Columbus, OH: Thurber House

Despite what I said in the last post about being happy it’s finally autumn, the truth is a little more complex. Even though I do love it, fall is always a difficult season for me because spending it in the UK just makes me homesick for fall in the US. Since I hadn’t made it home in October for a couple years, I was planning on going this year…until I received a job offer. Though I was excited and grateful for the opportunity, I was feeling down about not being able to go home, until I realised that I had two weeks before I had to start, so I booked an extremely last minute (but surprisingly cheap) flight to Cleveland, and settled for being there in the latter half of September instead of October. Which was basically fine, except for the weather, which climbed above 90° Fahrenheit for all except the last few days of my trip. I do not cope well with heat. Nonetheless, I had a lovely time (thankfully, everywhere in Ohio has air conditioning, except my brother’s car, as we discovered to our dismay one extremely hot day), and even managed to visit some new-to-me historic homes and museums. The first of these is Thurber House, in Columbus.

  

I find myself stopping by Columbus pretty much every trip home now in order to visit my uncle and his partner and their two adorable dogs (and eat frozen custard with them at Whit’s), so I’m starting to get a good idea of the museum scene down there, and this time decided to finally visit Thurber House, because it’s closed during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, which is exactly when I’m normally visiting Ohio, so I don’t usually get the opportunity. James Thurber was an American writer, illustrator, and humourist in the first half of the 20th century, and although he was nationally famous in the 1930s and ’40s (he wrote for the New Yorker, and is the author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”) I’m not sure how well known his work is these days outside Ohio. I definitely remember reading some of James Thurber’s pieces at school, though I recall his illustrations more vividly than the stories themselves. Even though he was blind in one eye as the result of a childhood accident involving an arrow (ouch!), and went blind in the other one later in life, he created the most charming illustrations (especially of dogs) to accompany his humorous stories, some of which are brought to life in statue form in the garden.

  

Thurber House is where James Thurber lived with his family between 1913-1917, while he attended OSU, and it is open daily between 1-4. They offer guided tours for a small fee on Sundays, but the rest of the time the house is free to visit via self-guided tour, with the use of a detailed brochure to help you along. Not that you really need it, because the house isn’t terribly big, but there is a lot to read inside, particularly on the ground floor. There was also an exhibition of Funky Winkerbean comic strips when I was there, which despite its stupid name, is one of the most depressing comic strips ever, but its creator, Tom Batiuk, is from Ohio (Akron, actually), which is probably why they were there.

  

Anyway, the signs in one room contained information about Thurber’s life, and the house (it’s even been visited by ghost hunters, who claimed they verified Thurber’s somewhat facetious belief that there was a ghost in the house (see Thurber’s story “The Night the Ghost Got In” for details (but be aware that the link goes to a pdf, as that was the only place I could find the story for free))), as well as copies of some of Thurber’s best-loved short stories. I’m particularly partial to the one about “Muggs, the Dog That Bit People” mainly on account of Thurber’s drawing of Muggs, which was also available in t-shirt form in the gift shop.

  

Upstairs was a little odd. Some of the rooms were done up roughly as they would have been when the Thurbers lived there, but others were now office space, and there were people sitting inside them working (Thurber House is also a non-profit literary centre). Though we were encouraged by the woman at admissions to go inside the offices and look around, and even ask questions of the people working there if we wanted to, I felt awkward doing that, so I just peered inside as discreetly as I could, and then headed for the rooms without people in them, which included a room full of Thurber memorabilia: manuscripts, illustrations, etc.

  

I also liked Thurber’s old bedroom, which is fortunately not an office either. It had some of his old class pictures in it, and the closet was special too, because it was filled with the signatures of visiting authors. I only saw a few names that I recognised, but the sign telling visitors not to autograph it unless they are asked made me want to develop a professional writing career simply so I can put my name in there when I return. Apparently some of the writers have even spent the night in James Thurber’s bed! The Thurber House also supports a writer-in-residence; the top floor of the house has been turned into an apartment so writers can stay and work there, which I think is pretty cool (even (especially?) if there is a ghost living up there). I spent some time looking at the walls next to the stairs and in the upstairs bathroom, which were covered with photographs of famous visitors to the house, including Burgess Meredith (who was from Cleveland!), who I think was adorable because of his work in The Twilight Zone and Grumpy Old Men (I can’t even watch the second one all the way through because he dies in it).

