The soul of a dwelling: Architect’s novel recalls childhood homestead

Architect’s novel recalls childhood homestead

  • Catherine Armsden says writing came easier to her than almost anything else. “It had my full attention in a way that other things didn’t.” PHOTO COURTESY OF CATHERINE ARMSDEN

For the Bulletin
Friday, April 29, 2016


Childhood homes can be places of comfort, but they can also be places of conflict.

“Dream House,” the premier novel from architect and writer Catherine Armsden, is a fictional story about Gina Gilbert, a San Francisco architect who struggles to deal with her parents’ sudden death and the imminent destruction of her childhood home. The novel centers on Gina’s conflicting emotions about the house, and explores ideas of how we shape, and are shaped by, our homes.

A house, a home

“Small houses are wonderful for happy enough families, but can be lethal otherwise,” Armsden said in a recent phone interview. For her family, and Gina’s, living in a small house was destructive.

The novel employs a dual timeline, showing Gina in both the present and during her childhood. The author based the house in the book on the traditional New England foursquare in Maine in which she grew up; she even used a picture of her childhood home on the book’s front cover.

In fact, Armsden, 60, says, much of the book is autobiographical. Her mother, much like the mother in the book, had raging depression and often threw and broke things.

“The scenes are very similar to ones that I lived through, which made it a lot easier to write them,” she said. “The mother character is very much a spitting image of my mother.”

In one scene in the novel, for example, Gina’s mother threatens to cancel Christmas and throws a plate of cookies into the snow.

“Green and red balls, miniature sleighs, and Santa mice rained down, hit the crusty surface of the snow and slid a little before coming to rest,” Armsden writes. “Glowing white under the porch light, the yard became celestial, constellations of cookie stars scattered below a black starless sky.”

Armsden’s own mother didn’t throw cookies out the door, but she did create a similar commotion one Christmas.

“She actually pulled down the Christmas tree and sort of stomped on all the Christmas tree ornaments, which in a way is more horrifying than cookies,” Armsden said.

While events in the novel are based on her own life, Armsden took the ultimate creative license with the fate of the house; in the book, it is destroyed, while the author’s still stands. She says she knew early on that the fictional house would be demolished, and she wanted readers to be able to accept that.

“I had to sort of make the case that the place was worthy of (Gina’s) longing and nostalgia and at the same time was a place that could sort of torture her even into her adulthood,” she said.

The real house has a much different story. After her parents died, the house was sold to two men from New York City who remodeled it. But at the end of the remodel, one of the men passed away from lymphoma.

“When he died, his partner was heartbroken and sold the house to a woman in her 60s, who lives there now,” Armsden said.

Rediscoving a passion

Armsden grew up in the Kittery Point, Maine, house, which her parents rented for 61 years. Though “Dream House” is her first novel, Armsden says, her love of writing began in high school.

“I just always found that it came easier to me than almost anything else,” she said. “It had my full attention in a way that other things didn’t.”

She decided not to pursue writing and graduated from Brown University in 1977 with a bachelor’s degree in studio art. For a year after graduation she worked for Seattle’s Office of Urban Conservation before moving to Ann Beha Architects in Boston for two years. Armsden then attended Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design, graduating in 1984 with a master’s degree in architecture.

“I was worried about what kind of career my art would give me and how I would support myself, so architecture school seemed very pragmatic,” she said.

She moved to San Francisco with her husband, Lewis Butler, right after graduation and practiced architecture. She didn’t start writing again until she was in her 40s, after her children, Elena and Tobias, were born.

“I was very interested in architecture and it took me away from art and writing and those other things I enjoyed,” she said.

She began writing “Dream House” in 1998 after visiting her parents’ house in Maine with her children.

“I realized that I wouldn’t always have that place to go to, so I just started writing about it as a way of reconciling my nostalgia for it,” she said.

She wrote first about the landscape and the cove, and then began to write about the house — room by room.

“I sort of imagined a scene for each of those rooms,” she said. “Then came the really hard part, which was to build a bigger narrative arc to make a novel, which was not easy when you hadn’t studied writing.”

Armsden worked on the novel throughout the 2000s, showing it to multiple book groups over the years to get critiques.

“I was totally hooked from the start, once I started writing,” she said. “It wasn’t long before I just kind of abandoned architecture pretty much altogether.”

Her retreat from architecture was motivated by another factor, as well: in 2007 she developed symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease.

“It limits what I can do physically, so writing really suits me, and also I just need a lot of quiet time,” Armsden said. “Writing actually is something I can do with being sick.”