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Dave LeBlanc: The Architourist

Fond memories of rec rooms past Add to ...

Dear Rec-room Muse,

You once stood for leisure, casualness and, well, for recreation. You gave conservative Canadians permission to let their hair down and, dare I say it, their imaginations run wild. Your voice, oh Muse, was first heard some time, I believe, in the late 1940s or early 50s and grew silent 35 - 40 years later.

Who, out there, still has a rec-room in their basement?

I have just returned from a long journey to Lake George, New York, deep in the Adirondacks. There, I met many people who, like me, believe that you still exist. We had gathered to celebrate all things "tiki" ( www.luauatthelake.com). Yes, tiki, that wonderful sub-genre of leisure that first appeared in bars and restaurants as far back as the 1930s in California and gained momentum after servicemen returned in 1945 with tales of the exotic places they'd seen while stationed in the South Pacific. James Michener wrote a book, the book became a musical and it was only a matter of time before the trappings of the tiki bar-blowfish lamps, ceramic Moai mugs, a smattering of sea shells and a Formica-topped bar-made the trek into basement rec-rooms.

What could be more recreational than kicking back with a rum-filled coconut while Les Baxter's "Quiet Village" bubbled up like sweet audio lava from the hi-fi?

Anyhow, Muse, I met people in Lake George who strain to hear your sweet voice today and have built new tiki bars of their own. A sort of offering to you, I guess. My own bar, in fact, was unearthed from the bowels of the mighty mid-century modern furniture store Ethel in Leslieville. It had been salvaged from a butcher's house in Forest Hill and we had to alter it a bit and do some reconstruction, but today it looks like it came with our 1961 backsplit. The counter and bar-fridge you see behind the bar actually did come with the house when we moved in four years ago, though we did splurge last year by doing some mosaic tile work and adding a sink to make it a fully functional wet-bar.

I have also been to enough estate sales to know that, in certain neighbourhoods, wet-bars came standard in basements.

But I digress. When I think back to the research I've done via half-century old shelter magazines (and I've done plenty of that), I'm reminded that rec-rooms weren't just about bending the elbow. No, they were also about the long lost Art of Puttering. Yes, puttering, that wonderful other sub-genre of leisure that men, mostly, used to do on weekends. Puttering could be done in an adjacent workshop (my dad has always had one) fixing that blasted broken-down old toaster or helping little Timmy finish painting his birdhouse for shop class. Or it could be spent in a hobby-area putting together a puzzle, building balsa-wood airplanes or sewing Halloween costumes. Whatever. The point is, oh Muse, who practices puttering any more?

There were also musical instruments set up in the rec-rooms of old: An organ, an accordion, an acoustic guitar that had been bashed and dragged to countless lessons and then handed down to the next sibling for another round. Who sits down with family members to make music any more?

The point I'm making, I guess, is that while we spend so much money on our homes today, I wonder if we spend as much time in them. Maybe we do, but in different ways: We build enormous gourmet kitchens-sometimes bigger than our living rooms-and create meals complex enough to compete on Iron Chef America. We build outdoor 'rooms' that are so indistinguishable from indoor rooms there are television commercials that parody this-ever see the one where the lady sends the muddy dog 'outside' only to realize they already are?-and media rooms with equipment to rival a TIFF screening room.

Author Phyliss Brett Young foreshadowed this trend in her powerful work The Torontonians in 1960. She argued that there was something "sinister" about a society that went to the "sunless depths of the recreation room" when it "sought amusement." Finally though, there were indicators Torontonians were finding the "courage to bring their caves up into the sunlight."

Call me sinister then, because these new manifestations of home leisure all feel too large and lonely unless they're filled with dinner party people or friends watching the game. The rec-rooms of old felt cozy even when only a husband and wife were sharing a cocktail or a couple of kids were playing Monopoly.

In short, rec-rooms were places to escape to that didn't wreck your bank account (as an aside, when my wife was little, she thought the rec-room was an area of the home that was okay for the kids to wreck). For a "staycation" to be successful today, too many of us think it requires tens of thousands of dollars of equipment. Give me wood panelling, a shag carpet, a fireplace and a stack of LPs and I'll be just fine.

Besides, without all of those modern distractions, it makes you, oh Muse, so much easier to hear.

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