My family house, built in 1935, was in its entirety like a Grimm Brothers’ fairy tale. Although built in the old first ring neighborhood, just beyond city-block houses, the setting was up on a plateau, with a wooded vertical hillside behind it. The style was Tudor/Arts & Crafts, almost Hansel & Gretel-ish, with many uniquely fashioned details in iron, wood, stone and brass. The craftsmanship was more in keeping with William Morris’ era than anything in this house’s own post-Depression, modern-era place and time. The man who built the house, name unknown, created a modest-sized home with the amenities of a palace or, at the very least, a compact version of an imagined and well-realized Rhineland fantasy. There was no other place like it on the same street, nor anywhere else in the entire city, as far as I know. My family bought this house about twenty years after its construction as its third owners and parted with it in 2001, having lived in it for nearly fifty years. I have named it Probasco Haus.
The rathskeller (yes, it had one) was a theatrical playroom, its walls decorated in a serious yet playful manner of Old World charm: cartoons, simple renderings, murals, frescoes of gnomes or dwarves inhabiting a two-dimensional, panoramic world, framed between the basement ceiling and the wainscoting that skirted and bisected the rathskeller walls. Their elfin homeland was subterranean but park-like; it had a canopy of trees and a sky, plus lots of hilly open landscape dotted with woody plants. Think Black Forest, but a bit more sparsely vegetated. Their posturing is etched in my memory; their folkloric scenarios continue to play in my head. They didn’t frighten or alarm me, rather amused or entertained. They lived in my house and, I figured everyone else ’s too. Growing up among them, they just seemed normal to me. But they weren’t.
The characters who peopled the cellar walls were surely inspired by fables. They were clothed as peasants in tunics, short pants and medieval shoe styles (poulaine and scarpine) and pointed hats of the period. They went about their daily tasks in the open air. Most of what they did was drink. The rathskeller was designed to be a party place, and the denizens who circled the room created the atmosphere, making a welcoming place for imbibing. This was in-your-face, post-prohibition, open-bottle flaunting and frolicking. Although a possible reference, the participants don’t seem to be observing St. Lucia Day, a day when the beer was brewed, the celebration began, while gnomes and elves ran wild – the weather just looks too nice to be December. They were just kindred spirits painted by those who had been long deprived of legal spirits.
Although the elfin dramas surrounded the space, they read like vignettes, separate mini-morality plays: a guy sucking a jug dry with a straw; another character finding a bottle and hoping to find some drop within; a sad sack being scolded by a woman (wife or mother?); a passed-out guy being “revived” by another man by pouring a jug on his face; someone puking behind a tree; a desperado running for the privy; and others serving them, both drink and food. The drinkers’ appearance is worse than the those who don’t partake, although everyone is neatly groomed. The drinkers are ridiculed and humiliated, which makes me wonder whether the seeming frivolity was a guise for a cautionary tale. They are adorable and stupid.
Originally, all four corners of the large room held sculptures of jolly men cast in plaster and finished to look like bronze or earthenware. They were about 3’ high and looked quite real as they reposed on paint-rendered fence, hitching post, whiskey crates and tree limb, bringing a three dimensional element of theatricality to the flat, painted surfaces, bridging the reality gap between the walls and the fully dimensioned people partying in the room. The four grotesques sported beards, glassy eyes and big-cheeked, inebriated faces (like some of Santa’s own), and sat with crossed ankles (feet sporting medieval long-toed shoes) to hold the large mugs positioned in their laps; each mug contained a lamp. Appearing like gargoyles or giant garden gnomes, they fleshed out the inner corners of a historically referenced and masterfully executed dreamlike party place. These sculpted figures were sconces – a kinder gentler German Expressionist form of ambient lighting that cast drama up into their mischievous visages and then into the darkened cellar corners. They were magical and mythical and, along with the 360-degree murals, gave a sense of pagan spirits as well as high spirits. Much like the pre-electric castle in Cocteau’s “Beauty and the Beast,” the magic was at play. The gargoyles scared the hell out of my mom and she had them removed, sadly, leaving just the paintings to represent frivolity for all time.
Artisans and artists fashioned this one-off party space as if they were decorating a medieval cathedral and created a complete vision – a place of comfort and cheer, of history and nostalgia, of human foible and humor, of nature. A house did not have to have something like this in its list of materials to make it whole, but this one did. It made it extraordinary, fantastical, a place of unique placeness, a place that transported you to another realm. Who needed the alcohol? Nevertheless, my parents had some great parties there. I look at the images that remain – not knowing if they continue to exist, or have been undone and covered over by newer owners – and I am back in the room, listening to music and dancing while surrounded by a medieval world: rathskeller cave paintings, in Ohio, no less.