fbpx vie magazine subscribe button

The Power of a House

By Suzanne Pollak | Illustrations by Sally Neal

How is it that a series of houses shaped my life?

My childhood abodes in Africa birthed my faith in the power of houses. Because my father was a diplomat and we moved frequently, our homes were more than shelters for our family. They were tools that helped us quickly connect with the communities where we were sent, until my father was posted somewhere else—or until a civil war erupted and we evacuated. Although temporary segments of our lives, those houses of my younger life sparked my feelings of how to be in this world—that it is possible for homes to reflect and respect our privacy while providing a conduit to the community around us.

Before my father passed away, he told me stories of some of our earliest homes: the penthouse overlooking the golden dome in Beirut, with fish tanks so large they were room dividers, and villas with terraces overlooking the Mediterranean in Tripoli and Benghazi. Those visions passed to me from my father’s memories have hardened over time into myths.

However, the first house I remember, from corners to rooftop, outside gate to garden hideout, was the one in Mogadishu. We jumped on the rooftop water pipes till they sprung leaks. I dangled my legs over the pink wall separating us from the bush, learned how to make pasta with Hassan in the tiny back kitchen, and lay in a bathtub filled with gin to bring down typhoid fever. My father planted flame trees in our walled garden, and that light pink house surrounded by the grown red flame trees looked beautiful before the war that ruined the country.

In Enugu, Nigeria, we had an upstairs terrace where my father explained the constellations to me as we stared into the night sky, the color of the deepest ink with not a flicker of light except for the stars. In Accra, Ghana, our house was prefab, on stilts, and shaped like a donut. The walls upstairs were all glass, overlooking mango, papaya, coconut, and flame trees. At the bottom of the donut hole, we gave Sunday afternoon chicken curry parties.

In all these places, we met the world through our houses. People came and went for dinner parties, cocktail parties, huge parties, Sunday lunches—and who knows what else was taking place? Coups might have been launched from our dining room table.

I came back to the United States for college, and at age twenty-one, I suddenly found myself married with one baby and twins on the way. We lived in a rented two-room basement apartment in Savannah, Georgia, and it was nothing like the light-filled houses in Africa.

Living as a nomad as a child made me crave an adult house to serve as a foundation for life. At a bare minimum, I wanted stability; no more houses like movable feasts roaming a continent. But that was not to be. With a growing family and business ups and downs, we continued to move—in retrospect, I see there was a silver lining in that situation.

It took me decades—actually, it took until now—to understand that acquiring the secure feeling that “everything will be alright” does not come from a physical structure but from an internal one. I’ve learned the long and hard way that authentic personal connections bring about a stable foundation, not the structures in which those connections were formed and nurtured. It took losing many houses to realize that it wasn’t those houses that gave my life its purpose, no matter how beautiful they were.

And I have lived in some wonderful settings. During my first marriage, I restored several eighteenth-century houses, oozing with character and patina. They became glorious places that soothed my soul like a monastery or cathedral is meant to do. We also built new houses, which helped me learn about construction and materials. Through all this, I developed instincts for creating beauty with space, structure, paint, and objects.

I want the house to make everyone—not just us—feel taken care of the moment they walk in and discover the magic that a well-loved, personally designed house can bring.

However, six years ago, I had a massive shift and needed to restructure my life. I moved out of a historic row home and into a tiny pink house, circa 1780, with a little balcony perfect for one or two people. And it is here that the seeds for the next and most satisfying branch of life were planted, grew, and blossomed. Instead of reaching for grand theories that could explain how I became a different person after the recent crisis and disruption in my life, I have one that is fundamentally simple: My house helped to create the new me, leading to a remarkable change. This time around, I thought about flow and how to use my home best, discarding the past and anticipating how I wanted to live for today and tomorrow. I aimed to build a loving space for my connected community—especially the people who were my bridges between my old life and my new one—a group I hoped would grow over time.

I used all my design experiences to determine which spaces to fill and which to leave empty, and this time I put my hands to work as well as my head. I learned to paint and do some basic handiwork instead of hiring others. Although the tiny rooms were unattractive and felt restrictive when I first moved in, the changes I made to my environment started to make me feel inspired, open, connected, and less stressed.

Things ended, things changed, and now they begin again. I have the great privilege of starting over in a marriage, and I am already forming the new home we will have together in my head.

We are starting a life together in a new house in another city, not needing to think of raising children this time but imagining life together, a way to learn from each other, listen, and entwine our rhythms. Our house will be a way to capture the special magic we feel every day we are together. What is more important than the place where we will be sharing our morning coffee? Where we will sip a cocktail while playing backgammon. Where we will invite friends to dinner parties organized in new ways, family for Christmas, and friends from out-of-town all year round. Saturday mornings hanging out in bed and talking. Discovering how we want to live in the house in summer and winter, in the day and the night, together and with others. I just feel good in this house. It’s a little gem that needs attention, and now my future husband will be my partner in creating the spaces for the two of us and for more than a dozen grandchildren when they descend.

We bring nothing. He leaves his furniture behind because this is our house together. And as we will continue to live in Charleston part of the time, I leave my little pink house as it is there. Our new “together house” has great proportions, character, and patina, and our plan is practical furniture, with finer details paid to lighting and hardware. Most of all, I want the house to make everyone—not just us—feel taken care of the moment they walk in and discover the magic that a well-loved, personally designed house can bring.

