photo: “Outer Banks, NC”, by James Willamor (via Flickr)

The Semi-Hospitable Beach House and You

I have never stayed in a beach house that was tastefully decorated. Ever. And I think I know why.

I have had the great fortune in my life to have been on many beach vacations. From the time I was little, my parents and other family members have carted me down to the Outer Banks, a strip of islands that separate the mainland of North Carolina from the Atlantic. They act as both a buffer for the Pamlico Sound and a popular tourist spot. With miles of beautiful beaches and a colorful history (ever heard of Blackbeard? The OBX was one of his haunts), it draws hundreds of thousands of tourists every year. My parents went to the Banks for their honeymoon. My wife and I have ended up there at some point every year we’ve been together. We love being here. We’re here right now, as I write this.

We’re here because my mother-in-law just retired after thirty-six years and ten months (her exact words, based on her exact accounting). She is celebrating the third act of her life by spending a month in a beach house down in Frisco, a quiet part of the Banks with little to do but sit on the sand in the morning and come in for the afternoon.

When we arrived last night, my mother-in-law gave us the grand tour. I’d never been in this house before, but I knew every inch of it. You see, every beach house built in the last thirty years is made up of the same DNA.

There was wood paneling, some of it painted, some of it still showing its proud faux-knotty pine.

There were bits of nautical bric-a-brac, including a lamp that looks like an old sea captain and a mirror that looks like a ship’s brass porthole window (I think these are government issued at this point).

There were bookshelves filled from top-to-bottom with dollar-bin spy novels and Mary Higgins Clark mysteries and Stephen King horrors and whatever romance novels some longing lover left behind.

The walls are covered in many oil paintings of bowls of fruit and dunes and seascapes and wine bottles. My mother-in-law has already chastised me for insulting them, saying they’re “very sweet” and that they were painted by the owner. His eye’s honestly not bad, but I also don’t picture Rothko sitting in a living room full of Rothkos, if you catch my drift.

The furniture is all comfy, but clearly came from a warehouse/big-box store. A few bits stand out here and there, clearly antiques left to the owner by some relative that deserved no space in their main residence. There are a few coffee tables here and there, clearly products of the 70's when furniture was made to be so sturdy you could hide under it during a nuclear bomb blast and come out with every hair in place.

And the wicker. Oh, God, the wicker. The living room on The Golden Girls didn’t have this much wicker furniture.

As I said, this house is no different from any other beach house I’ve ever been in. It feels homey, but only because it’s so familiar to me. I knew without ever setting foot inside that there’d be a door that needed some grease, some under-sharpened knives in the kitchen, and a glass-top stove. Who decided glass-top stoves were a good idea? Did someone think, “Y’know, this meal’s good, but I wish it was cooked unevenly,” and set out to make the worst appliance in culinary history? Also, nearly every appliance is white. Ever cook marinara on a white stove? You’re just asking for trouble.

Some beach houses are slightly more modern, but they always feel like you’re in a model home that a construction company put together. It’s a little too clean, too bright. And always with white cabinets (seriously, who likes cleaning so much that they opt for white cabinets?).

And I sat last night, enjoying the ocean breeze, eating a hamburger, thinking to myself, what makes these houses this way? What is this aesthetic? How can you whine about a beach vacation? Well, jokes on you, reader, because I can whine about damn near anything. And the reason these houses are the way they are? Two words: “break even”.

Beach House Genetics

Most beach houses are owned by a private buyer and leased out through a real estate or vacation company. These companies do their best to provide value-added service like hotel-style cleaning and helpful guides to the area, and to assure the owners that they’ll have a house that hasn’t been gutted by a storm or rowdy teens.

These are the beach house’s two biggest predators: frat kids and Mother Nature. One is a destructive force that ruins everything it touches. The other is Mother Nature.

So the first concern of any beach house owner: “How can we fill this house, which we paid an asinine amount of money for and continue to pay unthinkable insurance rates on, with stuff we can say good-bye to easily?”

Step one: take the old furniture you’ve accumulated over the years and ship it to the beach. Everyone has furniture they have no use for anymore. Where better to put it than in your beach house? Because, hey, if a hurricane comes and yanks the house into the ocean, you’ll be upset, but you won’t be missing anything that important. If a group of college kids decides to superglue everything to everything else and spills beer everywhere, you’ll be pissed, but only “I bought this chair at K-Mart in 1992” pissed.

