The Coleman House

Joseph Campbell said that sacred places are where you go to wake up something important about yourself. Specifically, “A place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are or what you might be.”

…go where your body and soul want to go. When you have that feeling, then stay with it and don’t let anyone throw you off.  –J. Campbell

When I wrote about how creating and inhabiting personal space nourishes us from the inside out, [The Poetry of Space] I remembered a place rooted in my childhood­. It was an 1840’s, pre-Civil War, stately brick home fronting more than 600 acres of Missouri woods and farmland.

Why did a 100+ year-old house in Villa Ridge, Missouri, deeded to my grandmother on the sudden death of her second husband take me metaphorically “where body and soul wanted to go? I stayed with the feeling, as Campbell suggested, dug into archival history, then realized it was a story of its own.

This place, in rural Missouri, is why houses and spaces resonate with me. Time spent in this house, with more than a century of history, was where I learned that certain spaces are more than a container with walls and floors.

illustration of Coleman House by Eloise LeSaulnier, 1975

I don’t remember John Coleman, who wed my grandmother late in life, but I do remember the house that his grandfather, Spencer J. Coleman, bought exactly one hundred years before his last living heir, grandson John, dropped dead outside the home where he was born. 

That unexpected death occurred only two years into the second marriage of John Coleman and my paternal grandmother, Effie [“Fifi”] Harbour Coulter. John lived 77 years. Fifi, widowed for the second time at age 68, was deeded the house and 665 acres of prime Missouri farmland.

wedding photo john and effie coleman [center], I’m on my mother’s lap next to john

The Coleman House, as it is called today, became the place for our extended family to spend time together. Thirty miles from St. Louis off old Highway 100, Fifi’s six children and many grandchildren annually spent Memorial Day, July 4th and Labor Day holidays at the farm. Potluck picnics were set up on tables in the side yard. The adult crowd ate and socialized on lawn chairs while grandchildren from toddlers to teens were largely left to their own devices. 

In my age group, cousins ran freely around the house and outbuildings or across the road to the school playground. We banged out every version of “Chopsticks” on the old upright piano. We walked the grassy road to the first big gate. If the black bull with a reputation for charging wasn’t in sight, we went on through and down the hill to the pond.

It was a jubilant time with a different brand of freedom; protected independence, discovery and exploration, wide-open country spaces, and the backdrop of a slightly downtrodden, but still imposing house, with tall-ceilinged rooms so different from the way we lived in town.

Coleman House, 1960s version

The condition and decor of the house might be described as mid-20th century shabby. There had been multiple renovations since its pre-Civil War prime. At this time, it featured large-patterned wallpaper, beige carpeting over wood floors, rickety enclosed porches with creaky, tilting floorboards, and fireplaces sealed or completely walled off. The eat-in kitchen had no built-in counter space. The plumbing upstairs and down was cast iron bathtubs, no showers.

cousin judy when she lived at the farm, with large format wallpaper

What it looked like didn’t matter. What I remember is feeling happiness and liberating independence. Coleman House was where I “woke up” to making a decision about the future. I would only live in places and spaces that offered a brand of comfort and being at home in myself.

The summer I turned 11, we moved to a different state. Two years later we returned to visit the St. Louis family. At that time, an aunt and uncle and two of my closest cousins were living with Fifi to help manage the big house, the livestock and the fields. 

When it was time to drive back to Texas I begged to be left for a longer stay. The rest of that summer is etched in long-term memory. Finally I was living in a place I loved, where learning and experiencing and confidence building occurred by waking up in rural country spaces every day.

My cousin Karen taught me to drive a stick shift VW Beetle on farm roads. I gathered eggs, hung laundry to dry outside, picked garden strawberries, rode tractors, hand milked the cow, and stuck my finger into the thick layer of cream at the top of the milk canister. In the pick up truck, we checked on the cows down in the fields, sometimes with hay or a block of salt. I hiked to where the tiny Coleman family cemetery was hidden in the woods.

