All Original Written and Photographic content is Copyright MEL BIRNKRANT
MAKING MOUSE HEAVEN Part II
As I continue recollecting the many miracles wrought by William Maxwell, even I am amazed. As I might have pointed out, previously, there is not an area, here in Mouse Heaven, where one can direct their gaze, without seeing Bill's accomplishments. Looking up, for instance, I failed to mention that Bill applied a second layer of 2” Styrofoam insulation to the ceiling, and then, as they were no longer needed, he removed all the cross beams that we had used to rest the sheets of plywood on. This second layer made a world of difference in the never ending battle to heat the house in winter.
Along the way, we acquired two spectacular coal burning stoves. These glorious antiques were once the most common means, by which 19th Century Americans heated their homes. They always reminded me of cathedrals of fire, with their isinglass windows glowing dramatically. Incredibly, I found them both at the local Stormville flea market for prices that were as spectacularly low as the stoves, themselves, were spectacular.
The one upstairs in my studio was, by far, the finer of the two. It is adorned with nickel plated dragons, and its condition is impeccable. But the one downstairs in the big room, is larger, and that is the one that I relied upon to heat the big room, and, as hot air rises, my studio upstairs too.
Until last year, when I got a new knee, I carried five tons of coal up from the cellar every winter. And the stove in the big room, which we lit each autumn, around Halloween, remained alight all winter. When spring arrived, the glowing embers were replaced by an orange light that kept the enchantment of these awesome stoves alive, and able to weave their magic spell, throughout the summer months, as well.
Before further improvements could be made to the big room, it was necessary to do some major work outdoors. Bill being adept at chopping through brick, now, cut away the lower sections of the two windows that mirror each other, on the corner of the building, and in their place, he installed two tall windows that extended from the floor to a height of eleven or twelve feet. Then, he recommended that I hire a couple of professional brick layers to brick up the remaining six windows. Here, we see them at work. One of the two tall windows that bill installed can be seen on the left. I might also point out that the original yard and driveway had not yet been bulldozed. The mound of earth that was the yard still came right up to the bottom of the basement windows.
The next step was a major one. The entire driveway had to be bulldozed away to make room for Bill to chop into the side of the basement wall, and frame up and install two full sized garage doors. Here we see the windows all bricked up, rather unimpressively. Having watched the masons do this, Bill decided that he would do any brick work himself, from then on. This photo shows both basement windows removed, and the hole that Bill was knocking through the wall. With a sledgehammer in his hand, Bill became a Superman. He busted through that brick and stone by brute force alone!
This photo of a well cropped tree in blossom, inadvertently, captures the newly bricked up windows on the front side of the house, and one of the two long windows Bill created. He also installed new windows in the basement and throughout the entire house. The photo also shows the top of one of two new metal basement doors.
When two large portals were roughly formed by strength alone, Bill smoothed them, aided by an electric saw that cut through brick, like butter. Then he outdid the bricklayers by creating two perfect brick arches, above the spaces where the doors would go. When everything was ready, I purchased two unfinished garage doors from the lumber yard, and two remote control door openers from Sears. Bill installed everything perfectly. And then, he stained the doors dark ebony.
In the space between the garage doors, Bill inset the terracotta angel that Eunice had recovered from the rubble of a building that was being demolished, when we were living on 28th Street in Manhattan, many years before. Clearly, this cast off work of art had found the perfect home. Beneath it, he mounted a marble plaque that we discovered in the cellar, shortly after we moved in. It displays the engraved names of all the architects and builders who created the Dutchess Junction schoolhouse in the year 1907.
The photograph, below, shows the driveway and the new garage doors that Bill Maxwell created, as they appeared, many years later. It was shot on a spring day, about ten years ago. The photo, more or less, conveys the way the house still looks today. By this time, ivy had grown over the bare wall to hide the crudely bricked up windows. The weeping willow tree you see was lost in an early winter snowstorn that took place on one Halloween.
As we walk around the corner, on another glorious day in spring, we encounter the front porch, which is one more of the many elements of Mouse Heaven that Bill Maxwell transformed. He completely rebuilt the once scorched porch, while repairing and maintaining the original pipe railings. Then, he stripped, stained, and refinished the large front doors. The arches above both the window and the doors, were originally filled in with decorative wood panels. Bill removed these, and replaced them with insulated glass. We were fortunate that, at the time, there was a glass factory, across the river in Newburg that could fabricate anything. They made to order all the aluminum windows and glass panels that Bill installed, throughout the house. Some of those new windows are also visible in this photo. The glass maker's prices were surprisingly reasonable. Perhaps that’s why they are out of business now.
I don’t believe that there was any area of the Dutchess Junction schoolhouse more depressing than the original hallway. When one entered the front door their view was half blocked, on the left, by a floor to ceiling wall, fourteen feet tall, and an eight foot tall closed door that hid the stairway leading to the basement. Bill removed it all, replacing the ominous rough stucko wall with an waist high railing, and opened up the cellar stairway. Now, when one enters the front door a glorious Mickey target meets their eyes, on the newly exposed wall on the left ...
