Woodie Garber was a Cincinnati architect, like his father and grandfather before him, but they got to design significant public buildings around the city. In 1945, then only 32, Garber did win a design competition for a glassy local high-rise, only to have it nixed by an anti-modern senator. He successfully designed, however, the Modernist but low-rise Cincinnati Public Library of 1955, which was much admired and is still in use. Mostly, he was commissioned for private residences. This memoir by his daughter is about the life she, her brothers, and mother led in the structure intended as their dream house, on which they collaborated beginning in 1966—a years-long effort that, while physically taxing, proved absolutely grueling emotionally.
Elizabeth, the eldest of three, is 13 when they move in, and happily takes on the sanding and gluing of veneers for the extensive plywood built-ins. But as the chores go on, extending to the heavy work of landscaping, she and her brothers want to see friends on weekends. This is not allowed. Their story is like a romance novel in reverse, a dystopian version in which the hero grows gruffer and wilder instead of tame and tender, and the alluring mansion becomes the place the heroine needs to flee. It’s a relationship built on architecture but destroyed by the presumptions of the architect.
Woodie monitors everything, as if the open plan of the house were a model for the life inside. He doesn’t allow his family to close bathroom doors, requires that they pose for annual nude Polaroids so he can “record their development,” and, starting when Elizabeth is 14, mandates she submit to “back rubs,” front and back, as his good-nights in her room—avoiding the hottest spots but causing her speechless anguish, a silence that lasts well into adulthood. As she says, they were trained to obey.
Elizabeth’s first disillusionment with her adored father may come when she realizes that their house, which she thought made them special, exactly resembles a famous one they pored over together: “I was shocked. My father had copied Corbu.” (Some readers may be reminded more of residences by Mies.)
As time passes, Woodie comes to rant at his frozen, terrified family and is callous about even life-threatening physical injuries the children suffer. Covertly rebelling, his 18-years-younger wife starts letting the kids watch TV during his late nights at the office. But when Elizabeth at 16 falls in love with her perfect male counterpart, who is black, Woodie blows a gasket. Color may be a pretext for the unmentionable wish to keep his daughter to himself rather than the true cause, but his craziness destroys the family’s remaining loyalty to what has essentially become a cult.
The father’s dissolution—diagnosed at some point as bipolar disorder, among other disturbances—parallels the development of his biggest commission and first realized high-rise, a 27-story dormitory called Sander Hall (1967–71), with energy-conserving mirror-glass walls unlike anything in the area. Built high by Cincinnati University to avoid encroaching horizontally on the surrounding community, Garber’s plans included features, like ample mingling areas, that would be lauded today. The edifice, however, was widely hated by local residents and the school trustees, and subject to frequent acts of arson. The book’s title refers to Sander Hall’s deconstruction, in 1991, after prolonged administrative neglect.
More primally, it refers to the implosion of Woodie Garber. He died in 1994, with all but Elizabeth refusing contact with him. In this un-put-downable book, Elizabeth, a poet, acupuncturist, and mother, has, like an architect—ecologically using salvage materials—taken the shock and trauma of the family’s disintegration and built from them a powerful narrative you are reluctant to leave.