My cousin Judy and I had a job selling July Fourth fireworks at a temporary stand on the highway. We sweated through our clothes, walked home covered in dust, and with a little money in our pockets. Before falling asleep, I climbed onto Judy’s bed under the window hoping to catch a whiff of breeze. Every night, with hands propped under her chin, she rattled off the make, model, and year of each passing car as it rounded the curve in the highway. Squinting at red taillights from a second floor window and listening to her monologue was sleep inducing. 

In the old house, Judy felt the presence of “others.” No one believed her. According to her daughter Elise’s retelling, radio and television dials were in the habit of flipping on and off. Once, to make it stop, Judy unplugged the big radio in the kitchen, but the music continued. Sometimes the vacuum cleaner mysteriously went into action with no human nearby. On her only visit to the house, Elise herself experienced an eerie vision of “a coffin with a body” right where she was standing. She ran out of the house to escape the image. In an earlier century, the room she was in would have been used as the viewing parlor when family members died. Current owners of Coleman House mention “a light” or “a shadow” going up the staircase from time to time. 

When Fifi died, her estate was sold in its entirety, house and acreage, to a real estate firm in St. Louis and later to Ralston Purina Company. Purina owned much of the surrounding land since the 1920s and still operates a research farm in the area.

I knew the Coleman House before I understood Joseph Campbell’s sentiment about “sacred places and spaces”. It awakened something inside me at a tender age for two reasons. It was a unique and memorable place. And I was with people who granted me the freedom to experiment and experience during formative years.

Everything that happened at Coleman house helped create my better self then. And everything that happened brought forth the person I became.



–AN ADDENDUM– 

A Consolidated History of the Coleman Family and Coleman House

In 1837, Spencer Joseph Coleman [1816-1888] moved west, with his father and brothers, from the depleted soils of Virginia to land south of the Missouri River near St. Louis. They planned to start a new family plantation. By 1841, Spencer married Elizabeth Ann Wright and decided he liked the land further west, near Gray Summit, in Franklin County. So he split off from the family and began buying up different sized parcels over many years. Eventually he acquired 665 acres of rolling hills and fertile fields for growing tobacco and hemp. 

Along the way he saw an elegant red brick mansion built by James Ming in the 1840’s. He offered to buy it with an attached 200 acres. Ming was a skilled craftsman and had built the home for himself using walnut, white pine, and oak cut from the land. He oversaw the making of each brick–cut from clay soil, shaped, molded and fired on site. But he sold the house and land to Spencer for $6000 in 1856.

It was initially called Bellaire, a solidly built mansion of masonry walls two bricks thick with a foundation of limestone blocks. The front porch entry was relatively small, but featured hand carved decorations and four columns on the front and two on either side of the door. There was leaded glass above and around the door. 

front of coleman house, date unknown

Inside were two large rooms flanking a central walnut staircase. The back entrance opened to a double open porch gallery of two stories with its own smaller stairway. Beams used to support the upper gallery were hand hewn from trees cut on property and cemented with wooden pins. The kitchen was also in the back with an attached summer kitchen for hot weather cooking. Upstairs were three bedrooms, two large ones at the front of the house and a smaller nursery behind. There were six fireplaces for heating, three on each floor.

Spencer Coleman, with wife Elizabeth Ann [1823-1867] and four children moved into Ming’s mansion in 1856. For the next 100 years it was passed down through succeeding Coleman generations. Eldest son William Joseph Coleman [1848-1925] was the first to inherit the house and farm when Spencer died in 1888.

William Coleman married 15-year-old Emma Lou Sullivan [1860-1883] in 1875. She bore three children before dying tragically when her skirts caught on fire while burning trash and leaves in the orchard. She was only 23.  William was left with two young children–Emma Josephine [1876-1952] and my grandfather by marriage, John Marshall Coleman [1879-1956]. William asked his unmarried sister, Elmira, to move in and help care for the family. He never married again.

That generation of Colemans, Emma J. and John M., the children of William and Emma Lou, the grandchildren of Spencer and Elizabeth Ann, produced no heirs.