And straight ahead, this is what they see. You might notice that Bill sanded and refinished all the floors downstairs. And he also rebuilt the steps, leading up to the hallway.
The hall, itself, is dominated by an impressive piece of cabinetry. This enormous four by eight foot central showcase is the largest one Bill made.
From here, let’s go upstairs and see what Bill has done up there. To sum it up in a few words, “new cabinets, everywhere!” There are just too many to zero in on all of them individually, so, here are some general views, all together in one slide show.
Each new cabinet began as a diagram, like this one, drawn up and calculated by yours truly. There were what seemed like hundreds of these. The one below became the corner cabinet, beside the barber chair. Bill and I developed a way of working together that was very free and easy. My quickly sketched blueprints didn't need to be proportionally accurate, as long as the measurements were correct.
If we follow the above line of book cases to the far corner, we come to the control center that Bill built for the stereo. The controls were all upstairs, while the speakers were in the big room below. In the days when my cat, Peewee and I used to enjoy a concert every day, I had a mirror positioned from the ceiling that allowed me to bounce a signal from a handheld remote control to the amplifier up here, and adjust the volume from the comfort of my carefully placed listening chair, without disturbing Pee.
This stereo control center contained, not only, the electronic equipment for the stereo, which consisted of several amplifiers, a tuner, a cross-over, a turntable, and two CD players, as well as an amazing one of a kind device that emulates the acoustics of a listening space of any size, from a small chamber to Carnegie hall. It also provides a home for my lifetime collection of CDs and vinyl LPs, some dating back to when I was fifteen.
If one was to look over the wall from this roost, which extended out, like a balcony, they would get a bird's eye view of the big room downstairs. From here, we can see the built-in seating area and new cabinetry that bill created, across the room from the Great Wall.
Let’s go downstairs to get a better view.
Right in the center of this conversation pit, is an amazing coffee table. Around its rim is a series of what my father used to call, "indirect lights." The rumpus room my dad created, in the Detroit of my childhood, had lights like this, hidden around the perimeter of the rumpus room. Now they glow again, in the borders of this coffee table, which doubles as a showcase for Blue Ribbon Pop-Up books.
Those of you with really sharp eyes might notice that a new showcase is visible in the upper corner of the above photo. This was the final cabinet that Bill Maxwell created. I refer to it as the Tall Tower, because it is the tallest showcase in the house. And it’s, full from top to bottom, with images of Mickey Mouse. It is a mystery to me, now, how I ever managed to live without it.
And here we see the room complete, with everything Bill made in place. This photo is iconic. For many years, I thought the room would remain this way, frozen in time, and, hopefully, would never change, throughout my lifetime.
Meanwhile, the Tall Tower was not Bill’s final project in Mouse Heaven. He had one last trick up his sleeve, and this one was, indeed, a big one. In the twenty years that we had lived in the schoolhouse, we never had a dining room. There was simply no space that we were willing to give up. Now, we were to take a mighty leap, and create one, from the ground up. Outside of the back door, there was small screened in porch. It was always sort of creepy. I remember one day when my mother was visiting. She was sitting out there when I saw a large black snake, right on the porch, and slithering towards her chair. I said, “Mom, let’s go inside now.” She said, “OK,” and followed me, Thank God, without noticing the snake, and thus, avoiding what might have been a coronary.
Now, the old porch would be torn down, a job that took only a few minutes, to be replaced by a glassed in annex that we could use as a dining room. For years, I had been driving past a small business in Beacon that displayed glassed in construction. They sold modular panels of insulated glass that could be combined and customized to create a transparent room of any size. I had admired structures like this at the local Burger King, and wished that we could have the same. And so, the day arrived when I would finally go in there and get all the particulars. Then, with a pile of literature and dimensions in hand, I fabricated a scale model, out of cardboard, the exact dimensions that the new glassed in annex would be. As you can see, I still have it. There was no need to make any other plans or diagrams. This was it, all that Bill would need to create our new glassed in dining room.
Meanwhile, Bill had been training his son, Craig to work with him. I watched with fascination, as young Craig was on the way to becoming as skilled a carpenter as his dad. So, now, they worked together. Craig made the same fee as his father. While this cost me twice as much, together, they got everything done twice as fast.
First, they laid a brick foundation, fortified with cinder blocks. Beneath the floor, they ran a network of galvanized ducts that would convey hot air to a series of registers in the floor. Access to this crawl space was achieved through what used to be a basement window, coming from the garage. I’m glad I never had to crawl in there, remembering that snake. The slide show below chronicles some of the steps involved in creating our own Burger King.
