gingerbread

Gingerbread2012 (1)

Okay, I admit it, I like gingerbread, but gingerbread houses, in their many architectural forms from the Victorian type to the cookie and candy type, have never been my cup of tea.  This year, I came around to giving it a try to help contribute to making our local gingerbread festival become the largest in New England.   My first effort ever, so much to learn, thank you internet!  So much figuring, from the best recipe to use for the gingerbread, how much, how thick, how strong, the best royal icing – raw whites vs powdered whites vs meringue powder, what candy to use or make your own, create small paned windows? yikes! pedimented doorways? yikes; roof shingles – wheat thins, necco wafers, cereal – most won’t do for this simple house; what materials for  landscape, animals, snow…..Oh my goodness, really, it’s a full time job – if you wait until the last minute, which I did.  But if you start way before Thanksgiving, so you can take your time and be thoughtful with it, enjoy the process, I’m sure it can be fun.

It’s amazing how quickly the grocery store transforms from a food source into an architectural source for a miniature version of your home.  Your dry goods cupboards become filled with warning signs for the family – do not eat – this is not cereal, these are roof parts; these are not snacks, they are wagon wheels; this is not frosting – it is glue!  Someone did eat half the roof shingles for breakfast and I had to buy more.

Putting the whole thing together is as tiring as building a real house!  Melting candy for windows, measuring your house to scale so the proportions are correct, drawing & cutting it out for a pattern;  mixing the dough, or house walls, roof, chimneys, doors & doorways, etc. then building it, using only edible items, quite a challenge.  Then there’s the landscaping, and story to add.  Something needs to be going on to make it come alive.  But by the time you get to that part – especially when you’re in a hurry – you’re not feeling so alive!

I appreciate all the candy additions to other whimsical houses – hats off to you folks with your amazingly clever buildings & embellishments – but for this simple 17th- 18th century gingerbread house, those just won’t work.   More appropriate accoutrements had to be figured out.  Maybe it’s just me, spending so much time figuring out how to make snowmen without ready made products like marshmallows in a bag, or making a tree with chocolate from scratch, the birds, and a cat – with whiskers!  (that was a fun accidental discovery).

Besides the festive greenery, nothing looks and smells of Christmas more than a gingerbread house – so I just had to share this one – to prove that old houses without all that fancy gingerbread/candy – can still add to the spirit of the season, and look lovely.  Figuring all this stuff out was enormously challenging –  good for the brain.  Soon to be good for the stomach : )

Happy Holidays Everyone!

gingerbread2012 (3)Gingerbread2012 (2)Gingerbread2012

what’s wrong with this picture?

I have a complaint.  What a surprise.  I just don’t understand why some people want to change Paradise.  I suppose if they make it to heaven, they’ll be switching out the pearly gates for low maintenance fiberglass and changing the gardens to plastic!

In my own neighborhood these days some terrible changes have been taking place.  We have a historic district that is cared for by the historic district commission.  Within that district are a few houses built before it was designated historic.  These were not faithful reproductions, but acceptable.  Over the last thirty years, through the building booms, a few rear lots and approved building lots appeared that kept the neighbors and the commission busy and worried.  Builders and newcomers wanted to build and live on our lovely, historic street.  I completely understand wanting to reside in such a picturesque place, and we welcome any sensitive, like minded folk.  Two centuries ago there were many more houses here that were lost during the days of the Depression, it would be great to have them back.  Or let them come to restore some of the homes that have been neglected and need restoration. Come, love this place as we do, help restore, enjoy and protect it.

But that is not what most newcomers have in mind.  Someone please explain to me why these folks don’t understand what it is that drew them here in the first place.  It is right under their noses – wood clapboard houses, small paned windows, brick center chimneys, brownstone steps, split rail fences – how easy is that?  So simple.

These people need a lesson in seeing.  As in art – it’s about seeing.  Everyone should take a drawing or painting class at some point in their lives to learn to see.  It’s amazing how much is missed when you don’t.    In this case, one of the folks who built here, just one house removed from the historic district, saw a beautiful neighborhood but apparently missed every detail that made it special – and built herself an Arizona ranch!  Yes, big windows, stucco walls, flat roof.  Another, fortunately for them but unlucky for us, came in before the district was designated – and built a raised ranch.  Lord help us.  Mother nature cracked its foundation twice as they were building – she was on our side! – but as man is apt to be stubborn – he fixed it.

