12: 1100 West Abram
Hightower At the corner of Summit Avenue and West Abram Street in Arlington, Texas sits a single story brick house. Built in 1950, it has four bedrooms and two baths. It has a fireplace, central heating and air and hardwood flooring.
Form the outside it looks like a perfectly normal part of the suburban landscape. A few months ago my brother and I decided to break into it.
Carlton …We’re going into a house we don’t own… Hello?
Hightower My brother and I have a long history with this house – a history that goes back as long as we’ve been alive. Our parents have a connection to it as well. Or at least my Mom does - she grew up there.
You see 1100 West Abram Street was my grandparents’ house. On the one hand, the story of the house isn’t particularly remarkable - all houses have stories. But the story of 1100 is a big part of my story. And as this is my podcast, I thought I would share it.
And so that’s what we’re going to talk about on this, the twelfth episode of The Works – a podcast about Architecture, those who create it and those who inhabit it.
I’m Brantley Hightower.
Guy Carlton Hutcheson was born in 1911 in Springtown, Texas. If you’ve never heard of Springtown don’t feel bad – most people haven’t. It’s a small town in Parker County about thirty miles northwest of Fort Worth.
My grandfather was the youngest of 9 brothers and sisters. At the height of the Great Depression he attended Texas A&M University. While working towards a degree in Radio Engineering he listened to shortwave radio broadcasts from Admiral Richard E. Byrd’s first expedition to Antarctica.
After he graduated my grandfather learned a second exposition was being organized. Even though he knew it was a long shot, he wrote to Admiral Byrd asking if they needed an extra radio operator.
It turns out they did. And so at the age of 22 my grandfather got on a train to Boston and then boarded one of two ships headed for the bottom of the world.
When he returned to the United States two years later my grandfather and the rest of the crew were greeted as heroes. He met President Roosevelt and landed a job at the Columbia Broadcasting System in New York City.
The 1930s was the golden age of radio and CBS was an exciting place to be. Both Edward R. Murrow and Orson Wells were working there at the time.
My grandfather could have continued his rise as a radio executive in New York. By the mid 1940s he was already a Vice President at CBS, but he also had a growing family. He had courted and married Mittie Ruth Beal, a fellow Texan who also happens to be my grandmother. They were married in 1938 and by 1941 their first daughter – and my future aunt – was born.
As exciting as his career in New York was shaping up to be, the schedule was brutal and his work would never allow him to spend the time he wanted with his wife and kid. Family was very important to my grandfather, and so he did what engineers do when faced with a problem. He designed a solution.
After 8 years in New York he and his family moved back to Texas. He established an engineering consulting office in Arlington, which at the time was a small town located midway between Dallas and Fort Worth. The idea was that from that central location he could serve the growing markets of both those cities.
As his new office grew so too did his family. My mother was born in 1947.
Of course the reason my grandfather left New York was that he wanted to spend more time with his family. In order to do this he needed to work as close to them as possible. That’s what he told the architect who turned that desire into concrete, brick and wood.
A gabled roof covers the front porch of 1100 West Abram. As you pass through the front door you enter a narrow foyer. If you turn to the right you pass through another door and into my grandparent’s house. Turn to the left, and you enter into my grandfather’s office.
The office interior was designed to feel like an office. It has lots of wood paneling and an acoustical tile ceiling with large fluorescent light fixtures. More importantly as far as my grandfather was concerned, his family was always under the same roof.
For its part, the house interior felt like a typical mid-century ranch house. My grandparents lived in the house for close to 50 years. My mom and aunt grew up there as well. Countless meals were cooked in the kitchen and then enjoyed at the little table that sat in its center. After my mom and aunt had families of their own, 1100 was where we would all gather together for family events.
When my brother and I were kids it was a perfect grandparents house – an ideal blend of comfort and mystery. We would spend the night there on weekends. We would imagine adventures with our Star Wars figures in our mom’s old bedroom. We would explore the crawlspace under the house. We would play on the swing set in the back yard.
I wanted to walk through the house one last time. I wasn’t able to make it back up to Arlington before the house was sold in November of last year but a few days after the closing date my brother and I found an extra key and decided to sneak in for one last look.
Carlton I feel like I’m going into a sting operation here – do you want to tape this across my chest?
Hightower It had probably been close to a year since I had been in the house. It had been empty for so long its lack of furniture seemed normal. If anything it made it easier for us to imagine what it looked like when our grandparents still lived there. The Family Room, for example used to have a sofa placed along a wall and three chairs. The one closest to the TV both rocked and spun around – something that made it the most prized location.
Because of my grandfather’s involvement with CBS he was able to get his hands on one of the first televisions in Arlington. He actually had his architect design a space for it in the wood cabinets that separated the Family Room from the Kitchen.
Carlton It’s funny just thinking about how many times we sat here and watched TV staring at that little hole right there – how small that TV was.
Hightower As kids, when we’d spend the night on weekends we would watch Texas Rangers baseball games and reruns of “Hee Haw” and “The Muppet Show“. My grandfather especially enjoyed Statler and Waldorf, the two old guys who heckled the performers from their box on the side of the theatre.
Statler We now realize television has one major advantage over a live stage show.
Waldorf Yeah? What’s that?
Statler A television you can turn off.
Hightower When we walked into my grandfather’s old office, it was empty, too. There used to be an old drafting table in one corner and a row of metal filing cabinets in the other. Now all that was left were the built-in wood cabinets above where they used to be.
Carlton I remember when Papa called Floyd Gunn…
Hightower Mr. Gunn was a homebuilder who also served with my Grandfather on the Arlington School Board. My grandfather was a school board member for 19 years and they named Hutcheson Junior High after him. Gunn Junior High was named after his friend.
