I shouldn’t have grown so attached to it, and now it’s slipping away.
It used to smell musty after a long, hot summer. The rooms stood in semi-darkness from poor lighting, but it hid the torn and dented wallpaper quite well. Furniture cluttered the upstairs, and the kitchen cabinets overflowed with dishes left behind by long-gone residents. But I made the best of it then, and now as a senior resident assistant, I struggle to imagine living anywhere else.
The Paul House sits gracefully between the yellow Sigma Chi house and the empty lot on Hillsdale Street. The best view is from the front porch swing, where one can wave to friends walking into town, see professors driving to work, and predict the ailment of every person treading wearily into the Ambler Health Center. Others might say the view is better from the tower set primly atop the house, by far its most distinctive feature.
But to truly understand the house’s personality, which one of her residents terms as “moody,” let’s take a walk.
I noticed those paint traces my second year living in the house. Before coming to the porch, go find them at the end of the walkway. They speak of bygone days when the house held Hillsdale’s fourth sorority.
Yes. Alpha Xi Delta lived in the house until the early 2000s when their charter was revoked. My little room near the back was an addition for the house mother during those days, and I wish she had reminded the builders to put some insulation in during construction. Old supplies stowed in the basement and fine china in the cabinets also speak to this era.
Besides the tower, the second most striking feature is the house’s deep blue door. Notoriously difficult to open, the bottom right corner is scarred and dented from the many kicks it has received over the years. The current method involves one’s knee and a prayer to avoid impalement on the fake wreath.
The front door safely shut, visitors are greeted by a sweeping, curved stairway and a front hall papered in blue and roses.
“The wallpaper was what made me want to live here, junior Caitlin Lowry said . “We wandered in one day, and that was the first thing we saw. We applied right after that.”
The most dramatic feature in the room hangs just to the left: an ornate wooden panel, set with a mirror directly centered. I use it to admire the effect of my thrift-store President’s Ball dress, but my more practical friends contemplate the worlds that could be reached if they could only step through it.
Built in the late 1800s, the house has seen many people in its halls. According to old Collegian articles, the grandfather of former professor Lillian Libby Rick was Lorenzo Dow, secretary-treasurer for the College. He purchased the Victorian house around 1918 and lived there until the Paul sisters bought it in 1948, five years after Dow’s death.
When the college bought the house, the college officially named it the Dow House to preserve the legacy of Lorenzo Dow and his contributions to the school.
Now take a right, and the glass-paned French doors lead into the front room. High ceilings and three tall windows let the natural light pour into the gray-hued room. Originally hung with wallpaper, recent remodeling found not one but two layers of the material during removal. That huge mirror on the front wall is much too heavy to move, but after close inspection, the observer will be rewarded with a glimpse of both papers. I love recounting to listeners the horror wallpaper has instilled in my 17- year-old brother after he spent close to a week scraping it off those main rooms.
The best surprise of all waits in a small, unpainted rectangle in the northeast corner of the living room. Faint lead pencil marks over the bumpy plaster tell the name and company that hung the paper, and they even left a date: Sept. 1, 1920.
Still, however bright and inviting the inhabitable parts of the house may be, it is the basement that monopolizes people’s attention. Finding the entrance is tricky. Additions and remodeling over the decades have bequeathed current residents with a veritable rabbit warren of oddly connected rooms, a staircase that would make a midget claustrophobic, and at least two sealed doors.
But here is the basement now, so pull hard on the door. If it won’t open, just keep pulling.
Musty scents of worn wood, old stones, and stale water greet the nose, and thin wood steps creak underfoot. Look up. Mid-19th century carpentry mixes with more recent wiring and modern water pipes, creating a strange pattern of eras. A chill comes off the surrounding solid stone foundation.
This is where the tunnel is rumored to be. Its intended original use is still a mystery, with some saying it sheltered escaped slaves during the Civil War. It may have even been used during the Prohibition. Reality dictates its use as a servants’ tunnel when the same family owned both homes, but the house shouldn’t be begrudged a little romance in its old age.
After a fruitless but enjoyable search of the lovingly nicknamed “dungeon,” the journey back to the surface begins. On the way up to sunlight and fresh air, those who remember toss stories to the newcomers of a long night spent in that damp, stone-enclosed space, waiting out tornado warnings and worrying about homework on a recent wild spring day.
Every house has a story to tell and many that will never be known. Its age lends mystery and majesty to the Paul House, but that doesn’t inhibit the numerous young women who have called it home from creating some of their fondest memories within its walls.
For me, it holds all the moments I spent painting its walls with my family, intense conversations with friends while sitting in the kitchen, and days huddled around spaces heaters when our boiler died. Those coming after me may never know me or my connection to the house, but that matters little. Its walls have the beautiful purpose of holding the joy, sorrow, music, tragedy, laughter, and contentment that flows through them, and enabling residents to cherish their time within them.