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A writer becomes a homeowner, in a small way

Illinois Times

January 13, 1983

As an investment, the house my partner and I built in 1983 proved to be folly, but it was a pleasant place to live. The several references to then-current trends in house design were a transparent attempt to give the piece relevance. The jokes, good or bad, were not an attempt to make a dull piece entertaining, as one might expect. They come naturally. It’s the way I think, when I think at all.


The original concluded with an extended riff on parties which was clever but not amusing, so I cut it.  


I have noted previously in this space how high costs for land and money along with changes in the size of the typical American household have led, like bombs lead to deficits, to the trend toward "downsized" houses


A survey by the National Association of Home Builders published last fall revealed that three out of every five builders responding were building houses ranging in size from 850 to 1,400 square feet; by comparison, the median size of the typical new single family detached house was 1,655 square feet as recently as four years ago, and new houses as large as 2,500 were (and are) far from rare.


Economics may dictate that one's house be small, but that doesn't mean it has to feel small. Peter Keer, writing in the New York Times, noted that architects have several tricks they can use to give small houses the illusion of spaciousness. Cathedral-type sloped ceilings add volume, for example, and rooms which used to be separated by walls in more traditional houses are being opened up to each other to form a single "great room"—most often the kitchen and living and dining rooms combined. Sightlines are lengthened, usually by adding glass doors or windows at strategic points to expand the view outside the house.


Mr. Keer's article made me a happy man. As many a President will confirm, it always is a pleasure to have one's policies endorsed by the Times. You see, I bought a downsized house myself last year, a house which boasts—you guessed it—cathedral ceilings, a great room, and a view of the garden so intimate that I was able to diagnose a case of powdery mildew on my mock orange bush from the comfort of my dining room chair. The house has only 1,210 square feet of living space, not counting the crawl space, where I kennel my sled dogs).


The '63 Cadillacs offered more leg room, but it was for us more of an "upsized" living space than downsized. We had lived for twelve years in a Twenties-era apartment which offered only about 800 square feet, and we had been forced to sublet 100 of that to the cockroaches. As is the case with most traditional floor plans, these 800 feet were chopped up into so many separate rooms and hallways that, navigating the twisting route from the kitchen to the living room, one half-expected to find a piece of cheese waiting there as a reward for one's ingenuity.


Some people's fantasies of doom take the form of a mushroom cloud. I had nightmares about the day when our apartment roof would be lifted away and a gigantic arm clad in a white lab smock would reach down and pluck me away to a cage where I would have a serial number tattooed onto my belly.


You can understand then how pleasant life would be in even a downsized house after so many years in such a maze. Still, there is no disputing the fact that the house is small. The company which designed it calls our model house the "Sunburst," although I took to calling it the "Alan Ladd," meaning that they had had to resort to optical illusions to make it look bigger than it really is. Our House of the '80s took some getting used to. Long sightlines are all right, but what happens if you're in the shower and the phone rings and you have to cross three windows and a sliding glass door to answer it? Well, you have to lower your profile. Poor L. had carpet burns on her knees for weeks after we moved in.


That cathedral ceiling makes life interesting sometimes too. It rises majestically to a peak roughly 14 feet above the floor of the great room. In the warmer months mosquitoes and moths tend to congregate near the peak of the ceiling, out of reach of flyswatters, even brooms. The plastic dart pistols I had used with such devastating effect against the cockroaches at my apartment lacked the range for this kind of combat; besides, the darts, when spent, fell and landed with a plop in the dip. Fortunately B. and R., returning from California (where the incidence of cathedral ceilings apparently is such that it has created a market for such appliances) made us a gift of a cunningly-designed spring-loaded flying insect zapper with a tethered projectile and thus rescued our social season.


That sloped ceiling rather complicates the geometry of one's attic, too. When we first moved in, I tried storing our Christmas decorations on its steeply angled rafters, but our wreaths kept sliding down and clogging our soffit vents. (You say you don't know what a "soffit" is? You say you thought it was a British working class expletive? As in, "Go and soffit, you beggar"? Well, it isn't. It's that part of a house which doesn't work when it is clogged by Christmas wreaths.) I tried nailing the stuff in place but that didn't do the tree ornaments any good. L. suggested someplace I could stick them, but that solution posed even more awkward problems of geometry than does the attic. For the moment I plan to leave them up all year. If anyone asks about them next July, I'll just tell them that I celebrate the Christmas spirit twelve months of the year.


Then there is the "great room." (I admit that I make things up sometimes. But not long after we'd moved in, a friend of ours, come to visit for the first time, looked at the room and exclaimed, "This is great.") Boundaries are suggested rather than defined. One detects that one is passing from the living "area" into the dining "area" by subtle changes in the flora and fauna, much as one measures the transition from desert to scrub country; in our place, bits of stuffing from sofa pillows and philodendron leaves on the carpet gradually give way to cheese crumbs as one heads south.


This open floor plan has had only happy effects on our daily routine. The fact that there is only a half-wall separating the kitchen from the living area means that I can now watch "Dynasty" while I am preparing Kraft instant macaroni and cheese dinner for my evening meal—as close to a perfect life as I ever expect to experience, short of being named a university president. Saves housework too. Rather than dirty dishes unnecessarily at parties, we just toss hors d'oeuvres to our guests from the kitchen into the living room, rather the way one might toss bits of fish to trained seals. This is great fun, except that the clapping noise sometimes interferes with conversation. . . .  ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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