Illustration by Jeff Koegel

“The Homestead simply wasn’t ready to be demolished.”

By Kathryn Levy Feldman

For years, I got a pit in my stomach every time I crossed the bridge onto the island where my in-laws lived and my parents once owned a summer home. It should have been a joyful crossing. This was the island where my husband and I met, on the very beach that separated our respective parents’ homes. But it had become complicated turf. Once we married and had three children in rapid succession, the question over where we would stay and how we would divide our time permeated every visit. When two firstborns are the first in their respective families to marry and reproduce, everyone on both sides wants to be the first to witness the myriad of firsts seemingly unfolding every day. No one was begrudging anyone their joy (or extra pair of hands), but it was hard to please everyone.

By the mid 1990s, both sets of grandparents had relocated to new homes in different states, and we divided our time among those residences. My parents had sold their shore house, but my in-laws held on to their 1947 brick colonial home, one block from the beach, which they referred to as The Homestead. My mother-in-law always said it was everyone’s house, and she made sure each member of the family had a key. I do remember one set of cousins taking her up on their offer to use the house one summer weekend when they were away, but I think even they felt their absence. The house was such an integral part of their personalities that it never occurred to me to use it without them being there. It would have felt haunted.

Over the years, my mother-in-law amassed a collection of American antiques that were meant to be used, not admired, and it was her greatest pleasure when the house was bursting at the seams with family and friends. Wallpaper and curtains came and went but the bones of the house remained intact. That house survived countless hurricanes and nor’easters. It never flooded. My husband tells stories of his mother sending him and his sister out to hold down the trees in particularly strong storms.

After my father-in-law passed away in 2010, my sister-in-law moved in with my mother-in-law and the two of them painted the interiors the pale yellow my father-in-law had outlawed. The two of them rode out Superstorm Sandy in the house and endured five days without power but miraculously little damage. My sister-in-law suffered her first stroke in 2014 and after rehab returned to the house. She recovered well enough to take care of my mother-in-law who, by then, was in her early 90s. Strong and stubborn women, they relied on each other and managed to go out for dinner three or four nights a week.

We would still visit, of course, but now in shifts. Our kids were grown with families of their own and the house creaked and expanded to somehow accommodate them. There now were more outside caretakers as well, and the house had begun to show signs of wear and tear. When things broke, they were often put back together with spit and glue. The legion of people who knew how to repair the ancient systems dwindled and new appliances were too large to fit into the spaces that existed.

My sister-in-law suffered another more serious stroke in 2020. She became wheelchair bound, and she and my now 98-year-old mother-in-law required 24-hour live-in help. The house became a nursing home, albeit a poorly configured one, with narrow doorways and small bathrooms never meant to accommodate two wheelchairs.

In March of 2022, it simply became too dangerous to continue and they moved to a healthcare facility. By then, they were ready to go. Within two months, my mother-in-law passed away peacefully in her sleep one month shy of her 101st birthday, while my sister-in-law spends her days in a lovely place where everyone knows her name and she is well cared for.

Before they moved out, my husband and I had decided to first renovate the house and then either sell it or rent it. Otherwise, we thought a buyer would likely tear it down, and in my opinion The Homestead simply wasn’t ready to be demolished.

It was then late March, and my goal was to have the house ready by July 1 for the summer rental market. I reasoned that it was mostly a matter of fresh paint and new furniture, which could be accomplished quickly and reasonably. 

I blitzed through the local Home Depot for new appliances, vanities, kitchen cabinets, and counters. I haunted estate and demolition sales and recycled as many things as I could from our house in the Philly suburbs. I made a spreadsheet of what was needed in each room and bought from outlets and sales. I rented a storage pod and slowly filled it with the contents of the new house. I enlisted the help of my incredible contractor from home, who literally camped out in the house three nights a week (rather than drive back and forth) and steadily worked miracles.

There was one point when I froze: a lot of discarding was going on, and I didn’t want to destroy memories. By deciding to incorporate one original item in every room, I was able to move forward. The dining room chairs found new life around a game table; the dresser in the dining room that once held placemats moved into the primary bedroom. I hung my mother-in-law’s Delft salt cellar in the sparkling new kitchen. Even the needlepoint piano bench found a home on the third-floor landing.

I drove to that island and back at least once a week. In early May, I became incensed when the summer people started to show up, and I couldn’t get a parking spot at the hardware store. Somewhere along the way, I began opening the windows to inhale the sea air.

I wish I could jump to the reveal like those design shows when all the challenges disappear. But there were too many to forget. The unseen ducts that were filled with mold and needed to be replaced. The sewer pipes that filled with sand and backed up. The water under the kitchen floor. The roof that needed to be replaced immediately—because the home insurance would not cover it after 50 years and we were at year 49. The two washers and dryers that arrived with doors that opened in the wrong direction. The powder room sink that literally dropped out one day. The hot water heater that died mid-project. The new fixtures that did not jibe with the existing wiring.

And I uncovered things about the house I’d never noticed. Who knew there was a bar beneath the boxes and medical equipment heaped in the back room? Who knew the bedroom closet on the third-floor bedroom was as large as a full-size crib? For years you couldn’t get into it. Who knew you could paint maroon tile white and transform a classic 1950s bathroom? Or the joys of a small U-shaped kitchen where everything was within reach? Who knew I would come to love the house I once dreaded visiting?

I did finish by July 1, but too late for this past summer’s rental market. We have rented the house for next summer to one family, and they will have the benefit of us getting the kinks out. I can report that there are no ghosts. And that the house is truly what it always was—a refuge.

Somewhere, I am pretty sure, someone is not surprised.

Kathryn Levy Feldman LPS’09 writes frequently for the Gazette.

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