A more recent newcomer purchased an old timer’s reproduction home, that had weathered nicely over time and had a good stand of old tree growth and lush landscape.  He proceeded to replace the front door with a mission style/modern door, placed plastic domes over his basement windows and moved his electric meter smack in front of the house!  Guess he likes looking at electric meters?  Then proceeded to devastate the picturesque landscape, strafed it, cut down all the old growth trees, opening it up to the surrounding neighbors properties – so it now looks like a bomb hit it.  (and the neighbors wish it had).  He plans to build a ranch house on the lot behind (approved long ago).  Unfortunately, historic district commissions cannot dictate the style of house, only its materials and try to assuage the details.  Now why would someone with these intentions move into such a place?  Why would anyone want to upset their neighbors, destroy a neighborhood, thumb their noses at the past?  It is ironic that the very thing that draws them here, they do not see or understand, and thus proceed to destroy.  The neighborhood is forever changed.

The changes are insidious.  Decorative cornices are removed to make way for low maintenance aluminum.  Wood clapboards removed for low maintenance vinyl.  True divided lite windows replaced with vinyl and snap in grills.  Wood or slate roof shingles replaced with black asphalt.  It goes on.  Even wood split rail fences are being replaced with fiberglass!

I want to live in an old sepia photo taken in 1910.  I want to walk down around the bend on that dirt road that leads to the big crooked house with the well out front and the giant elm spread over it.  I want to live in a house that nature can take back any time and not leave a trace.  I like living in a real world.  It may be less convenient, but not by much.  An extra sweater in winter, a bit more elbow grease in maintenance, a floor that leans this way or that, but overall a much more human experience.  I look out my window, through the wavy glass held together by muntin bars fashioned by a craftsman’s hand, and I see the tree they came from.  I think of the floors it gave us, the paneled walls, the corner cupboard, the kitchen table, the salad bowl.   The bricks for the chimney came from the clay under the ground by the stream.   How can you not be moved by this?

If only the sensitive would move into these peaceful places, I guess we’d have found Paradise.  Perhaps that is not to be, but we must keep trying.  We must educate them.  We need to teach them at an early age, to open their hearts to the past, and open their eyes to see.

house moving

So often today we find old houses just inches from the road.   Encumbered by wires, telephone poles, trees out of control, so much has changed since the road was tranquil and dirt and the transport a slow and steady horse and buggy.  Now as we speed by in fast cars, we wonder how the homeowner can sleep at night without worry that they’ll be awakened by a crash into their living room.  Somehow these homes have survived, and their owners learned to live with the threat.  But they don’t have to.  When progress has encroached too much into your front yard it just may be time to move away from it – and take your house with you.

In the old days I suppose a team of oxen and a dozen hardy men tackled the task.  These days we have trucks and tractors and bulldozers, steel beams and pneumatic equipment to help a few hardy men.  Here are some photos of the process, in case you might be considering such a move, and want to know a bit of what it takes.  First this house had to be moved in two sections, so they were separated, secured, and weather protected.  The foundation, old stone and dirt, had to be dug away, jackhammered, excavated; the sills, framing and chimney supported; tracking excavated and created to roll the house sections to their new site, which of course had to be dug out for a new basement and foundation, creating a new, usable basement which is every old house owners dream.  Well, most.

It was amazing to watch these professional house movers work.  Their confidence in placing the steel, shimming the fireplace hearths and foundation (which had to be removed without collapsing!), and then moving the sections to their new spot, joining the two and leveling with their pneumatic system.  It was quite a feat, and flawless.

Aside from dealing with where to bury or move all the “potatoes” (giant boulders) the excavator removed from under the ground, the regrading of the site should go well, and the new landscaping will be an improvement.  The homeowners will feel like they moved to a whole new site where the landscape has changed, along with the views from every window.  Meanwhile they got to take their beautifully restored and very original antique house with them.

Enjoy!

getting started

separating sections and securing

main house to be swung around to join ell

placing steel

main house to be swung back and clockwise to join ell

the careful move back

almost there

lost and found

I found an old coin in our meadow the other day, an 1812 large cent.  We regularly walk this hundred acre meadow with an occasional eye out for an old arrowhead, stone tool or other treasure turned up by the farmer’s plow.  While others have amassed the meadow’s ancient gifts over the years, I have never found anything except a few interesting stones smoothed by wear and springtime flooding.  I’d imagine their use by Indians as tools for shaping or grinding,  with imprints where hardy fingers have held them tightly in their palm.  But in truth, they were probably from the river bottom, washed up by floods.

But this day, in the soil at the edge of the path, there was no mistaking something round and ridged and fashioned by modern man.  It was rusty, dirt covered, had some verdigris, and some weight, and decidedly worth taking home.  I rinsed it under the tap to try to reveal its image, read its date.  Still brown and a bit rusty, I tried a toothpaste scrub.  That part is a real no-no as it turns out.  Just so you know – the only thing to do with an old coin is to rinse it with water and rub it lightly between your fingers – just in case it really does have value.   You don’t want to scratch it with cleansers or remove its aged patina.  Luckily I didn’t use much toothpaste, but it wasn’t worth much anyway.  If you do find an old coin – ask a reputable dealer for advice.

