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How I learned to live in a national treasure with a toddler

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"What's it like living in a Frank Lloyd Wright?" That's the question I am asked by a docent during a Wright tour of my suburban Chicago town.

The second stop on his guided tour is my house, and now 25 tourists look at me expectantly for an answer.

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The author's daughter playing in their national treasure of a home. Picture: Courtesy of Chantal Panozzo.

I blink. Having just moved in a few months ago, I don't know what to say. No one ever asked me what it was like living in a two-bedroom apartment or a 1940s Cape Cod. But now that I live in a house built by Frank Lloyd Wright, I'm supposed to have a simple answer to describe my residential experience. Except, well, I don't. Because my relationship with my house is complicated.

It started simply enough. My husband and I bought a Frank Lloyd Wright house in the same way we purchased that 1940s Cape Cod. We saw it, fell in love with it, waited three years until the price had fallen enough to land within our price range, and bid on it. (No one else wanted the house, you see, because it had been perfectly restored to its original late 19th-century blueprint – which meant it had 2 600 square feet of living space but only one bathroom.)

Once our bid had been accepted, I pictured lounging in my future bedroom, with its band of leaded art-glass windows and gas fireplace. I imagined reading on the built-in bench in the foyer under the antique light fixture. I even dreamed of the doorknobs.

First, of course, there were the ordinary home-buying steps: loan applications, the inspection, Realtor phone calls, lawyers. Everything felt standard and part of the process.

Until I moved in and realized there was no user manual for how to live in a national treasure with a toddler.

"Ah! Don't touch the wall!" I told my daughter.

That worked well – for approximately 10 seconds. Then my daughter clomped down the stairs, running her hands along the wall to steady herself. I cringed. The paint she had her sticky hands on was the result of a decade-long series of analyses supplemented by original blueprint investigations and photographs to discover its exact original color.

The house was so unfortunately perfect, it had recently won a Wright Spirit Award for its restoration. The roof's cedar shingles were hand-cut to replicate the size of the original shingles, and ridge caps were not used so as to perfectly reproduce the original roofline. All ceiling light fixtures were antiques. And the house displayed one of the earliest examples of Wright-designed furniture. It was museum living at its finest, and my imagination loved the concept. But my actual state of mind, rooted in the reality of toddler life, did not.

Play dates were the worst. More than one toddler wiping her runny nose on the cushions of one of Wright's first built-in pieces of furniture? More than one toddler reaching for an antique light fixture? More than one toddler pulling a toy train across the scratch-free, shellac-finished, quarter-sawn oak floors?

During these play dates, the history of the house screamed in my mind, telling me I was a horrible owner. During these play dates, a little voice told me I never should have bought the place, that my family was ruining it. During these play dates, living in a perfectly restored Frank Lloyd Wright house wasn't something I wanted to answer a question about, unless that question was why the heck had I ever been crazy enough to think I could live here sanely.

One day, even I contributed to the house's continued demise when I dropped a wall mirror down the staircase. As it shattered and dented the perfectly finished oak, I wanted to scream at myself, but my daughter did that for me.

"Mommy! Look what you did!" My daughter wagged her finger at me accusingly. And in my mind, Wright did, too. After all, he used to visit the house on Sundays to hang out with the former roommate for whom he built it. What would he think if he came over and found gashes in his quarter-sawn oak? Not to mention: What would he think of the Ikea toddler bed under the six leaded art-glass windows in the front bedroom?

But a few months later, I took a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's Unity Temple in Oak Park, Ill., and noticed cat footprints memorialized in the concrete. Imperfection! The relief this brought to me cannot be put into words. I showed the footprints to the guide.

She replied, "This concrete will be restored over the next two years."

My chest deflated like a balloon with enough air to power the Windy City. Figures, I thought.

But then the guide added, "They're preserving the cat footprints, though. They are a part of the history of the building."

I laughed. "Really?"

She nodded. I was thrilled. Because that dent in the staircase? That scratch I made on the soapstone counter the other day? Those nicks in the wall from my daughter's determination to vacuum? They are part of the history of our house, and I am going to embrace them.

Thanks to a cat and some wet concrete, I've realized that the history of my house and the history of my family – faults and all – are now one. While I still respect the house, I no longer fear it; I live in it.

People still ask me, "What it's like to live in a Frank Lloyd Wright house?" And I still don't know how to answer. Because to me, it's no longer a Frank Lloyd Wright house. It's our home.

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