   

The shop had some good t-shirt designs (Marcus bought the aforementioned Muggs one, I declined because they only had basic man-cut ones, and I’m not a fan of the neckline or thick fabric of those), but the most charming part of the museum was undoubtedly the garden(s). The one behind the house was full of dog statues, and there was a unicorn in the garden in front of the house, based on another of Thurber’s stories, which was written on a plaque by the statue.

  

Although the office situation was a little bit outside my comfort zone (though I’m sure the people working there were perfectly friendly, I am just not the type to barge into someone’s office and start making conversation), the rest of the house, and the gardens especially, were a delight!  I appreciate that it is free to visit, and I very much enjoyed learning more about James Thurber and his stories (and I really must get my hands on one of his story compilations, I want to read more!). 3.5/5, well worth the visit for the statues alone!

6 comments

  1. Definitely charming! I’m familiar with Thurber. I’ve seen the film of Walter Mitty (Danny Kaye version, not the modern one) and read the book, but whether he is known to younger people I don’t know. Have you started your job now? I hope you like it more than brewing.

    1. Marcus had never heard of him, but that’s a sample size of one, so I’m not sure!
      And yes, I started last week…and I’m actually working in a museum (though not one I’ve ever blogged about)! I’m the Visitor Services Officer, which, while not quite the curatorial job I’d like to be doing, is a start, and I have an actual office and a pension for the first time in my life. I get the feeling it’s going to be a lot of work, because it’s a small team and even though it’s a small museum, there’s a lot that needs doing, but I think I’ll have a lot of autonomy as well, which is nice (albeit a bit scary to start with).

  2. This made me so happy! I love James Thurber’s work. Like you, I’ve always enjoyed his stories but particularly love his adorable dog drawings. And what a wonderful house! I would so happily live there. (I don’t know why I’m always saying things like that, like someone’s offering.) If it’s been redone – which I think you said it was – they’ve done a great job. It definitely has the feel of that particular era. I especially love the photo of the typewriter and desk by the big window. Looks like a perfect spot for writing.
    I’m pleased to say I was friends with Thurber’s grandson, Mark, back when I lived in Chicago. (Sadly, Mark has now passed away but he had a brilliant sense of humour – which I imagine runs rampant in the family.) So I thought I knew a good bit about him, but I didn’t know that arrow-eye bit. Ouch, ick, yuck. Or maybe I just blocked it out – I don’t like anything having to do with objects and eyes.
    Big congratulations on your new job! From your comment above it sounds really great. I hope you’ll love it and that they appreciate how brilliant you are.

    1. I thought his house was very cool too, and would also happily live there. Compared to where I’m living now, it’s huge, so maybe we could share it (though of course, no one is offering, unless one of us becomes a famous author, and then we could probably be writers-in-residence)! I think it must have been redone, because they only lived there for a brief period and I think it remained just a normal rental house until the ’70s, by which time the Thurbers’ furnishings would have presumably been long-gone.
      It’s awesome that you actually knew his grandson! I’m a little jealous. I can see why you would have blocked out the arrow incident; losing an eye and losing my teeth are the two things I live in constant fear of. I don’t like people coming anywhere near my eyes with anything even vaguely pointy.
      And thanks! It’s only part-time, so the pay is…not good, but at least it gives me plenty of time to carry on blogging. I’m still kind of ambivalent about it, but I think that’s mainly because I just generally don’t really like having to leave my house and interact with people. But it’s almost impossible to find museum jobs these days so I know that I’m lucky to have gotten it, and that things could be a lot worse!

      1. I like this, this is a good plan – let’s become famous authors so that we get a crack at living there. And boy, do I hear you about not wanting to interact with people. It makes the idea of holing up at the Thurber house all the lovelier.

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