By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Memories are powerful, and none more so than childhood memories. Those foundational experiences hold sway over people for their entire lives, even if they think they’ve outgrown them.
As Stephanie Dimond explored the empty rooms and hallways of her childhood home on Gibbon Street in Old Town, she came face-to-face with those memories. An experienced architect at Dimond Adams Design, Dimond was able to point out period specific details in the three-floor home, which dates back to the early 1800s.
However, she often ditched the architectural jargon and fell down memory lane, as the various nooks and crannies of a home she knew so well stripped back the layers of time. Now, faced with the prospect of selling the home, Dimond hopes to find someone who can honor the historic nature of the building as well as the place it holds in her heart.
“So far, I’ve only shown the house to a handful of people who’ve expressed interest in it because I really would like it to go to someone who will take care of it and do right by it. It’s an awesome house,” Dimond said. “… It’s bittersweet. I’d love to keep the house in the family and fix it up.”
Dimond, her parents and her two siblings moved from their Duke Street home into the house on Gibbon Street in 1967, but they were not alone. The building had been converted into a series of apartments in the 1930s, and when the Dimonds moved in, the first floor still functioned as two studio apartments.
As they waited for the first-floor tenants’ leases to expire, for the first two years of their time on Gibbon Street, the Dimond family lived on the second and third floors of their new home. The second floor included a living room, kitchen, dining room and her parents’ bedroom and bathroom, while the third floor included three bedrooms, a bathroom and playroom for Dimond and her siblings.
Dimond said that, as a child, it took her time to adjust to her family’s new lifestyle.
“I was really sick once and delirious, and – I don’t remember this, but I’ve been told – I was complaining about our ‘temporary hotel’ and why I didn’t want to be here and I wanted to go back home,” Dimond said. “Got out of that phase, though.”
By 1969, the tenants had moved out, and Dimond’s parents got to work on the ground floor space. It required significant changes to transform two separate apartments into a single space that would work for an entire family.
An entryway vestibule with mailboxes for the tenants had to be removed, creating space for a larger foyer. The kitchen in the back of the ground floor was renovated and updated, and the path from the large living room to a kitchenette was blocked off and rerouted to create a path directly from the foyer to the dining room.
Dimond’s parents completed the ground floor in 1970. However, the more they worked on the home, the more they discovered about its history and the more they tried to honor that history, Dimond said. The small details were just as important as the major changes to the ground floor.
“I’d come home from school every day and my mom would be sitting on the steps with an acetylene torch burning the paint off because she discovered they were tiger maple. So, once she figured that out, then she did the entire run,” Dimond said.
Dimond also recalled her mother painting the trim throughout the house a color known as Apollo room blue, which was, at the time, considered historically accurate.
“All the walls were white, but the trim was always Apollo room blue because that was a color they discovered in Williamsburg and thought that was an appropriate color for the period,” Dimond said. “What was later discovered was that that was a faded version of the color. … But my mother liked the Apollo room blue, so it stayed that way.”
Every member of the family was involved in the process — from demolition to painting. Dimond said she got her first taste of construction work while helping her father open up a wall between a hallway and the dining room.
“He handed me a pickaxe, and he said, ‘Hit that wall,’” Dimond said. “I was hitting it and getting pretty tired, and I said, ‘When do I stop?’ [His response:] ‘When you’re on the other side.’”
The furniture is all gone, and her mother and father passed in 2006 and 2009, respectively, but the empty rooms remained full of heartfelt memories for Dimond.
Looking out at the second-floor balcony, Dimond remembered climbing up the side of the house whenever she was locked out.
“When I got locked out of the house, like if I forgot my keys, I would climb up the shutter that’s on one of the doors out there and swing over to the railing and haul myself up because the door was usually unlocked,” Dimond said.
According to Dimond, she and her husband also toasted with glasses of champagne on that balcony during her wedding reception at the house. She got married a few blocks away at The Basilica of Saint Mary.
Continuing past the balcony and into her parents’ bathroom, Dimond recalled taking baths heated with stovetop boiled water, since there was only one water heater for her family and the two ground floor apartments.
“Then [my father would] have a fire going in [the next room over], and we’d run out here with our towels, facing the fireplace to dry off,” Dimond said.
Although Dimond relished the opportunity to take a trip down memory lane, her eye for architectural detail would occasionally take over. While walking past a second-floor fireplace – one of seven in the house – Dimond took the time to note the 19th century approach to the trim that surrounds the hearth.
According to Dimond, current homeowners and buyers are not as interested in the simple, plain design that is common in many 18th century and 19th century homes.
“This is original woodwork in the house, so those are hand carved panels,” Dimond said, pointing to the wood surrounding the fireplace. “Yeah, they’re not a perfect shape, but they have been here for a really long time, so it’s kind of neat. See how simple that is? That’s Alexandria. It’s not tons of detail work and fancy. It’s [simple].”
In the back of the second floor sits what used to be an office for Dimond’s father. Bookcases, now empty, line part of the walls and light flows in through the tall windows. However, unlike most offices, the room also features a ladder that leads to the third floor via a small hatch.
Looking at the ladder, Dimond’s face immediately lit up.
“My mom was really worried that if a fire ever started on the third floor we would be trapped, so she had this ladder put in with a hatch that goes to the back third floor bedroom,” Dimond said. “We practiced fire drills of coming down here and either going to the front steps or out [to] the porch.”
According to Dimond, her mother’s fear was warranted. Right before the family had moved in, a lightning bolt struck the house, slicing through the attic and the third floor and hitting all the way down on the second floor.
“[The neighbor] comes running over [to the Duke street house] and says, ‘Mr. Dimond, you’re not gonna move now are you, your house is on fire.’ And my dad goes, ‘What?’” Dimond said. “He came running down here – the firetrucks were already here putting the flames out.”
In addition to the ladder, Dimond’s father also had lightning rods installed on the roof.
Much of what has been cleared out of the house in recent weeks belonged to the most recent tenants, Dimond’s clients who had been renting the house for the past 10 years. However, Dimond uncovered some artifacts of her own past.
“Some of it was fun. I found my box of when I went to Europe when I was 19,” Dimond said. “I found my old Eurorail pass and youth hostel pass, the ribbons I won horse riding. All of this stuff was in a box. My degrees were folded and stuffed in a box.”
In digging through her memories, Dimond said she remembered not only a house but an entire neighborhood that, even though she now lives in Rosemont, she still thinks of as home.
“My mom made a comment once – I was probably 30 by the time she said it – ‘You know this was a terrible house to raise kids in,’” Dimond said. “And I [said], ‘Why do you say that?’ And she said, ‘Well, it was so vertical.’ I said, ‘I loved growing up in this house. I think you’re nuts.’”