ghost stories

In old houses we invariably see signs of inhabitants who were once there, but we don’t ever expect to see signs that they’re still there.  In our own travels and travails in old houses, in finding abandoned ones, restoring and living in them, I would have to say that our own paranormal experiences have been sparse.  Fascination with ghosts, and ghost hunting (as seen on more television offerings these days) has not diminished, and you’d think that now, in the 21st century, we’d have developed technology to explain it. I’m guessing the debunkers don’t want to ruin the fun, especially when there’s money to be made.

My grandmother was English, came over from the “old country” in the twenties on her honeymoon, and stayed.  Nana loved to tell tales of ghosts, goblins and galoshes.  I say galoshes because one story was of a serial killer named Johnny Galoshes, who roamed a dank, dark London in the dead of night.  Not sure if he ever got caught, or even existed, but it was a scary tale for a seven year old.  She had friends who read tea leaves, and a deck of cards that could tell fortunes.  For a fragile youth, she kept the fortunes light, but as a teenager she scared me with how much she knew about the new boyfriend she hadn’t met – like which obscure eastern European country he was from!

Needless to say, there’s a dark aura around memories of my grandmother, and her old country – which she always wanted me to visit – but I resisted because I believed it to be damp, dangerous, and haunted.

One morning nana was upstairs making the bed when she saw what she thought was my father in a dark robe, or bathrobe, walk down the hallway – toward the dead end of it.  She thought that was odd, because he should be at work.  When she came out to look around, there was no one, no one else was home.  Later that day, she received a letter in the mail, from England, that her brother had died.

Sometimes, I suppose, the ghost comes to you.  But most of the time, they come with the house.  We all have our stories, or know someone who does, of bumps in the night, odd footsteps, and even apparitions.  We don’t talk much about them, usually dismissing them as tall tales.  But what about these otherworldly souls we strive to ignore.  Can we live with them?

In my new life in old houses, I never gave ghosts a thought.  Eyes were on the prizes inside, the architecture, the woodwork, the history.  But I have to say there have been a few that have left me feeling cold, strange.  One house had been abandoned for years, left empty, damp, dark and cold.  Not a sign of life had been left in it – not a chair, a stove, or bit of trash.  Nothing.  There was a hole in the keeping room floor where you looked down into the dirt basement.

Only animals roamed there now.  While we found many abandoned houses, there was something strange about the atmosphere in this one.  It was unwelcoming.  Surrounded by a hundred acres of verdant fields, beautiful uncluttered views from every window, it tempted us to trade in our own treasure for this one.  But the feeling inside the house was inexplicably cold.  The land beckoned, but the house forebode.

While this one was just a bad feeling, another offered “experiences” – a fourteen room farmhouse, with a full basement that included a summer kitchen with a large fireplace and bake ovens.  Its long ell was all to one side – which made it feel like it stretched on forever.  One could get lost in it.  It had been built by a sea captain said one historian.  Another said he’d been hung as a hog thief.

At night, while sitting quietly in the keeping room, my mother in law would hear footsteps on the stair to the second floor above.  Having lived in a few old houses, and loving them and their spirits, she was fine with this.  My husband also heard those footsteps.  I dismissed them.  My own experience was nothing tangible.  I was alone one night in that house, for the first time, and as I lay in bed I was suddenly overcome with extreme anxiety.  I had no idea why.  I was so frightened I had to turn the lights on, and even the television, anything to distract me from the panic.  My husband wasn’t due until long after midnight, and I thought he’d be too late.  I survived, determined never to sleep alone there again.

Years later, after we’d sold that house, we happened to be driving by and thought we’d stop and introduce ourselves to the new owners.  They were delighted to visit, and invited us in for a tour.  They’d changed a few things, but all in all it was a great trip down memory lane, and they enjoyed hearing about the restoration process and our history there.  Just as we were about to leave, the wife shook my hand and before letting go, a bit uncomfortably, asked if we’d ever had any “experiences” there.  When we said yes we had, the flood gates opened.  They were eager to share their stories with someone who’d understand.  They spoke of hearing their son return from a trip – the outside door slammed shut, heard his footsteps across the floor, go up the stairs, his shoes drop one at a time in the bedroom above – then in the morning learn that he hadn’t returned at all.  No one was there.

