it's true that most of them haven't aged well. xxx

Vix said...

I'm intrigued by the house built around the rock. I love it when the super rich create trashy homes for themselves, I hate it when it's all bland with loads of grey and glass, it's rather have bad taste and bland taste!
That nature centre display is lovely. I'm glad Danny managed some spotting. xxx

Beth Waltz said...

Perhaps the lesson buried here (beneath a boulder in the living room, or a still running avocado green 'fridge) is that people gladly spend their wealth to mold reality to fit their self-image. Some money buys a pair of shoes, more money buys a flashy car, lots of money buys a White House or facsimile thereof. Your wonderful word portraits of the Highland Park inhabitants ("...how many S.F. in your house?") is as interesting as your sketches of their homes, as they were and as they are -- empty costumes left to rot.

Goody said...

@Jan
Okay, I can picture where your friend is describing, but there wasn't anything there in the 70's. I do remember a viaduct over there that flooded in heavy rain and the neighbourhood teens would charge people to push out their stuck cars (you couldn't tell how deep it was until you were in it). I haven't seen the stamps.

@Beate
We lived on a farm beside a wildlife preserve until Danny was 9 and as soon as he was old enough to look out the window, he'd watch the migratory birds in the wetlands. Growing up in a rural area gave him a better appreciation for nature than I had at the same age. We were out today looking for warblers which would be here already in a normal year but the strange weather is keeping them to our south a bit longer.

@Emily
That's fascinating, and I can almost picture the room. There are some VERY strange hotels out there! About 25 years ago we stasyed in one that looked like a log cabin...a log cabin from a horror flick. I still marvel that we got out of there alive ;)

@Mim
I will say, what I've seen of UK homes at least make sense in terms of energy efficiency. Here we build things with vast, open floorplans and cathedral ceilings where all the heat is lost 30 ft. up. It has been years since I've seen a fireplace that is more than just cosmetic. The idea that you can't just heat the room you're in is very troubling to me!

@Ann
Thank you. I don't know about professionally (though I think I could make a decent living writing click-bait articles like, "Five reasons those white spots on your nails mean you're going to win the lottery") but I am trying to put together some essays.
You'll have to give us a tour of your old neighbourhood!

@Vix
Even bad taste has a limit ;)
My general rule of thumb is asking myself, "Would John Waters like it?" since he wrote the book.

@Beth
The real lesson came the day before we left, but that's going to be another essay. Broadly speaking, "Don't be an asshole" got to be kind of a theme.



Veronica Cooke said...

Isn't it weird to revisit one's past. The house with the boulder sounds bizarre and I'm intrigued as to why, Because they could, probably!

My cousin, who is based in Chicago and has lived there for over 40 years, has bought a little cottage in Ireland; the plan is to stay there every year to avoid the Chicago winters...

Glad Danny got some birding in!

Goody said...

@Veronica
Your cousin's plan sounds wise. Chicago winters are nightmarish! We get cold in Omaha but the snow is nothing like I saw in Chicago-it was like Siberia.