As the Kilns myth grows, naively sentimental writers sometimes refer to C.S. Lewis’s no-nonsense red brick house as a “fairy-tale cottage” set in a “magic wood.” The film “Shadowlands” romanticizes it as elegantly picturesque (and brickless). In reality, since Maureen Dunbar sold the front yard of the Kilns to a housing developer, Kilns charm exists only in the minds of Lewis lovers. Furthermore, the Kilns has been appallingly neglected since it was obtained in 1984 by the group now called the C.S. Lewis Foundation.
Early in 1993 Stanley Mattson started advertising for dozens of American volunteers to hie themselves to Oxford to refurbish the Kilns that summer. Needless to say, England has an abundance of people who could do such work without incurring the cost of transatlantic flights and board and room. But the 1993 American pilgrimage to Oxford to work at the Kilns did more than repair some of a decade’s damage: It also served as a public relations coup and fundraising event. As a human interest story, it spread the news on both sides of the Atlantic that Stanley Mattson’s C.S. Lewis Foundation is working valiantly to rescue an endangered Lewis legacy.
Perry Bramlett, who took snapshots of Kilns squalor in 1992, visited again in April 1994 and took more snapshots. To his disappointment, he didn’t think it looked any better than in 1992. (It is rumored that there will be a third call for American volunteers in the summer of 1995.) What the publicity stories and photos didn’t show was that after the summer 1993 restoration project the Kilns remained a bedraggled neighborhood eyesore — but it was graced with a large cross made of darker tiles on the roof of its northeast corner, facing the public road that leads to neighbors’ houses.
Whoever tiled the cross into the Kilns roof over C.S. Lewis’s upstairs bedroom no doubt had good intentions and the permission of Stanley Mattson. But as exterior design or Christian advertising it seems an unfortunate experiment. Perhaps someone advised Mattson not to mention the cross in his announcements about what has been done to the Kilns.
“During last year’s highly successful Phase I effort, we made major progress towards readying the house for future guests. Thanks to generous gift support and the spirited labor of no less than 71 volunteers, we…
- replaced the tiled main roof of the Kilns
- restored the home’s small-paned dormer windows
- stripped [the Thirsk family’s 1970s] wallpaper…
- sanded and refinished floors to their original dark oak
- reopened and restored 2 of the home’s 10 fireplaces
- installed a six-foot antique “ball and claw” bathtub
- restored most of the exterior brickwork as needed
- pruned and grubbed the entire garden landscape, and
- cast down the T.V. antennae from the roof (Hurrah!).
On 16 May 1994 Mattson sent out a call for $30,000 to fund the 1994 summer restoration project, including $3,150 to fix the tile roof over the garage wing. (Any signs there?) Mattson warns that over 90% of all Christian undergraduate and graduate students now attend secular colleges and universities. The Kilns will somehow become an “International Christian Study Center.”
“You can help us prepare this special home to welcome the hundreds who will be attracted to the Kilns as a truly historic place of scholarly research, reflection, and rejuvenation. It’s our hope that, in the near future, some of the most significant contributions in various fields will have been made by Christian scholars who have enjoyed the hospitality and support of The Kilns during a sabbatical of research.”
If you prefer, there’s the fairy-tale cottage set in a magic wood.