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Seven Keys to a Christian Home

by Emerson Hynes


While financial difficulties and extenuating circumstances may prove frustrating during the home-building process, the ideal remains the same and can serve as a guide to make the house a home. The following booklet by Emerson Hynes provides seven principles which can serve as a guide for the young family striving to make their house a happy Christian home.

Publisher & Date

National Catholic Rural Life Conference , Des Moines, IA, 1955

It's lovely in Minnesota on a warm fall evening. It's better when your house is atop a hill in the country, banked behind by a forest of birch and oak and overlooking a valley split by a lazy creek and checked with alternate patches of pasture and corn and grain stubble. It's peaceful and quiet, and I am sitting in the easy chair reading the weekly collection of papers and magazines. As if there weren't a thousand ways of knowing it, the periodicals state that housing is one of the biggest national problems.

"There are enough families," writes one expert, "to call forth a million houses a year for the next ten years, and houses are what America is eager to buy or rent."

That's a lot of houses, and those figures indicate that there are a lot of unhappy people living in cramped quarters. That's too bad. But from another standpoint, the figures symbolize the possibilities of a great adventure that ten million families could have — planning and building a home.

What worries me is that apparently many of the first principles of home-building have been lost in the battle for houses. There is a great difference between a house and a home. A house, according to Webster, is "a structure for human habitation"; but a home is defined as an "abode of one's family . . . The abiding place of the affections . . . The social unit or center formed by a family living together."

The principles of house-building concern the use of materials; the problems concern the amount of lumber, brick, mortar, and pipe, and the experience of a contractor. The principles of home-building are those of providing a family social center; the problems are those of making it "the abiding place of the affections."

A house is only a means to the end — a home. Every step in building a house must be tested to determine whether it aids or hinders homemaking. It is more important, therefore, to know the principles of home-making than it is to secure land and materials. In practice, home-building and home-making fuse. But in planning, they must be kept separate — and the principles of home-making come first.

I think back on the ideas that governed our building seven years ago. We were lucky enough to be near places and persons whence sound principles could be learned. We drew from the writings of Father Vincent McNabb, O.P., from the lectures of Monsignor Ligutti, from the tradition of Benedictine monasticism, and from families who had built homesteads during the depression. We also had three advantages then that the average young couple today may not enjoy; building supplies and labor were relatively easy to secure; my work was stable and so situated that we could build either in a rural community, a town, or a small city; and we were able to borrow $5,000 for financing.

Difficulties have increased tremendously in the post-war years, but principles do not change. Circumstances may prevent achieving the ideal in its fullness, but the ideal is still the guide.

At any rate, we made our decisions in terms of the following seven principles, and we have not found cause to regret a single one. If you disagree with some of the principles, it should still be valuable to discuss them, for it is always true that the kind of house you build should be the kind of home you want.

The principles that guided us are:

  1. A home should be designed for family living.
  2. A home should be independently owned.
  3. A home should be built for permanency and growth.
  4. A home should provide privacy.
  5. A home should be part of a community.
  6. A home should be a productive unit.
  7. A home should be beautiful.

In bare outline that sounds like a simple list and perhaps not too impressive! With a moment's reflection almost anyone could draw up as good a set of principles. What is important is to start with such a list and then discuss each point in terms of your own family and circumstances.

A few of the arguments and experiences referring to the principles might be significant.

A home should be designed for family living.

Nothing is more obvious and nothing is more neglected than the need for a home built to suit the family. A study of pioneer homes will show that they were planned to fit the needs of that way of life. Gradually, we have transformed the home from a unit for the family to an object for public display.

The exterior design, the number and size of rooms, the kind and amount of furnishings, the location of the house and of the rooms in it — all these are influenced more by how it will look to outsiders than by the service and convenience it will provide for the family. The home should not be a depot or a furniture store; it is not meant to serve or to sell the public.

In no way is the trend toward display-type houses so definite as in the decrease in bedroom space for children and the increase in the size of the living room. One commentator has declared that most of the modern homes are "birth control houses," designed for families with one or two children. Space, once allowed for a third and fourth bedroom, is devoted to a hotel-lobby-type living room. Homes which are more than twenty-five years old rarely have less than four bedrooms. Few of the modern standard designs or structures provide that much space for children. Even if those who are building have no children or have grown children, they should think of future generations who will inhabit the house and allow sufficient bedrooms for them.

Every feature of the house should be discussed in terms of the family.

