Space race heats up as child leaves

As John Keenan hauled the last of the furniture from his son Patrick's bedroom, he could hear banging upstairs.

It was the sound of 13-year-old Thomas demolishing the wall that divided his bedroom from his big brother's. The Dumbarton Middle School eighth-grader, who said he formerly didn't have enough room to even throw his clothes on the floor, now has enough space for a drum set, a new stereo and a cage full of lizards.


"The wall came down at the speed of light," says his father, a structural engineer who lives in Idlewylde. Thomas "doubled the size of the room in about 15 minutes with a sledge hammer."

Not every room is transformed so swiftly and emphatically when a child leaves home. Nor does a younger sibling always lie in wait for the empty space. Even so, with the seasonal surge in bedroom vacancies at the start of every college school year comes a bedeviling choice: shrine or redesign?


In making a choice, middle-class parents contemplating empty-nest status face a muddle of colliding loyalties, social trends and life stages. Teen-agers have been leaving home for college or other endeavors for many autumns, but their bedrooms are now often coveted by a generation of baby boomer parents with some disposable income and a desire for a new room, perhaps for a second career or leisure activity.

For parents such as Linda Jackson, the notion of appropriating an absent child's room for another purpose is unthinkable. Jackson refrained from making major changes to the bedroom of her son, Brandon, when he left for the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill four years ago.

"I didn't do a lot of redesign, mainly because I have a certain philosophy of not changing the place where my son called home," says Jackson, a Washington resident who works for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Brittney Jones, a freshman at the University of Delaware, knows that on breaks she will return to her family's Hamilton home, where her room will be just the way she left it: decorated with an old Destiny's Child poster, prom portraits, trophies, varsity letters and lacrosse jerseys.

Nor will her parents tinker with the room belonging to her twin brother, Brandon, who just started school at Duke University. "My mom jokingly said she was going to make an exercise room, but I'm pretty sure they will stay our rooms," says the graduate of Baltimore Polytechnic Institute.

Carolyn Tice, an associate dean in the University of Maryland Baltimore County's baccalaureate social work program, thinks some of the emotions tied up in remaking a child's room after he or she has left for college are a little misplaced.

"It's one step toward emancipation," she says of the change. "If they're fortunate enough to go to college and have the support of their parents, there has to be communication along the way to support the transition."

Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, says that about one-quarter of empty-nesters plan to refurbish a room once their children move. At that point in their lives, the parents "have an opportunity to entertain more and relax more," Hirschhaut says.


Parents surveyed by the trade group envisioned libraries, hobby or art studios, guest rooms, home theaters and offices in their children's vacated bedrooms and other newly available spaces. Although the survey was conducted a few years ago, Hirschhaut says she believes it still reflects the aspirations of millions of baby boomers.

Count Missy Connolly among them. The owner of Fern Hill Design, a Butler home and garden decor store, Connolly acknowledges that she is a compulsive home decorator.

When daughter Gretchen left for her sophomore year at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, "I took the guest room and made it into an office and turned her room into a guest room," Connolly says.

It was a makeover worthy of House Beautiful, replete with Creamsicle-hued walls, stylish furniture and a Pinecone Hill bedspread that "pulled everything together," she says. In a compromise, Gretchen's summer camp memorabilia, books and computer remained, as did her jewelry and the abstract design that she had painted in the closet.

"I love the color of the room," says Gretchen, 21. But, "there are a couple of things in there that I don't like." Namely, the embroidered samplers that are family heirlooms: "They're too old-looking."

A bedroom can disappear without notice, too. When Julian Clark returned home during his freshman year at the University of California Irvine to get some relief from a snoring roommate, he found "two huge printing machines in my bedroom." His parents' graphics business in Upland, Calif., had invaded his space.


"I think my parents thought I would be fine with it, and I wasn't," Clark says. After he spent a tough night on the couch, "my parents realized I needed my bed back," Clark says.

Often, necessity trumps sentiment.

"Our 19-year-old son's room became a studio apartment/baby nursery for my 26-year-old daughter, who became a single mother the previous June," Princeton, N.J., resident Liz Chang says in an e-mail message.

Chang's son, Stephen, now an Emerson College sophomore, took his eviction stoically and slept in the "better appointed guest room" when he came home, she says. Chang's daughter and grandchild have their own place now, but Stephen's room remains in jeopardy. Chang, 55, has become an instructor of Nia, a low-impact form of exercise. "So, who knows? Maybe I'll install a few mirrors, lug my boom box up there, and use it for rehearsal space."

Bumping up against modern redecorating desires is the possible return home of college graduates.

When Holly and Mario Guerreiro moved to Springfield, Mo., they entertained visions of transforming the front bedroom with a "gorgeous arched window" into a spacious family room. Mario Guerreiro even checked out large-screen TVs. Then their daughter Natalia transferred to Drury University, a local college, and lodged in the family's would-be den.


After Natalia graduated, "Once again, we began checking paint swatches and dreaming of how much more spacious the house would be once we had access to the new den," Guerreiro says. Not so fast. Their daughter, 22, decided to attend graduate school in Springfield.

"We still dream of what we'll do with that front bedroom," Guerreiro says in an e-mail message. "But for now we're content in the knowledge that we are helping our daughter secure her future by providing free room and board. After all, we may be in need of a room in her house some day ... and it better not be in the basement!"