Home & Garden

The Shrine

By Carolyn O'Keefe |

There is a knotty family issue around which strong emotions often erupt: Whether to convert the shrine or preserve the shrine?

Definition of the shrine: The childhood room of a son or daughter who’s a. now in college, b. living on his or her own, or even one who c. has children of his or her own. Definition of the issue: Is it or is it not proper and fitting to convert that largely unused room into one that is highly functional?

On the one hand, it’s your dream situation. At last, space found! Yee-ha! On the other hand, at the moment of truth, you may find yourself with inconvenient, nagging doubts. Zig: What is this growing nostalgia? Zag: Darn it, it’s your home and you need space and wouldn’t a cool home office or—finally!—a proper guest room be very useful and civilized? Sybil, with her 10 personalities, couldn’t be more confused.

Sure, there are some carefree empty nesters who are clearly targeted by Office Depot in the ad where the parents mournfully bid adieu to their son at college, get in the car, and immediately celebrate by embarking on the complete redo of his bedroom. Office Depot does not produce commercials and buy millions of dollars of television air time without numbers indicating that this target audience is large and lucrative. But the truth is, most parents broach the task with emotion.

Barbara Cresswell of Barbara Goodman Designs actually thanked me for addressing the heart of the issue which she encounters often among the newly empty-nested. She works with her clients to clarify the home of the emotion. Does it reside within you or the adult child?

It’s about function and a deep affection for a family member and a time in the life of the family.

“For many parents, it’s a place to go into, sit there and absorb memories,” says Cresswell. Legitimate tug! Sometimes the tug is not about the parents” needs. The emotion resides in the “kid.” This is a haven for him or her, no matter if she’s now 5″10″, making more money than you are, and living on the West Coast. It’s very comforting for young adults to return to the nest, especially during the tumultuous years leading to age 30.

When conflicting emotions occur, you need to confront what your family really wants from your home or avoid the thing altogether. There’s a whole group of empty nesters who won’t touch the issue or the room. Cresswell herself who, c”mon, is particularly susceptible to the redesign itch, says of her own adult kids” rooms, “I’d never touch those spaces for the world.” Powerful.

But let’s say you want to risk it. How do you handle the situation sensitively and ameliorate grief? Here are area designers” tips for wading into the issue:

If you really don’t need the space, consider keeping the shrine.

Involve the adult child; don’t spring it on him or her.

Next time your child is home, ask what items are really important to him. Emotions are attached to things, and don’t assume you know which are fraught with them and which are not.

Don’t overrule. If your kid cherishes something that you’d deem Goodwill-bound, keep it.

Keep perspective. “It’s more important to keep in touch with your memories than to have a great-looking room,” says Cresswell.

You can also box and store second-tier items. What if husband and wife disagree on giving children’s beloved items due reverence/attic space? I myself have a good trick for my when-in-doubt-toss husband, who routinely pronounces a favorite doll not necessary for our 10-year-old or laments that our 14-year-old is way too old for all those fluffy stuffed animals. I used to pack these things away labeled “toys” or “dolls”—only to find special treasures missing after an attic reorganization, aka fiendish purge. Now I mark the boxes “grandchildren” and, so far, they haven’t been marked by hubby’s fingerprints.

Let’s now move on to the time when the emotions and clutter have been sorted out. You’re ready to redo the shrine. According to Nora Murphy, Executive Vice-President of Style and Advertising for Ethan Allen, the most common single-function conversions are to, in order, home office, guest room, exercise room, craft room, and music room. But, says Murphy, “Most often the space becomes a multi-purpose room with a combination of uses, such as a guest room/home office.”

Given the guest equation, should you incorporate elements of your child’s past? Definitely advisable and doable say all our sources. Murphy notes, “For instance, an existing child’s bedroom with the basics of a twin-size sleigh bed and a computer cabinet could easily become the foundation for a welcoming guest room that doubles as a home office.” The twin bed, pressed against the wall, is now a daybed. The student work area is now a project area with cubby space adapted to the projects you enjoy.

Cresswell advises making a collage of memorabilia (pictures, tickets, programs, ribbons) and frame it for the room, or if the adult child really loves it, he can move it to his own home. Consider making pillows out of the childhood bedspread. Devote one special place to display a collection of teddy bears.

The harmony comes from “choosing the right pieces for the room and connecting it all with color so the room feels put-together,” says Murphy. “The look can be harmonious without matching. It’s about finding solutions for everyday needs.” At Ethan Allen and other furniture sources, new pieces are well-designed to perform multiple functions. For example, sofa beds are far more stylish as furniture and comfortable as beds these days, and a cool new solution to the multi-purpose room is the new blow-up mattresses which incorporate headboard and box-spring attachments.

The idea of quickly and easily finding solutions in new pieces appeals to me. As much as I like to take a thoughtful evolutionary approach to other areas of my home, it makes sense to pull off the band-aid swiftly in this particular room. As much as I love to repurpose antique furniture and enjoy taking months to scour specialty shops for distinctive accoutrements, the redone shrine is—if you do it right—not an homage to your personal style. It’s the opposite of self-expression; it’s about function and a deep affection for a family member and a time in the life of the family. That’s what this room is all about, remember.

The Hunt Summer 2008  Issue

This article was published in Home & Garden from the Summer 2008 issue.
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