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Before and after: The house that two dads (and love) built

September 9, 2013

Last September our oldest daughter Michelle took a week of vacation time to help us began rehabbing an old playhouse my father built for our family.


Playhouses in our family have a long tradition: my dad built one for us children back before I even remember anything, pictured below: white siding and red trim. To me the playhouse was always just there: on our farm, a special attraction not every family had.  Friends and cousins loved it. Cousins came frequently to visit my grandparents who lived with us in a traditional “doughty” house (an addition on the side of the farmhouse).


My Grandpa and Grandma Miller (Uriah and Barbara) on a swing in front of our old playhouse.

Then my family moved from northern Indiana to northern Florida in 1969 and had a huge auction selling almost everything we owned. Including our beloved playhouse. It brought lots of excitement, a few tears, and a nice little sum when the auctioneer put it on the block that day.

Not to worry. When Dad and Mom began to have grandchildren, they made sure each family with children got a Grandpa-built playhouse (or tree house in the case of my brother’s family who had two sons).


Some Indiana cousins, Larry, Bob and Jay with their childhood playhouse (plus Michelle).

Then my parents came to Virginia for a week September of 1982 when Michelle was just 18 months old.


My father, Vernon Miller, building our playhouse with help from Michelle and Stuart. Right, Dad, Michelle and Mom with the finished house.

Fast forward 30 years to 2012. The beautiful (now old) playhouse was in serious need of repair. Michelle wrote about her memories of playing in the playhouse here. And I did an initial Another Way newspaper column about the restoration project as we launched it, here.


Eagerly we began by removing the roof, knowing that we’d have to keep the interior protected. The plan was to almost totally rebuild the trim, siding and roof, while retaining if possible, the interior paneling, cupboards and original flooring. The 4 x 4 pressure treated foundation was also very solid, even after 30 years.


But the idea of covering the whole thing up with tarps and tie downs after every work session soon loomed large. We also had no electricity out near the playhouse for power tools. Hauling all of the tools and equipment in and out of the shed or garage just wasn’t going to cut it. The nearby shed didn’t have electricity. What if we moved the playhouse into our two car garage, and place it atop a large dolly he would construct, my husband schemed. I weighed the options. That sounded like a lot of work. But I did not relish the idea of covering the playhouse up after every work session. He promised I could continue to keep my van in the garage. He felt we could wedge the playhouse into the space between the cars when we weren’t working on it. So we moved the work inside with the help of our neighbor and his trusty tractor with a frontloader.

Work continued through the winter as we had time. It would take almost a full year. All of our daughters got in on the act: painting, prying, giving feedback and encouragement, admiring. Friends helped Stuart figure out how to proceed at key points with the siding, the j channel around the trim, the roof.


Friend Edgar helps Stuart get the siding started. Mother Melodie (and sometimes daughters, if home) do a lot of trim painting. Stuart adds some improvements, such as roof ventilation, to Grandpa’s original design.


Me posing inside the house, inside the garage during one point in the long rehab process.

Something else wonderful happened while rehabbing the playhouse. Both of our married daughters got pregnant. Grandchildren!!!! If you follow the blog, you know our excitement. A baby bump began to be visible as finishing touches on the playhouse went forward.


Last week the same wonderful neighbor and his tractor and frontloader came back into action to move the playhouse back out of the garage and to the backyard. Michelle’s brother-in-law, Brett, (middle, below) also gave invaluable help for the move.


It. Was. A. Great. Day.

We were both elated and extremely nervous about the moving process, after everyone’s hard work. But it went well, no disasters.


Stuart, Brett and Harold check finishing work.

Our marriage has now survived the rehabilitation of one sadly neglected little playhouse. We are incredibly grateful. With a tip of the hat to Dad and the note he left for us all, that Stuart joyfully discovered one day as he was working on the house.  (Again, you can read all about that discovery here.)


Thanks, two dads.


