My sister’s family bought a few acres on a mountain in southern Washington state, about 90 minutes from Portland. Their dream house–built largely by my brother-in-law–is currently under construction.

Suzi started designing the house at least four years ago, and somewhere along the way decided that *her* idea of a dream house was a place called Nether Lypiatt. A classical Georgian mansion in northern England, it’s owned by a member of the British royal family, Prince Michael of Kent. Suzi’s never been within 100 miles of it.

The northwestern US has a very distinctive architecture of the soaring redwood-and-glass variety, about as far from a foursquare limestone Georgian as you can get, but my sister wasn’t daunted. She gathered as much information as she could about Nether Lypiatt and starting drawing up the plans.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to get accurate dimensions from a few bad tourist shots of an obscure mansion, so she ran into trouble almost immediately. How high were the ceilings? How tall were the windows in the front? How many chimneys? Was that a ground floor or a root cellar in the back? We searched the Web, haunted bookstores…but aside from articles extolling its classic grace, the actual dimensions of Nether Lypiatt eluded us.

Then I received an invitation from the local art museum to a reception for Princess Michael of Kent. She was on tour for her latest book, a history of the love triangle between her ancestor, Diane de Poitiers, and the king and queen of France. Right there on the invitation was a photo captioned, “Princess Michael of Kent at her beloved home, Nether Lypiatt.”

I had less than zero interest in the book but thought Suzi might enjoy hearing the princess speak. “Ohhhhhh!” she shrieked, “She can give me the ground floor dimensions!”

I reminded her that a princess on a book tour wasn’t likely to want to play This Old House with a stranger, but what the heck. A few weeks later, dressed in what passes for black tie in Portland, we were sitting in a packed house, listening to the princess.

Aside from gratuitous gushing–the emcee was amazed that not only was the princess lovely but she could also read–it was interesting, or as interesting as a history of a long-decayed French mistress will ever be. As we filed out we saw a black and white evening gown shimmering a few feet away–the princess, surrounded by handlers.

Suzi was off like a shot, pushing past everyone and holding out a hand, “Hi, Princess Michael, I need to ask you about your home, Nether LYEpiatt. Do you have a minute?”

“Nether LIPP-iatt, dear. It’s pronounced ‘Nether LIPP-iatt. What about it?”

“Well, I love it and I’m building a house just like it and I need to know…how tall are the windows on the ground floor?”

Next thing I know Suzi and the princess are closeted off in a corner, happily discussing pilasters and windows and wall colors. Suzi was invited to further discussion after the book signing.

The only way to get in to the signing was to buy a book and stand in line…so Suzi got an early birthday present from me. An hour later, Suzi had an autographed book, the princess’ private e-mail address and contact information for Nether Lypiatt’s groundskeeper.

In the weeks to come she learned the exact dimensions of the windows and just about anything else she needed to know. My brother-in-law built a scale model of the house and an architect drew up the final plans for Nether Lypiatt II to arise in the northwest.

Of course, life moves on, reality sets in, and all kinds of things change. Nether Lypiatts aren’t cheap to reproduce and after costing out the plan my sister settled on a sort of northwest country colonial mansion instead. The Kents have put Nether Lypiatt up for sale, blaming Britain’s new restrictions on fox-hunting. They’re planning to move to the Ivory Coast, where apparently you can kill all the foxes you want without interference.

And I never have read that book.