The House that Thurber Built
Local bibliophiles tout former home of Columbus author as a creative oasis
By Alicia RitcheyPublished August 1, 2012
The beers were flowing that summer’s night in July. A large crowd was sprawled on the lawn, drinking in the scenery (and aforementioned libations), killing time until the main event. Sun dappled through a large tree, casting a shadow on the swarm of lawn chairs, coolers, and revelers on blankets. A lively group burst into laughter, one of them almost falling out of his lawn chair and spilling his Yuengling in the process.
Summer concert? Not quite. The venue was the historical Thurber House and the event was part of its Summer Literary Picnics series. Tonight’s speaker was Mark Titus, blogger of Club Trillion and first-time author, hence the diverse audience and occasional four-letter epithet.
For many revelers, it was their first time at Thurber House – Titus included.
“If you would have told me five years ago that I’d be invited to the Thurber House, I probably would have, well honestly, I probably would have said, ‘What frat is that?’” he admitted.
Humorist James Thurber, famous for his writings and cartoons in The New Yorker, also lends his name to the Thurber Prize for American Humor, an annual award given to humor writers. While his former home may not have the name recognition of say, Delta Tau Chi, the antics of the Thurber family would rival those of Animal House.
“His drinking partner was Humphrey Bogart,” confirmed Anne Touvell, deputy executive director. Check and mate, Belushi. Also in the fold were a grandfather who shot at a cop (he mistook the officer as a war deserter, easy mistake) and a brother who blinded Thurber in the eye with an arrow during a misguided game of William Tell.
The house itself is an unassuming Victorian affair, outfitted with antique-style furnishings and dark wood. The first two floors contain a living museum and displays of Thurber’s work, while the attic apartment is sectioned off for the resident author. Built on the land of a former asylum, there is also talk of a ghost, which was famously depicted in Thurber’s story The Night the Ghost Got In and the subject of a Ghost Hunters episode.
Staff members have also noticed strange occurrences.
“The clock at the bottom of the stairs – my coworker and I were working late one day and it chimed four times,” said Meg Brown, manager of children’s programming. “The clock is broken and it wasn’t four o’clock. So we had no idea why it chimed. We quickly wrapped things up and left.”
Though the house is brimming with history, the lack of name recognition in the community makes spreading the word about the organization a difficulty.
“You say ‘ballet’ and people know the art form. You say ‘Columbus Museum of Art’ and you know what the art form is. Thurber House? That’s a challenge,” said executive director Susanne Jaffe.
Jaffe added there is also an intimidation factor when it comes to Thurber House. Random passersby may check out the Thurber-inspired sculptures located on Jefferson Avenue, but whether or not they actually step into the abode remains to be seen. Quite simply, that the house exists to celebrate the written word and to continue Thurber’s legacy of humor. Even those who aren’t bibliophiles are welcome to take a tour or sit amongst the dog sculptures and take it all in.
“Many cities have a symphony and a ballet and a museum. Columbus is very unique; it has Jazz Arts Orchestra, ProMusica, Columbus Children’s Theatre, and it has us,” Jaffe said. “These are unique arts organizations. They’re smaller but they actually provide unbelievable opportunities for children and adults and I think make Columbus a better city.”
Along with literary events and house tours, Thurber House offers writing workshops, a young docent program, and volunteer opportunities for the civic-minded. What better way to appreciate the works of those modern-day Thurbers (Stewart, Sedaris, Onion writers) than by paying homage to the man who kicked the doors to humor writing wide open?
Film buffs and literature lovers alike will appreciate the big-screen adaptation of Thurber’s 1939 short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. The film will star Ben Stiller and Kristen Wiig and is slated for a 2013 release.
Either way, Thurber would approve. As the man himself once said, “Art – the one achievement of man which has made the long trip up from all fours seem well advised.”
The Thurber House Literary Picnics series features Ohio author Margaret Peterson Haddix on August 8, and the Evenings with Authors series will begin in September. For more information, visit www.thurberhouse.org.