2015 Update. The Third Way archives of Another Way columns are no longer available at Third Way. Here is the column I called “Channeling Dad” which I wrote as we worked on the playhouse, and Michelle’s recollections of playing in the playhouse, “The House that Grandpa Built.”

Another Way for week of November 23, 2012

Channeling Dad

Thirty years ago this fall (September 1982), my dad and mom visited us from Indiana for a week to build a playhouse for our budding family.

Dad was great at building things kids love. In his time, he made an elevated “treehouse” (without the tree for my brother’s sons), toy barns, toy dollhouses, and for my sister’s kids and my kids, a real kid-sized playhouse complete with sliding windows, kitchen cupboards, and a tiny ceramic sink. These creations were not always masterful in workmanship; he tended to sometimes use scraps of things he had on hand, or could pick up cheap at northern Indiana’s RV outlets or the well-known Shipshewana Auction and flea market. Later in life, this hobby became his labor of love—not only for his own grandchildren but any kid whose parents were enchanted by his simple homemade sign: “Homemade dollhouses and barns, ¼ mile.”

This past September, exactly 30 years later, we began the long overdue process of “saving the playhouse” from mold and gradual deterioration. Our oldest daughter, Michelle, took a week’s vacation and came home to get it going. She was the only child we had when Dad and Mom built the playhouse, 17 months old. Michelle had a writing project she was also working on during the day as we began the restoration process, so during evenings we got as far as we could before she had to return to her home.

So the tedious restoration process continues; we were able to move it into our garage to work on it as weather cooled. My husband has been heard to mumble, “I think it would have been less time consuming to build it from scratch.” But most of the basic structure is in remarkably good shape. As we’ve torn apart, hammered and rebuilt, I had to think frequently, “The last person to touch this nail, or handle that board, was probably my dad.” Sentimental, yes. Dad’s been gone now over six years and we’ve all been recalling how in his later years, even getting a simple piece of trim measured just right and hammered onto a piece of wood became a laborious process in calculating, hammering, checking, finding it wasn’t right, tearing it apart, and trying again. That was very sad, and hard to watch.

My dear husband, who has learned most of what he knows about construction by trial and error, has spent many hours studying Dad’s construction of the playhouse and trying to figure out what was in Dad’s mind when he did something one way or another. “I’m just trying to get inside his head,” Stuart said, more than once.

Once Michelle left, Stuart and I continued to remove the vinyl siding. One night he called me out to the garage to see what he had found: a note scrawled by my dad that no one had seen for 30 years. It said: “Grampa Miller Built Playhouse for Michelle in September of 1982.” (Capitalization and spelling his.)

Tears almost came as I thought about him penciling his note in a hidden place: did he know or hope we would one day restore it? Did he ponder the future generations who would find it? Did he know it would settle an old argument, of who the playhouse belonged to among our kids? Not that it was ever an intense argument; they all loved it, but somehow Michelle, being a sentimental chip off her Grandpa’s block, was especially attached, as evidenced by her offer to come home for a week to help restore it to its former days of youthful glory.

We were all delighted by the find and I reminded our other two daughters that no one even knew if we could have more kids. So it wasn’t meant to slight them. No one knew the future. The playhouse was for whoever joined our family.

Our girls, their friends and cousins all spent many happy days and some nights (a few sleepovers with friends) in the little playhouse. More about that next week when my daughter writes a guest column about her memories of the playhouse. We hope the playhouse will serve many more children and happy times to come. Someday.

I have thought more about Dad than I have in years, wondering, as we always do, what our loved ones on the other side of the veil between mortal life and the life hereafter know or are aware of about loved ones on earth. But this we know: Dad, my husband, and others like them, who craft and give their love in these tangible ways, give us gifts that outlast a 30- or even 60-year-old playhouse; they give of themselves. 


