On July 21, the Ernest Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park marked the 114th anniversary of Hemingway’s birth in the home of his grandparents at 339 N. Oak Park Avenue. The Queen Anne-style house, built for Hemingway’s maternal grandparents, Caroline and Ernest Hall, was home to young Ernest for the first six years of his life, and the foundation purchased it in 1992. After years of renovations, the home offers visitors a glimpse into what life was like in the Victorian household for the Hemingway family.
This summer, the foundation celebrated Hemingway’s birthday with the announcement that another writer would soon become a fixture in the home. Following a contest to determine their new writer-in-residence, Winnetka poet, playwright and novelist Susan Hahn was selected to enjoy a one-year residence with a private office in the Hemingway Birthplace attic. Previously a maid’s room, the small office in the otherwise unfinished attic had not been used in decades. (The attic, however, did serve as a very informal work space for novelist Bill Hazelgrove some years back.)
In preparation for the writer-in-residence program, the foundation undertook a year-long renovation of the space.
The foundation’s executive director, Allison Sansone, noted that the bulk of the attic space was the only part of the home that had never been renovated.
“The attic really looks as it did when the Hemingways lived here,” she said. “About a year ago, we started going through the space with the help of our wonderful intern, Brendan Donley. We found some wonderful things here, including a rocking chair that belonged to Ernest’s sister, Marcelline. It was in six pieces, but we were able to have it restored.”
Sansone called upon family friend Vince Filak, a journalism professor in Wisconsin who also happens to refinish furniture. He was thrilled with the opportunity to work on a piece of furniture that once belonged to the Hemingways, and says it was in rough shape when he saw it.
“The seat was split in half and completely detached from the back rails,” Filak recalled. “Someone had attempted to repair it with bolts. Allison gave me the parts and asked me to see what I could do with it, but what I heard was, ‘Ernest Hemingway sat here. Don’t screw it up.’ I took it all apart, sanded it down, and then it was like a puzzle. You have to figure out what you have and what you need. When it was done, it was really pretty. It was great to work on the historic preservation of something like this and also make sure it wasn’t so delicate that you couldn’t sit in it.”
Today, the chair is displayed in the home’s attic space. Although the attic space is not open to tours, it plays an important role in linking the historical home to a new generation of writers.
Partnership with Thomasville
When the foundation determined that the attic space would make possible a writer-in-residence program, representatives asked Thomasville Furniture designers to come up with plans for the room in the summer of 2012. Thomasville had partnered with the Hemingway family nearly 10 years ago to produce a line of Hemingway furniture, so the foundation turned to Oak Brook’s Thomasville store for help in furnishing the newly completed space.
Designer Barbara Smith of Thomasville recalls, “Early last summer, the foundation asked to partner with Thomasville, and we were thrilled. Two teams came up with two alternative designs to present in early 2013, and the foundation chose my team’s design.”
Smith, who has been a designer for 25 years, worked with Valerie Steiner and Patryce Schlossberg to come up with a safari theme for the office.
“We decided to go the safari route,” Smith said, “and go with a different feeling from the rest of the house with its Victorian furnishings. Going up the stairs to the attic, it just felt like we entered a new space, it almost felt like going into a tent with the constricted space on the stairs.”
Smith noted that Hemingway’s life was so varied with influences from his Oak Park childhood and time as an adult spent in Paris, Spain, Africa, Key West, Idaho and Cuba. The Thomasville line of Hemingway furniture is influenced by Hemingway’s rich personal life, and according to Smith, the line is one of Thomasville’s top sellers.
“All of the inlays in the wood are so beautiful. A lot of the patterns are based on images of African textiles, and the hardware is called gunsmith brass, which certainly sounds like Hemingway the hunter. We get people in the store who are there because they love the collection, and there’s been a real excitement when we tell them about our work in the Hemingway Birthplace. I think this project really connects Thomasville’s clients to the foundation and Hemingway’s [home].”
The foundation was particularly drawn to the Safari Writing Desk and Safari Desk Chair, which helped direct Smith’s design. She chose to create a safari-themed room with masculine fabrics and animal prints. The line’s Havana Chair in a tiger-striped fabric provides comfortable seating, and the adjacent elephant accent table continues the theme. Smith took pains not to put too much into a small space.
“In any design, you take the space you’re given and make the best of it. Here, we had some constraints. We were restricted by the 1800’s home. We had to take the desk apart to get it up the narrow stairs. We also had space restrictions as the room is not overly large, and we wanted the writer to be able to have different viewpoints in the room.”
Smith was careful to make furniture and design choices that made sense in the small space but that also made sense for the room’s occupant.
“I wanted to give the writer some storage. The Swahili Bachelor’s Chest was just the right size. The window seat area was always meant to be like a cot in a tent by the window. I thought of it as a place for the writer to think, plan and write. I positioned the desk so that the writer would be able to look out the window while writing.”
Smith, who coincidentally shares Hemingway’s July 21 birthday, says she felt a kinship with the writer when working in the home and hopes to pass that along.
“The home really inspired us,” she said, “and we know it will inspire the winning writer. What a thrill to be writing in Hemingway’s childhood home.”