She spoke of having to sweep up small piles of sand from that bedroom floor every now and then – not knowing where it came from.  And one day while vacuuming in her kitchen, she turned and there it was.  She was face to face with an apparition.  In shock, she just turned back to her vacuuming – what else was one to do?  And it was gone.

This is certainly an extreme case.  But there are many stories like this, and as many homeowners who are comfortable living with them.  I’m not one of them. I think they don’t want to cause harm, and surely they know they could give me a heart attack.

Our plumber was working in an old house one day.  He was in the basement, crouched down and tending to a pipe by the boiler, when someone tapped him on the shoulder.  He got up thinking it was his assistant, but no one was there.  Figuring he was mistaken, he went back to work.  It happened again.  Got up, nothing.  The third time, he realized something was obviously provoking him, and like a man? – he yelled at it.  He said he told whatever it was in a firm tone not to bother him anymore, he had work to do and he’d be out of there soon!  It didn’t bother him again.

A neighbor of ours has a rather large house with a storied history.  A significant architect built the house and a small child died tragically there in the early 1800’s.  Both seem to still be inhabiting the house.  A visitor there, who, as it turns out, was a medium, told them the older gentleman needed help “crossing over” and the little girl liked it there, and played pranks on them, like unscrewing the light bulbs.  The homeowners were often walking into dark rooms and having to tighten the light bulbs.

And on it goes.  So many stories, so many old houses.  Our own is happy and free of spirits, thank goodness!  At least as far as I know after thirty five years.  Perhaps that medium might find one here, but if so, I believe they are happy and leave us alone.

In finding a husband, a wife, a good friend – chemistry and intuition are key. The same goes for old houses.  In your search for the perfect old house to make your home, spend some time in it alone, and if it speaks to you, well, all I can say is – run like hell!

a beautiful day for – sash repair?

Weekends in New England lately have been heaven.  Seventy degrees in springtime draws out man, beast and foliage, and instills in us an urge to burst out of the pall of winter to rejoice, regroup, renew.  For those of us with old homes, it’s the perfect time to address, and renew, whatever havoc Jack Frost and Father Winter have wrought.

On a recent weekend I decided to tackle some of that havoc.  It was a sunny 72 degrees, birds were chirping, bees buzzing – a delightful backdrop to re-nail a clapboard, oil a rusty latch, and get to that kitchen window repair.  The day before, I had tapped a little too heavily on a pane of glass and quickly found myself tapping on air.  The little 6 by 8 inch glass plunked to the ground.  Obviously, it was time for some maintenance.

Old wood windows, with true divided lights and wavy glass, are aesthetically pleasing, but they take a terrific beating in all seasons.   The thin bead of putty that holds the glass in and the weather out, goes in pliable but over time will harden and crack.  If the paint finish is kept up, it will stay in good shape for years. But left untended, like anything made of wood, it will deteriorate, crack and fail.

It was a warm and perfect day to remove a window.  First, all of the impediments had to go – the clutter, the interior storm, the jamb – to get to the 12/8 sash.  The original plan was to replace one pane, repair the putty in the rest, lightly sand and repaint.  What’s that they say about the best laid plans?  Before the robins had chirped thirty three times, I had denied twenty panes of glass, their window glazing.

With just a putty knife and an occasional coaxing with a utility blade, the old putty was scraped out and into a pile beneath my sawhorses.  I cleaned the glass, installed new points where needed, oiled the beds with a mix of linseed and turp, and began to re-glaze.