Should there be a basement? Our experience has been that the basement has given us the most valuable space for the lowest cost.

Should there be a second story?

Where should the entrance be?

Where should the bathroom be?

Should the dining room be combined with the kitchen? My wife believes that it should be. Meals and "dishes" are important daily jobs, and she does not want to be isolated from the family at these times. A separate dining room, which multiplies the steps the wife has to make, is often viewed as essential for "fancy" guests. But a guest worth entertaining will not mind eating in the big kitchen with the family and sitting around to visit before and after meals.

Where should the bedrooms be located? We were advised to have the parental bedroom, the nursery bedroom, and bathroom on the same floor as general living quarters. We did not appreciate the tremendous importance of this arrangement until after the second baby arrived. Now it seems that it would be almost impossible to take care of the children if any one of these three rooms were on a different floor level.

No two families will, or should, plan their houses exactly alike. It does not make much difference what the particular arrangement is, so long as it is born of long study and planning about how to make the dwelling a home for the family.

Think about how to enable this most intimate of societies to work, eat, pray, talk, play, and study together. Forget about public opinion and the fancy standards of occasional visitors. Remember that a workshop for boys is more important than a basement bar; a utility room is more important than an arty niche or a fireplace; and babies are more important than extra space for bridge parties.

A home should be independently owned.

You might assume that everyone hopes to own his home and that only the lack of money prevents the ideal. This assumption is far from the fact. The value placed on home ownership has gradually decreased. For many the convenience of apartment living and the ease of moving from one place to another are more important than ownership. A recent book was written about the hazards of owning one's house — and the book was a top-seller.

There was a time in the United States when nearly every family owned its home, no matter how crude the dwelling was. The trend toward tenancy has increased at every census, until in 1940 only 43.3 per cent of the nation's families owned their homes. The percentage was much less in the largest cities.

The housing shortage of recent years has forced many people to buy. Since residential real estate mortgages have increased nearly six billion dollars in the last seven years, it may be assumed that more families are owners today than in 1940. Still the sum total does not include more than about half the number of American families.

In face of these figures it is necessary to assert the value of ownership. The Catholic Church has always defended personal or private ownership; recent popes have repeatedly advocated reforms to secure it. According to Pope Pius XII, "nature itself has closely joined private property with the existence of human society and its true civilization, and in a very special manner with the existence and development of the family." He called upon "all public standards" and especially the State to preserve and increase family ownership.

Ownership provides the owner with more security of shelter than renting could, and security is one of the greatest needs of a growing family. It gives the owner a sense of responsibility — to maintain ownership, to add improvements, and to make repairs.

Ownership also elicits personal responsibility toward society from the owner; as Thomas Jefferson believed, only the man who has something to lose will have sufficient interest in the well-being of the government to be a democratic citizen. It furnishes the owner with a basis for independence, especially if the homestead is productive; and economically it represents the soundest type of saving. Ownership creates stability for the family and enables the family to maintain continuous contact with neighbors, parish, school, and community. It develops a family tradition around the homestead or the gathering point, which descendants identify with "back home."

Those are substantial arguments but there is still another — one which appeals to the heart. That is the pride and joy of ownership. To stand on your own land, to plant and cultivate your own garden and flowers and trees, to build your own fences, to paint and beautify your own house, simply to stand back and survey your own property — here is a value the worth of which cannot be measured.

If a man feels pride in possessing an automobile planned and built by others in a factory hundreds of miles away, how much more pride can he take in a homestead he has helped to improve!

Ownership is not easy for the average family to secure. For many years its gleam is misted by a mortgage. But ownership is worth the struggle. It is worth going without some of the conveniences you might like. It is worth taking a less desirable location. It is worth being satisfied with a less pretentious structure and furnishings than you might get by renting. It is worth foregoing expensive entertainment, autos, or vacations. Ownership is worth sacrifice because it has a value that none of the other things have, a value big with spiritual overtones.

A home should be built for permanency and growth.

One of the criticisms of houses built in the last decade is that they are constructed of inferior materials, thrown together with the hope that they will last thirty years. A house should be built of the sturdiest materials and planned to last for generations.

A house that is to become a home should accumulate memories for generations. The bond of a family homestead is a great help to family unity; families need root in the security of the old home even if some of their members can return only occasionally.

Architects often estimate that the shell of a modern house is no more than one-sixth the cost of the house. It is better to build that shell of permanent materials and go without the fancy appointments, than to skimp on the frame and include the gilding.