John Coleman’s first wife died in 1925. He waited 29 years to remarry. This time was to my paternal grandmother Effie Lavina Harbour Coulter [Fifi]. He was 75. She was 66. Fifi had raised five daughters and one son, my father Joseph Clayton. My grandfather, Andrew Joseph Coulter, left her widowed in 1946.

Fifi’s wedding day with her children, from left: Jackie, Lee, Nicky, Effie, Joe, Bess, Dot, 1954

Effie and John had already known each other for many years. John was a lawyer by degree but worked as the bookkeeper for my grandfather’s “Coulter Feed and Grain” store in downtown Kirkwood. It is rumored that he was sweet on Fifi for a long time before asking her to marry. She moved into Coleman House in May 1954. 

Fifi and John at the farm

Two years later, John was in the yard talking about building another pond in the fields when he keeled over from a heart thrombosis and died instantly. My cousin, Linda, remembers it because she was spending the night at the farm as she often did with Fifi.

From the purchase of the property by Spencer in 1856 to John’s death in 1956, one hundred years of Coleman legacy ended that summer evening. My grandmother inherited the estate. For the next seventeen years, Coleman House and farm was part of our extended family.

In 1973 Fifi died and everything was eventually purchased by Ralston Purina Company. It added a large parcel to their adjacent land. Transient workers, who were researching animals or Purina product development, moved in and out. Soon everything­–the house, grounds, and outbuildings fell into crumbling disrepair.

Finally, in 1985, Purina sold the house “as is” with a few acres of land to a couple working for the company. That’s when transformation began. I didn’t meet these owners, but I learned that their labor-of-love saved the historic property from complete ruin. Over many years, with a contractor’s help, the house was gutted and literally rebuilt from the inside out.

Because it was solid brick construction, they began pulling down interior plaster walls to build new walls with studs, insulation, and dry wall. All six fireplaces were opened and restored to the top of the chimneys. In the kitchen, one fireplace was hidden behind a wall. It turned into a beautiful and usable part of the room.

kitchen fireplace

White pine floors were uncovered and refinished. The walnut staircase was refurbished. The attic was insulated. Original single pane windows were replaced by custom built ones. Two rickety enclosed porches on the back were torn off and rebuilt to their original open architecture. 

The smallest of the upstairs bedrooms was opened and incorporated into the master bathroom with a fireplace and sitting area, now used as a sewing room. The summer kitchen was torn off and rebuilt brick by brick to become the back entrance. The old wooden front porch must have been unsalvageable because it was replaced with bricks spanning the front of the house and a second floor balcony was added. Shutters were hung on the outside windows.

After years of living in a construction zone, a job change occurred, and the property sold in 2003 to the couple that now lives there. They have added their own touches–an attached garage and an outbuilding for storing antiques for their business. The summer kitchen entry was raised by one story to house an office upstairs and an improved bathroom/laundry area below. The cedar shake roof was replaced with metal after severe hail damage several years ago. They built a patio and walkway around the house with 10,000 cobblestones and added to the landscaping by replacing dead trees, planting many shrubs, and adding a large flower/vegetable garden. 

These are the people who graciously allowed me to visit Coleman House in early spring this year. I went with my cousin, Karen, who had lived there with her mother, father, sister, and our grandmother. 

karen, who taught me to drive at 13

It was wonderful to see the changes from “then to now”. Coleman House was truly saved after 1985. It was revitalized to modern living standards and new generations continue adding to its legacy. Restorations that took decades of vision and a tremendous outlay of work enhance the original beauty of James Ming’s craftsmanship from almost two centuries ago. 




ADDENDUM 2

Added Coulter Lore with Pics

Coulter family, circa 1937
Standing left to right: Bessie Mae [Bess or Betty], Joseph Clayton [Joe], Effie Lavina [Fifi], Andrew Joseph [Joe], Ethel Ann [Nicky], Dorothy Jane [Dot] Seated left to right: Jacqueline Elise [Jack or Jackie], Frances Lee [Lee]
Fifi Coulter Coleman dressed up, in summer

*Final musings about my grandmother.