Now, for some folks, this is where heaven ends (no matter how beautiful the day) and hell begins.  I remember those frustrating days years ago.  Never thought I’d get the knack.  I could roll the worms alright, and press them into the bed just fine.  But running the knife down along the pane to get that perfectly smooth and angled shape, well, it pulled and cracked and frustrated the hell out of me.  Thirty thousand glazed panes later, (we used to make a lot of windows) I had the knack.  And although now many years removed, it all came back, just like riding a bike. The exercise can be relaxing and satisfying to see all those tight little panes framed in soft white, refreshed and ready for paint.

Something that could have been an annoying chore was actually a delight.  Coaxed by the birds and sunshine, it is rewarding to create a little order out of chaos now and then – if only in eight square feet of house.  But it’s a start.  With over twenty more sash to go, I figure it’ll take at least twenty more nice weekends.  Then again, maybe forty, since I won’t want to use them all up on window repair.  Then again, what’s a few more years, and a missing pane of glass now and then?

another find

Just when you think they’ve all been found, moved, rescued, or demolished – there’s another one.  I will concede though, that the best, i.e., the earliest or the most architecturally complete, are, in all likelihood, accounted for by now.  But a few abandoned later ones that retain good frames and some of their interior trim, can still be found.  This old house sits on its acre island cut off from the mainstream by highway on all sides.  It faces a mountain sliced for development, and its backside overlooks the eighteenth hole.   Abandoned for years, it still stands tall and proud, despite vines, tree roots and varmints.  Inside (yes there’s always an opening somewhere) were signs of previous visitors, the kind that walk on two feet and come with crowbars for removing items of interest.  The paneled walls were missing their matching doors, holes were poked in the ceiling in search of good beams, and some beaded sheathing boards were missing from a pantry wall.  Surely they’ll be back for more.

I will never understand how anyone can remove items from a house – especially items that are so integral to it.  The doors are part of the overall panel design of the wall – why would anyone remove them?  Why take the top two boards from a wall of beaded sheathing?  Once that wall is stripped to its natural color, the top two boards will have to be replaced with either new or antique ones – hard to match exactly.  That said, the house still retains some paneling, wainscot, and flooring – which I hope will remain until we, or another, secures the house for restoration or relocation.  Yes, relocation, because,  as you know, there isn’t much interest in a house surrounded by highways and modern development.  It deserves better, akin to the rural setting it once had.

It is a later house than we typically fawn over, but perhaps because of the scarcity now of earlier homes, I’m  appreciating the later even more.  While I might have driven right by in a previous life, today I want to save every old piece of wood.  It takes a hundred years to achieve that wear and color!  You can’t fake it.  The fake stuff – fooling with stains – wears off, especially if it’s on the floor.  There’s nothing like antique flooring with it’s aged color.  And I hate to remove parts of a house – if the house is viable, the floor should remain with it!  This house is probably after 1770, but its charms are enough to want to save it.  I’ll let you know if we do, ultimately, and hope I can one day offer some “after” photos to succeed these “before.”

double door with splayed header

front room panelingpaneled staircasestaircase walltwo roomssecond floor fireplaceold settingold path

decisions, decisions…

It’s a good idea to dig deeply into the genealogy and history of an antique house before beginning restoration.  Besides what the architecture of the house tells you, the local historical society, the library, and especially the State Library, are wonderful resources for finding information about the age of your house and the families who lived there.  That will be the easy part.  If you find that your house was built in one century, then added onto and embellished in another – what will you do?  We know of a house nearby that, when found, was a lovely example of early 18th century architecture.  When the new homeowners found an extremely large fireplace in the front room and what they thought were remnants of casement windows in the walls, they decided to restore it to the more primitive 17th century.  The casements are beautiful, and the front door, reminiscent of the old Indian door at Deerfield, is very convincing, right down to the wrought iron ring door knocker.  Recently, the town historian’s research found evidence that the house was actually built in 1750.  What do you do with that?   Obviously, they set their time machine too far back, and it would be not only costly, but a shame, to undo.

We almost made a similar mistake.

