What We Leave Behind

We leave something of ourselves behind when we leave a place, we stay there, even though we go away. And there are things in us that we can find again only by going back there.” – Pascal Mercier, Night Train to Lisbon

During a recent purge of my design studio I came across a small suede bag holding 13 tiny, worn square stones. In a studio filled with stone and marble samples it took me a minute to recall what was so special about them to have warranted such safe keeping. And then I remembered. Years ago I picked them up from a floor in an abandoned Italian villa dating from around 100 A.D. Ancient and crumbling, the mosaic floors and walls filled with faded murals spoke in quiet whispers of the craftsmen that helped to birth it and of the life that was once lived there. Those stones brought me right back to the melancholy I felt knowing that a once vital home had been abandoned, never to be loved by anyone ever again.

The sense of melancholy didn’t end that day in the villa. It stayed with me and heightened my sympathy for all of the abandoned homes and apartments that are just left for the promise of a better life somewhere else. With people and possessions gone, a home sits alone, like a stray in a shelter, waiting for someone to come and infuse it with life and love again, to imprint themselves in it’s walls. When that doesn’t happen it sits empty and forgotten. And when the next house on the block is left, and then another, and yet another, we lose our streets, and then our neighborhoods, and then our communities. I wish there was a house heaven to spare them that fate.

When I was young, the remnants of a once grand home called Whitemarsh Hall (also known as Stotesbury Mansion) sat not far from mine in suburban Philadelphia. Long since abandoned, it’s current state was a culmination of neglect, the work of vandals and the ravages of mother nature. Yet, even with part of its roof on the ballroom floor and decapitated garden statues it was still one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen. Climbing the dangerously decayed staircases and sitting next to the crumbled cement reflecting pools I imagined how lucky someone must have been to have called this place home, and why it was no more. Now, whenever I pass by a shuttered home I instinctively wonder what it was like when it was an integral part of someone’s story – when living happened there.

There are any number of reasons that humans leave a place they’ve established as home. Natural disasters, fleeing predators or marauders, and war all make flight understandable and necessary. Financial hardship, diminishing health and old age are also factors. But I see streets lined with once proud grand dames and sturdily built starter homes discarded because of trend or a location falling out of favor. Wanting the next best thing has left us with less nature and green space, over run with countless tract homes, Mcmansions and cookie cutter neighborhoods that lack quality and character. I suspect it is just a matter of time until they suffer the same fate.

As a designer, I know that one’s home is more than a structure. I have great respect for an entity that holds our lives inside of it, that provides shelter and comfort. And while we are living in the home we are emitting palpable life energy. That energy vibrates and resonates, and I believe it imprints onto physical space. That imprinting starts when one puts energy into dreaming and then designing it. Then the hands of many craftsmen put energy into creating its form. And finally, when someone has decided to call it home it absorbs that emitted energy (good or bad) into every square inch. But what happens when the lights are turned off for good? When living space is abandoned is it thus incapable of being vital ever again?

Fortunately, the answer to that question is not always no.

As we move forward wouldn’t it be wonderful to see some wide spread change in the way we think about housing? As someone in the demographic looking to downsize, I’m not thrilled with the prospect of living in a vanilla condo or cheaply built townhouse. And today’s millennials don’t have the same drive for homeownership that previous generations did. Seeing a lack of diversity and creativity in housing options, the devaluation of the home as an asset, and the financial burden of a buying a single family home, many are opting for other options like multi-generational and more communal living spaces, tiny homes that go where they do or turning to repurposing that which has been neglected.

I travel quite a bit and I don’t see as many abandoned homes abroad as I do here in America. In some parts of the world homes have been inhabited for centuries or they’ve been built on the site of older ones. This creates a sense of grounded-ness, stability and community, because people are invested in where they live. Without a disposable mindset the land and natural resources that come with sprawl are conserved.

Moving forward, moving up and creating change is not always a forward, linear trajectory. It doesn’t need to involve the plunder of land and further pushing the boundaries of suburbia. Sometimes opportunities are seen by circling back to an existing option that we’ve long left behind. Rehabilitating a structure to give it renewed purpose infuses a space with energy. That energy spreads and before you know it more and more like-minded people are drawn to do the same. Communities re-form as new businesses, restaurants and the arts are drawn to refurbishing or rehabbing existing space. And if we consider turning the glass upside down and think of clever ways to repurpose all of those vacant office, commercial and retail spaces we may find new housing options that will serve us well into the future.

I’m quite certain my lifelong fascination and reverence for the place we call “home” has shaped my perspective and passion personally and professionally. The importance of its place in our lives has been the gospel I have preached. Now, going forward, I’m happy to be concentrating my energy on opportunities that heal and transform unloved and forgotten existing space to something meaningful again. To something that will be loved again. To something that will be called home again.


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