Real estate

My First Home

The quirky house my father built

Christoph Hitz for the boston globe

My stepmother handed me a plastic bag with five yellowed rolls of parchment paper. “These are worth keeping,” she said.

I gingerly unrolled each sheet on our kitchen island. My father built my childhood home, and here were the blueprints, sketched in his own hand. Two years had passed since his death, and in gifting these, my stepmom was entrusting me with the origins of my father’s proudest work.

In perfect symmetry, the rooms of my first home were mapped. Page No. 1 graphs the living space, all on one floor, in a figure-eight arrangement. This is a practical floor plan, created almost certainly with an eye toward being manageable to build. At the bottom of the page, in neat capital letters, read my parents’ formal names, and below that, in the same upright hand, “PLANS BY OWNER.”


Our dad-built house in central Ohio had its quirks. There was the long utility counter with a drawer sized specifically for S&H Green Stamp books. There was the “secret” passageway, meant to hold two card tables (for family canasta games), and happily just wide enough for a child to squeeze through and exit in the adjacent closet. There was a cupboard built to accommodate our homemade laundry cart. There was a pantry with U-shaped shelves the exact width of an 8-ounce can. Specificity and functionality reigned.

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Growing up, my sense of pride in my father’s master work competed with discomfiture. I had an acute awareness that our house did not conform to a standard. It was unlike those in the burgeoning development nearby, where two-story look-alikes with attached garages and freshly planted saplings announced the newly rising middle class. Those patterned homes didn’t telegraph Homemade! They were, to me, the more conventional, “professional” version. I viewed our house as one would a hand-knitted sweater from a beloved aunt: well crafted, functional, even lovely in its own right, but bearing the telltale signs of something individually produced.

It took maturity and comments from others to help me recognize that the home my father built was well beyond the standards applied to the grid of nearby sub-development houses. One boyfriend (who, not incidentally, later became my husband) bragged to his family early on that my father had been the sole builder of our house. I began to appreciate that the house I lived in and loved was not an adaptation of the norm, but a hallmark of individuality.

I lived in that house until I went to college. Later, my mother passed away in that house, and afterward, my father, yielding to the wave of businesses that had sprung up around it, sold it to a printing company. He then bought a Colonial in a development, his new house looking more or less like every other one on the street. It was a house I might have been happy to live in a decade before, but not anymore. The new house was not infused with anyone’s personality, much less the hopes and dreams of a husband and father. It was just walls and a roof.

A first home can make an indelible mark, and I have yet to live in a cookie-cutter house. A house that reflects the character and idiosyncracies of the builder and the owners, that shuns convention and flaunts its quirks? That’s the house for me.

Ellen Goss Goldsberry, a freelance editor and writer, lives in central New Hampshire. Send comments and a 550-word essay on your first home to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.