American Bungalow

There is a ritual when we pack our bags, say our goodbyes and scurry out the front door not knowing how long we will be away. We are excited to leave for adventures and new experiences, and yet, coming home is the sweetest part of the trip.

My husband, Randy Olson, and I are freelance, documentary photographers, and for the past 20 years have worked primarily for National Geographic magazine. We have traveled to more than 50 countries on our 50 assignments—sometimes together—and often apart.

Our nomadic life means that we find “home” wherever we are whether it is for one night or three months. We may occasionally experience a luxurious hotel with a marble bathroom and a heart-stopping private view. But …

American Bungalow

There is a ritual when we pack our bags, say our goodbyes and scurry out the front door not knowing how long we will be away. We are excited to leave for adventures and new experiences, and yet, coming home is the sweetest part of the trip.

My husband, Randy Olson, and I are freelance, documentary photographers, and for the past 20 years have worked primarily for National Geographic magazine. We have traveled to more than 50 countries on our 50 assignments—sometimes together—and often apart.

Our nomadic life means that we find “home” wherever we are whether it is for one night or three months. We may occasionally experience a luxurious hotel with a marble bathroom and a heart-stopping private view. But more often, accommodations are less cushy.  We have slept on a cold, floor attempting to identify what creatures have come alive at night to share our space—and in a hot, baking climate where we longed for any slight, hint of a breeze to penetrate our mosquito netting shelter. We adapt to diverse situations and accept the most odd arrangements when we are in the field.

When we return to our “real” home, the experience is like putting on a pair of comfortable, old shoes.  Occasionally, however, it can be disconcerting on the first night to wake up in a panic trying to sense something familiar–trying to figure out where we are. We soon return to our rituals and routines. Our home keeps us grounded.

We live in a 1912 Craftsman-inspired American Four Square outside of Pittsburgh in western Pennsylvania. We moved here 25 years ago to work as staff photographers at a newspaper, and when the paper died seven years later, we stayed. Partly because we didn’t want to pack up and move to another city to begin again, but mostly because we didn’t want to leave our house. So we began a new life as freelancers, keeping our home as “base camp.”

On one National Geographic assignment, Randy experienced three seasons of weather in one month while camping in the Siberian arctic with explorers. He lived with a tribe of Pygmies in the Congo for a month as they wandered through the forest in one of the last places on the planet that will support their hunter-gatherer lifestyle. He’s been to a number of diverse locations photographing cultures in Easter Island, Australia, China, Kamchatka and more. Advances in communication technology allow us to keep in touch more regularly when one of us is one the opposite side of the world ending a day and the other at home is beginning it.

One of Randy’s most difficult National Geographic assignments was a three-month stay in war-torn Sudan. He endured endless, frustrating days under house arrest while the heat soured to 120 degrees and his equipment was confiscated by government spies. He chartered a plane to a dangerous area in southern Sudan, and on the return trip he evacuated three wounded men who had crawled to the dirt airstrip three days earlier, hoping someone would land in the no-fly zone and transport them to medical help. All NGOs had pulled out of the area because of the escalating violence, so there were no other flights. Randy also paid for three tons of grain to be flown into the area where starving people had only leaves to eat, picked from the tops of trees.

Sitting in the sweltering sun, covered with swarming flies, Randy called on his satellite phone and reached me at a horse farm in Kentucky where I was photographing a 92 million-dollar thoroughbred racehorse in a breeding barn built out of stone that had chandeliers in the cupolas. I heard a far away empty voice on the phone while he heard me talking about upcoming Derby parties. The contrast could not have been greater. I remember telling him to hang in there and that he would be home soon.

My assignments are not nearly as swashbuckling as Randy’s, but I have spent weeks away from home following the threads of a narrative photo story trying to make sense of it. I’ve worked on many stories in the American west and have a book from some of those experiences published by the National Geographic Society.

My adventures are tame, but I have slept in a jeep—my home for five nights at Burning Man Festival in Nevada—enduring non-stop hard-acid techno music playing next to my campsite until desert winds drowned out the monotonous pounding thump thump thump.

In Alaska I flew in on a floatplane and slept in an unheated cabin while soaked to the bone. For three days I struggled to keep up with wildlife researchers who waded up flooded streams to dart angry brown bears. I once became infested with fleas when I spent a little too much time with an Ethiopian family that kept their animals under the same roof where they slept.

