Built by the Burnham family in the 19th century, the house that overlooks today’s parking lot from its own little hill was home to Ellis and his wife and sisters prior to Chubby and Bessie’s arrival. When they moved in, the Woodmans introduced a refreshing new element to the old place: children.
Split into two separate residences, Wilbur, Deck, and Nancy also lived here when starting families of their own, and what began as a kid-friendly “open door” policy evolved into yet another Woodman family tradition. This is where young Evelyn discovered Boo-Boo’s pencils, and where Patti encountered the old Governor Winthrop desk where her grandfather kept his fishing gear. It’s where Leonard enjoyed the custard his grandmother had made just for him, and where little Donny Mac peered down through the window to watch his grandfather wash down the Pool.
The old house is where Chubby spent his final days, counting the cars in the parking lot from his bed. In early 1974, Steve and Rhonda moved in. Their son, Nathan, was born later that year, to be joined by Eian, Jonathan, and Stephen over the next decade. “I spent the first eight years of my life living right next door and it was the spot where the cousins gathered,” says Larry’s daughter, Tara Patrican. “There were no locked doors so you could walk in, help yourself to whatever was in the fridge, and even sleep over if you wanted.”
“It seemed like we could do whatever we wanted at Uncle Stevie and Aunt Rhonda’s,” says Tara’s sister, Whitney St. John. “Aunt Rhonda made Play-Doh, and if you made a mess nobody seemed to care. It was a perfect setting.”
“Whenever we had a chance, that’s where we’d be,” says Tara. “Our father was neat, clean, and organized … definitely the product of Gini Woodman, but at Aunt Rhonda’s I remember stepping on a cracker and not even caring about it. There was nobody right behind me to say ‘clean it up.’ She had better things to do and I knew the dog would enjoy it. I have a picture of myself, still in diapers, finger painting in her shower. That’s the kind of house it was.”
“Downstairs was pretty much open territory,” laughs Rhonda. “By the time our kids began to work at the Pool we were the only family members still residing in the parking lot, so everyone would come to hang out during their break, or to take a shower after work. I’d also babysit if we had a kitchen employee who couldn’t get a sitter. There were always kids around and now the tradition continues with our 11 grandchildren.”
Amidst it all, the Woodmans have always welcomed various houseguests, such as Micah Nyatsambo from Zimbabwe, who came to Essex as a student and is now part of the family. “I guess you could call it open hospitality,” says Steve. “Some guests have stayed with us for months and in a couple of instances they’ve stayed for years. We’ve housed extended relatives, friends of friends, and entire families. With all its history, we’ve never viewed this house as just ‘our’ home. I guess it’s an unusual lifestyle, but it has worked for us.”