D.I.Y Dad: A Tribute to An Amateur Architect and Weekend Builder

Looking back at the resourceful spirit that burgeoned after soldiers returned from WWII and made homes for their families.
by Billy Warden

Fifty years ago, my father conscripted my grumbling brothers and me into the building of a stone monument. China has its Great Wall; Rome has its Colosseum; North Raleigh boasts Big Bill’s Mighty Bulwark.

At 4 feet high and 50 yards long, this retaining wall is composed of roughly 1,000 basketball-sized boulders. It still stands today, dutifully preventing the suburban lawn outside our former home from sliding onto the sidewalk and street below.

This was only the beginning of Dad’s do-it-yourself building spree. In the coming decade and a half, my father would muster his often reluctant brood to construct a sprawling deck, a seemingly endless stockade fence, an entire spare room, an arched pergola with a rollback swing, floor-to-ceiling built-in bookshelves, a second pergola swooping over a home-poured patio, and an ill-fated tool shed.

And all this was only at the first of his three homes in Raleigh, after roving South from Chicago in the Great Yankee Invasion of the 1960s and ‘70s.

Now 79, my dad, Bill, is a ranking member of an industrious army of amateur architects, product designers and builders who first took up hammers and screwdrivers in the D.I.Y. surge of the mid-20th century. Popular Mechanics magazine — pretty much modern DIYs Book of Genesis — had debuted way back in 1902, extolling the practical and recreational value of making your own stuff. But two world wars and a depression stinted the supply of time and materials D.I.Y. demands.

The end of World War II, however, brought returning G.I.s newly schooled in gritty self-reliance. This, combined with economic prosperity, the rise of home ownership and a bungling sense of optimism, rallied young families to literally build their dream futures. As a result, the suburban landscape from Raleigh to Rancho Cucamonga is thick with mini-masterpieces and tumbling follies.

My dad, an accountant Monday through Friday, came by the D.I.Y. habit — arguably an obsession — early. His father, my grandfather Lefty, had recruited able Army pals to help erect his budding family’s first home from the ground up upon returning from the battlefields of Europe in World War II.

Perhaps inspired by this pedigree, Dad’s own construction campaigns took on the character of a military operation. Early in the week, he’d cast a calculating gaze at some unsuspecting swath of yard, like Gen. Patton eyeing an enemy stronghold. Then, come Thursday or Friday evening, he’d hunch over the kitchen table, sketching on a sheet of paper torn from one of our school notebooks.

On Saturday morning, he’d golf, and our little neighborhood would be at peace. But upon returning home, he’d march us boys into our faux-wood paneled Pontiac station wagon to hunt and gather at the nearby construction sites, lumber yards and Ace Hardware. Saturday afternoon and Sunday, we’d build.

Dad’s conscriptions could be overridden in just three ways. First, by a Category Four or above hurricane. Second, by illness — not just signs of a head cold, but actually bleeding from the eyes and The Art & Soul of Raleigh | 45 ears.

Finally, by the intervention of my sainted mother, Nancy, announcing that one of us brothers-in-arms must go with her to JCPenney or Kmart to shop for school supplies or new clothes. Of course, slipping away like this brought the scorn of the abandoned brothers, but Mom made sure each would eventually have his leave of duty.

On Father’s Day, however, even Mom would join the drilling and cement mixing. And she would openly admire all the things that were in plain sight but too often lost on us boys. How imaginative Dad was in blithely ad-libbing his way through unforeseen glitches and near disasters. How patient he was in teaching us skills we could never quite master. How handsome the finished work was — except for the aforementioned tool shed, which eventually collapsed due to a brown ocean of rain sloshing atop its fatally flat roof.

None of us grew up to be weekend builders per se. But Raymond took to constructing his own electric guitars en route to a career in music. Christopher just bought a house in the country where he foresees much backyard puttering. And I like to think that the many journalism pieces I’ve authored are, in a way, sawdust-free construction projects (complete with the occasional conniption of cursing that Dad also specialized in).

My folks now live in the dream home that Dad designed for their retirement in 2010. His plans for the contractors included an unfinished second floor. Naturally, almost as soon as the professionals cleared out, Dad proceeded to finish the upper level himself with stupefying care and flair.

Puzzling over the logic of sending the pros home only to bootstrap a major project solo is beside the point. Adventures in D.I.Y. don’t have to make sense, they just need to make the creators happy and the lives of the people around them a little richer. Mission accomplished, Dad.

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of WALTER magazine.