Known as the “classic head” large cent these coins dated between 1808 and 1814 were made from English planchets, minted in Philadelphia, and were based on new designs by the engraver, John Reich.  Left facing Lady Liberty has her hair tied with a fillet inscribed “Liberty.”  She is surrounded by thirteen stars, seven on one side, six on the other, and at the bottom is the date, some dates are large and some are small.  On the reverse is the coin’s value.

While it is probably worth a few more cents now, the value of the coin, like an antique, or an old house, is not monetary, it’s history.  It’s the fun of discovering it, imagining the hands it passed through, and wondering how it got here.  On that note, there’s an interesting story.  A neighbor and longtime resident brought up the subject of how the farmers of yesteryear used to collect and use the “nightsoil” from the city to fertilize their fields.  (Now, if you haven’t heard of nightsoil, well here you go – warning – you might want to depress your “stinky” key as you read :)

She told me that long ago the “waste” would be collected from the city’s outhouses, where cans were used instead of a pit, and the farmers would turn this compost into their fields for fertilizer.  And she pointed out that outhouses were a goldmine for coins, where of course, change would slip and fall out of loose trousers.

So, my initial theory of the farm laborer losing a coin, or anything else, in the soil he was tilling, has been transformed to a much less romantic image.   While I’m glad to have this little treasure, lightly cleaned and scrubbed and added to my “old and found” pile, I will definitely think twice before retrieving any further coins from the farmer’s upturned soil.

February

It’s melting!  February is melting.  We stuck it out, through roof collapses, ice dams, wet ceilings, basements, hearths and dripping everywhere.  The sun is shining, for now, and the temps in the forties and fifties have us dreaming of Spring.   Of course, more snow is sure to come, with more frigid temps, but the respite is a welcome change and a reminder of the renewal ahead.  And not a minute too soon.

For those of us who were prepared for the worst – well insulated and weatherproofed, with freshly maintained windows, doors and roofs, all was probably well.  For the procrastinators, or the overwhelmed, like myself, all those repairs that were put off for tomorrow made nuisances of themselves today, and I can’t wait to address them!

The worst culprit was the ice dam.  If the wood shingles at the roof eaves are threadbare, with no overhang to protect the soffit, the ice will melt right behind it all – and woe is us. Water water everywhere.  Or the valley flashing that has a hole in it from the last time you tried to break up the ice there, or the roofing has failed around it, well, goodbye ceiling below.

There is something to be said for petroleum products used somewhere in the antique house.  I hate to admit it but that product called “ice and water” is certainly suited for the winter we just had.  Our wood roof did fine without it for thirty years, but enough is enough.  Thirty years!  Imagine?  A wood roof just starts to look really good after twenty five, ancient, but then the moss takes over and the edges get threadbare, and the rest of the story is a frozen sloppy mess.  Can’t put it off any longer, and we’re first on the list for roofing this Spring.

I must admit the roof held up well under five feet of snow.  There were no flat roofs on old houses, well at least not 17th & 18th century ones.  They were built to shed snow, water, critters, well maybe not critters. The only “critters” that cause a problem are carpenter bees.  They love the crown moulding under the eaves – I can see the holes in the crowns from here.  Again, that crown was replaced thirty years ago, so guess it’s time to replace that when we re-do the roof.  We have pine siding on the house and they don’t drill into that, but they do love the crown.  I see them in Spring, big fat bees high at the eaves, seeking out the best spot to drill into their new home, fending off others who stray into the area they’ve claimed.  As long as they don’t drill their way into our bedroom, I’m fine.  As long as they stay twenty feet away, I’m good.  But one does drill into the screen door by the garden.  Every day I notice the wood dust on the door sill.  Quite a cave he has there, cozy I imagine, convenient for the garden commute.

All else seems to have endured.  Surely, windows will need going over, repairing/replacing putty.  (see previous post on sash repair :)  A sunny Spring day will be perfect for that.  Woodpeckers, I just remembered woodpeckers.  They do love to peck on the house.  Surrounded by trees, they still feel the need to whack their heads against the house!  Hmmm, is that the reason some people put those tacky plastic squirrels on their house?  Never considered they might actually have a purpose.  Well, we just throw open the window and yell.

