Betsy Drake: The Last Lioness

Betsy Drake, Actress, Writer

Before we were This American House, we were blogging as Mr. and Mr. Blandings. In fact,
we’re still Mr. and Mr. Blandings on Twitter. Our nickname arose out of our love for the book and classic movie Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House as well as the radio series Mr. and Mrs. Blandings. The co-star and co-writer of that series, the extraordinary Betsy Drake, passed away in London on October 27th at age 92. The following is a personal reflection on this remarkable woman and her lasting achievements.

Betsy Drake was about to eat me alive. As I sat listening in on my dear friend, the painter Bernard Perlin, intrepidly holding his own in a tempestuous phone conversation with her one day in 2013, he suddenly motioned that he was going to soon put me on the line to say hello to her. I’d secretly been hoping for this moment for some time, well aware of Betsy Drake’s remarkable life story and close friendship with Bernard, yet also acutely aware of the highly volatile nature of the longtime relationship between these two very independent minds and spirits. After all, I’d become Bernard’s “ear in need,” enduring – or enjoying, depending on the tone of their conversation – many post-Betsy-call processing sessions with him. They loved each other; they loathed each other. Yet their friendship had endured some 50 years.

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Happy 98th Anniversary Delbert Meier!

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Today is a very special anniversary for the house. On this day ninety-eight years ago, Delbert Meier, along with his wife Grace, and daughters Esther and Martha, finally took residence in their American System Built Home. They had sold their house on Main Street earlier that year and were living temporarily in the apartment above Delbert’s office in the Monona Bank Building while this house was being built.

I imagine that day ninety-eight years ago was kind of like the one we’re having today. It was sunny but brisk and the trees were stripped of their leaves which were fluttering around in cyclones. Del and Grace might have walked up the sidewalk and paused on the porch before they opened the front door. They had ordered this house from a catalog, seen the supplies arrive (likely by train) and then waited as workmen had pieced it together. Today, standing on the front porch, they were finally about to walk into their very own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house.

I wonder if Del was more excited than Grace. I know that when it comes to The Mister and me, we don’t always have the same level of enthusiasm about things. Do you think it was that way for Delbert and Grace Meier? Maybe she kind of rolled her eyes as he gave a little speech about how they were going to put Monona on the map with their Frank Lloyd Wright designed house. Delbert was mayor just a few years after moving into the house so he was certainly a civic booster. Maybe he had seen Wright’s designs in Mason City and came back convinced that they needed once of Mr. Wright’s modern homes.

But then again perhaps Delbert and Grace were equally enthusiastic about their new home. Grace could have been just as intrigued by Wright’s pre-fab homes as Delbert. Maybe it was Grace who came back from a trip to Mason City all fired up about the architect’s designs. Looking at the plans maybe she recognized that the corner windows would create bright and airy rooms and the sunporch would be perfect for summer nights and afternoon teas.

Either way, the Meiers went on to occupy this house for 40+ years, the longest they occupied any home in their lives. They finished raising their daughters here. Delbert was a fixture in town, first at the bank and then in his own law practice. Grace, an educated woman, devoted her time to gardening and, I imagine, other home projects.

In fairy tale parlance, they lived happily ever after.

Happy anniversary, Delbert and Grace. Thank you for bringing this house into our lives.

Fountain Grass on Display

DIY Fountain Grass Centerpiece

As I was doing a little yard clean up this weekend, I found myself with a pile of fountain grass. I was about to sweep it up and dump it in the compost pile but then I stopped myself. Instead, I gathered up the grass, tied a string around it and created a simple, autumnal centerpiece on the sun porch. Don’t you just love it when beautiful accidents happen?

Getting High with Mr. Belvedere: Repairing the Leaking Roof

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Back in the 1980s, when I was impressionable young lad with a lot of time on my hands, I spent a lot of time watching television. I was easily entertained back then and was particularly drawn to family sitcoms. Mr. Belvedere, one such sitcom, was one of those shows that entertained me. This is the one line synopsis from IMDB: “The humorous adventures of an English housekeeper working for an American family.”  That really does say it all. Christopher Hewett plays an English gentleman who uses his proper English traditions and manners to keep a typical American family, led by Bob Uecker, in line. Hilarity ensues. Well, I’m sure the term ‘hilarity’ is relative. What was funny to me when I was 10 to 15 years old would probably not hold up today.

This is all to say that when we learned that the little box that sits on the top of the roof is called a belvedere, the first thing I thought of was Mr. Belvedere. And since that discovery I’ve been referring to the the rooftop box as Mr. Belvedere. As in, Mr. Belvedere sprang a leak!

Now, technically, this is not really a belvedere. By definition, belvedere is “an architectural term for a structure in the form of a turret or other vantage point designed to incorporate a view.” As there are no windows on our belvedere, it shouldn’t really be referred to as one. As we don’t have any other name for it, however, I’m going to stick with calling it a belvedere.

belvedere08One night while a friend and I were watching a movie, I kept thinking I heard dripping. It was raining that night and I just assumed that the drip was coming from outside. It wasn’t until I was on my way to the restroom that I noticed the little puddle of water that had collected in the upstairs hallway directly under the attic door. It was dark that night and I had a couple glasses of scotch in me so my first solution was to place a bucket under the drip. Given my tipsy state, it seemed safer to wait until daylight (and sobriety) to climb into the attic to investigate the drip.

