The first house my husband and I owned was in Hyde Park on Chicago’s South Side. We were told that this modest house and others on Ridgewood Court had been built for those who worked on the World’s Fair, the 1893 Columbian Exposition, in Jackson Park.
We bought it from Fritz Leiber Jr. and his wife, Jonquil. A famous science-fiction writer who won national awards, Leiber reminded me of Vitamin Flintheart, a comic strip character in “Dick Tracy,” because he always met us wearing a bathrobe, mug in hand. I assume his wife was the inspiration for the novel “Conjure Wife,” a story that added an intriguing dimension to this interesting house.
We bought the home in 1958, soon after my husband was hired by the psychology department at the University of Chicago. I was completing coursework for a doctorate. The house’s location within an easy walk of the university and the co-op where I bought all our food was important.
Six months’ pregnant as moving day approached, I went to my parents’ place with our 3-year-old son, expecting to stay until my husband completed the job. He called a few days later to tell me he had finished and that the front screen door fell “flat on its face” the first day he was there.
Fortunately, with skills and attitudes learned from his father, a wood-pattern maker, he expected to complete much of the renovation before the birth in early September of our second son. He tore down a wall that closed the dining room off from a hallway to the front door and removed wallpaper and paint with the help of a hired teenager. He called in a professional to sand the floors.
The major challenge was the brown, dingy kitchen. We purchased a new stove and refrigerator as soon as possible, but that left no money for replacing the torn and discolored linoleum. Worst of all, theater posters of Fritz Leiber Sr., actor and father of the writer, covered almost every wall. Varnished, they had dulled and darkened over time. Ugliness canceled any interest in content. Eventually, we covered the walls and painted them yellow.
My husband decided to replace the sink himself. I’ll never forget his statement, an attitude I will always admire: “If a plumber can put in a sink, I should be able to.” It took him almost 12 hours (and many trips to the hardware store), which he acknowledged was longer than a plumber would need, but he did get the job done. There was never a problem.
Most of all, I loved our bright living room with the sunshine streaming through the south windows overlooking the vacant lot next door. I often wondered whether Fritz Leiber Sr. and Tyrone Power had actually performed Shakespeare there, as neighbors claimed.
Four years later, my husband was invited to join the psychology faculty at Columbia University. We bought our second home in Leonia, N.J. That house and those we bought in Newton and Shelburne, Vt., are also associated with fond memories, but none required the work or had a history as interesting as our first.
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