And of course there’s paint.  The best thing we ever didn’t do.  I can’t imagine having to paint the house every few years.  We left it natural, which works for a 17th century house, and just oil it now and then.  Mostly then – I think the last time was about ten years ago.  I don’t know how this house puts up with us!  I rationalize the neglect as character. It’s starting to look like one of those sepia photos of old houses shot in the 1880’s.  But it’s on the brink.  Looks best on the brink.  But it’s time to oil again, sand and paint trim, re-putty windows, re-fasten clapboards where nails have popped, caulk around windows and doors where needed, fix fences, and rake gardens.  Oh, I like that last one.  We’ve grinned and bore it all winter, with just a few more weeks to go, we’re chomping at the bit to have at it.  Soon we will.

who will be the caretakers?

One chilly New England morning in our drafty 17th century house, our daughter was hurrying around in nylon stocking feet across our splintery wide pine floorboards in search of shoes.  Needless to say, she was not in a good mood when her stockings caught on some protruding rose head nails  “completely ruining her day.”  More than thirty years of living  in this house, maneuvering through the worst of its restoration days, and she still thinks she can walk barefoot across the floors unscathed?  She swore that if we left her the house, the first thing to be replaced would be those ornery floorboards.

And I thought I knew this child?  I actually thought she would be the one who would care the most.  I thanked heaven for that revelation, and now know what to do with our house when we’re done with it.  There will be interviews!  There will be a protective covenant!  There will be photos and pleading and overseers.  I will pay someone to maintain “no trespassing signs” for perpetuity.  I’d rather nature took it back than have some ignorant soul replace the floors with smooth sanded tongue and groove, the windows with insulated ones with snap in grills, vinyl siding, asphalt roofs and aluminum doors.  Our biggest nightmare is to have a future owner disgrace it.  But unless you can leave it to a preservation society with a huge endowment, there are no guarantees.  Ignorance, naiveté, insensitivity, abound.  The only guarantee is that, if possible, future owner be forewarned – I will come back to haunt you.

This brings me to a question that many of us antiques lovers are asking these days – is there enough interest from today’s youth to sustain these old homes for tomorrow?  Everyone under 40 seems to be glued to their blackberries, computer screens, GPS’s and cable TV.  In between they’re fitting in everything from Yoga to Zumba, carting kids to a dozen activities, and trying to earn a living in a recession.  Who has time to care about old houses?  They’re expensive to fix, drafty to heat, and difficult to maintain.  In an age of quick fixes and cheap solutions, ambiance, character and history take a back seat.

It’s a cycle.  These homes have lived through this before.   Many were lost, but this time I think the indignities previously mentioned, like vinyl siding and asphalt, will actually sustain them until that next generation of sensitive, caring folk – enjoying a recurring prosperity – can rediscover and restore them.

Recently I wrote a letter to an editor of an antiques journal, commiserating with his laments on the digital age and lack of youthful interest in all things old.  Here are excerpts:

Hello Mr. Fiske,

…..I was just reading your article about the digital age.  Well done, as usual, and a bit distressing.  Yes, we are surely seeing a great change in technology and culture as we’ve previously known it, and we, as old dogs, will have to learn new tricks.  It’s disconcerting at this stage in our lives, but we were not promised an end to the challenges, just a little help with medicare and living expenses :)

But our hearts still warm at the sight of a banister back chair, or the warm patina of an old dresser.  And yes, there’s nothing like seeing it in person.  Of course, I have to touch it.  I have to reach into the past and connect with its maker.  (Which is why I’m dangerous in museums!)  ….. I have hope that the younger generation will eventually come around, and slow down enough to notice these treasures.  While they’re busy right now trying to carve a life out of a dense job market, and scramble through this awful recession, I believe they will turn their attentions backward again, when they realize that everything of substance is behind them.  The virtual world may be good for certain technical, medical and scientific progress, and a bit of entertainment, but we are still human.  We still long to touch something of quality, something hand crafted with style and grace.  We need to connect with our ancestry, and learn something of our past.

I think, for this new generation, it is not the product, but the packaging.  I believe they would love the product once they were introduced to it.  Their heads are in the stars right now, but their feet are still on the ground.  They live in houses that need furniture for comfort and art for the soul.  With patience, wisdom, and a little savvy, we can engage them in their world…..

….Toward that end I am presently fashioning a program to introduce students to 18th century architecture.  I think they’ll be inspired to see the early house frame and how they can take it down and put it up again with pegs, and how the early craftsmen fashioned their doors, their paneling, their cupboards, and how “green” is not a new concept, but it’s been right here in their own back yard for over two hundred years.  If even only a few are inspired, then we can gain satisfaction in knowing that the job of preservation and the work of caring for our treasures, large and small, will continue to flourish with them….”

We must be active and alert in our struggle to maintain enthusiasm for the treasures of our heritage.  It is not just the work of preservation groups.  We must be personally diligent, patient and persevere.

Now I have to go hug my house, and have a talk with my daughter.

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!