It was a buzz-word as common to the 1970’s as paradigm was to the 1980s. Gestalt – it’s a German word that first became popular in the 1890s Berlin throughout medical circles. It refers to the idea that something can be more than just a sum of its parts. It’s used mostly in psychology, but I have found the concept to be true in other aspects of life:
- In Sports when members of a team collectively accomplish much more than they could separately.
- In Art when mixing several colors can make a painting more effective than just black & white.
- …and in residential architecture when a home becomes more than a collection of rooms.
I grew up in a Gestalt home.
The house we moved to in August of 1964 was definitely a whole comprised of many parts. It started out as a three-room cabin built in the late 1950’s by the original homesteader Jim Hovis. Family growth required a largish addition to the front of the original three-room cabin followed soon after by a row of three bedrooms built on the north side of the house. When a double garage was built on to the south end of the house, clapboard siding was added to the home’s exterior giving the place a unified, almost gentrified appearance. For a time it was the showcase home of the whole Sterling area – while everyone else was living in log cabins, Quonset huts or trailers the Hovis place looked like it had been scooped up from a neighborhood in the middle of Anchorage and dropped down along the east end of Scout Lake Loop.
We had no idea of the building’s history when we moved into the place at the end of the summer of 1964 because we had more pressing matters on our mind:
- My older sister and I were very unhappy about the move to the Peninsula and were convinced bears would soon eat us.
- The previous renters had completely trashed the place and it took our whole family six months of steady work to get the place into shape
On the other hand Dad was pretty happy about getting the place for a low price and comfortable terms. Mrs. Hovis had become ill enough to require relocation to the lower 48 which meant that Mr. Hovis had been a “motivated seller”.
We really didn’t understand the convoluted construction details until Dad and I started work on my attic loft bedroom and had to remove portions of two other roofs under the one that was seen from outside of the house. When plumbing problems took us into the crawlspace we found even more indicators of start-and-stop construction, most notably three different types of foundation.
It was just after that discovery that Dad finally concluded “in for a dime/in for a dollar” when it came to additions/modifications to the house. We finished my loft just before Christmas 1966 then in the fall of 1970 Dad and I started converting the inner portion of the double garages into additional living space. I don’t think there ever was a specific goal for the remodeling when we started, but by mid-1973 we had a cozy TV room just off the kitchen and another nicely finished space that alternately served as a bedroom and/or home office. Fourteen years later the remaining garage space was converted into a studio where I could continue my career as a freelance illustrator while my parents served as missionaries on Prince Edward Island. The last major change was a new garage on the south end of the house that my folks were able to add using the inheritance Mom received when her stepfather passed away in the mid-nineties.
….but in and around all of those physical changes other less tangible modifications were made to the home and surrounding pastures. During the next 50+ years three generations of Deitricks grew up, and all the love, hate, hope, tears, sickness and health involved in that process imbued the house and land with a benevolent spirit that would sometimes echo and other times mend what we were feeling at different times. The ranch became a haven and refuge and for me I knew that no matter how physically or emotionally damaged I may be, all I had to do was push my fingers down into the dirt to be cleansed from whatever ailed me.
Very soon all of that will end. Both my parents have passed on and circumstances are such that the property will be sold, and the home likely destroyed. Over the decades the quaint idiosyncrasies of a continually modified homestead cabin have become liabilities; shifting foundations, sagging rooflines and questionable wiring have transformed what was once a showcase home into an oddity.
British author Brian Aldiss wrote that the only unchanging aspect of life is that change happens. Children, grandchildren and great-grand-children will move on to find other places for imaginary adventures with Klingons, halflings and Cybermen and a new family will move in for their own story of a half-century. Life will go on, but for me there will always be a little bit of my heart missing. Even though it’s been fifteen years since I walked through that clunky, squeaking door I still miss it and mourn our Home’s eventually passing.
It’s like losing a third parent.