Once I had a strange experience in Mali when I was photographing for a book comparing women in different cultures. I carried a copy of the book shot there two years earlier, and they were thrilled to see pictures of themselves for the first time in their lives. Their fascination grew as they examined the images from Japan, the US and Arab countries.  Each family was standing with all of their possessions in front of their homes, and I realized that although I found their lives rich, I had unfortunately made them aware for the first time that they were some of the poorest people in the world.

I recall a special memory in Peru witnessing a rare break from regimented life behind the walls of a cloistered convent as young nuns joyfully played kickball in the 1580s courtyard. I ate worms for breakfast with the Mexican military in Chiapas to gain their trust—but honestly, it was just to gain access to photograph a story.

These highlights may make our workdays sound exciting, but there is a lot of tedium and many miles and hours between meaningful photographs. Who would ever think that a house would help keep us sane?

During the 19th Century, Pittsburgh’s steel barons built estates and summer homes, which were a short train ride for families to escape the sooty air. Our home is surrounded by ornate Victorian houses on a residential street in the town of Sewickley that developed along the Ohio River as a support community to those mansions in the hills.

We were not familiar with the architecture when we first toured the house with a realtor. Hidden behind a towering three story Norway spruce, it had little curb appeal. The stone was so stained and darkened from years of dirty soot from the steel mills that we really didn’t notice the tile roof. But when we stepped up onto the massive front porch and saw the tile floor and a large swing, my thoughts began to change.

Once inside, the wood floors, beamed ceilings, built in bookcases, leaded windows and fireplace all began to work their magic on us. I remember sitting down on the built in wood bench that spans the length of the living room and staring at what I thought were strange iridescent light fixtures (later understanding they were original Steuben art glass and quite special), and my heart warmed. I didn’t want to leave. The house felt good.  It felt right. Randy returned from wandering through the other floors and sat down beside me and said the same thing.

We are the third owners of the home. The Koch family that built it in 1912 and stayed for several generations, and the box mounted in the kitchen housing a maid’s buzzer still has names attached and arrows pointing to Mrs. Koch’s room, dining room and “Lester’s room.”

Mexican tile floors and new wiring came from the second owners’ updating during their five years in the house, but the first floor was nearly intact as originally built.  We were disappointed to learn a second floor porch balcony had been enclosed, and decided to live with painted wood and dim lighting until we understood the house better.

Over the years we have made renovations and improvements, but have tried to be faithful to the intent of the original architecture. We have respect for the details as well as the great bones of this house.

One project began when we tore off a wooden deck in the backyard that looked like an elevated platform. Later, we had the good fortune to meet very talented brothers who came from a long line of Italian stonemasons. Their yard was an archeological treasure trove of disassembled bridges and churches their father and grandfather had built around western Pennsylvania. Our project was delayed and we lost touch with them during our travels.

A year later they telephoned and they asked if we still wanted them to do our “little project.” They had seen a house being torn down and bought the stone that was being discarded as rubble because they recognized it.  It had been taken from the same quarry as the stone for our house and was a perfect match in color. The following summer our backyard was filled daily with large chunks of sandstone. Our neighbors were good natured about the noise and dusty while the men built an open-air porch on the back of the house, modeled after the porch on the front. It has a pergola and wide steps that lead into the garden. The blocks of stone were cut so precisely and the mortar matches so well that it is difficult to see where the old house ends and the new porch begins.

Another project began when an old drug store in Sewickley was closing. We bought the solid oak shelving and the wood interior with drawers and lights to make a library that is an archive for the thousands of Kodachrome slides from our pre-digital years. Other rooms serve as office spaces for writing and editing and have been restored but not altered dramatically.

The maid’s quarters on the third floor has undergone the most drastic change. Narrow stairs used to lead to an awkwardly cut up space that was an apartment. To create our bedroom, we removed interior walls, opening up the entire space, and installed oak floors. We enlarged that bathroom, created two walk-in closets, built deep window ledges that match the first floor windows, installed lighting in troughs above the windows, and built bookshelves into short walls under the slope of the roof.

