The unfinished basement of my childhood home in Milwaukee was sheathed in gray. It had cinder block walls and concrete floors and high slits for windows that let little light in. The wells were always full of dirt. In the basement, you had no idea if it was sunny and seventy-five outdoors or a blistering snowstorm. Even day and night were confused. The only light came from hanging light bulbs that often seemed to flicker on their own.
Most of the basement’s real estate was devoted to more masculine activities; my dad (a car lover) had used masking tape to set up a makeshift race track, and the track was frequented by a red motorized car, roller skates, bikes, and other things that moved. In a small area off the track sat my doll area and, hence, my Barbie Dreamhouse.
I remember the Dreamhouse like it was yesterday. It was something I wanted – badly – and when it was delivered to me at Christmas I delicately brought it to the basement, announcing to Barbie that she finally had a home. The Dreamhouse was three stories of cheer, so different from the gray basement around it. Its favorite color was pink. There were floral patterns and ginghams and lace, a glimpse of a swimming pool in the backyard, and a filigreed elevator that took Barbie from first floor to third when she was tired from being beautiful and entertaining Ken. The kitchen was undersized, but that was okay. I never imagined Barbie as much of a cook anyways. When I presented the house to my doll, she whooped in delight. It was like the architect had designed it just for her.
My time with the Dreamhouse was relatively short, as I had my own dreams to fulfill. Yet, in real life, that first house – its bells and whistles and femininity, owned and decorated only by a woman – was a heavy influence on me. My version of a Dreamhouse changed throughout the years, just as Barbie has. As a little girl my “someday house” looked like a hulking mansion on Lake Drive in Milwaukee. It was a house built for the beer baron family behind Schlitz Brewery. It rested against Lake Michigan, like on its throne. It was bold and ostentatious (in a good way). I imagined someday living there with my husband and children, queenlike.
Soon after, I discovered Chicago, close enough to Milwaukee to drive home for family barbeques, but the first “big city” I knew. The dreams grew bigger then. It was the big city version of the hulking estate, in one of Chicago’s gracious northern suburbs. It seemed more expensive than my first version, and involved a richer husband I guessed. When I went to Chicago shopping with my mom I would ask her to take the (very circuitous) route home, avoiding the freeways and instead traversing the shores of Lake Forest and Winnetka. Someday I would be frolicking in a garden in one of those houses with my husband and kids, running to pick up my daughter from field hockey practice or my son from baseball.
When I was eighteen, I left the Midwest for the East Coast, and my Dreamhouse moved with me. It became a stately red brick soldier in Georgetown, where I went to school. My houses were recycled with my mood, but they all had a generally stoic feel. I imagined myself in a dress serving tea to my guests while my husband was at work.
But around this time, I also began to wonder if I had to play a part in my own Dreamhouse. And so, around graduation, my Dreamhouse moved to Manhattan, where it involved a duplex overlooking Central Park, two kids, a dog, and two working parents to make it all happen. In those dreams, as the doorman whisked me up to my home in the sky, I wore Donna Karan suits and carried a Wall Street Journal under my arm. My husband looked like Mickey Rourke in 9 1/2 Weeks.
New York never happened for me, but Los Angeles did. Like many of my friends, my early Dreamhouse in Los Angeles looked like a vast estate in Bel-Air, a Spanish manse in Hancock Park, a Riviera-view mansion on La Mesa in Santa Monica, a beach house in the Malibu Colony where lapping water would put me to sleep. At twenty-nine years old dreams are still bigger than you are, and I didn’t realize that houses like that were owned by tycoons like David Geffen, Eli Broad and Madonna. Yet, the dream of owning one someday kept me ambitious.
My friends bought and sold their first houses, but I couldn’t yet afford a house on one income. By then I worked in real estate. I realized a husband may not swoop in to whisk me to the Upper East Side or to Georgetown’s prime block or to a David Adler-designed mansion on Lake Michigan. I saved every penny I made. Like Barbie in my gray basement, I felt like I could have my own, perfectly designed feminine abode. If Barbie could do it on her own, so could I.
After years of fastidious planning, it happened in the least likely way. On a whim, I walked into my friend’s pocket listing in Bel-Air. It was a modest midcentury house designed by the Palm Springs architect William Krisel. The little structure was falling apart, and the parts that weren’t falling apart had been badly redone. It wasn’t ten-thousand square feet, it wasn’t even three-thousand. Like my Barbie Dreamhouse, it did have a swimming pool, but it was surrounded by dirt and one – oddly healthy, but drooping – plant. There was no husband, but that was okay – I had come to the empowering realization at this point that, like Barbie, I didn’t need a Ken. All those pennies saved had somehow added up to a down payment on my first house.
I bought it on the spot. Terrazzo was poured, windows uncovered, stone was cleaned, walls were moved, and a menagerie of wild plants were rooted into the ground. Kindness abounded from a few friends in particular who helped me resurrect the house from its grave, all on a budget. Even now, I get emotional thinking of it, and their kindness lives with me in the house.
Maybe the modest post-and-beam house wasn’t what eight-year-old Alex thought would be her Dreamhouse – or, more poignantly, her dream life – but it is unequivocally mine, and it is beautiful.