When Alexander Pope said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing, ” he wasn’t just a kidding.  The three magnificent CT River Valley doorways that I mentioned are on our house – we actually considered removing.  We were young, had done some prior restoration and renovation, but nothing of the caliber of this 17th century treasure.  We knew it was built in 1698,  appreciated all of the original fabric of the house, both 17th and 18th, and would never have disposed of any of it.  We were simply deciding to which period we should return.  Toward that end, we sought advice.

I had met a couple who were considered experts on early houses.  They lived in a colonial they had personally restored to its original purity – and it had no electricity, plumbing, or other modern conveniences, at least in the main house.  They cooked over an open hearth, ate by candlelight, and even dressed in colonial garb.

In hopes of learning a few things from them directly on 18th century architecture, I signed up for one of the classes they offered, at the local college, on colonial living.  The husband and wife wore their 18th century attire, he, in the tri corner hat, and she, in the layered dress.  While Mister C lectured on the merits of simple living, the use of herbs for “meate or medicine,” and on early customs from sparking benches to bundling, Misses C was busy building some 18th century snacks, and a Christmas punch, with punch.  After Mister showed us how to grate some whole nutmeg into an ancient wassail with an odd tool, I introduced myself as a fellow 17th century home owner, and asked if I might ask him some restoration questions.  Seemed a man wearing a tri corner hat was surely an authority on the subject.

Over a drink of wassail, I told him of our dilemma.  We have a 17th century house, I said, in an 18th century skin.  The early casement windows have been removed, and replaced with 12/12’s and doorways added in the 18th century.  I described them.

Right then and there he should have replied – wayward child, you cannot remove those doorways!  But he didn’t.  He suggested there were merits to keeping certain architectural elements that document the evolution of a house.  Then he agreed that, yes, it was a dilemma, especially when one yearns for the primitive.  If the inside was to return to the 17th century, then would you leave the 18th on the outside?  Would that work?  He empathized.  That surprises now, only because we know more.  Because we’ve dug deeper.  Because we understand the evolution of the house, appreciate the history and craftsmanship, the “flowering” that occurred in the mid 18th century along the CT River Valley.  To have removed that original fabric, something so fine and so rare, so important a piece of American history and architecture, would have been a travesty.

We are not perfect; none of us are, in any field.  It is a goal never attained.  It is the striving toward it, though, that brings wisdom.  Patience and persistence, and endless learning, is key.   In restoration, as in life, we must move very slowly, dig deep and drink large the information needed to achieve the almost perfect.

Alexander Pope, 18th century poet:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing

Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain

And drinking largely sobers us again.”

restoration cont’d

Out with the new – in with the old!  Isn’t that every old house lover’s motto?  In our restoration, anything that post-dated 1800 was the first to go.  Then we’d work our way back selectively.  The front room of the house, the original kitchen, the one with the half demolished chimney in a previous post, had newer sheetrock on the walls, new square trim, base, door and window frames, and a later plaster ceiling.  But we knew what lurked behind.  We removed the ceiling to expose the beams, and ripped the sheetrock from the walls to expose the original feather edge boards that lined the three exterior walls.  Isn’t this gorgeous?

I’m talking about the featherboarding!  As to the youthful, energetic woman in the foreground, well, she’s still the same – on the inside! And still loving those overalls.   Don’t you just hate wearing anything you have to worry about getting paint on?  Or cobwebs or sawdust, or chocolate frosting – I digress…

Since I’ve been taking you all down a dusty path, I thought it time for some before and after photos.  At least a sampling to show there was a reward down the road for the years of work.  Here are a few:

kitchen wall - before

kitchen wall after

kitchen fireplace wall - before

new kitchen fireplace wall - after

front room, early kitchen - before

to be continued….

