antique floors

The most extensive amount of woodwork in an original 18th century house lies directly underfoot.  These time worn boards set the tone of every room.  Their mellowed color, ancient widths and rich patina hold history in their very grain.  At first glance we have an intuitive response, and immediate respect, for the hands that shaped them, the years that mellowed them and the history that gave them character.

Original rosehead nails, embedded at the very edges, hold fast to the joists below with a strength forged by a long forgotten blacksmith.  Giant oaks, pitch pines, hemlock and poplar that once stood mighty in the surrounding hills, now lay across miles of New England floors, testaments to the pride and skill of a hardy generation that risked everything to help shape a new world.

Recently, we visited an 18th century home replete with some of the most coveted architectural trim and woodwork of the period.  The tiered brownstone steps led to a main entrance surrounded by a magnificent pedimented doorway.  The four foot wide paneled Dutch door still had its original brass knocker.  The arched fan light above shimmered with wavy glass.  Four fluted columns framed the sidelights between them, and an ornately carved Palladian window towered above it all.

It was hard to get past the front door, with so much to take in.  The outside adornment is usually a pretty good indicator of what lies within.  I could just imagine the trim – paneled staircase, wainscot, moulded cornices and mantels – in their earthen colors, and the flooring, I was certain, would be a glorious pumpkin pine.

The homeowners were excited to share their home.  It was a new acquisition, and they were eager to learn more about the treasures they had.   They wanted to do the right thing – music to our ears.  If only more people would inquire, delve deeper into understanding their old house before taking liberties with it, before changing woodwork, fireplaces, flooring – and even floor plans – on a whim.  Why would anyone buy an old house to gut it?  To change it?  To remove from it all that gave it character and meaning?  That’s a rant for another day.  We were there to consult about several tasks, but most importantly, flooring.

Over the years the boards had shrunk.  In some areas the gaps were as wide as an inch.  In some rooms the boards had been painted, but in most they had just been varnished or covered with shellac.  They wanted to know how to go about refinishing them and what did we think it would cost.  This is the part that is so hard for so many to fathom.   The grunt work, the elbow grease involved in reviving an antique floor.  You cannot bring in the refinishers from your local flooring showroom.  Armed with industrial sanders they can, in one day, or an hour, undo what took three hundred years of time and history to create.

This has to be one of the most heart wrenching scenes – the aftermath of a day of sanding machines gouging across the floors of an antique house.  Three hundred years of original character and patina – lost.

Some people are truly sensitive to preservation.  They appreciate the past and the reasons to preserve it.  Even when they understand that value is maintained by preserving character, integrity, color and finish of original details, sometimes that devil, called convenience and economy, wins in the end.

And that is what would happen here.  We advised, they ignored, and that phenomenal antique house now has a lousy new floor.  The rosehead nails were sunk – a half inch below the surface! – which makes the floor look like it has holes gouged in it everywhere, and instead of a rich antique color to ground and tone the rooms, a light blond finish screams from below.

Henry Francis Dupont, in decorating Winterthur cautioned that, in good design no one thing in a room should stand out.  Newly finished floors stand out.  They overwhelm.  They scream of their loss.  And invariably, the homeowner who has been talked into taking these “convenient” and “economical” measures, regrets it later.

So I urge you, please, to love your old floors, even if they’re covered in stubborn paint or shellac.  Strip them carefully,  by hand, reveal their color, and enjoy their rich history.

a find

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.

colonial homes

Obviously, a lot has changed in two hundred years, but American’s love for their colonial history and architecture has remained steadfast. As evidenced by preserved villages such as Sturbridge, Deerfield, Greenfield, Strawberry Banke and Williamsburg, and the hundreds of homes maintained by local historical and landmarks societies, colonial New England architecture is alive and well in the hearts and minds of Americans.

At first glance one notices the well designed façades, hefty proportions, the graceful balance and detail of the New England home.  The carved doorway, small paned windows, and smoke rising from the chimney beckon us to come inside and stay a while.  Henry James in 1904 while traveling through our fair New England, noted in the American Scene, “Look at them…at the fine old liberal scale, and felt symmetry, simple dignity, and solid sincerity of them…”

So why, you wonder, have we strayed?  Why has the countryside been littered with other than perfectly proportioned New England colonials? Where corn and tobacco used to grow, houses have been planted from a seed-book of generic plans that offer up what the builder believes will sell – space, convenience, economy.  Without a care for aesthetic, or for what history has taught us to please the eye and comfort the soul, proportion and balance is thrown out of the too tall pseudo Palladian window with the snap in grills in favor of ease and carefree living.

To say that a lot has changed in the last hundred years, architecturally, is an understatement.  Through the colonial revival period of the 20th century, designing homes was still an art, and adherence to aesthetic principles was still the rule.  The late 20th into the early 21st century has produced an abundance of ruthless architecture, the type that serves up to its buyers everything they could possibly want.   Space, lots of it, high ceilings, large bathrooms with whirlpool tubs, perhaps a slate foyer, and an indoor pool.  The rule became – give them what they want on the inside, and adjust the outside accordingly.  The designer may have done his/her best, given their training, to produce an aesthetically pleasing home, but once left to the interpretation of the builder and homeowner, who are left to select for themselves all of the details they ever dreamed of incorporating into their home – well, the apple ends up falling very far from the tree.  Sometimes it ends up a kumquat!

It reminds me of a story I used to read to my children, about a little bear who draws a picture of his mother at school.  On his way home he shows the picture to his friend, the alligator, who says the mouth is too small.  So he makes it larger.  Then he meets his friend the elephant, who says the nose is too short.  So he makes it longer.  Then he meets the giraffe, who says the neck should be taller, and so on.  You can imagine the picture by the time he gets home.  But of course, his mother loves it!  And, I suppose, from the inside of the house, the homeowner who got everything they ever wanted in their house, will love it too.  But from the outside, it’s probably hard to tell which is the front, the side, or even, which way is up!

This is alright for the fast lane folks, I guess, where a house is just a house, a place to get it done. But some of us want to move slower, savor every moment.  To some of us, it all matters.  We want to envelop ourselves in the hand made, where we can caress the paneling, admire the hand carved mouldings, ponder the past over a grand hearth.  We want to walk across old pine boards, open real wood doors, lift an iron latch.  We long to gaze out of small paned windows with wavy glass.  We yearn to enjoy the simple elegance of the colonial house, grounded in history and constructed by hand.