Surprise Craftsman

by Vonda K. Givens, Executive Director

November 20, 2021 was the day it had to happen. We had to find a house to purchase. Two previous offers had fallen through, and meanwhile the sale of our house was moving at lightning speed (its closing date was less than a month away). On November 20, our backs were against the wall (literally), and we set out with a single-minded goal. Find a house.

When I walked into the unassuming 1920s gray house on Valley View, I was unprepared for the site ahead of me: a carefully-crafted brick hearth flanked by window seats and built-in bookcases—all miraculously untouched by paint. I took in the view and the wood trim and laughed out loud, an eruption of confused and amused disbelief. How did this happen? How had I stumbled into a Craftsman house?

We had been house hunting for about a month by this point. We had seen one or two Victorian houses (and made an offer on a sweet Victorian on an idyllic Main Street, but with no luck), and several lake cottages (offer number two was for an unremarkable but nicely flipped cottage, and again, no luck). We had seen split levels (so many split levels), one ranch, and several houses of indecipherable style. I had not expected to see a Craftsman. The ones on the market had all been well out of our price range. We had seen pictures of the house on Valley View, of course, but I had learned not to trust anything until I saw a house in person. Honestly, all the pictures had begun to run together. And yet, here it was. An unassuming exterior that opened into a surprise Craftsman living and dining room, with dark-stained wood trim throughout, charming hinges on the interior doors, and a clawfoot tub.

It needed a lot of work. Over the years it had been rented out and worn out and while seemingly built with care, it looked tired. We were a good match. I was tired too. The real estate market (in New Jersey for sure, but possibly anywhere these days) is not for the faint of heart. We were both tired. We had seen a lot. We had experienced a lot, but we were both still standing. And we both needed each other. I needed a house and this house needed someone who could see what it was built to be and make it that again. So, my husband Wes and I made an offer (success this time!) and became those people.

Life does not move in a linear path. It is a meandering journey. Fourteen years ago yesterday, on February 4, 2008, I began a job as the Education Director at the Stickley Museum at Craftsman Farms. On that day, I didn’t know what a Craftsman house was. I took the job for an opportunity to work with and learn from Heather Stivison (the then Executive Director). I wish I could say I saw this full immersion into all things Stickley as the lure. It wasn’t, but I took the job to learn, and I did.

In the manner of all hard jobs, I learned fast and slow. Some tasks, like giving tours before you feel ready, require diving in. You swim or sink to the bottom. One wonderful aspect of a museum job is the slow learning part. Daily access to a museum and its collections gives you time for (as Jonathan Clancy would say) close looking and reading and investigating and discovering. It gives you time to make blunders and fail and learn from your mistakes. Revered objects are available to you (as are people who are passionate about them), and by investing the time, you have the privilege of coming to know them in an intimate and personal way. Initially my appreciation for Stickley was academic. I knew it had stood the test of time. I knew it was admired so I admired it but without internalizing it. My own deep-seated, full-hearted admiration for the Craftsman aesthetic took time. And fourteen years into this journey, it took me to the threshold of my own Craftsman house.

We closed on the Valley View house three weeks later. This new reality still makes me laugh out loud, only now with amused delight. Our fixer-upper will take time but the time is the best part.

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