In the light of day I was able to locate the general area of the drip. I was pleased to discover that the leak didn’t seem to be coming from the main roof. Instead, the water was leaking from the belvedere. Of course, there’s nothing we could do about the leak from inside the attic. This would require some Spiderman style investigation up on the roof. belvedere04

The first time I climbed up on the roof, The Mister held the ladder and loudly worried about my safety. I was worried about my safety too. The Mister’s knees knocked so much from worry that he was shaking the ladder! It also happened to be one of the hottest days of the summer which made the roof feel like the surface of the sun. I climbed up, surveyed the rooftop and then climbed back down again. When I relayed this story to our friend Steve later that night he volunteered to lend a hand in repairing the roof.

Climbing up and getting on the roof is actually pretty easy. That is, it was easy once we figured out the best way to get up there. Last year when I cleaned the windows, I discovered exactly how TALL the house is. While our extension ladder reaches up to the roof, climbing up there from ground level is absolutely frightening. Climbing up to the addition that connects the house to the garage and then up another ladder to the roof of the house, on the other hand, is quite easy. And once on the roof I was happy to discover that it isn’t steeply pitched. I was also happy to see that the shingles on the roof appear to be in great shape. It’s just the belvedere that needs a little attention.

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The roof of the belvedere is flat and covered in a sheet of metal. The top layer of sealant is the silver, heat reflecting type. Under that is some red paint that I assume was also a sealer. I used a steel brush to try to scrape off the loose flakes of old sealant before applying a thick coat of Sta-Kool Elastomeric Roof Coat  to the entire surface. I took a paint tray up to the roof with us but Steve had the wonderful idea of simply pouring the roof coat onto the roof and then using the foam roller to spread it around. That was much easier than trying to hold a paint tray while also trying not to fall off the roof.

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I couldn’t quite tell where the leak was originating so I also applied a generous layer of Through The Roof Sealant around the base of the chimney. The sealant is the consistency of model glue (it smelled like it too!) so I used a big foam brush to glob the entire can of it where the chimney meets the roof. I’m hoping that this will cover our bases should the leak be coming from the seam around the chimney.

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And, of course, while I was on the roof I had to snap a photo of the view. The trees are still quite full of leaves and that hampered the visibility a bit. But if it weren’t for the fact that the roof is so dangerously high, I’d want to get up on top of it more often! It’s from up here that you can really appreciate the rolling landscape and the fact that our little town is surrounded by farm fields on all sides.

Here’s hoping this fixed the leak. I’d like to not have to climb back up on the roof any time soon.

The House that Feels Like a Home

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I’ve never been attached to a home.While I’ve always been a homebody, I was more likely to make the best out of any living situation rather than feel like I was planting roots. My family moved frequently when I was growing up and then I carried that gypsy spirit into my adulthood. By the time I hit my 30’s I had managed to live in a different apartment each year of my adulthood. Moving was fun and I always appreciated the opportunity to make an annual purge and redesign of my space.

Then, a few years into my thirties, we bought a small condo in the city. The housing market was booming and were practically promised a strong return on our investment. Well, if you were around for the 2007 housing crisis, you know how that story turns out. The bottom fell out of the housing market and everyone who bought during the boom found themselves with properties that were worth much less than they had paid.

Almost overnight, our home became a yoke around our necks. While we thought that we were ready for long haul home ownership, we had only envisioned being in the tiny condo for a few years before selling up to something bigger. Suddenly, our home became a yoke around our necks.

But we stuck with it. While many of our neighbors let their condos slip into foreclosure, we kept making our payments, confident that it would be the best decision in the long run.

While we still can’t sell our condo, we haven’t ruined our credit by walking away. We’ve diligently made all our payments and even though we’re still upside down, the amount we owe and the low monthly payment after refinancing our mortgage is very manageable. So manageable, in fact, that we have a little extra money to buy another home. It’s not a lot of money – which means we’re already priced out of buying another home in the city. And that’s what took us 4+ hours out of the city in search of a second home.

When The Mister first started telling me about this house, I immediately shot it down. There are so many reasons that owning this house is ridiculous for us. Besides the distance from our main home, the house is almost 100 years old, it’s much bigger that we originally had in mind and it’s located in a small town. Still, The Mister was drawn to the house’s history and, after talking and talking and talking about it, he finally convinced me that we should at least take a walk through it.

And that was it. From the minute we opened the front door and stepped into the house I knew that it was home. Because it felt like home. I can’t explain it really. This house has just always felt like home. Even before we started furnishing it with our own belongings it felt like home. There’s just a comfort here. And a familiarity that belies the fact that we’ve owned it for less than two years.

We don’t get to spend as much time here as we’d like. But whenever we do, we feel at peace. And that, in my mind, is what makes a house a home.