restoration

Be careful what you wish for, right?  Sometimes we run headlong toward a dream only to crash into reality.  Fortunately, we were young, energized, and eager to tackle the job when it happened.  I couldn’t wait to rip everything out of that house that didn’t belong.  Beaverboard covered beamed ceilings and featherboard walls.  Newer, shallower fireplaces covered deeper ancient ones, wallpaper covered paneling – and black soot covered everything.  There was a huge coal fired cooking stove in almost every room, with the familiar hole cut out of original paneling to vent it.   Floors were bowed, and original boards lost at the first floor – that awful narrow tongue and groove replaced them.  Even those were painted and rotted.  In every room the floors leaned toward their sills, which were obviously termite ridden.  There were three magnificent doorways on the house, but their original doors were missing.  All of the windows were replaced with six over six’s.  They were made larger, which cut into the interior woodwork.

There was no heat or plumbing or electric.  But that wouldn’t deter us.  There were treasures to uncover.  And besides, we had just come from a project where, for a year and a half, we had lived with an outhouse in the woodshed and a pump outside for water.  We could handle this.

With a ten dollar table saw from a neighbor, a few tools and a lot of gumption, the journey began.

Here are some photos I’ve found.  Wish I’d taken more back then – especially with those monster cook stoves – which a local flea market merchant was so kind to take off our hands.  No easy task, moving those behemoths.

One of the first things we had to put in was, of course, a bathroom.  Since our budget didn’t allow for much more than purchasing the house, we would have to do everything.  By hand.  Here is a shot of the back of the house after taking down the later woodshed.  Yes, we’d be going out to the woodshed again, to use the bathroom.  But at least this one would be attached and have running water.  The big hole in the ground was dug by hand, by Edward, with a little help from a friend.  Then he constructed the cinder block foundation, block by mortared block.  No matter how much progress you think you’re making with an old house, sometimes, it seems there are as many steps in reverse.  The more you uncover, the more work you see ahead of you.  Another sill, or rotted post, and everything being connected – another stud to replace, or joist rotted at the end, or girt whose rafters no longer reach…and on it goes.

Thank God for the treasures!  And the youth.  This photo shows the hole covered and deck on, and the exterior wall of the original 1720 two story ell.   A picture’s worth a thousand words – but I’ll probably say them anyway.

The stair at the back of the house was for one of the many “renters” who lived here over the years.  Through the wall sheathing you can see the the back of the original chimney and a bit of the construction of the interior back stair.  My favorite part of the whole house – a narrow two panel door in the paneling leads to this primitive back stair with exposed and whitewashed studs and joists.  As as you wind up the stair, there’s a landing with a built in bookcase which has aged a deep chestnut color.  And on the featherboard wall beside it, there is faded writing, some of which says “war of 1776.” This entire stairwell area is lit by a casement window, boarded up in the photo. Years later, this stair is how our little one would get to her room at night.  Instead of candles as in the 18th century, she used a flashlight.

As I said, one thing leads to another.  Not until you uncover it all, do you see the extent of the work.  Here is the back wall of the lean-to section of the house.  By the way, the original two story section of the house was built in 1698, the two story ell was erected in 1720 (we found writing on the joists) and discovered the timbers were re-used, they came from an earlier house.  And the lean-to, that makes it a saltbox on one side, was put on around 1760.  Meanwhile, we had to remove the entire back wall, replace the girt, re-engage the joists into the new one, replace the sill, and re-stud.

One scary event – this wall was open, with plastic covering it overnight.  We were away – and a tornado came through our neck of the woods that day.  We thought there’d be nothing left – but fortunately it missed us.  I know – it looks like it hit us!

The hole where our future kitchen will be.

Another hole for – guess what?  We would add a small kitchen fireplace here, and a paneled wall.

More interior shots.  We have our work cut out for us.

1720 addition

Original paneling, with a hole where that darn stove was vented.  To the right of this fireplace is the door to the “secret” stair.

A section of the room that was the original kitchen.  We’ve removed that old beaver board (forerunner to sheetrock) to expose original horizontal featherboards.

