The House of Potter

Ready for a stroll down Diagon Alley? Perhaps gaze upon an ever-shifting gothic window? Or maybe you’d like to enjoy the portrait gallery before you ramble through the graveyard? Behold the astounding efforts of Matthew Howard and his family, who have been upping the Hogwarts Halloween stakes since 2018. Katie chatted with Matt about this amazing endeavor!

Who had the original idea to start decorating your house for Halloween?

It started in 2017 when we wanted to bring more trick or treaters into our neighborhood. We placed a homemade cutout of Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas in our front window and backlit it to create a silhouette. It was really well received. Not only was it fun for the community, it was fun for our whole family to build. The following year, my wife, Brianna, said, “I wish I could go to Hogwarts. Wouldn’t it also be fun if we had our own Diagon Alley in the front yard?” And so the construction began.

Do you have any experience in construction or set design? Or have you been learning as you build?

I don’t have any construction or set design experience, but as a kid I was always encouraged with “why don’t you build a fort?” when I was bored. It started with pillows and blankets, but as I got older, I started using lumber and building treehouses. Between that, and a great art class in high school, it gave me a solid foundation to build this project upon.

Is this endeavor a family project?

The whole family participates in building the sets. I always ask my daughters if they want to help. They have helped trace the initial projections onto wood, learned to use power tools safely with my supervision, but their favorite activity is painting the sets. Brianna designs and creates most of the small details and props of the display. This includes the window displays in Ollivanders Wand Shop and Honeydukes, as well as the flying Hogwarts acceptance letters. These details create a more immersive experience and have been the main factor in some people staying for 45 minutes looking at all the small intricacies that make the house so magical.

What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced?

Most people assume the biggest challenges are building the large props and sets. Surprisingly, the biggest issue is securing everything from the wind. We overlooked this for a while and just kept resetting gravestones or other props. Then during one particularly windy year, Ollivanders blew over and we had to spend hours rebuilding it. Since then, everything we build has wind and weather in mind. We expanded our Diagon Alley display this year, and we knew wind would be a huge issue with the larger surface area. Behind the façade, there are a lot of supports bolted into the cement. This is not the most fun part of building our Harry Potter House, but it is essential.

Best guess: how many times have you gone to a hardware store and/or lumber yard for supplies? 

The funny part is I plan what I will need to minimize trips, but there is always a box of screws we run out of or a can of paint that has dried out. I love it when we have an idea, mid-build, to make something better. It makes the extra run out to the hardware store more exciting as my imagination is creating big plans. But if I had to guess, we probably go to the hardware store between 1-5 times per weekend from Labor Day weekend up until the day of Halloween.

What is it like for you when you see the reaction of people who trick-or-treat at your house?

This is the most incredible part of the whole build. While the kids think it is really cool, I have noticed it is the adults that really get a lot out of it.  Many times, adults will strike up a conversation with us: “I remember the excitement of reading each new book as it came out. This is amazing and it is fun to share this with my kids. Thank you for doing this.” It is really fun to watch as families come up, and each family member is pointing in different directions saying, “Wow! Look that that!” As people approach the house, they run up excitedly shouting, “Harry Potter!” or “We love Harry Potter!”

The highlight is watching everyone’s faces, seeing the positive reactions, and bringing our community together. People bump into old friends all the time here and stop to take photos. It is fun to see how much joy our decorations bring to people of all ages, hearing what their favorite parts of the display are, or why they love the books and movies so much. It is very rewarding and that is why we love doing it.

Where and when can people see your incredible Harry Potter House?

We are located near the Cottle exit of Highway 85 in San Jose, California. Our displays will be running on October 31 and November 1. If anyone is interested in stopping by and seeing the house in person, more information can be found on our Facebook page.

Any advice for others who are inspired to transform their residence into Hogwarts for Halloween?

I think the most important thing is picking a theme you really love and will be excited by every year. Once you have that, just make a plan. We tend to do 1-2 big additions each year and the rest is just coming up with smaller details to add. If you have kids, think about how you can include them.  This will make October a month the whole family looks forward to every year.

Early thoughts on the Harry Potter magic you’d like to construct for next year?

We find the plans for the following year tend to come out of a project we thought of the year before but didn’t have the money or time to complete. Last year’s idea was the entrance to Hogwarts, but that was too much money and too much time. What is great about that is you then find yourself thinking about it for the whole next year and designing it in your head. So when it is finally the time to build, it is even better than your initial idea. This year I really wanted to build more façades for Diagon Alley (and maybe Knockturn Alley?), but we ran out of time and money. So perhaps you can guess what new additions you might see in 2021.

