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I have lived in Walla Walla for four years and I plan on living out my days here. I have been writing about local buildings for three years now and am so grateful to have so many fascinating places to research.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Henrietta's House

If you were to be invited into the parlor of Henrietta Baker's house, you might not be able to stand upright--that is if you were older than ten or eleven. When Henrietta's parents, Henry and Clara, built the playhouse for Henrietta in 1905, she was 11 years old and an only child. A Victorian-style home in miniature, Henrietta's house was situated beside the Baker family home at 428 Crescent Street. The playhouse was fashioned with horizontal siding below and scallops under the sharp peaks of the roof. Inside all was gracious and elegant. It was furnished with child-sized furniture, the walls were papered with colorful spidery flowers, filmy curtains were hung at the windows, and small-scale oriental rugs were laid on the floors. And there were dolls. Lots and lots of dolls. The black and white photo featured here (used with permission from Fort Walla Walla Museum) shows Henrietta and many of her doll friends standing on her house's front porch, probably soon after the house was completed.

The Baker name is a familiar one in Walla Walla. Henrietta's grandfather, Dorsey Syng Baker, was a pioneer doctor and railroad builder. He organized the company that built a line from Walla Walla to Wallula and he was a prominent local business man.

Now her lovely little playhouse stands at Fort Walla Walla Museum and is one of many fascinating buildings in their Pioneer Village. I visited the museum when I first moved to town a few years ago and was intrigued by its small-scale design and charming furnishings. Buildings are of course more than structures; they are manifestations of the people who built them or inhabited them. I wondered what the story was with this very cherished and privileged little girl.

I tracked Henrietta through the years using old issues of the Union Bulletin. She grew up as girls generally do: she went to Sharpstein Elementary, she performed as a snowdrop in a children's opera, she attended St.Paul's School, and she graduated from Whitman College in 1914. But no one would call Henrietta a typical young woman of the times. Her degree was in mathematics, unusual for the that era, and she even taught math for a while at Whitman College during World War ll. She married Lincoln Earl Kennedy and she had a son and a daughter. Outside of work and home she was an energetic participant in community activities and organizations. She was a member of PEO, Phi Beta Kappa, and the Arts Club, and she was an actress in the Little Theater production of Harvey, a charming play featuring sweet, gentle Elwood Dowd, who insists he sees a giant rabbit (invisible to everyone but him.) Henrietta was cast as Elmer's staid, conventional, disbelieving sister and got good reviews for her performance. The Union-Bulletin said Henrietta "carried the brunt of the acting burden with eloquence and feeling." The role must have been a challenge for Henrietta since in real life she was anything but conventional.

In fact, she was somewhat of a character. She gave numerous lectures. She spoke to the Phi Beta Kappa chapter; her talk was "A Mathematician Looks at the Idea of God." And her speech for the Seattle Northgate Brunch Club gives us even more insight into Henrietta's personality. The title of her talk was "You Never Know What She Will Say," and in the advanced publicity for the speech Henrietta is quoted as saying that "being alive is wonderful. She says it all in one breath. She is a mother. She runs a home and cooks and writes stories and poems. She went to several colleges and won all the honors in mathematics---unimportant, she thinks compared to making good pie dough and stitching a neat seam."
Yes, she even wrote books--two of them. In later life she traveled extensively and then organized grand group tours of Europe.

But while Henrietta was flourishing, her little playhouse was languishing. The house remained at Crescent Street until Henrietta's parents moved to Park Street and relocated it there. It was moved again in 1970 to serve as a storage shed at the Kennedy's cabin on Mill Creek. Over the years the house fell into serious disrepair, and her grandson encouraged Henrietta to donate it to Fort Walla Walla Museum to make sure the little treasure of a house be saved. A trust for its maintenance accompanied its donation and local PEO chapters provided for its restoration. Happily, Henrietta was able to guide its repair and furnishing based on her memories. In 1986 the little house came to rest in the grounds of Fort Walla Walla Museum's Pioneer Village, where it can be seen today.

Go to Fort Walla Walla and visit the little house. You can peer into each of the rooms through one of the many windows and pretend you have been invited to spend the day there by that very interesting little girl, Henrietta Baker.

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