Story & Photos by Heidi Hodges
That’s not the full story, though. The full story takes a little more explaining. It goes back to Maureen and Jonathan’s youth.
Maureen reflected on what brought them to Door County’s shores. While Maureen had vacationed here in her youth and had always loved it, it turned out Jonathan, from England, had also visited. In fact, when he was only 19 he wrote his name on the Anderson Dock boathouse in Ephraim during a stop in the county.
Jonathan still has family in England and visits every other year. But he ended up in Chicago as a young man, where he and Maureen met, and was offered a job by Harold Florsheim, of the well-known shoe company.
The two tied the knot in 1968 and had Chris in 1969, with three other children following. And then, in 1985, came Chris’s transplant surgery.
Chris had improved after the surgery, graduated high school and was looking forward to college. He went for a physical exam before leaving home in August 1988.
It was then the doctors discovered he had AIDS resulting from blood transfusions. There were few treatment options in the 1980s, and the diagnosis was terminal.
He told others, “I was going to college, but I just found out I’m going to die,” Maureen remembered.
“He was smart and funny and knew he was going to die. He was so brave, and ready to go. Hemophilia had been very difficult.”
Maureen recounted stories of his strength and determination. “He was going to live while he lived,” she said. “He fought so hard.”
Only three months after learning the diagnosis in 1988, he passed away.
Then, four years later, his brother Mark, age 10, also died. He lived his life with disability caused by losing 80 percent of his blood as a newborn, Maureen said.
“We had him for 10 great years,” she said. “He was a great spiritual presence.”
Both children were able to spend time at TAGH Manor before their deaths, and Mark even had a dialysis machine set up there. “Mark was happy,” said Maureen, “until two years before he died. He had become really uncomfortable.”
Both boys are buried in Door County. In fact, Chris and his father picked out Chris’s grave site together.
With an understanding that only those who have gone through an experience like this can know, Maureen, who was a stay-at-home mom, did hospice volunteer work for a period of time after Chris’ death, “because I felt Chris died so well, and that isn’t always true for people,” said Maureen.
Today, the family frequently gathers at the Howell’s home, and the surrounding guest houses. The Howells, now retired, enjoy company that comes, and take in what Door County has to offer.
Oftentimes, that’s just enjoying the quiet of their beloved property, a warm fire, a steaming pot of soup and the ever-changing view out the back windows.
“It’s where we all always end up gathering,” said Maureen, as she and Jonathan took a seat for a photo. And by “all” she means extended family and dear friends. This property, with three homes, is Family Central. Indeed with the couple’s immediate family and Maureen’s large family that includes 105 first cousins, the property is never lonely.
But it wouldn’t take a fancy bar to lure them. On a recent gathering, there is happy commotion, open wine bottles and friendly chatter in their house—and the neighboring home—on the property. It’s not the place, but rather the people and the vibe. It’s comfortable and homey. Where else would you want to be?
Of course, the bar area and cozy living room is a perfect spot for such gatherings. It’s the showcase feature of the Howell home, warm and inviting, especially with a fire—a real fire with real wood—blazing in the stone fireplace just a few yards away.
And when the family has gone? “It’s perfect for dinner and wine, then some mindless TV with a fireplace going,” said Maureen.
This is a home, not just a house. The sense is derived from the details, like the rustic chandelier hanging over the bar (a relic from Maureen’s mother’s home) and the art on the walls. Maureen’s mother actually did many of the paintings, she explained. “She took it up when she was 40 and was very prolific,” said Maureen. “She did landscapes, portraits and even some reproductions.”
The journey from Maureen’s Chicago home to Door County started many years ago, when Maureen was young and would vacation on the peninsula with her family. For many years, she had noticed and admired a yellow house right on the beachy waterfront, christened TAGH Manor by the owner at the time. It was a lodging facility, like a bed-and-breakfast—in fact, Maureen’s sister had stayed there once.