One final important question: what Hogwarts House did the Sorting Hat place you in?

I believe it was two years ago when we sat down and read through the full descriptions of each Hogwarts House on Pottermore. The Sorting Hat then placed three of us into Ravenclaw, and our youngest was placed in Gryffindor. It has been fun to watch our girls grow and continue to see their House attributes and qualities play out. The Sorting Hat sure knows what it is doing.


Images courtesy of Matthew Howard, and the Harry Potter House Facebook page

In accordance with State and Princeton University measures to contain the spread of coronavirus, the gallery of the Cotsen Children’s Library is closed until further notice, and our children’s programming as been suspended during this closure. Until our library reopens, the blog will post once a week. So every Tuesday, please check in to see what we’re up to…from story time projects to awesome interviews!

Griffins are the GREATEST

A baby griffin needs lots of care, attention…and hamburgers! Luckily, our story time kids were more than up to the task. This cuddly companion was part of To Be Continued, our chapter book story time for kids ages 6-8.

Is that tufted tail making your heart melt? Details at the end of the post for how to win a baby griffin of your very own!

We read The Menagerie, written by Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland (HarperCollins, 2013). When Logan and his broken-hearted father move to a remote town in Wyoming, Logan’s life gets considerably duller. Or does it? He soon discovers that the town is hiding a secret Menagerie filled with dragons, unicorns, and other mystical creatures. The Menagerie also has a BIG problem, as six griffin cubs have escaped, and need to be located and returned before the Menagerie itself is discovered. Logan and his new-found friends Zoe and Blue race against time, uncovering more then a few secrets along the way.

In the book, Logan and his friends track the baby griffins by spotting feathers they are molting. I hid these fantastic gold-tipped duck quill feathers around our gallery for the kids to find. Each kid needed to find at least two feathers.

Once all the feathers were located, the kids were awarded with stuffed baby griffins (purchased on Amazon)! Hoo boy, the kids were surprised and WAY excited! The loving attachment began immediately, and one little boy sent me multiple photos of his griffin Scorp, who, like another griffin in the book, had a serious hamburger addiction. Scorp also flew with him to Florida!

Would you like to receive a brand new baby griffin of your own? Simply e-mail danas@princeton.edu with the name you would pick for your griffin. We’ll put all the entries in a hat and draw a winner at random on Tuesday, June 16. Good luck!

Fiery Verse

fiery verseWe always love explosions here at Pop Goes the Page, but today we are going to bring you something truly unique…today, we are going to show you words as fire. Yes, FIRE!

This remarkable demonstration would not be possible without two things: 1) A Ruben’s tube, and 2) Princeton University’s Manager of Undergraduate Labs and Demonstrations, Mr. Omelan Stryzak. There’s an interview with Omelan at the end of the post, but for now, let’s get to the FIRE!

A Ruben’s tube, which was invented by German physicist Heinrich Ruben’s in 1905, is a length of tube with perforations along the top. One end of the tube is attached to a flammable gas, and the other end to a small speaker or frequency generator. Send the gas flowing through the pipe, ignite where it escapes through the perforations, and then introduce sound through the speaker. The flames will oscillate higher and lower according to the pitch of the sound or song.

Here’s “Flight of the Bumblebee,” played through the Ruben’s tube:


Of course, being the literary fans we are, we wanted to see what happens when we read into the Ruben’s tube. Wouldn’t it be cool to see words as FIRE? The short answer is yes. It is waaaaay cool to see words as fire. Here’s Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll. Please note: I recited it all weird to get the pitch of my voice in different places.


This awesome demo was masterminded by Omelan Stryzak, Princeton University Department of Physics. Here he is, photographed in his office/magical science playground.

omelan stryzakAnd we do mean magical because look at this! An actual levitating object, just casually sitting on the edge of his desk!

Also! A secret moving wall…which technically allows equipment from Omelan’s office to be smoothly transported to the adjoining auditorium. But we couldn’t resist a turn on it.


There are a number of other way cool objects in Omelan’s realm, from plasma balls, to portraits of Archimedes, to machines that break wineglasses with excruciatingly high tones!

science lab imagesOmelan hails from Bridgewater, New Jersey, where, as a home schooled youth, he continually curb shopped for thrown out electronics (photocopiers, fax machines, etc.) to disassemble and learn from. Graduating college with a degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering, he has worked for Disney, traveled the world, and adopted a stray kitten who he aptly named “Fizzix.” He’s also a father with a young son, and self-admits a newfound skill of telling “absolutely terrible Dad jokes.”

