376 Brush Hill Road – Part II – First Impressions

I remember running through the house more than once during those weeks when the sale was being negotiated. Its spaciousness was mind-boggling. This was not just a house. It was “a mansion.” Both upstairs and down, the three rooms across the front of the house had windowed bays. The front hall was a full-size room (in contrast to the one in our house on Elm Street, a space barely big enough to turn around in) with a fireplace and floor-to-ceiling mantelpiece of smooth, sculpted red brick and a chandelier of cascading crystal prisms (periodically, my mother would climb a step ladder, carefully take those prisms down one by one, wash them and put them back up). A pair of columns marked off the reception area from the stair hall—the crossroads of the first floor. On the left a wide flight of stairs anchored by a curtail and solid square newel post gracefully topped by a low curved pyramid; intricately turned balusters and a mahogany railing  stopped on the wide triple-windowed landing before U-turning to the upstairs hall. (The closet tucked under the stairway was low and cramped, inconvenient, and inadequate, but that didn’t matter, I guess, in a house intended to have servants to haul coats, hats, boots, and umbrellas up and down stairs as needed.)

There was so much to fascinate a child who had never seen such features before: twin parlors, beautiful paneling and leaded glass window in the dining room, multiple fireplaces, walk-in closets on the third floor (the fact that there was a third floor). There were two-button light switches (with mother-of-pearl disks marking the top “on” buttons), call buttons in the living room and upstairs hall (the one in the dining room was on the floor) to activate corresponding bells over the door to the back stairs (the fact that there were back stairs) in the kitchen, a speaking tube that facilitated conversation between the upstairs hall and the kitchen.

But, oh, the kitchen. That, if anything was going to be the deal breaker for my mother, who was not enamored of the place the way my father was (“How am I going to take care of all this?” she kept asking plaintively.)

My mother truly did not want to leave the house she and my father had moved into when it was brand new just thirteen years before (134 Elm Street). It might have been small, but her 1943 kitchen had upper and lower cabinets, proper kitchen counters for food preparation, a new stove and refrigerator, and sink that looked out to the backyard. (Plus, it was in a neighborhood where she had dear friends—a support system of mothers that looked out for each other, and each other’s children.)

Still in its original configuration, the kitchen at 376 certainly did not look workable to my mother. It was divided into a walk-through butler’s pantry between dining room and kitchen; its glass fronted upper cabinets had been designed for sets of fine china that my mother did not own; a larder (walk-in pantry with two walls of storage facing each other, cabinets below, open shelves above); and the main kitchen. This plain square room boasted large windows and an oversized—and   ancient—gas stove (no doubt, a replacement for a black, cast iron wood or coal stove; a metal plate covered the spot where the old stovepipe had connected to the chimney). Across from the stove, a hulking porcelain sink on elephantine legs stretched the length of the wall between the door to the back stairs and the door to the back hallway.

Plain Jane, unadorned, and functional, the short, narrow back hallway was designed to be the realm of servants. From the kitchen, the first door on the left opened onto stairs to the basement; the second door on the left with a clear glass window provided access to (and light for) the stair hall; on the right, a window onto the back porch and the back door; straight ahead, a tiny, non-nonsense bathroom (servants only); surely this unheated cubicle was not intended for family use.

Well, my father promised to have the kitchen renovated before we moved in. And he did. The pantries, the ancient stove, and offending sink were all ripped out. In their place a modern, L-shaped sleek birch cabinetry, as well as red countertops and backsplash  ran from the dining room door to the chimney. There was a new slide-in gas stove in the middle on the chimney-wall side of the L. And on the other side, a stainless steel sink under a big picture window that looked out toward the fishpond, the flowering crab trees, the rock garden, and the barn. Underpinning all, the pseudo-brick linoleum flood ubiquitous in every new kitchen of the mid-1950s. Anchoring the room, a hard-rock maple table, its four-foot diameter stretch to an oval, two “captains” chairs, six “mates” chairs (no arms) and a lazy susan in the middle. The old light fixture above with its white glass globe and pull-string were the only remnant of the “old” kitchen.

Every room (on the first and second floors) was repainted. I have the foggy impression that all the walls had been a nondescript shade of pink, overlaid by a grayish-black coating sent forth over the years by the malfunctioning coal-turned-to-oil furnace in the cellar.