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Photograph: Erica Gannett

Life's a zoo

Describing Beth Wagner's Pilsen home as "a zoo" isn't an exaggeration. It's just a fact.


The first time I talk to her on the phone, Beth Wagner voices some concern about TOC photographing her family’s home in Pilsen. Not only will it be a tad tricky to capture the magnitude of her space—all 6,000 square feet of it, nestled beneath 20-foot-high ceilings—but, since the pigs (one’s in heat) who reside downstairs went wild the night before, she hasn’t had time to give the place a deep cleaning.

“Do you really have to photograph the zoo?” she asks. “I mean, there’s a raccoon running around our house, and there’s a trapeze, too.” That’s right. About 35 animals, which she takes on the road for a traveling educational show, occupy the first floor of her building—so you can imagine the kind of effort a good scrub requires.

Since buying and restoring parts of the building 21 years ago to resemble its original state as the Macombo Ballroom, Wagner has put the sprawling real estate to good use: Over the years, the venue has hosted her own wedding, small circus acts by the Zoppé Family Circus and a haunted house.

While the kitchen and bathroom branch off of one end of the apartment and a private bar occupies the other, the designated rooms in the main living space lack any visible partitions. The bedroom of her 9-year-old daughter, Tillie, spills into one of many playrooms, which flow into her 12-year-old son Willie’s bedroom; about 40 feet away sits a makeshift classroom, where Wagner homeschools the kids, teaching math with an abacus and English literature with hardcover versions of W.H. Hudson and Kate Douglas Wiggin.

Except for a handful of antiques—including two stunning chandeliers from Salvage One and spinning Schlitz globes from a garage sale in Bridgeport—nearly all of the furnishings came as hand-me-downs from family and friends or from Dumpster diving and garage sales. “We call [the decorating style] ‘early garage sale,’ ” Wagner says. Translation: She arrives early at garage sales to get first dibs on the good stuff. Not to mention the pieces she finds in the hallows of her own building, like the freestanding tub in the bathroom she scavenged while renovating the place. “Some people live large and have white carpets,” says Wagner. “We just live large.”

1 “[My husband] Willie values these chairs so much, he won’t even let us sit on them,” Wagner says of the set of pre–Civil War chairs handed down to Willie from his great-great grandmother.

2 Among the exotic mélange of animals at the petting zoo—from pigs and hedgehogs to chicks and tortoises—a sloth hangs out in the corner.

3 One of many remnants left by former upstairs tenants, this green velvet couch adds a dramatic centerpiece to the former stage that doubles as her husband’s office.

4 Photographs of the pet bear she used to keep adorn the curved wall at the balcony level, along with her wedding picture.

5 Willy cobbled together a bar, adjacent to a sauna, with salvaged pieces of wood for a total of $50. Various paraphernalia, from massive Corona ads to vintage beer cans to a pink Frigidaire from the ‘50s, fill the narrow room.

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