A well-constructed wooden house will last for generations, though there is always hazard of fire. Lumber, however, has become a more expensive building material than cinder or cement blocks. With modern insulation and heating, the block or stone-walled home is just as comfortable and much more permanent.

We built our home of cinder block with cement floors and cinder block partitions. It's a story and a half high, 26 feet by 36 feet, and has a full basement. Yet the total cost of all the cement and masonry work was less than $2,000 in 1941. Add the cost of windows, doors, and roof, and for about $1,000 more we had the essentials of a house which should last, barring catastrophe, for centuries. Heating, water, electricity, and bath at that time cost $1,500.

It is not necessary that everything be built when you move in. I am not sure that it is even desirable. The fun of finishing the house which has not been completed yet has been one of our deepest satisfactions. Every room has more meaning and charm to us because whatever quality it has, we gave it.

A house is brick and mortar when it is built. It becomes organic through adoption by a family. As the family thinks and feels and grows, so should the house reflect the change. One of our guests, a contractor, recounted how he had built several hundred houses, row on row, varying four basic designs. He built and furnished them completely, even to planting the shrubbery outside, and — as he said — he had food in the refrigerator when the families moved in. I cannot doubt his word, but I do doubt that he sold those houses to normal people.

A house is like a child in many ways. And who would want to become the parents of a full-grown Harvard student?

We moved into our house when the walls were up and the roof overhead. No conveniences were available for several weeks. It was five years before the labyrinth of electric wires was connected to a power line. It was more than a year before all the downstairs rooms were painted; over six years before the two big upstairs "dormitories" were completed.

During a three weeks' vacation last year, without any outside help, we built the shell of a 20 by 26 foot addition to be used as a garage in the winter and a porch in the summer. We have added touches ever since and, while it is serviceable now, it will be another two years before we have the house completed the way we want it. Then will be the time to expand in another direction.

It may seem intolerable to live in a house which is not completed or which is always being improved. That would be true if the house were not your own, or if you wanted it to be a show place to impress outsiders. Many of our visitors have arched an eyebrow as they looked at the unfinished condition of our house, and I suppose some were scandalized. But if you are always planning, you don't see things as they are but as they are going to be — and that is good.

We Americans have an over-developed fastidiousness. We want to see every pin in place and everything done and finished. Nature does not work that way nor does man at his best. The medieval cathedrals took centuries to build, but the world is far richer for them than if bishops had ordered workers to put up the best structure they could finish in ninety days.

The assumption that one cannot have a new house unless it is finished to the last splendid detail is a major factor in preventing construction, for it increases the cost tremendously. Over the years we have worked an average of more than an hour a day on the house. Estimated at a dollar an hour (which would be optimistic for our unskilled labor) our work has added $2,500 in value to the house.

Work of this kind does not take any special skill. A century and a half ago every pioneer was able to plan and make nearly everything he needed. There is no evidence that our average intelligence has decreased. Any man who can shave should have a hand steady enough to saw. Anyone who can swing a golf club can swing a hammer.

There are municipal regulations which require licensed workers to perform certain jobs in construction work. Yet there remain hundreds of things which a man can do for himself, and it is in these jobs that the greatest savings can be made. Perhaps it is a double saving, for one who is engrossed in building his own house is a very poor patron of taverns, movies, and costly forms of outside entertainment!

Almost anyone who wants to work on his own house will have to rely upon others. Books and government publications can help you over many rough spots, but the best source is the advice of people in your community who retain knowledge of ancient skills. Such people are generous. They are proud of their art and eager to aid anyone who wants to learn.

A home should provide privacy.

The first step toward privacy for the family is to make the house a single-family unit. Over 99 per cent of the families in Manhattan borough live in multiple-family units; the percentage does not fall much below 33 in any city.

Pressure for space accounts for some of this crowding of families into areas where they can have only a superficial privacy — at the expense of remaining anonymous. In cities even single-unit dwellings are often jammed together like slices of bakery bread. Since the decentralization of family units depends upon the decentralization of cities and industry, there is no prospect of an immediate solution to the problem.

Yet privacy remains the ideal. The family home should be secluded enough that members of the family may work, eat, talk, and even quarrel without a dozen other families watching and listening. Rearing normal children is almost impossible if every sound, from baby's cries to Sonny's laughter, must be hushed to prevent neighbors from becoming irate.