Another Way for week of November 30, 2012

The House That Grandpa Built, By Michelle Sinclair

It sat beneath a towering oak tree, the little white playhouse with jaunty red trim that was the centerpiece of our childhood kingdom. My two younger sisters and I never had video games, horseback riding lessons, or many of the popular toys that kids of the 1980’s dreamed about, but we spent so much time in our backyard we didn’t really miss them. That, and our playhouse was awesome.

On hot summer days, we slid the glass windows open and tied back the curtains to let a breeze circulate through the screens. We swept the linoleum floor with play brooms and “washed” my little metal tea set in imaginary water until someone (probably me) got the bright idea to put sand (from our nearby sandbox) in the ceramic sink. The window above the sink had no screen, which made it the perfect drive-thru window for our fast food operations. If the plastic food was a little sandy (like everything else in the playhouse), well, that was just extra salt.

Over the years, we added a play stove and two doll cribs, which made the interior rather crowded with three growing girls and whatever cat we could trap inside with us. Once, a litter of three kittens disappeared, and after nearly two days of worry, Dad happened to walk by the playhouse and see a little tortoiseshell paw poking from the narrow stove window. We had put the kittens in there while playing, and probably left for dinner, forgetting all about them. At least the kittens were none the worse for the wear. That spunky little owner of the tortoiseshell paw even became the matriarch of our family’s pets, but that day we learned a valuable lesson: kittens don’t belong in stoves.

Games of tag or keep away often ended with one of us darting into the playhouse, slamming the door shut and locking it while the chaser screamed in frustration outside. Then, big sister (moi) figured out you could shimmy the window glass up and reach inside to unlock the door, which lead to lots of screaming from inside the playhouse—and lectures from parents about only screaming when there’s an emergency.

Fall came, and with it, school, and the playhouse fell silent until the weekends, when friends packed it with even more imaginations and laughter. Oak leaves and acorns piled high around the footers. More dishes got washed in sand. Someone made “artwork” to tape to the bare paneled wall on one end, and we dented the top of the stove using it as a chair.

In the winter time, we broke icicles off the eaves, licking them like lollipops. We sledded for hours and then climbed inside the playhouse in an effort to warm up, but our breaths puffed dense and white indoors with no breeze to blow them away. The house might have looked like the real thing, but it had no warmth without children inside.

Friends came over in the spring, eager to play after so many months cooped up inside. We’d stand in the doorframe, hold onto the knob, and swing outside to shout ideas at each other without actually stepping onto the grass. Before long, I had to stoop to stand inside, but that didn’t keep me from playing. I just moved around on my knees.

We had mini-restoration projects over the years—fresh paint for the trim, a good scrub-down inside to get the years of sand out of the sink and countertops. When we were teenagers, my best friend Becky and I made all new curtains and spent the night on the playhouse floor with our sleeping bags stretched into the open cabinets. We strung up a florescent light powered by one of Dad’s trolling motor batteries, and ran our CD player on D-cells, singing along to music while Mom and Dad marveled that the old playhouse could still work its magic. 

The playhouse doesn’t sit under an oak tree anymore—it has moved to my parents’ new backyard. The artwork and curtains are faded, the dishes a bit rusty and strewn across the cabinet floors. All that remains of the stove is an oxidized streak on the linoleum floor, but we hope to get most of that cleaned up, too. It’s time for the big renovation project, (see last’s week’s column about renovation:, time to buff away the scars of thirty years of love and neglect so that a new generation can hang from the doorknob and shriek like little savages.

That’s because a playhouse isn’t just a building; it’s a safety spot in tag, a backdrop for catching fireflies, a jail, a cat pen, a restaurant and bank. It’s a house. It’s a marvelous framework for young imaginations that need only a little nudge to run circles around the most advanced video game on the market. The smartest toys are open-ended, and the best ones are given with love.

Our playhouse is both. Thanks, Grandpa.


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  1. Pert permalink

    Love the story and the pictures. I seem to tear up when you talk about Dad and what he used to do for us. Pert

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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