Wednesday March 25, 2015

Erma Wrote Here

The house where celebrated humorist Erma Bombeck lived and wrote has been named to the National Register of Historic Places.

At the University of Dayton's Erma Bombeck Writers' Workshop last spring, Martha Boice approached Erma Bombeck’s children and asked if they’d be comfortable if she pursued nominating their childhood home — a modest 1959 ranch house in Centerville, Ohio — for the National Register of Historic Places.

"It was one of my pipe dreams," conceded Boice, who helped found the Landmarks Foundation of Centerville-Washington Twp. "Few communities can claim so cherished a person."

With the approval of the current owners — University of Dayton psychology professor Roger Reeb and his wife Tracy — the Ohio Historic Site Preservation Advisory Board in December recommended that the suburban home of America's most beloved humorist and one of the University of Dayton’s greatest graduates be nominated. Earlier this month, it was listed.

"It's a nice honor for my mom," said Matt Bombeck, a screenwriter in Los Angeles. "It was a great place to grow up and we really have fond memories of our neighbors and the neighborhood. The nice thing about the neighborhood is that it really hasn't changed that much since we were there — except the trees are bigger."

In 1959, the Bombecks built the 1,392-square-foot three-bedroom ranch home at 162 Cushwa Drive and lived there until 1968, when Erma's career began to rocket with her popular nationally syndicated column and the release of her first book, At Wit's End.

"Erma frequently referred to those years of occupancy as our family’s maturity. She would always include our hamster and dog, Harry," quipped husband Bill Bombeck, who taught at Centerville High School.

Typing on an IBM Selectric, Erma wrote her columns in a cramped bedroom on a makeshift desk — a plank between cinder blocks. Phil Donahue, who became a legendary TV talk show host, lived across the street.

"We would entertain each other in our homes," Donahue eulogized at Erma’s memorial service in 1996. "We all had the same house. It was a plat house — $15,500 — three bedrooms, two bathrooms and the fireplace was $700 extra. …The Bombecks had beams in the ceiling. I mean real wood Early American beams, perfectly mitered. You kept looking for Martha Washington. Bill Bombeck made those beams all by himself. I envied those beams so much."

Current homeowner Reeb says those seven ceiling beams still help distinguish the house from other prototypical homes on the suburban street. According to the National Register of Historic Places application, the L-shaped home with its gabled roof has retained its historic integrity. It "still reflects its era of construction" and "maintains its sense of scale, time and place, and setting."

"A lot of family living has taken place on this property. I have a sentimental feeling for this house," said Reeb, who serves as the Roesch Endowed Chair in the Social Sciences at the University of Dayton. He often sits in the Florida room and writes papers about service-learning and his work with homeless shelters.

"Knowing that she did her writing in this house has been inspirational to me in my career," he said.

The Reebs moved into the house 20 years ago with their young sons. They built a family room over the back porch’s concrete slab and converted the garage into an extra room.

"We were looking for a good house to buy with good schools and a big back yard for the kids to play in," he recalled. "For a little kid, that backyard was like a football or a soccer field. We'd have cookouts, put up tents and all their friends would come over. It was a nightly event. We have very fond memories of the house because this is where our kids grew up."

The house, which will remain a private residence, turned out to be a perfect setting for Bombeck's humorous musings about family foibles that appealed universally, especially to housewives.

"The columns spoke to her neighbors, both literal and figurative," according to the nomination, which was prepared by historic consultant Nathalie Wright. "Erma's frustration with the notion that homemaking was an artistic pursuit that would forever fulfill women was the touchstone of her writing. She shined a spotlight on the pressures of social convention, covertly telling women that the notion of a perfect home was not realistic. Her sly insights struck a chord, and readers instantly connected to her in droves."

The Reebs didn't hesitate when asked if their home could be nominated for the National Register of Historic Places.

"This was Erma's roots," Roger Reeb said. "Why not honor her in this way?"

To arrange media interviews, contact Teri Rizvi, founder and co-director of the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop, at rizvi@udayton.edu or 937-367-2878.

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