A family planning a home should put privacy high on the list. Securing land in a remote suburb or on the fringes of the town or city will mean sacrificing some conveniences, but you should weigh these disadvantages against the gain in family privacy before making a decision. Fortunately for those who want "space, light, and air" for the family, as Pope Pius XII termed it, big lots in undeveloped areas are far less expensive than small lots in crowded areas. Our house was built in its entirety for less than the estimated cost of two rooms in a Harlem slum-clearance housing project.

A home should be part of a community.

The family needs privacy; that is primary. A family also needs neighbors. A community is a collection of families united by a common bond and acting together for similar goals. Geographic proximity is a stimulus to community spirit but it is not sufficient stimulus by itself. Families may live close to one another and yet be strangers or, worse, they may be intensely antagonistic.

People with community spirit know and are interested in one another. They visit. They work together on projects for church, school, safety, and recreation. They cooperate to beautify the community. They exchange help and tools. Their children play and fight together. They have a mutual sense of security in belonging to a loyal group.

Little more thought is given to community than to privacy in buying or building a house today. At best it is a negative concern, verging on snobbery and racism. We pick a location, not because of what it has but because it is guaranteed not to have people in an inferior income bracket or of a different race. Community spirit cannot arise without more vital bonds than similarity of income and color.

The conventional city block style is directly opposed to family privacy and community unity. Each house is a public display, aimed to impress an impersonal audience at the expense of the family. Much of the valuable small lot is used for a front lawn where privacy is impossible. Children must keep off the grass that strangers may be edified by a prim and sterile landscape. The rear of the home is at most uninteresting, facing a dirty alley.

Somewhere along the line we Americans lost a valuable principle guiding our European ancestors. They valued privacy; it was common practice for them to build their houses on the edge of the street, with all the services coming from the street, not from the alley. What we call the front of the house, they have at the rear in the form of a little court where they and their neighbors can enjoy seclusion.

Ideally, families ought to plan their homes to fit into a community that already exists or they should join several families with like interests in planning a block of houses.

Groups of families building in new districts could achieve community unity by facing their houses inward instead of toward the street and by replacing alleys with a common. Integrated (but not identical) architecture would increase the beauty of the surroundings. Buying and building together, they could save considerably in construction costs. And all that is involved in planning together would develop mutual understanding so that community spirit would be well under way.

In such projects individuality is not lost. Uniformity on all points is not desirable. A common desire to build a Christian community where the importance of rearing children is understood would be a sound basis for cooperative planning.

There are obstacles to working together and temptations to individualism. We fancied a pine-covered acreage overlooking a lake. It was alluring — but alone. No neighbors in sight. We have been grateful a thousand times for the advice not to isolate ourselves. We fitted our home into a small community of seven families, with each house about three to five hundred feet from the other. We vary in nationality, occupation, age, and size of family. No one interferes with anyone else, yet everyone is aware of and interested in the welfare of the other.

A community at its best should probably be larger than ours is, but, regardless of size, it is the spirit of unity and mutual willingness to help that counts. A family that builds a house without knowledge of or concern for neighbors is creating an obstacle to the making of a home.

A home should be a productive unit.

From many standpoints, no consideration in home making is more important than planning the home as a productive enterprise — productive for the wife, the husband, and the children. This is a principle to which Pope Pius XII has referred again and again. He says that no form of private property (no, not even automobiles and television sets) "is more conformable to nature . . . than the land, the holding in which the family lives, and from the products of which it draws all or part of its subsistence."

To have a productive unit you do not have to buy a farm, even to have ten acres and a cow, as we do, or one acre and two goats, as a friend has. A 150-foot square lot can be very productive if properly planned.

The concept of productiveness begins within the family itself. In planning the house, the features which will help the wife work more efficiently are much more important than the appearance of the house to outsiders. No matter how pretty certain arrangements and furnishings might be, if they mean that the wife's cleaning load will be doubled or that she will have to take ten extra steps fifty times a day, that plan is faulty. The centers of traffic, the proximity of conveniences, the number and location of closets, and many other items should be planned to facilitate her work.

Productiveness of the rest of the homestead depends upon the location and climate and amount of space. Some men may prefer to concentrate on fine work, making furniture and cabinets, so they should have a shop. Trees and shrubs can be fruit producing and not merely ornamental. Even in cities there is opportunity to raise bees, rabbits, and a garden.

What a family can produce will vary. Within each family it will vary from year to year, depending on the age, experience, and free time of the parents and children. The important thing is to plan the house and its location so that productive work is possible.