She remembered once even telling another family member, “Wouldn’t it be great to own that home?”
Jump to 1985. Jonathan—who hails from Cheltenham, England and is, at the time, vice president of international operations of the Florsheim Shoe Company and is traveling the world—and Maureen live in Chicago and have four children, Chris, Tricia, Paul and Mark.
Two of the children—the oldest, Chris, and the youngest, Mark—have hemophilia. Because of those issues, Chris needs a splenectomy and liver transplant. He’s at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, which specializes in pediatric transplants.
It’s clearly a taxing ordeal for everyone in the family.
And then, as the crisis with Chris unfolded, the yellow house that Maureen had once dreamed of owning went up for sale.
Jonathan and Maureen Howell look back at that time with a shake of the head that only hints at the difficulty of situation.
The timing was terrible. Still, Jonathan crunched the numbers, but he ultimately determined the family, unfortunately, couldn’t afford it, at the asking price.
But they didn’t want it to fall through their fingers without even trying, so they made an offer—one that could work for their family.
Somewhat unexpectedly, it was accepted.
Many things happened all at once, Maureen remembered. “Our youngest, Mark, was fitted for a wheelchair, my grandmother died, our other son had his First Communion, our oldest was in Pittsburgh with a liver transplant...and we bought a house,” said Maureen, marveling at how they balanced it all.
“It all happened through the ordeal of Chris’s transplant,” said Maureen. But, in the end, the distraction of the new waterfront home “got us through it.” And Chris was a cheerleader.
The transplant was a success, and with it, Chris became the first human cured of hemophilia, said Maureen. There were even news crews waiting to interview the family, she remembered, although they tried to avoid the attention.
Since then, many things have changed with hemophilia. “It’s a much different disease now,” she said, with different treatment options.
Now they had the yellow house. TAGH Manor, as they continued to call it, served as the family get-away for many years until the Howells decided to build a new home on the large property—one for themselves.
The property also includes another smaller home, near the road. After looking at the zoning regulations, they determined, “There was enough property to have three homes,” said Jonathan who wanted to build the new home near the water.
With the new house in the works, TAGH Manor became the “family museum,” said Maureen.
The couple sought out Forestville Builders.
“We knew what we wanted. A home. Just for us,” said Maureen. They would use the other two homes as lodging for their frequent guests and family gatherings.
They pulled together their ideas, including the bar in a Tuscan style, and the home’s roof that resembles the tiles
popular in Europe.
“It’s a steel roof that looked like clay tiles,” said Jonathan.
They wanted “rounded” windows and lots of rounded corners. They sought a comfortable feel and logical movements through the house. They considered details that would allow “aging in place,” Maureen explained, including bathroom fixtures that would allow for potential future physical needs.
And they wanted a touch of European charm.
The home was completed in 2012.
As their soon-to-be permanent Door County home was being built, they were working on updating and selling their Chicago home that had been built in 1969. “We were busy making that place look new, to sell, and busy making this place look old,” said Maureen with an easy laugh.
Indeed, the Door County home is fitted with rustic beams, Amish flooring and a “grotto” stove area in the kitchen with Old World nuances.
It’s also designed for convenience, like having a large, hidden pantry by the garage entrance, for ease of getting groceries into their home storage area.
The house is also designed to accommodate their interests. Maureen has a sewing room, and Jonathan has a reading room with bright windows overlooking the lake.
The living room’s primary focus, besides the lovely Tuscan bar, is the impressive fireplace—and not the television they admit is “nice to have,” but doesn’t need to take center stage.
They discovered the bar idea in a magazine. “We wanted it in the Tuscan style. Elegant, but not pretentious,” said Maureen, who said their builder was willing to work with their ideas.
In the meanwhile, the TAGH Manor home, just a short walk down a cedar-chipped trail, still stands, and was updated as well. That’s where family stays when gatherings happen. “So, if there are wild parties, we can tiptoe back home,” said Maureen with a smile.