Until I began this research, I wasn’t thinking much about the work-a-day life for women in my grandmother’s era. It was overwhelming by anyone’s standards. Over the span of 17 years, Effie bore 5 girls and 1 boy at home and raised them almost singlehandedly. Her husband, a middle-aged man who provided for the family, was uninvolved in household life. Grampa Joe was known to sit in his chair reading the newspaper with a spittoon at his feet, seemingly oblivious to the chaos of six children running in circles around him. Added to that workload was the daily care and feeding of a mother-in-law who wouldn’t get out of bed for the last 20 years of her life. And then, after marriage, several daughters lived at home with their husbands until finding other arrangements.

The overall picture of Fifi’s life looked like this: The full management of a large household with six children underfoot, a disconnected, but working, husband, a mother-in-law who decided to stay in bed for 20 years, taking in boarders for extra money, and adult children moving in and out with spouses.

Perhaps John Coleman saved Fifi by carrying her off to the farm where she only had one man to worry about.

The Poetry of Space

Your home has to be a refuge, the place you come back to after the world has done all the things it has done to you, where you can be truly yourself, power out, refuel. It should feel good every time you walk in the door.Amanda Dameron

One year into the Covid-19 pandemic, where spending more time at home has been the norm, the importance of home space, how we create it, how we live in it, what it means, seems a timely topic.

Quarantine has redesigned the rhythms of life at home. It has provided different ways to think about and use space. It’s not only about structure, but also light and air, comfort, privacy and intimacy in a place where we can safely talk, think, do, or just be. 

drawing by elizabeth zareh, 2020

…as a child, I always wanted to be in other people’s houses. Now, though still fascinated by those other houses, I am only really comfortable and relaxed in my own. My house is like a garment, made to my exact measurements, draped around me in the way I like… Margaret Forster

My interest in houses and interior spaces began in childhood. In a small town suburb of a mid-western city, my mother would pile my younger sister and me into the backseat of the station wagon whenever she visited a friend outside our neighborhood. I never refused to go. I knew we would drive past a certain house, on curvy Big Bend Road, where my imaginary friend Cindy lived. And every time we drove by, I said aloud, “Look, there’s Cindy’s house!”

Imaginary friends weren’t an option–they were essential.Emory Ann, 23 Things Only Children Know to be True

I made up this friend, gave her a name, and pretended to call her on the phone from the car because there was something I loved about that particular house, shaded by tall trees on a curved lot. I wanted to run to the door and be invited to play with a friend who didn’t exist. In my eight-year-old mind, I even imagined living in this cottage-like home with people I didn’t know.

Like the body itself, a home is something both looked at and lived in.…it is an image, an idea, a goal; perhaps as it was for my mother…it has filtered down to me. –Rachel Cusk

It is common to find a family link in people who care about how they live, what their space looks like, how it feels to others. Often it begins in an environment during childhood, emulating a grandmother or mother or aunt’s sense of design and comfort in the home. Sometimes it comes from another early life experience.

I spoke with a sampling of family and friends about how their interest developed in creating a home that both nurtured them and resonated with others. I asked for a recollection or anecdote when they knew that space, of a certain style, just so, would be important for the rest of their lives. 

Responses varied from a childhood obsession for re-arranging furniture in a tiny bedroom until it felt right, to sewing curtains, bedspreads and pillows to create a signature space. Others spoke of a fascination with miniature rooms in doll houses, or a teenage bedroom on the top floor of a Victorian house with a sink built into the closet, or annually setting up a primitive cabin in a summer boys camp.

My friend Marilyn Larson wrote a beautiful memory about playing with her younger sister on the family farm in southern Minnesota. In a small grove of trees, they carefully raked the ground and removed debris in preparation for setting up rooms for a home. Each room was given a name designated by purpose, furnished with orange crates, lumber, or broken implements scavenged outside the barn. Sometimes they played “restaurant” by setting up a counter on a long plank of wood dragged from the junk pile, accessorized with broken dishes. They served homemade “mud cakes” and tried to entice their brother to buy one.

