Do you ever see something that catches your eye while you're walking or driving around town? Something that makes you turn you head in wonder as you pass by?
I asked that question every time I drove past a sprawling, ornately decorated property in South Kansas City’s Red Bridge neighborhood. Finally, I stopped and met the owner who takes home and garden to a whole new level.
Between all the typical suburban houses and lawns in Red Bridge, you can’t help but notice a cream colored house sitting on a quadruple lot. Swans are swimming on a large pond.. perhaps it is an animal sanctuary?
But then there are flower gardens, sculpture displays and unusual swings. And if I pass by during the holidays, the corner is ablaze in twinkling lights and elaborate decorations .
When I finally stopped by, I find owner Pamela Bowen doing what she loves — hanging out with her animals; black and white speckled hens with brilliant red combs scurry by her. As we talk a white swan walks authoritatively up, as if to see what is going on.
“Oh now that’s mister swan. He’s just great. He rules the roost around here and he’s really tame as long as you don’t touch him," says Bowen. "And here comes the old man goose he’s the oldest goose, he can hardly make it.”
Bowen is a high school teacher and world traveler. She has an athletic build with salt and pepper hair that falls just below her chin. And, she was born in this house.
It’s hard to imagine now, but farmland and fields covered this area in the late 1940’s. The house was built in 1947 by Bowen’s father, a pharmacist and machinist. Her parents were married at the house, and she has fond memories of riding in a cart behind her father’s lawn mower.
“I can remember the cows coming across the street, and Wornall road was a one lane country street, with only a few cars a day that came down it in the late 40s and 50s," she says.
Bowen leads me to the pond down a leaf-strewn path. It has greenish water, with a large plume shooting up from the center. There are colorful birdhouses on the trees surrounding the pond. My eye is immediately drawn to a curvaceous wrought-iron bridge with a red and white rowboat named “Ana" docked underneath.
"That was my mother’s name so it’s Ana the rowboat named after her," Bowen says.
The bridge is one of many structures Pam has built herself; she learned carpentry, concrete and other construction skills from her uncles. Her love of animals compels her to create homes that are customized for each animal species. Like miniature horse, Pepper, who has a small stable. But not just any stable — Pam painstakingly creates unique designs for her animal abodes.
“I have a split level down here and one side is where the chickens live and another side is where another set of chickens live. Then I have my gingerbread house that I made and every wall is crooked on it. The roof and all four walls are crooked," says Bowen. "But it looks like Cinderella’s house."
We walk past grapevines heavy with fruit toward a largish brown house with mint green scalloped trim. Bowen’s goat, Nanny, perched contently on its roof for years, until she became too old to climb. Now it has been taken over by a younger goat. Bowen’s uncle helped her outfit the house with a concrete roof—so the goat wouldn’t fall through.
"Well, they like to live on mountain tops and on the edge of things," she says. "When he lays down it’s so comfortable for him up there because it’s curved on top."
Bowen leads me to a whole new world in the back of the house, where there are beautiful gardens, fountains and life-sized sculptures of women. But it’s the front of the house that grabs neighborhood attention. Bowen became passionate about decking out her property for the holidays after her family won a Christmas lighting contest years ago. Now, she is always on the lookout for unique decorations for Easter, Halloween and Christmas.
"I have 800 red lights for the red bridge," she says. "The gazebo has 400 lights."
This week, she’s putting up Halloween decorations – one of her favorites is a witch that flies into a tree. Bowen started really focusing on improving the property after college. She was influenced by her mother’s love of puttering in the yard. She says her property is no different from anyone else’s.
"But every year we receive a couple cards in the mail thanking us for just making people’s lives happy," she says. "One time we received a card from a divorced lady, and she said every day when she goes home from work she goes by our house and it just makes her a little happier after her divorce."
No doubt, some not-so-nice people have noticed the house, too. Once, a goat was stolen for a fraternity party and political campaign signs were unceremoniously dumped in Bowen’s pond by supporters of the opposing candidate. And sometimes, people just drop animals off at the house.
"Somebody dumped a rabbit off on us, just threw the poor rabbit over the fence,"she says. "I've never had a rabbit before in my life, so I am trying to make him a cute little house."
Not everybody can go to the length Pam Bowen goes to take care of her animals and beautify the landscape. But she has some advice for her fellow home-owners.
"Take care of your property, and enjoy your property and try and make your property shine as much as possible… I guess make people’s lives happy”