Today, my oldest son, Francesco, is celebrating his 17th birthday. And I recently discovered that it is also my home’s 85th.
We were smitten by our house – let’s call it Irv – the first time that we walked through it 15 years ago, when I was expecting my youngest son, Braun. Deep red brick with a welcoming arched front door on a tree-lined street in a first-ring suburb of Buffalo. Attentive and friendly neighbors. Just-big-enough front and back yards. A cozy fireplace flanked by built-in shelves. Cove molding plaster details. Beautiful single-panel wood doors with crystal knobs. Bonus 3-season porch and attic spaces. And many, many updating projects for my husband, Tony, and I – both architects – to busy ourselves with.
On November 21st in 1937, Alfred E. Bode ran a notice in The Buffalo Evening News stating that the “owner transferred (inspection) of a 4 months old brick home built by owner, near Deerhurst Boulevard.” That places Irv’s birthday around today, July 21st. A few weeks later a sales notice was listed for this “new 7 room insulated brick home”. First, Irv welcomed the Giesses, then the Taylors, then the Doyles, then us.
Bode sold Irv to Walter G. Geiss, Treasurer of the Plastergon Wallboard Company, in 1938. Sadly, not even 3 years later, 40-year-old Walter died of a heart attack at his 198 Philadelphia Street office. Later that same year, in 1941, his 8-year-old daughter Marilyn received a $200 trust fund from the estate of Mrs. Dorothea B. Mayer, while Walter’s widow, Gladys O. Giess, sold Irv to the Taylors.
Before she became Mrs. Richard Ferguson, Norma Taylor had her own haven in the dark brown wood-paneled attic, complete with window seats, a fireplace with an electric log set, built-in bookshelves, latched storage cubbies and a golden “NT” monogram detailed in the center of an emerald linoleum floor. Her parents were quite active in the community when they were not enjoying the 5-strand Beverly Hills Rattan set on the 3-season porch. Norman J. Taylor was President and Chairman of the Board of American Allsafe Inc., as well as co-founder of Sterilon Corp. and Dubois Plastic Products Inc. At North Park United Presbyterian Church, he was an elder, while his wife, Florence E. Taylor, served as President of the Women’s Association. She was also Vice President of the Buffalo Alumnae Association of Kappa Kappa Gamma, member of the Mothers Club of Buffalo Choral Group – possibly rehearsing on her baby grand piano in the living room – and Vice Chairwoman of the World Hospitality Program, an organization designed to give foreign visitors an opportunity to see democracy at work in American homes – perhaps Irv hosted such visits. After 43 years in the home, the Taylors sold it to the Doyles.
Unlike the Giesses and Taylors, we did not learn about the Doyles through old newspaper clippings and neighbors’ anecdotes, we had the pleasure of meeting them. Bonnie A. Doyle and her husband, David J. Doyle, Jr., a retired leasing executive, sold the house to us in 2007 after their six children were grown. Bonnie loved to relax in the 3-season porch on the rattan recliner left by the Taylors and look out to the backyard at the y-trunked honey locust that had been planted by her father. She kindly gave Francesco, then a talkative 2-year-old, a soft cover edition of “The Velveteen Rabbit” – making the many neighborhood bunnies that scamper through our backyard more magical. Dave made a decades long friendship with next door neighbor, Robert O. Fellows, and maintained the house meticulously, replacing each piece of single paned glass in the metal framed true-divided light windows as they cracked from weathering.
We visited Irv again with our parents and decided that this old house would become our new home – replacing the tree-root-heaved sections of driveway, the front and back entry porches, rusted railings with sleek modern hand rails, all 22 windows with operable and energy efficient models and the roof; stripping the painted aluminum jalousie screen door down to its silver finish; painting the front door honey locust yellow and the entire interior with our preferred palette; removing the obsolete roof antenna and the dropped panels in the 3-season porch to reveal a soaring wood clad ceiling; adding a tree-root avoiding patio at the back of the back yard; remodeling the kitchen, bathrooms and attic to our own designs.
Of all our contributions to the house’s evolution though, designing and planting the garden has been one of my most cherished ways to imprint onto Irv – a passion passed down to me by my parents. On either side of the front entry, tired woody evergreens were replaced with architectural rectangular paver-defined perennial beds. My favorite deep purple Siberian irises and globemaster alliums bloom early to announce the garden season. Thriving fragrant Russian sage, graceful swaying ornamental grasses, yellow floreted coreopsis, white little bobo hydrangea, frothy plumed astilbes and shasta daisies buzz with pollinating bees and hint at the colorful vitality inside the house.
Our family of four, plus our mixed-breed orange and white puppy Ava, consider this home an integral part of our story and we want to be part of Irv’s story too. We concealed a mason jar time-capsule with a family photo and notes to future residents within a wall of the kitchen during its renovation, imagining that someday the fifth, sixth or seventh family may discover it. Maybe they will learn that when Braun A. Borgese played his cherry red drum set from the bright attic den and Francesco R. Borgese strummed his guitar from his room with the built-in shelves that you could hear their exuberant music on the corner at Deerhurst; that decades of New Years were toasted with prosecco by the Borgeses and Jurons in the living room, as a fire burned in the hearth which was flanked by framed photographs of generations of family; that many a “Happy Birthday” was sung in the dining room or on the back patio depending on the time of year; that projected movie nights in the 3-season porch were a lot of fun; that Antonino Borgese cooked delicious family meals in the modern kitchen and maintained the house meticulously; that the lovely neighbors became dear friends; that while the brothers played basketball and tetherball in the driveway, they tried to avoid crushing the backyard butterfly garden that their mother created with them; that the yellow daylily that Tony gifted to Denise at her Philadelphia rowhouse and traveled to their Washington DC condo porch and then was planted in Western New York; that many soccer balls menaced potted herbs on the patio and the bed against the back of the house filled with spring-blooming bleeding hearts, red twig dogwoods, purple-flowered spiderwort, more astilbes and a statue of St. Francis of Assisi; that Ava giddily sprinted across the backyard while chomping on pieces of forbidden mulch; that many milestones, like first days of school, graduations and birthdays were commemorated with a photograph posed by the front porch and garden; that Denise M. Juron-Borgese enjoyed looking up at brilliant yellow fall foliage from the tree swing that the branches of the honey locust were finally strong enough to support and she delighted in receiving compliments on her garden from passersby while she tended to it.