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The Boss’ House

March 6, 2009


Almost spring – a time for cleaning out the cobwebs – both the real ones and the metaphorical ones. Clearing out a welcome in hopes of warmer, sunnier days to follow. A time for thinking about all things new and paradoxically, all things old, like home. When you’re an Army brat like me (man, I really dislike that term) growing up wherever the military sent you and with parents well past the typical age of first home buyers, where do you call home?


For me, it was the Boss’ house, a remarkable loft conversion warehouse in Leavenworth, Kansas. Remarkable not only because it was structurally unique but because my parents and us kids transformed it into our home with our own blood, sweat and tears. And it represented the culmination of everything my parents ever imagined they’d have in their dream home while chained to military housing in Panama, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Illinois, Kentucky and Hawaii.


At first (and second and third) glance, it didn’t look like much of a home. It was, of all things, a gross salmon pink color (it has since been painted blue) and housed a beleaguered furniture store. It had three stories in addition to a dirt basement that seemed better suited to be a pool than a basement as it was, in those days, deluged with water.

But my parents bought it anyway – the entire building for a whopping $250,000. In 1986 that seemed like a fortune, but now, as an adult living in a major city where you can’t realistically touch a two-bedroom townhouse for the same amount, an entire warehouse for a quarter of a million dollars now sounds like a steal. And, I’m sure my dad knew it.

I know that the man who sold the building to my parents was making enough of a profit to believe he was on the winning end of the bargain, just as much as dad thought he was robbing the guy blind. They both walked away from the purchase happy, it seemed. In retrospect, I think he never thought my father would do anything with that building, let alone move his wife and four children into it. I know he didn’t see the same potential my dad saw in this shitty building with cracked beams, full of dusty orphaned furniture and complete with wood plank floors that even a child could see were half rotted and uneven.


We worked on the building every weekend for three years. We’d get up on Saturdays and Sundays around 6:30, get there by 7 or 7:30, break at 11 or 12 for a fast food lunch and work until about 2 or 3 in the afternoon. We got to know the Whopper Jr. with cheese really well.



It took one full year and six workers – two legal and four illegal child laborers just to clear out the building. Us kids were mostly charged with carrying buckets and barrels and dollies full of debris. It was Groundhog Day every weekend. Rinse and repeat. We had great times though.


We started from the basement and worked our way up; each floor filled with what my eight-year old brain thought was crap. And most of it was. But, there were also plenty of gems. All the bathroom vanities in the house today were found in that initial cleaning – two of them solid oak.


Once the building was cleared out, plans were drawn up for what would become our home. The basement was for storage. The first floor housed the garage, a small loft apartment with a separate entrance, and business tenants in the front. The second floor initially was also rented out to various business tenants and is currently used for storage. The top, third floor, was the space for the six of us to live.

Finally our home was done and we filled it with my parent’s eclectic collection of art and oddities. Our previous dwelling on Ft. Leavenworth had been on the tour of homes, so I always had an idea that my family’s collection held some interest for others, but I didn’t yet know how remarkable some were. Pieces I took for granted, like the redwood table dad built when, surprise! twins, that he then paired with pews rescued from an Oklahoma church that was going by way of the wrecking ball. Or the mismatched porcelain elephants from Egypt that served as that table’s legs.  The solid brass SCUBA helmet from Hawaii (think 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea). The Molas (a textile derived from the Panamanian Indians) held in frames and displayed on the walls. The pinball machine featuring Elton John as the Pinball Wizard in “Tommy.” And I cannot forget to mention the vintage Harley Davidson motorcycle. The perfect spot for that? Well, hanging from one of the ceiling’s walnut beams, of course. Their collection of artwork and furniture was incredible. Always was and still is.

The frosting on the cake – dad commissioned an old Army artist buddy to paint a reproduction of Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA album cover on the outside garage door for all of Leavenworth to see. Not embarrassing at all.


I now know that my dad taught us a lesson through the process of making this building into a home – the magical and fulfilling feeling of starting and finishing a seemingly impossible project. I can’t say that he consciously knew he was giving us this gift, I only know that it was his conviction that this piece of crap building could be turned into the treasure known as our home even when no one else could. And I also know that a part of myself, my siblings, my mother and father, truly are living inside the Boss’ house.