Award-winning mystery author Judy Alter also writes fictional biographies of women of the American West, including Elizabeth Bacon Custer, Jessie Benton Frémont, Lucille Mulhall (first Wild West Show roping cowgirl), and Etta Place, the Sundance Kid’s girlfriend. In The Gilded Cage she’s turned her attention to late nineteenth century Chicago to tell the story of the lives of high society couple Potter and Cissy Palmer, who hold differing views on philanthropy and workers’ right. Learn more about Judy and her books at her website and blog.
Patience in the Midst of Disarray
My youngest son invited us for the weekend and then called the day before to cancel. It seems they were remodeling but were promised it would be through by Thursday. I don’t think he understands remodeling—take the promise and add two weeks.
At my house, we’re also remodeling a guesthouse, creating a three-room apartment for me. My youngest daughter and her family will live in the main house, just yards away.
Remodeling is like writing—it teaches you patience. We started this process—oh, maybe around Thanksgiving. Work on the site began last week. Tells you something about nothing happens in a hurry, doesn’t it?
My contractor is an old friend who has been keeping my household running for over twenty years. He knows about old structures (my house was built in 1922), and he knows me—an essential combination. When we first started talking about this project, one son-in-law said, “Of course, you’ll put it out for bid.” Of course I wouldn’t. To me, a long-established working relationship built on trust is invaluable.
Lewis, the contractor, decreed we needed an architect, and thereby hung our first delay. Then it was financing—I’ve been dealing with the same bank almost all my adult life, so that was no problem. But it took time. Then came the work permit from the city—Lewis is not one of those contractors who will go ahead without a permit. Since we’d had experience in the family of proceeding without a permit and the consequences, I was all for that. But that took the most time of all. Over the next months, Lewis and his brother/partner made at least four, maybe five, trips to City Hall. Always a new reason we didn’t pass.
Finally, we had the permit. I wanted to celebrate with a ceremonial posting of the permit on the front door next to the roofing permit. Didn’t happen—Lewis has to keep the permit on him at all times, and so we just sort of slid into construction. The day after he picked up the permit, eleven men were working on various jobs in the back—digging a trench for gas and electric lines, tearing out what needed to go, early stages of framing, and doing I-don’t-know-what to the plumbing. The plumber’s trucks are here a lot.
That was last week and is pretty much where we stand now. They tell me it will be two months, so I’ll add a month to that. There is an emotional component to all this—now that I’m really committed, am I sure I want to leave this house I’ve loved for twenty-some years? Am I perhaps making a huge mistake? And the financial commitment—can I really handle it? My accountant is guiding me through this process, but it’s still scary to take out a good-sized home improvement loan at my age. There’s also the experience of living with my world in disarray—trenches in the backyard, a huge pile of scrap in the driveway, my car gone to my daughter’s house.
I’m trying to write about this in my blog from time to time, figuring it may be part of a memoir or a helpful guide of steps involved for others who want to renovate—or maybe explore downsizing in your seventies. I’ve learned a lot these past few weeks.
The Gilded Cage
Born to society and a life of privilege, Bertha Honoré married Potter Palmer, a wealthy entrepreneur who called her Cissy. Neither dreamed the direction the other’s life would take. He built the Palmer House Hotel, still famed today, and became one of the major robber barons of the city, giving generously to causes of which he approved. She put philanthropy into words, going into shanty neighborhoods, inviting factory girls to her home, working at Jane Addams’ settlement Hull House, supporting women’s causes.
It was a time of tremendous change and conflict in Chicago as the city struggled to put its swamp-water beginnings behind it and become a leading urban center. A time of the Great Fire of 1871, the Haymarket Riots, and the triumph of the Columbian Exposition. Potter and Cissy handled these events in diverse ways. Fascinating characters people these pages along with Potter and Cissy—Carter Harrison, frequent mayor of the city; Harry Collins, determined to be a loser; Henry Honoré, torn between loyalties to the South and North; Daniel Burnham, architect of the new Chicago—and many others. The Gilded Cage is a fictional exploration of the lives of these people and of the Gilded Age in Chicago history.