Step two: have relatives who die. This is a very easy step, as we all have relatives, and everyone dies. Sometimes, these relatives will gift you things for which you have no practical use. A butter churn. An end-table they built themselves. A dresser from that era when hand-made furniture was only slightly more reliable than an Ikea version of the same piece. As you grow older and you pour more money into the upkeep of a house that Poseidon, God of the Sea, is trying to drag back into his watery kingdom, you will find yourself well-provisioned thanks to the scores of dead people whose kids don’t know what the Hell they’re going to do with all this junk.

“Mom would’ve wanted you to have this painting of a praying clown,” they’ll say. You’ll just smile a sad little smile and thank them, saying, “Your mother was one of the good ones” while you figure out where in your beach house you’ll hammer up this waking nightmare. Maybe the room with the bunk beds?

(Ooo, helpful tip: have a room with bunk beds. This will convince your kids that sleeping is fun because they’re sleeping just like people do in jail, or in the army!)

Step three: just as there are no bad ideas in brainstorming, there’s no idea too tasteless for a beach house. Just let yourself go wild. A painting of a pickle with glitter on the border? Why the Hell not! Six lamps in a room with only one chair in it? Go for it! A rock you painted when you were white whine drunk? Perfect!

Remember, the secondary goal is “make it your own, but make it the kind of place you wouldn’t be too upset to see swept out into the terrible maw of the ocean.” Nobody’s worried about your tastes; they just need a place to sleep and shower and maybe eat some shrimp they bought and barely know how to cook. They’re here for the beach; the house is just slightly more convenient and well air-conditioned than a plywood manger they hammered together. The price of their comfort is that they have to suffer your tackiest whims.

The primary goal is to break even. If a storm strips you of your investment, you should get your insurance claim and move forward without a lot of worry about what you lost. The precious things are at home. The practical-yet-unimportant things? Those are perfect for the beach house.

Make Yourself (Kind-of) Comfortable

At this point you’re probably thinking I hate beach houses. I promise you, I don’t. I adore them. They’re wonderful. Being at a beach house means you’re lucky enough to go on vacation and to afford some place to spend a week of your life other than your home. I don’t take that for granted. I’m just starting to see beach houses for what they are: an example of semi-hospitable design.

As a white person with horn-rimmed glasses and an iPhone, I naturally listen to the podcast 99 Percent Invisible (But you probably already guessed that. Profiling, you’ve done it again!). There was a recent episode about the idea of “Hostile Architecture” and “Unpleasant Design”. The notion is to make an area so uncomfortable that it can’t be loitered in or occupied. I have mixed feelings about why these things are done and how they can hurt people in the long run, but I digress. We’re not talking about inhospitable design. We’re talking about semi-hospitable design.

You see, apart from making one’s beach house break-even-able, you want it to be reasonably cozy. A house you can’t feel comfortable in isn’t one you’ll want to rent again the following summer. I have known people and vacationed with people who have gone back to the same house for multiple years because that house was sufficiently comfortable. Repeat renters mean steady income. It’s nice to know you can count on people to come back year after year. It’s also nice to know they won’t try and squat there, to try and steal the home from you. They’ll come, they’ll get tan, they’ll go home.

I don’t know if the effect is intentional or not, but I think there’s something to the idea of making the house a little unsightly, a little uncomfortable. It’s a way of telegraphing to the occupant, “Look, enjoy yourself, but don’t think of this as home. Enjoy our faux-leather couches, but remember you have a nicer couch. Sleep on a decent mattress, but pine for your own bed. Have a nice cup of coffee made by our crappy coffee maker, because it will make you miss the way your water tastes. Welcome to our home, but never think of it as your home.”

And it works, mostly. My mother-in-law has officially fallen in love with her month-long abode because she’s a woman of simple tastes. For her, “enough” is a feast. And this house has enough.

I’ve been to many beach houses over the years and I’ve liked just about every one. I’ve always tried to find some little corner, some notch I can appreciate for what it is. As I sit here, finishing up this bit of writing, I can hear the overly loud wall clock beating away the hour. A lamp made of an old block-and-tackle sits to my right, with real rope threaded through it. There is wood paneling all around, interrupted by windows that look out over the beautiful blue Atlantic. A few puffy clouds roll along. The world is just fine right now.

For all the aesthetic flaws, for all the “satisficing” that happens here, I can honestly say, this house really is a nice place to visit.

But I wouldn’t want to live here.