My little cardboard model can be seen in one of the above photos. That picture shows the last remnants of the old screened in porch, being torn down. Another displays the excavation, with the some of the brickwork in place. Then, we see Bill and Craig, blocking out the beams that will support the floor. This is the only half way decent photo I ever had of them.
When everything was ready, and all the carpentry was done, the prefabricated elements arrived. They went together perfectly. Thinking about these times, just now, I am recalling the fact that, like yours truly, Bill was a perfectionist. We were both Virgos. I guess that explains it. Our relationship was predestined in the stars. It was a meeting of like minds.
When the new dining room was finished, Bill and Craig moved on. I believe that Bill was still doing odd jobs for Dr. Kien, which is how I met him in the beginning. From time to time, Bill would stop by for a visit. He would arrive unannounced at the front door, secure in the knowledge that he was always welcome. Whatever I was doing, I would stop and chat for sometimes several hours. Bill's Wife Trudy, was not doing well. That was one of the reasons that Bill decided to move farther up into the country. Therefore, he moved far up in New York State, close to the Canadian border. He telephoned me, from time to time, to keep me up to date, A few years later, Trudy passed away. Bill seemed to be doing OK.
Craig, on the other hand, remained in the area and got a fabulous job as the head carpenter at someplace like the World Trade Center. Fortunately he wasn’t there on 9-11. I expect that Bill will call me any day. And then, I'll bring this story up to date.
Meanwhile, the building of Mouse Heaven was not yet quite complete. Putting the final piece of this giant jig saw puzzle in place was, in the end, up to yours truly. What perpetrated this development was the acquisition of the Big Mouse. This giant Charlotte Clark Mickey Mouise doll arrived here in a snow storm. Our driveway, and all the roads were sheets of ice that night. Earlier in the afternoon, I had checked the delivery schedule, and watched the UPS truck slow down, hesitate at the foot of our icy driveway, then drive on. Miserable, I phoned UPS, and asked if I could come and pick the package up, myself, that night. The dispatcher said OK! So, I bundled up, and drove off, into one of the worst nights of my life. After hours of driving in blinding snow and darkness, and getting lost, several times, I, finally, found the place, deep within an industrial park, marked by only a few bare light bulbs, and not a living soul in sight. A long line of UPS trucks was parked, outside.
Inside was a hive of activity. Several dozen men were toiling over packages on a maze of moving conveyor belts, and all ignoring me. Finally, I found one willing to point me in the general direction of the trucks, and I walked along the deserted line, outside, in the darkness, on the ice. All the big back doors were open wide, and all the trucks were empty. It was like a hallucinatory scene in a bad dream. Finally, I came to the last one, and way at the back of the empty truck was one large box, with poor Mickey inside. I was stunned! Anyone could have taken him! I clamored up into the truck, and lugged the package out. Mickey and I survived the perilous journey home, arriving close to midnight. I opened the box, and placed Big Mickey on the kitchen Counter. Eunice took this photo.
Now, the problem was where to put him. He stood on my desk, next to the computer for several weeks.
Finally, I bit the bullet, and traveled to Canal Street in NYC. I found, to my dismay, that Industrial Plastic Supply, a place I went to often, was gone! I found another plastic store, further along the street, and ordered all the Plexiglas I needed to construct a showcase and a pedistal. The prices were sky-high! This was no Industrial Plastic Supply!
Bill Maxwell had built for me the two panels that would make up a large showcase with a low flat top, years before. I never used them. Over the years the surface had been ruined, from lying around. So, now, I sanded the parts, and sprayed them white, and completed the case with panels of Plexiglas, and added lights. It would supply the base, on which the Big Mickey’s case would stand. One problem remained; there was no place to put this thing! In the end, I did something outrageous! I placed it right smack in the middle of everything, right in front of the Pyramid of Bisques, blocking the Felix case. It looks audacious, but on purpose! The lower section now contains the Mickey bike that I had intended to sit on top of that lower unit, when I asked Bill to build it. That, and some dolls and other things are safely in there, now, and the big Mickey stands on top. It worked out Great!
This overwhelming image of the Great God Mickey was just what Mouse Heaven needed. Standing there, he reminds me of the massive stature of the Goddess of the All Seeing Eye, in the Temple on the Roof of the World, in my favorite childhood movie, “The Thief of Bagdad.” Little did I dream that when I, finally, got an idol of my own, the All Seeing Eye would turn out to be Pie-cut! This majestic effigy, casts its spell over Mouse Heaven. He is the very essence of Heavenly, a fitting final acquisition!
So here it is, Mouse Heaven, in all its glory! This is the sum total of a lifetime of adventure, a lifetime of amassing treasures that might have, otherwise, been buried beneath the sands of time, and gathering them together, in the hopes they will survive. On the all too rare occasions when the Great Wall is alight, it reminds me of all the enchanted Christmas windows that I witnessed in my life, or, perhaps, the Grand Finale of a fireworks display, one that I put together, over the course of eighty years, one ember at a time.