How did you land this incredibly cool job?

I had come back to NJ from an IT job in Miami and was teaching for the “Mad Science” franchise as a break and I received a call from Princeton…apparently the Physics Department picked out my resume because I had experience with small mechanical devices and electronics (I had learned early on – ALWAYS keep your resume in circulation… you never know who might reach out…). They wanted someone to build the sensor head to the ACT (Atacama Cosmology Telescope) and I could not pass up the opportunity to add the Princeton logo to my resume…

I spent time in the cleanroom assembling parts at the heart of the telescope that were only millimeters in size and making giant cables as wide as my wrist…I even spent a few months working at the telescope in Chile on the Atacama Plateau (at the time it was the highest continuously manned telescope in the world – and it was looking for/at the beginning of the Universe!). As this very cool project was winding down, two elderly gentlemen who were doing the job I have now were retiring – I was a pretty good fit and decided to take the job. Long story short, I kind of fell into this job.

What’s your philosophy on science education?

I wish everyone were gifted with at least a little interest in science and the opportunity to explore: Applied right, it is like having an additional sense or x-ray vision applicable to every-day life. With that said, science will become increasingly more important for future generations of children and their increasingly difficult problems to solve. It should also be more of a communal education/understanding for all – fewer revered specialists or individuals to blindly follow and rely on to make critical mistakes. My part in this? I’ve always described by job as “Bringing the boring science book to life – showing concepts in the real world to aid understanding and entertain at the same time.”

Describe a typical work day:

Its definitely changed a lot with a 13 month old… ^_^

  • Wife wakes me up just before 6am as she leaves to go teach high-school….. out the door by 7:30am at the latest.
  • My Wife’s brother takes care of our Son during the day. Never thought we’d have a “manny”. ^_^
  • If the weather is good, take the bike off the back of my car and bike from the parking lot to my office.
  • Prep any last minute demo requests – Professors love to have ideas around midnight/1am and send me an email.
  • Deliver any specially requested demos to the smaller classrooms for precepts (different sections of classes where class size is smaller and students get more one-on-one time with Professors and demos)
  • Make sure the demos pulled the previous day are ready for Professorial review (basically lecture rehearsal and getting the profs familiar with the equipment – Usually I have to remind/chase down a few Professors to remind them that they need to come down to look at their demos…. Or even remind them that we have demos to reinforce a particular topic that they are teaching)
  • Make any requested modifications/create new demos that are relevant to the upcoming classes. (I’ve got carte blanche and training on all the Department’s resources – all of the machine shops (including the machines that can kill you!), stock room, laser cutter, departmental credit card…. Ohh the possibilities)
  • Setup the demos on-stage the day’s lecture(s) while being careful of scheduling (the two large lecture halls are multi-purpose – Physics classes are not the only users)
  • Run the lecture with the Professor – depending on who is lecturing my interaction can change… sometimes I’m sitting on the sidelines just in case something goes wrong, other times I’m the one describing the science and running the apparatus while the Professor waits/watches.
  • Once the lecture is over, hang around the classroom if I can for curious students who want to learn more or have trouble understanding the demo(s). Very rewarding. ^_^
  • Break everything down and return it to backstage for cleanup/storage.
  • Pull relevant demos from inventory for the coming three days for cleaning/refurbishment/lecture prep.
  • If we recorded the lecture, either edit and upload the video myself or offload the workload to a coworker.
  • If I’m home first, cook dinner and snuggle with our Son.
  • Once baby bedtime is over, a good hour on the computer is spent on emails, making technical drawings, writing code or paying bills. Surprisingly, I don’t participate with any social networking (Facebook, etc..) saves a lot of time!
  • Then the typical chores/cleaning/home maintenance before bed.

What’s your favorite science toy in the workshop?

Always a tough question! But I really do like the reactions that I get from the singing Tesla coil exploding a balloon hydrogen filled balloon….. and EVERYONE hates it when I make it sing “Let it Go”. ^_^


Wasn’t sure if I was going to include this in the post, but since Omelan DID mention singing…here’s Katie with her rendition of “You Are My Sunshine,” courtesy of sulfur hexafluoride:


SF6 is an inert, nontoxic and incombustible gas, but…DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME KIDS!