“This looks just like 209!” And with those words, my pretense to adult independence came crashing down. My family often referred to my Chicago apartment just by the numbers in our address—Two-Oh-Nine. When I heard my childhood nanny, Caroline, utter this familiar numerical sequence in my “grown up” apartment in West Hollywood, I realized she was right: I had moved thousands of miles across the country just to end up in a recreation of the home I had supposedly left. My elevator opens onto a two-apartment hallway, and my apartment is on the left of the elevator, just like 209. I have a wooden hallway lined with shoes messily strewn about that leads to a Living Room with white plaster walls. I had even hung art above my shoe rack, just like in Chicago. My Living Room has a plush couch across from another white chair with a footsie, reminiscent of what my parents had been sitting on for over thirty years.
I knew that I had a strong fondness and attachment to my childhood home, but I thought I had honored it by having a tattoo of its doorway on my left leg, which I affectionately call my “dead dad tattoo.” I was not only caught off guard, but flushed with embarrassment at Caroline’s observation. This was the first time Caroline visited me in LA, about five years after I had relocated from Chicago to pursue that dream dreaded by parents around the world: working in showbusiness. I guess I wasn’t Thriving with a Capital T as an adult if my apartment looked so much like my family’s.
Though the bedroom is often touted as the central architectural place of one’s identity, the Living Room is the place imprinted on my heart. As a teenager, my bedroom was where I lost myself either in homework I needed to do perfectly, or chat rooms that reminded me I was not having the adolescent sex promised me by movies. The Living Room held me separate from the burdens of daily life and shrouded me in my family. In LA, I notice a deeper calm if I rest in the Living Room, rather than in my bedroom. Somehow, the pressure of good sleep, rest, and taking care of myself is what the bedroom holds. As long as you’re in the Living Room, you’re held at bay from the expectations of wellness.
While “the Living Room” is a common term now, it was invented only in the Victorian Age. Before that, the front space of the house was called a “parlor,” from the French word parler, to speak. This room was also sometimes called the “Drawing Room,” derived from the sixteenth-century term “withdrawing:” when guests were in the house, the owners of the house could “withdraw” to this room for more privacy. Louis XV, who found the famous Sun King Louis XIV’s formal decorations uncomfortable, notably separated formal rooms from more casual family rooms, where royals could relax. In 1743, Charles Etienne Bresseux, the architect behind many Louis Quinze styles, published the essay Architecture moderne ou L’art de bien bâtir, which called for a new emphasis on comfort, rather than pomp, in informal spaces.
In the 19th century, a house’s front room was named the “death room,” where corpses were laid out for visitation. It was only when the spread of influenza lessened (originally brought over after World War I) that Edward Bok, editor of the popular Ladies’ Home Journal, suggested it be known as the “Living Room.” This effort to “liven up” the death room conveniently came with resources brought by the Industrial Revolution for people to spend their money on new furniture to do just that. In the 20th Century, The Radio Corporation of America staged “The Living Room of Tomorrow” at the New York World’s Fair of 1939. Decades later, Walter Kronkite’s smooth voice introduced us to “the Living Room of 2001,” which looks eerily like my early 2000’s Limited Too inflatable furniture collection.
Walking into 209, our Living Room is immediately to your right. We have a white carpet—always stained, yet we always stick with white carpet—and two floral couches on either end that face each other: “mom’s couch” and “dad’s couch.” A CD player (yes, to this day it’s a CD player) sits on a wooden bookshelf behind “dad’s” couch. Not to be outdone with musical accoutrements, my mom has two grand pianos behind her couch (why have one, when you can fit two?) Over the years, another couch joined the fray, one sitting under the windows that face out onto Lake Shore Drive. We have a marble fireplace on the southern wall, on top of which sits pictures of family members who have died.
While this is the overall layout, what most encapsulates our Living Room is the collection of odd objects scattered around: a sort of Sawyier flotsam and jetsam. We have pewter wizards from Renaissance Faire on the wooden tables next to my mom and dad’s couches, glass paperweights, cups of pens for the puzzles my mom likes to do, coasters from art museums, stray CD cases (there is a never-ending battle to eliminate empty CD cases), postcards from art museums, extra blankets, cat beds—once, when my dad showed a picture of our fireplace to a co-worker (as I write that, I realize I have no idea what would call for that), that co-worker asked, “Oh, so you have 3 cats?” To which my dad replied, “Of course not. We have one cat who likes 3 beds.” And books. Endless piles of books.