The most obvious arguments for a productive home are economic, since less than 10 per cent of American families have a big enough income to relieve them of worry about saving money. There are grounds for suspecting the person who always says, "It's cheaper to buy it than to make it." That's true of automobiles and washing machines. That's not true of cooking, sewing, gardening, and other household services; statistics from every state department of agriculture and home economics prove that.

But the person who is producing must know how to do the work and he must not buy expensive equipment for minor tasks. A 50 by 50 foot garden will not justify a garden tractor; a canning pressure cooker is inefficient if all it processes in a year is seven quarts of beans.

Another consideration is that usually a family has less and of a poorer quality when it buys than when it produces for itself. When our cow is dry, our butter and milk consumption is cut by half, since it is too expensive to use as much.

Even if the productive home were not a noticeable saving, it still would be needed. This necessity follows from the very nature of man, for, as Scripture tells us, "Man was born to labor and the bird to fly." Work is necessary to development as a human person. The home is the first and most important society in which the child matures. When children are deprived of the opportunity to do constructive work, their personalities suffer. We should not be surprised if they become troublesome, irresponsible, and delinquent.

The purpose of play and recreation is to enable us to work and pray better — it "re-creates" us for higher things. Yet in homes where there is no wholesome work for the children, they can only play. Children, being children, may grumble at tasks to be performed, but usually it is because we have not taken time to train them or we have not given them really responsible work to do.

Anyone who has watched 4-H club youth with their livestock or garden or kitchen projects has learned that the greatest values of a productive home are not economic.

This is not to disparage the use of the home as the principal place for recreation. A house planned for family living, as mentioned earlier, is necessarily planned for family play. This is rather to point out that while we give considerable thought to facilities for recreation in planning modern homes, we rarely provide opportunities for work. And work is actually more important for children than play.

A home should be beautiful.

Beauty is one of the prime properties of being. Everyone wants to achieve beauty in his home. It is hard to imagine anyone sitting down and saying, "Now let's plan a really unbeautiful house." At the same time, beauty does not "look after herself." Beauty is achieved only after thought and experiment. Beauty takes patience and, sometimes, more money.

There is a temptation to draw the line at the useful and to let it go at that. Or one may hold doggedly to a plan which in theory should satisfy beauty but which is "out of place" in a particular location. Or one may spend too much on some one item, like putting rubies and diamonds on a mop pail. There are many ways of offending beauty. Giving thought to the principle will help to avoid them.

Beauty is the most elusive of the principles of house planning. It is hard to get agreement on what beauty is, beyond the general statement of the philosophers that "The beautiful is that which, when seen, pleases." Beauty is related to harmony and order, though violent contrasts like churning black clouds and jagged lightning are beautiful. Beauty presupposes the good and the true; we can be guided by the knowledge that the bad and the false in themselves cannot be beautiful. False fronts and imitations which do violence to the materials from which they are made will soon reveal their ugliness and mar a house and its furnishings.

Nor should one plan conventional things just because they are conventional. It is probably impossible to please all outsiders anyway; public taste is fickle and changing. The test should be — is it pleasing to you and to your family? Not, what will other people think?

There is no blueprint for beauty and examples are not very useful. Beauty has to be "seen." In building, the "seeing" is first in the imagination. No time is wasted, when you shut your eyes and try to see how this shape and these lines will look against this terrain in this community, how these colors will blend, how this furniture will look in that room.

In our own experience, we believe we have failed in this principle more than in any of the others, largely because I was in too much of a hurry to get a job done. I am afraid that most of us men are too utilitarian and unconcerned with beauty, especially when it takes more time and costs more to do a job well. Wives are almost always better judges of home beauty. If they persevere with patience and tact, the home should become more and more beautiful.

These seven principles, we believe, have given us the best standard for making a home. We are more convinced than ever that if we had to start over again we would try to follow the same policy. We believe that it has given us an ideal setting for trying to build a Christian family. If we fail in this environment, we cannot blame anyone but ourselves.

It would be misleading to say that a house can be planned and built easily. Discouragement and obstacles and fatigue are going to win a day now and then. But the continuous process of building a home is an adventure in living, joyous and rich. It should not be approached as a worry and a headache. It should and can be a refreshing experience, calling for creative thought by the intellect, important decisions by the will, and deep personal, human satisfaction in making something for oneself, by oneself.

© National Catholic Rural Life Conference

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