The weather outside is frightful, at least by Maryland standards. I'm writing this wrapped in a fleece blanket, sitting in front of a fire. A couple of years ago, as the leaves started to fall and we could sense winter approaching, my daughter Rosa and I went on a campaign we called "Operation Cozy". I got the fireplace in our family room fixed and we painted the walls a warm beige. We bought a carpet to cover most of the hideous laminate flooring and an enormous, super-soft fleece blanket. For the final touch, we adopted a very sweet cat with a nice loud purr. The combined affect was just what we were hoping for--our house felt more like a place where you would want to spend a cold winter day. It felt homey.
I just got back from a week-long visit with my parents in Minneapolis, Minnesota. A couple of months ago, my parents sold the house I grew up in and moved into Becketwood Cooperative, a senior co-op in Minneapolis. I wasn't upset by their move (since I haven't lived in the area since high school my sense of attachment to any particular place there has gotten pretty thin) but I did wonder what it would feel like to visit them in a condominium complex with 210 units. Could a building with that many people and lots of "common" space really feel like a home? Or would it feel like a hotel or an office building--tasteful, comfortable but definitely not homey.
Happily, the place where my parents now live doesn't have this "corporate" feel. It feels like it belongs to the people who live there--which is does, in fact, since it is a cooperative. I found myself wondering what things in particular made the common spaces warm and welcoming. Design helped, of course, with lots of little nooks and a fireplace right at the entrance. But the art in the hallways helped too. Instead of generic reproductions of the sort one sees in hospitals, there were clusters of prints and paintings, each unique and well-chosen. My mom told me that all the art was donated by past or current residents and selected by a group of residents who knew a few things about art. The pictures belonged to people who loved them and wanted to share them, just like the art hanging in a person's home.
I have more than a personal interest in what makes communal space "homey". I convene, curate and celebrate community for a living, and for the past 19 years, part of that work has been tending to the spaces where those communities gather. The first congregation I served met in a aging building that wasn't handicapped accessible and was in need of tens of thousands of dollars of maintenance. The building dragged us down like an ill-fitting shoe and a I frequently fantasized about moving out and just renting space to meet. Then, the second congregation I served met in rented space. Despite banners and signs we brought in every week, it was hard to feel like we were gathering in anything other than a middle school lunchroom.
By the time I arrived at the Kittamaqundi Community, I was pretty wary of buildings. I mostly was looking for the congregation's building to "do no harm". The building shouldn't get in the way of what a community wants to do. But KC doesn't just meet in a building--it has a home. About 35 years ago now, the community purchased a dilapidated historic barn in the center of Columbia. Over the next several years, they renovated the building with a lot of sweat and a lot of love (and some professional help too). It is a very simple space but it has a wonderful, warm feeling that even weekday visitors can sense.
Clearly, Oliver's Carriage House is one of the things that enables the Kittamaqundi Community to be a warm and welcoming spiritual home. But what makes the Carriage House feel homey? There is a lot of art on the walls, much of it silk screens by Wes Yamaka, an early member of the community. There is a huge fireplace in our main gathering room and we keep a fire burning there throughout the cold months. But I think there's more to it than just these two factors.
What do you think makes our building--or any public building--feel personal and warm? What makes comunity space feel like home?