And upstairs:

I love this shot.  This is the upstairs front bedroom.  It had been divided into two rooms by this wall which was constructed across it from the fireplace to the window.  They had to slant the wall, as though they’d built it across and then said “oops!”  The original plaster still barely clings to the walls and the whitewashed beams are exposed.  Awesome!

On the left you see the backside of that wall that divided up the room – and the bit of fireplace mantel showing!  Imagine building a wall right into the decorative mantel?!  Note the featherboarding covered with wallpaper – and the gunstock post to the right.  Through the hallway you can see the “apartment” they created in the other front room.  This room also was divided, painted six different colors, and a crude kitchen added.  Here’s an old polaroid I found.

Another room, another stove, another hole.  The room may be pink and green and yellow – but it’s all wood.  Original featherboard doors are still in their places, opening to tiny closet spaces.  The original flooring at the second floor is big and beautiful and wide, and serves as the ceiling of the first floor below.

And all of this, the heaviest, dirtiest work, Edward did alone.  I was working during the day to help buy materials, and food for the project.  Then nights and weekends were my turn.  He was still an aspiring musician/songwriter, and that future hit song was going to pay for the rest of this restoration!  Those were the days.  One of the many travels in pursuit of a music career took us to London – right after we bought the house.  We (and the band) came back with a record deal several months later, well, it was the promise of a deal – with just some fine print to work out.  Two weeks after our return, they called to say they could sign only one act right now – and decided to go with an obscure band from Texas – by the name of ZZ Top.

After two more years, spent in Los Angeles, and some interesting times, we came back with our infant daughter, and resumed the restoration – without the help of that million-dollar hit single.  Instead, LA handed us another “almost.”  While there, the manager spent the advance money, which was to record that single, on a house for himself.  It’s a long story.

Needless to say, this old house business was looking like a worthwhile career.   We began to do this work for others as well.  The rhythm and balance of art and music would serve us well over the years, incorporated into the design and restoration of 18th century architecture.   After all, like Goethe said –  “Architecture is frozen music.”

in the beginning

Well, not the beginning, but rather the start of the restoration of our own house.  I thought I’d share in a series of entries here, some photos and info on the work of it, which also took place at the beginning of time, or so it seems.  We were in our early twenties, and, surprisingly in counting back, it was our fifth house project.  My husband happened upon it one day, and of course, like a magnet, was attracted to its lines, its center chimney, doorways, and the sixth sense that told him it was empty.  Trespass, when it comes to old houses and helping them, is a risk, but a necessity.

After walking around it squinting through windows for a time, he heard the sound of a tractor behind him, and realized he was about to have to explain himself.  The farmer wearing a broad hat and baggy overalls, pulled up right onto the front lawn, turned off the engine, leaned over the wheel of the tractor, and gave him a stern look.

Edward was always charming, smart, and kind.  But in his youth complained that adults didn’t take him seriously because of his long hair and musician look.  His mom would always assure him then that as soon as he spoke, they’d see beyond his looks.  And she was right.

But would it work with an angry farmer?  Edward was passionate, sincere, and believable.  He was truthful.  But this farmer wasn’t buying it, at first.  He didn’t take out a gun, but his huge frame and angry scowl was intimidating.  The farmer just couldn’t believe that anyone might have an interest in this broken down old house that he was planning to let the fire department practice on.  Once finally convinced that this young man might actually be willing to pay cash for the place, the farmer’s ears perked up, his face brightened, and though in disbelief, his interest was peaked.

After much conversation, meetings and dealings, and in spite of the fact that the house looked on the inside like it had already been in a fire – we ended up with that crooked, broken down, dilapidated old place.  The farmer would continually scratch his head, feel guilty about selling it to us, and for years drive over in that tractor with a bushel of squash or cucumbers, homemade sauerkraut, even maple saplings from the meadow – three of which are planted across the front yard.  Offerings of old timbers from fallen tobacco sheds, which we’d use to replace rotted sills, and numerous other gifts of vegetables and Yankee tales, would sustain and entertain us for years.