The Living Room and all of the objects strewn about served as a mirror that showed a reflection of our family truer than any looking glass; it was imbued with us. It has the external molds of what’s going on internally, so our internal selves can rest. We, after all, are the exceptional Sawyiers: finally in our natural habitat, we can calm down rather than fight against our quirky selves and try to fit in with the rest of the world.
The objects were also, however, witnesses to one very important Sawyier ritual: arguing. Especially after my paternal grandmother was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2010, our family disappeared into a cacophony of crying and yelling. The Living Room was where my brother and I sat with super-tuned ears to the passive aggressive comments that we knew would result in someone storming out of the room, and where I sat tensely when friends were over, hoping my family wouldn’t burst into a sporadic yelling match.
This mirror was a grounding presence, even as my family members were not. If parents were running in and out of the rooms yelling at one another, the Living Room stayed gloriously put. If it kept standing and could hold the incredible rage and hurt and love that was expressed there, maybe it was all manageable. Like its predecessors, the “death rooms,” it holds the corpses of fights and evenings held there.
Importantly, there’s no TV —my mom would say it was “uncouth.” Living Rooms in general went through another redesign in the 1950s because people needed to see the TV screen, rather than sit dispersed throughout the Living Room to listen to the radio, and so couches became an important part of Living Room design. Instead of a TV screen, we had a view that looked out onto Lake Shore Drive (recently renamed Jean Pointe Baptiste DuSable Lake Shore Drive, after the first non-indigenous settler of the city from the early 19th century). The view allowed us to be a part of the world without having to deal with it. I learned a few years ago that the block I grew up on is its own district, the East Lake Shore Drive District. Designed by Marshall and Fox and Fugard and Kapp, East Lake Shore Drive sits on the south end of the Gold Coast; again, we are both of and not of the place that surrounds us.
The view also emphasized a self-centeredness of our family: it looked like all of Chicago was on display just for us. The Living Room and its windows feel like the closest representation of my brain and eyes looking out at the world, closer than any diorama found in a biology class. It was one of those crucial childhood memories where you realize your understanding was not correct—like when you finally see the “D” in the Disney logo—when I realized that our view was looking at the sides of the buildings, not their front. My child brain figured that of course the buildings were turned toward our building with a force as natural as gravity.
Those buildings had first been planned in 1870, before the Great Fire. I chuckle as I learn that so many cows wandered into the construction that the architectural firm, Nelson and Benson, got special permission to charge a $15 fee every time they had to capture a cow and wait for its owner to come retrieve it. Businessman Potter Palmer is credited with boosting the development of the Gold Coast. After the Fire, when most of his businessmen co-horts were looking to the south of downtown, he bought the swampy land to the north. After Palmer built his 42-bedroom mansion there (demolished in 1950 to make space for what I always thought were unfortunate-looking twin red brick apartment buildings), wealthy Chicagoans migrated to the area to be a part of the glamour.
Between the buildings and the lake lies a smattering of beaches. Caroline would take us to Oak Street Beach, the one closest to 209, and we’d momentarily enter the space of the tiny people we’d look out upon. But there was always the window of 209, reminding us that we could retreat back into our singular home. Further in the distance, we can see “The Boat,” a structure built on North Avenue Beach that has restaurants and food stands. Yet again, there’s a connection with death and this view; the beach used to be a cemetery in the 1830s, but residents were concerned about the health threat and it became a park. It was only in Roosevelt’s New Deal that the beach was made.
I have found a way to recreate the view here in West Hollywood. While of course, being in LA, I don’t see skyscrapers, I do see buildings—not quite my army of buildings along Lake Shore Drive with their heads turned toward me, but a new set of friends that are always there. The blue of the lake is on the ground in Chicago, the blue of LA’s endlessly sunny sky is on top here in West Hollywood. As I sit at my desk writing, I feel back with my family in 209, sitting around our flotsam and jetsam and seeing the city.
And so perhaps, just as death is an integral part to the Living Room’s history, and death a part of even the view’s history, I can start to see how present and past don’t need to be obsessively separated, but rather integrated. Maybe for it to be a Living Room, it has to have some corpses in it, including the corpse of any pretenses to adulthood I thought I needed to have. The Living Room shows me how beginnings and endings, life and death, new and old, are two sides of the same coin, rather than diametrically opposed phenomena. Instead of showing Caroline that I was Thriving with a Capital T by showing her how separate I was from my childhood home, I could celebrate showing her how my childhood home carries on in me.
Of course my Living Room in LA looks like the Living Room in 209; what else would it look like?