Carlton Apparently Mr. Gunn put these up – you know – fifty years ago and they started sinking so he called him to come out and fix them… You know I remember him coming in and working for a week with PaPa.
And I go, “PaPa, did you pay him?”
He goes, “No.”
And I go, “Did you offer?”
Hightower My grandfather’s office took up the entire east side of the house and had windows on three sides. The north windows looked out onto the front yard where we stood and watched as the Olympic torch was carried down Abram Street on its way to Los Angeles in 1984. The south windows looked into the back yard. It wasn’t particularly large – maybe half an acre, but it was bigger than the yard we had at our house. It also had a fairly dense perimeter of trees we called “the forest”. My grandfather would pull me in a wagon through the forest. And apparently he would take my brother hunting for moles.
Carlton He’d walk and when he’d find a mushy part in the ground he would go out there and dig and find a mole tunnel. And then he had this – it looked like a mini bear trap. I mean – I don’t now how someone didn’t loose a finger with it. Yeah, he’d put it down there in there and then he’d put a shingle on top so it would get dark and then he would put a brick on top so it wouldn’t blow off and you could see it so you wouldn’t step on it. And in the morning we’d go check for… for rodents.
Hightower On Christmas Day tables would be pushed together in the dining room to accommodate all their kids and grandkids. The tree would be set up in the Living Room and of course the gifts would be placed underneath. I remember unwrapping a toy Millennium Falcon there and my cousins helping me put it together.
When you’re a kid, childhood and the people and places that define it seem like they will last forever. It’s only later that you realize everything is finite.
As for my brother and I – well, we did what kids and grandkids always do. We grew up. I had moved away and was studying architecture in Austin when I got the call from my Mom telling me that my grandmother had died. That afternoon I drove up I-35 and went straight to visit my grandfather. For the first time, he was alone at 1100.
My grandmother was buried in Springtown. On the way back we stopped at a McDonalds – I think my Dad needed a coffee and my mom needed to use the bathroom. I was sitting in the back seat and my grandfather sitting in the front. He was staring off into the half-empty parking lot and I was trying to think of something to say.
I can’t remember exactly how the conversation started – my grandfather didn’t talk much. But he did say that my grandmother – his wife of 58 years – made one consistent request as her health was declining. She didn’t want to leave 1100. Even though she could have received better care elsewhere, she wanted to stay in the house that was her home.
I told my grandfather that he had done just that – he had fulfilled her wish.
He nodded in agreement.
In the years that followed my grandfather technically lived at 1100 by himself but my brother would often come to stay with him. Even though he had an apartment, my brother basically was my grandfather’s roommate.
A few years later when my grandfather moved to an assisted living facility, my brother moved in to 1100 full time. I even lived there for a few months after I first moved back to Texas from Chicago. I worked in Dallas and at the end of my miserable, hour-long commute I’d visit my grandfather. He’d be waiting for me in the lobby. He wouldn’t talk much but I’d tell him a little about what I my day was like – what I was working on and what my brother and I were doing. I’d help walk him into dinner and then I’d leave to go home. Of course, my home was actually his home and although he never said it, I’m sure he wished he, too, could go back to 1100. Still, I think he liked the fact that his family was still making use of his house.
My grandfather died in 2004. My brother was still living at 1100, and he and the rest of us grandsons met at the little table in kitchen and together wrote the eulogy we delivered at the Methodist Church the following day. We then buried him in Springtown, next to his wife.
Not long after that my brother married and moved out of 1100. My Mom continued to use the house for several years as an art studio as the furniture was slowly divided up among the family. Eventually it became obvious that the house needed to be sold and so in November of last year, it was.
Hightower The west wall of the dining room at 1100 is wallpapered with a printed mural that depicts a group of houses in a neighborhood. The houses are all different and small figures can be seen walking or playing around them. It was something I remember looking at a lot when I was a kid. It’s something that apparently all kids like to look at – including my brother’s daughter, Chloe.
Carlton I showed it to Chloe and Mom was pointing out the little kids that she used to have names for and what they were doing and Chloe started doing the same thing. It was kind of neat.
Hightower What my mom and my niece both picked up on is the fact that a house is like a person. Every house has a story. and those stories are what make a house a home.
Whenever you drive through a neighborhood you see lots of these containers for memories. Most of their stories will remain unknown to all but those who experienced them, but that doesn’t make them any less real.
When it was time for my brother and I to leave 1100 we locked the back door, wiped off our fingerprints, and made our way down the brick path to where we had parked in front of the garage. When we would visit 1100 as kids our grandparents would always walk this same path and wave as our car backed out of the gravel drive. It’s probably been 20 years since the last time that happened. That’s half my life, but I can still see them. I still see them standing there waving goodbye.
That’s what I see when I pass by 1100 West Abram. What do you see?
Thanks today to my big brother, Carlton, for sharing with me his memories of his time at 1100. Thanks also to my family who was responsible for so many of my memories. In addition to my grandparents, that family includes my parents, Ann and John Hightower, my cousins Bill, Caroline and Jon Carroll and my aunt and uncle, Betty and Van Barringer.
The music today was by Chris Zabriskie with audio clips from Rudy Vallee, Gene Autry, The Mercury Theatre on the Air, “Hee Haw” and “The Muppet Show”.
Waldorf Just when you think this show is terrible, something wonderful happens.
Waldorf It ends.
The Works is a production of HiWorks and you can find more information about it and everything we’ve talked about today – including some photos of the house at 1100 West Abram - at Hi dot Works.
Until next time, I’m Brantley Hightower.