— V —

Suzanne Pollak, a mentor and lecturer in the fields of home, hearth, and hospitality, is the founder and dean of the Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits. She is the coauthor of Entertaining for Dummies, The Pat Conroy Cookbook, and The Charleston Academy of Domestic Pursuits: A Handbook of Etiquette with Recipes. Born into a diplomatic family, Pollak was raised in Africa, where her parents hosted multiple parties every week. Her South Carolina homes have been featured in the Wall Street Journal Mansion section and Town & Country magazine. Visit CharlestonAcademy.com or contact her at Suzanne@CharlestonAcademy.com to learn more.

Read Responsibly

December 2023, Holiday Issue, Christmas, VIE Magazine, Lisa Burwell, Cover, Gift Guide, Holidays
Marisol Gullo, Not Too Shabby, Home, Decor, Interior Design, Santa Rosa Beach, Churchill Oaks
VIE Magazine September 2023 Jay Mercado
VIE Magazine - The Art & Design Issue November 2021
VIE Magazine January 2021 Special Commemorative Edition
VIE Magazine September 2020 Wanderlust Issue, Fancy Camps, The Idea Boutique
VIE Magazine August 2020 Art & Culture Issue, Nathan Alan Yoakum Art
VIE Magazine - Architecture & Design Issue - July 2020
VIE Magazine - Decor and Home Issue - June 2020
VIE Magazine May 2020 Entertainment Issue, Leslie Odom Jr
VIE Magazine - April 2020 Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine March 2020 The Fashion Edit, VONDOM, Alys Beach Fl, Digital Graffiti, Tres Chic, isidro dunbar Modern Interiors, Digital Graffiti Festival
VIE Magazine February 2020 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Travel Issue - January 2020 - Tanzania Safari Cover
VIE Magazine - Women's Issue - December 2019 - Tina Brown Cover
VIE NOV19 Goodness Issue
VIE Magazine, September 2019 Art & Culture Issue, Paul Hanninen
VIE Magazine - August 2019 - The Architecture and Design Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2019 - The Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - June 2019 - Fashion Edit
VIE Magazine - May 2019 - Culinary Issue
VIE Magazine - April 2019 - The Health & Wellness Issue
VIE Magazine - Special Entertainment Edition - March 2019
VIE Magazine February 2019 Luxury Homes & Technology Issue with Robbie Antonio of Revolution Precrafted
VIE Magazine - January 2019 - Southern Sophisticate Issue Cover
VIE Magazine - Special Anniversary Travel Edition - December 2018
VIE Magazine - The Goodness Issue - November 2018
VIE Magazine - The Art & Culture Issue - October 2018
VIE Magazine - Home & Garden Issue - September 2018
VIE Magazine - August 2018 Animal Issue
VIE Magazine - July 2018 Architecture & Design Issue - Subscribe to the magazine!
VIE Magazine - June 2018 Travel & Tech Issue
VIE Magazine - May 2018 Couture Issue
VIE Magazine - The Culinary Issue - April 2018 Cover - Chef James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst
VIE Magazine - The Entertainers Issue - March 2018
VIE Magazine - February 2018 Destination Travel Issue
VIE Magazine - January 2018 Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine, The Sophisticate Issue, December 2017
VIE Magazine - November 2017 Art & Culture Issue
VIE Magazine - October 2017 Home & Garden Issue
VIE Magazine | September 2017 | The Stories and Storytellers Issue
VIE Magazine - The Adventure Issue - August 2017
VIE Magazine - July 2017 - Art & Artist Issue
VIE Magazine - The Voyager Issue - June 2017
VIE magazine 2017 March-April Cover South Walton Fashion Week
VIE Magazine - January/February 2017 - The Health & Beauty Issue
VIE Magazine - Nov/Dec 2016 The Sophisticate Issue
christian siriano vie magazine september october 2016 vie magazine
the modern minimalist issue
the culinary and couture issue march april 2016 vie magazine
the voyager issue alys beach vie magazine january february 2016
cultural issue vie magazine november december 2015
home and garden issue vie magazine september october 2015
the art and style issue vie magazine july august 2015
the wedding issue 2015 May June vie magazine
the food and fashion issue vie magazine march april 2015
the travel issue vie magazine january february 2015
the music issue vie magazine 2014 november december
The Animal Issue vie magazine september october 2014
the home and garden issue vie magazine july august 2014
the wedding issue vie magazine may june 2014
emeril lagasse food and fashion vie magazine
the men's issue january february 2014
the music issue november december 2013 vie magazine
the home and garden issue 2013 october september
the wedding issue vie magazine july august 2013
the artist issue may june 2013 vie magazine
the food and fashion issue march april 2013
the men's issue january february 2013 vie magazine
The Holiday Issue
the love issue july august 2012
the all american summer may june 2012
the entertainment issue march april 2012
the fashion issue vie magazine winter 2011
the home and garden issue vie magazine fall 2011
the anniversary edition vie magazine summer 2011
the wedding issue vie magazine spring 2011
vie magazine the holiday issue 2010 Dec
vintage swimsuits vie magazine 2010 Fall
judith march designer vie magazine summer 2010
wedding giveaway vie magazine spring 2010
holiday gift guide vie magazine winter 2009
emarketing explosion vie magazine fall 2009
tribute to mother's day vie magazine summer 2009
james and robert redford vie magazine spring 2009
zz top vie magazine fall winter 2008
project dreams vie magazine new york fashion week
Sign-up for VIEmail

Sign up for VIEmail