My brother-in-law Erik, a professional designer, has two memorable stories. The first was when he carved the skyline of New York City into the pine headboard of the bed his father had just built. Only six-years old, using pointy scissors and ballpoint pens as primitive tools, he was proud of the creation of what he thought New York might look like. His parents were not impressed. He also secreted clear plastic food containers from the kitchen to an empty neighborhood field where he spent hours constructing houses, buildings and towns in the open, weedy landscape. His mother had no appreciation for this either. But he was onto something that evolved into a life of designing and building sets and spaces for theater, television, and corporations.

Frank Lloyd Wright, whose work organically synced with nature, was influenced by space as a toddler. His schoolteacher mother bought a set of educational blocks created by the German educator, Friedrich Froebel. These geometrically shaped blocks were designed to teach children about form and relationship to nature. Wright remembers being fascinated by them, assembling shapes and compositions for hours at a time. He credited them for kindling his creative mind toward architectural design.

…there is no true understanding of any art without some knowledge of its philosophy. Only then does its’ meaning come clear. –Frank Lloyd Wright

Considering houses as art forms, Wright suggests that to really understand them they should be viewed philosophically. But it was a book by Gaston Bachelard that first started me thinking about houses metaphorically.

Gaston Bachelard [1884-1962] was a French philosopher from the last century. But his idea of the house as poetic space that holds memories and opens portals to dreams and imagination feels timeless.

Bachelard uses the image of houses “as a tool for analysis of the human soul”. Simplified, the house is the container that shelters our body, which is the container for our inner life. To access inner life requires daydreaming. In order to daydream we need solitary time. With solitary time, we learn to love “the space inside us”, the creative dreaming place. Learning to happily “abide” within ourselves while in the shelter of the house is poetry, because the house is in us as much as we are in it. What does this mean?

The house, a physical space, provides shelter for us to dream and make memories. These are held in our unconscious, a metaphysical place. Remembering dreams is easier with connection to an actual space. When the house offers places to curl up, in solitude, such as nooks and crannies, window seats, attics and garrets, one’s own bedroom, there are built-in places to think and dream and create. The circle of house around us housing the soul within us is poetry.

Bachelard says children must be allowed time to daydream. They need to learn to love being alone and, at times, even bored. Solitary time opens and invites new thinking in unexpected ways–just as poetry does. Time alone teaches children to live within themselves, too. Inside their daydreams is where they experience the immensity of imagining–worlds within worlds.

The house protects the dreamer. The houses that are important to us are the ones that allow us to dream in peace.Gaston Bachelard

The house you were “born in” is your first space of material warmth, protection and rest. It is imprinted in a place in the subconscious that you may or may not return to in dreams. If we dream about houses they are often not easily described by words. There’s where the poetry comes in.

In the house I was born into, my older sister had the best room. Her bedroom was underneath the roof. To the right, at the top of the stairs, was an aromatic cedar closet where seasonal clothes were stored. To the left, down a narrow hallway was the door to her room. The walls and ceiling were honey colored pine and the ceiling angled like a triangle from the peak. Low walls ran along both sides with cubbyhole doors that hid spaces further under the eaves. There was a tiny closet with low hanger bars and a narrow shelf for folded clothes. The only window opened to a flat roof over the front porch. It was forbidden to go out there because you might “fall through” the unsupported porch ceiling. But I learned that my sister crawled out the window to climb onto the higher roof and [secretly] smoke with her friends. 

birth house, st. louis, missouri

When she was away, I lay on her bed, stared into the peak, re-arranged the furniture in my head, and imagined how I would live if this were my space. Eventually I had a claim to the coveted room when it was time for her to go to university. But then my father took a job in a different state. And that perfect bedroom nest, which I never fully inhabited, still recurs in my nighttime dreams. [Disclosure: with the addition of a bathroom through the back wall of the closet by my subconscious.]

