Sometimes you just can’t wrestle that dilapidated old house from the grip of an indifferent owner. Whether it’s falling down or falling apart – they don’t care. They may have inherited the property with an eye toward one day tearing it down and building a new one on the same spot. Or may be considering it as a project for the future, and don’t want to think about it right now. Sometimes, it’s just that it’s theirs, and it’s none of your business. There are as many reasons for it as there are arguments among siblings who’ve inherited a house.
Once, we came across a lovely old place in a terrible location, close to a commercial thoroughfare. It was next door to a gas station, and behind it were the remains of a working farm. A few weathered barns, in various states of disrepair, struggled to maintain the ambiance of a long forgotten past. Corn grew and cows grazed in the pasture beyond. Settings like this attract us, and the abandoned old house is the magnet that draws us in, beckoning us to explore and yes, sometimes, to trespass in the name of preservation.
The front door of this one had been left ajar, and there wasn’t a soul around. It was an early farmhouse with a steep pitch to its crooked roof, wide center chimney with a few missing bricks, and what looked like original windows with crown glass. It was now dressed in asbestos siding, and some vinyl storms, but the overall shape still stood proud.
The front door’s raised panels were cracked and weathered, but repairable. Iron strap hinges were still in place, as well as the arrowhead latch. It groaned stubbornly across a swollen plywood landing as we swung it open. We expected to step into the original front porch, with dog leg staircase and doorways to either side. And that is exactly what we did. The old staircase twisted steeply to the second floor, displaying its early turned balusters, newel post and simple handrail. The unpainted treads were shallow and dry, worn thin in the middle from a thousand climbs to the second floor. The thin whitewashed plaster that lined the stairwell was barely clinging to the lath beneath and was falling in clumps onto the stairs. The entire wall in front of us was beautifully paneled, with a door to the basement, and a sparking bench between. Musty and mildewed, cobwebbed and dirty, the entire space was a treasure.
We turned to walk through a doorway to the front room, but stopped in the nick of time. There were no floors, on either side. No first floors, no second, and no third! Wanting to get a better view of the fireplaces, we walked across the joists, carefully, trying not to fall into the basement. The fireplace walls, at the first and second floors, were paneled, one with a built in cupboard to the right of it. The summers were cased, there was crown moulding around the perimeter, and wainscoting below. All the treasures you hoped to find in an early house. But where was the flooring? Obviously, someone had been there before us, and had either stolen it, or had made a deal with the owners to buy it. Surely they would be back for the rest.
While we are known to trespass in abandoned old houses, we have never removed anything from them. Like the old birdwatcher’s motto – take a few pleasures, leave a few footprints – we have a thorough respect for their dignity, and desire only to examine and evaluate, to find a way to improve their situation, and to keep them whole.
We found the owners – two brothers who lived in town, and visited daily to tend the farm. It turned out that they had sold the flooring, but were not interested in selling anything more. We were glad to hear that, as it is always a shame to “part out” a house. However, as it turned out, they wanted the rest of it to remain because it housed the water pump in the basement. This once proud homestead, replete with 18th century millwork treasures, was now a pump house. No amount of coaxing could move these old Yankees into giving up the house. We offered to build a more efficient shelter to cover their pump. No luck. We asked if we could purchase the paneling – for safekeeping, in the event that they might change their minds, or at the very least, to keep it from being stolen. Not interested. We asked if they might put a lock on the front door to prevent the house from being vandalized. That was inconvenient.
We drove by once in a while after that, to see how the house was faring. At each visit we’d notice parts missing, one wall of paneling gone, then another. Then a hole where the built-in cupboard used to be. The paneled door to the basement, easily lifted off its pintels, gone. Paneling and sparking bench, all stolen. Even the floor joists were missing. We pleaded with the farmers, but their stubbornness prevailed.
Then the dreaded day came when we drove by only to find charred remains of the treasure that used to be. I can’t remember how it happened, but didn’t matter, it was gone, another waste.
This wouldn’t be the only story of its kind in our travels. There were many. But they weren’t all losses. Some, thankfully, we would win.