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Couple find novel way to downsize after 45 years in the same house

Instead of leaving their books, candelabras, seasonal table linens, Mali baskets and Tibetan singing bowls to be picked over by strangers at an estate sale, this couple held a downsizing party.

Karen Mulhauser (right) makes one of her announcements by pinging her Tibetan singing bowl. She's giving away her belongings to prepare to move to condo after 45 years in her D.C. home.
Karen Mulhauser (right) makes one of her announcements by pinging her Tibetan singing bowl. She's giving away her belongings to prepare to move to condo after 45 years in her D.C. home.Read morePetula Dvorak

“Anything on the tables. Take it,” she announced to the room, after getting everyone’s attention with the golden ping of a Tibetan singing bowl.

“Go through the bookshelves, and if there’s anything you want, take it. Linens, dishes, mugs — take them,” she said, sweeping her arms along the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. “And please, please take at least one of the champagne flutes home with you. After you’ve had your mimosa.”

All day long on a Saturday, people came in and out of Karen and Fritz Mulhauser’s cozy, Capitol Hill rowhouse in Washington and cleaned them out. Guests walked out with canvas bags and boxes bulging with mugs, pots and pans, dishes, candles and tablecloths. The Mulhausers were delighted.

Introducing the downsizing party.

Instead of leaving the books, old candelabras, collections of seasonal table linens, Mali baskets and Tibetan singing bowls — among mounds of other treasures — to be picked over by strangers at an estate sale, this aging couple decided to take a different approach to the onerous predicament of modern overabundance.

They sent out invitations, served food, and poured mimosas into 200 champagne flutes that said “Happy 60th Karen” (she just turned 77; they’ve been gathering dust for years) while people they’ve known during their 45 years in Washington, D.C., came over and took their stuff.

A stroke of good fortune came when another friend named Karen announced that she was turning 60 this month. Take a few dozen, Karen!

"Maybe it will inspire others to turn painful downsizing into a fun party," (the original) Karen said.

The Mulhausers are moving barely a block away, into a new condo building. They needed to be in a one-story unit because mobility issues are beginning to make the two-story rowhouse difficult to navigate.

Their party was full of envious people.

Not envious of their stuff. It was, after all, an opportunity to take anything they've coveted. But they were envious of the approach.

"I've had to deal with the downsizing of my parents' home," said Laura Henderson, 60. "It wasn't easy. Something like this would've made it so much easier."

What the Mulhausers did is similar to the Swedish practice of "death cleaning," a downsizing and organizational philosophy as pragmatic as Marie Kondo's, but with some magnanimity in mind, too.

“Life will become more pleasant and comfortable if we get rid of some of the abundance,” writes Margareta Magnusson, in her book, The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter.

The Swedes call it döstädning. means death and stadning means cleaning, Magnusson writes.

Maybe the Mulhausers have created the American version — the cleaning ritual that comes with a party. And we should totally call it “Mulhausing.”

Piiiiiing! The Tibetan bowl sounded again.

"Go ahead and take cuttings from the plants, please," Karen announced. "And don't forget the mimosas."

The idea came to the Mulhausers as they contemplated the enormous task of moving decades worth of stuff.

It is only the second time they considered moving in their 45 years on Capitol Hill. The first time was in 1978, after Karen was raped at gunpoint by two men who broke into their home while Fritz was away and their son was upstairs, asleep.

They’d been in the house for only four years when that happened.

“But we decided to stay,” she explained, when I met her for the first time last year, when she held a watch party in that home for survivors of sexual assault who were uncomfortable watching the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court pick Brett Kavanaugh alone.

Karen has had 41 years of mostly good memories in that home. And she's ready to leave it on her own terms.

They promised the larger pieces of furniture as donations to community groups. And they set aside enough stuff to furnish their tiny, chic new place. Everything else? Out!

Friends came in and out all day. Younger staffers who worked with Mulhauser in the Women's Information Network got help furnishing their spartan places.

Old friends came to snag something they'd always liked.

Older friends came and tried to simply visit without taking anything (and left with something anyhow).

Among the hottest items were the mounds of political paraphernalia they’d been collecting for years — posters, bumper stickers, signs, buttons. Both Mulhausers have been active in politically charged issues for years. Fritz worked as a lawyer for the ACLU on landmark police abuse and free speech cases. Karen was active in feminist causes, becoming one of the early executive directors of NARAL before founding her own firm.

So they had buttons from McGovern to Mondale. (Yes, I'll admit that I took a vintage ERA button. Guilty.)

And as each casserole dish or earthenware mug left her home, Mulhauser told a small story to go along with it.

At the end of the day, just about everything was gone, each item having been explained, regaled and ushered off to begin a second act.

The Mulhausers looked around the emptier home and exhaled. They are ready for their second act.