Top SF Realtor POV: Wharton, Hemingway and Strange Houses

Top SF Realtor POV: Wharton, Hemingway and Strange Houses

by Cynthia Cummins

Cynthia is owner and founder of Kindred SF Homes and a top San Francisco Realtor. Check out for refreshing reflections on the meaning of home and for more “best real estate advice” (since 2013).

Reading time: 3 minutes and 22 seconds

I’ve been watching the new Ernest Hemingway documentary on PBS and really enjoying it – for the revelations about Hemingway’s hidden dimensions (you’ll have to see yourself what I mean by that), for the photographs and film footage, for the commentary from writers like Edna O’Brien and Tobias Wolff, for Jeff Daniels’ readings of the author’s letters and prose.

But the most satisfying aspect of the film – for me – is seeing images of Finca VigiaHemingway’s house in Cuba. The bookshelves and doorways. The green walls of the study. The way the bed sits between two windows. Even the trophy heads on the walls.

What really grabs me are the floral-fabric-covered twin armchairs that, as far as I’m concerned, are the focal point of the living room. I can dream myself into one of those chairs. I can feel the air cool slightly as evening falls. I am sipping an iced herbal tea on the rocks (no alcohol for me) and sinking into a novel not written by Hemingway.

I never made it past the school-assigned The Old Man and the Sea, so I don’t know if Hemingway wrote much about the interiors of houses. It’s doubtful, given his spare style. But watching the documentary reminded me of another Pulitzer Prize winning author who wrote profusely and skillfully about home interiors.

In fact, Edith Wharton’s first book was called The Decoration of Houses. Published in 1897, before any of her novels, it was long considered to be a “bible” of interior decoration. But you’ll find plenty of writing about rooms and décor sprinkled through her fiction. Here are some examples from The Custom of the Country.

About a hotel in New York:

“The Spragg rooms were known as one of the Looey suites, and the drawing room walls, above their wainscoting of highly varnished mahogany, were hung with salmon-pink damask and adorned with oval portraits of Marie Antoinette and the Princess de Lamballe. In the center of the florid carpet a gilt table with a top of Mexican onyx sustained a palm in a gilt basket tied with a pink bow. But for this ornament, and a copy of The Hound of the Baskervilles which lay beside it, the room showed no traces of human use…”

About a castle in France:

“Everything in the great empty house smelled of dampness: the stuffing of the chairs, the threadbare folds of the faded curtains, the splendid tapestries, that were fading too…”


“ ‘ It’s the most wonderful house you ever saw: a real castle, with towers, and water all round it, and a funny kind of bridge they pull up. Chelles said he wanted me to see just how they lived at home, and I did; I saw everything: the tapestries that Louis Quinze gave them, and the family portraits, and the chapel, where their own priest says mass, and they sit by themselves in a balcony with crowns all over it.’ ”

About a more ordinary house:

“…all pale silks and velvets, artful mirrors and veiled lamps, and the boudoir as big as a drawing room, with pictures he would have liked to know about.”


“In the bedroom, on the brown wall, hung a single picture—the portrait of a boy in gray velvet—that interested Paul most of all. The boy’s hand rested on the head of a big dog, and he looked infinitely noble and charming, and yet (in spite of the dog) so sad and lonely that he too might have come home that very day to a strange house in which none of his old things could be found.”

This last sentence is so melancholy, and yet it accurately describes how sellers often feel upon seeing their home staged and ready for market. It has been transformed into a “strange house.” It barely resembles the home they knew, but it will seduce the buying public with its fiction.

Photo Credit: Elisa.rolle

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