We built a small Arts and Crafts bungalow in the backyard that houses our car and yard tools. Our neighbors refer to it as the “Garage Mahal.” Not long after, I was inspired while working on a story about Frederick Law Olmsted who planned Central Park, and I created a small woodland near the garage filled with native plants and a stone bench as homage to him.

Our home is eclectic and decorated with a collection of family heirlooms and memorabilia we’ve brought back from our travels. There is little of great value to anyone except us, but the house feels right though perhaps a bit unusual. In the front hallway and illuminated via the front door’s leaded-glass sidelights and transom, a large, framed photograph of a painted, bare breasted, lip-plated woman greets visitors.

Beyond the Tuscan columns flanking entry to the living room, a five-foot long crocodile carved by Aborigines rests on top of Stickley bookcases under Victorian wood frames with portraits of my dour ancestors. (The sculpture serves as a memory to Randy who was chased by an angry croc in Australia). Small crude clay animal figures from an assignment in the Indus River Valley in Pakistan are perched between my Aunt Mabel’s modest antique music players.  A carved replica of an Easter Island Moai and a two-inch fish fossil from a prehistoric lake in Wyoming sit on a large stone fireplace framed by beamed ceilings.

A solid stairway with carved posts leads up to a marble sculpture from Tanzania that marks the landing leading to the second floor. A similar sculpture—that looks like a mistake—sits with a silly smile in the garden under a Japanese maple.

We struggle for simplicity, yet our plumber teases that our house looks like a mini-Smithsonian museum from all we’ve collected. There are numerous hats, baskets, scarves, sculptures, candlesticks, books, rugs and “precious” things from all parts of the world. We bring home gifts like a lump of coal, a bottle of sand from the Black Sea, leather cowgirl boots worn on a Western cattle drive—that all find a special place somewhere in the house and remind us of our travels.

To be clear, however, the stuff is not what is important. We struggle to keep our place simple because we think it is beautiful on its own.  And it is the feeling of being in this space—reading by the fireplace, filling the dining room with friends, seeing the wabi sabi well-worn steps and hearing the familiar creaks and the smell of wood—that is comforting and makes this home important to us.

Once Randy was away for a long period and very ready to return home. He recalls lying in a tent feeling miserable, being held hostage by malaria mosquitoes that were coming out at dusk. He walked through the entire house in his mind. He opened the front door and mentally toured our home to find solace. After being with Pygmies who had no possessions, he remembers counting all the sinks, fireplaces, and framed prints we have on our walls—thinking it seemed insane to have so much in comparison to the people he was photographing.

I find my peace in the garden. Long ago I decided conifers rather than herbaceous perennials would survive better on their own for long periods of neglect. I do plant a few annuals, tomatoes and basil, and one year I was sad to leave just as everything was finally ready to harvest. A week later, deeply involved in my assignment, I was surprised to receive a package of tomatoes individually sealed in little zip locks and sent overnight as a gift from my husband and a reminder of home.

When we travel to other places, we spend time documenting truth as we come to know it.  We try to understand other cultures, no longer looking for what is different, but what is the same—what connects us all.

Ethiopian women rub handfuls of fresh dung on exterior walls to strengthen them. In China, factory workers live in identical modern, suburban cookie-cutter homes on perfectly aligned streets. In the Caucasus in Georgia, Svans live in stark 12th-century medieval towers. Nomadic tribes in Africa carry fire as they walk from place to place, setting up temporary shelters to eat and sleep.  But for all the differences on the continents, much is the same. People all over the world find shelter and often share it with others in a place that we refer to as “home.”

This winter we received a visit from Albin Koch who lived in our house when he was a boy. What a treasure it was to walk from the basement to the third floor and hear his stories.  His grandfather, John Julius Koch who built the house, worked his way up in the Pennsylvaia Roailroad from a switchman to a Traffic Manager of the Central Division. We learned our powder room was the telephone room and you dialed 68 to reach his family.  He remembered being cold in a second floor bedroom with leaky windows, and that has not changed. He told us the house almost burned down one night when hot embers were left overnight in the fireplace.

We learned that when the Koch family left this house, they had a memorial service in the living room for their mother who had recently died. Randy and I were married six years later in that same living room. These connections are the same cycles of life that we find most meaningful when we photograph.

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