Our house is our corner of the world…it is our first universe. If looked at intimately–even the humblest dwelling is beautiful. –Gaston Bachelard

All inhabited space is essentially the notion of home. But it doesn’t have to be a house as the shelter that opens the doorway to creativity and dreaming. A hermit’s hut, a childhood bedroom, a tent in the woods, the car on a road trip, a favorite hike, a deep soaking bathtub, a tree next to a river–places where we can be alone are also conduits to accessing “inside” spaces where we think and dream and create. Even the humblest, most primitive space can be this place.

You have to filter out stale ideas that your mother gave you about how you should live, or what you should have in your space. Does it have to do with you, or not? –Interior designer, New York Times

flying goddess gift from a friend

My mother had a knack for making houses into homes. She intuitively knew how things should be arranged and was true to her own tastes for creating comfort in the places I grew up. Later, she was on the sidelines with advice as I began experimenting with my own living spaces. 

The time came when we both realized that choices going forward needed to be mine and not hers. One birthday she gave me a clear glass ginger jar lamp stuffed with white seashells. The shade had accordion pleats the color of beige sand. I didn’t say I hated it, but it had nothing to do with me. It was her idea of a cool accessory. So I diplomatically said I didn’t want a lamp as much as I wanted a professional bread knife with serrated edges. She kept the lamp. I got the knife. Future gifts were checks.

My first apartment living alone was in Madison, Wisconsin on the top floor of a house across the street from Lake Monona. It had a glassed-in porch that looked into trees on the lake shore. The bed was a saggy mattress on top of bouncy coil springs hauled down from the attic one floor above. I arranged green trees and plants for window treatments, hammered Indian cotton tapestries to the wall to hide plaster cracks, and covered splintery floors with funky patchwork rugs. There was no bedroom door so I tacked up a curtain of wooden beads that clinked and swayed in long strands. It was perfect.

Marriage followed with several changes in geography in the U.S. Eventually we made the decision to move overseas. Different stories accumulated while living in five countries over the next 30 years. Apartments or houses in Singapore, Cyprus, Taiwan, Germany and France were woven together by the layout of affordable space that fit our family and by treasures we collected from each place we lived. There were always challenges while adapting to a new job, unfamiliar languages and cultures. But whatever the outside world threw at us, when we crossed the threshold of each dwelling and breathed in familiar sights and scents, it was our space, our comfort, our sanctuary of home.

paris apartment, 16th arrondissement

My artist friend, Catherine Ventura, whom I met in Taiwan said it best, “I make familiar spaces in unfamiliar places.” We all did.

The ideal of happiness has always taken material form in the house, whether cottage or castle. It stands for permanence and separation from the world. –Simone de Beauvoir

Frances Schultz recovered from a failed relationship and missteps in mid-life by buying and renovating a tiny dilapidated cottage with good bones. She wrote a therapeutic memoir about healing herself with the power and creativity of making a beautiful home. 

the bee cottage, hamptons, long island by frances schultz

There are no rules about how a house becomes a home. It requires thought, time and attention, and putting your stamp on it by living in the space. As far as decorating, Schultz advises intuition; “If it feels right, it probably is. If it doesn’t, it isn’t. Instincts are not wrong. Ignoring them is…when a space is right for you; there is an instinctive response to it–an intuitive sense of how you would live there, where your things would go, what you would keep, and what you would change. It’s a project, not a struggle.”

Ruth Bender, a long time friend, wrote these thoughts; “Making a home is a mentally engaging and creative gift to oneself. It is an expression of love to those we are lucky enough to actually be with and to those dear ones who are gone or far away.”

Houses that become homes are like a poem. They have structure that represents how we want to live in the world. They shelter our feelings for people and beautiful surroundings we love. And if the home is nourishing to the soul and allows expression of the “inner self”, then we are fortunate to have created our own poetry of space.