when bad things happen to good houses

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Here’s another one with just days to live.  Don’t know exactly how this happened.  Looks like it was loved, and lovingly restored, in the last few decades, yet here we are.  I’m told it is to be dozed to dust in just two weeks’ time.  But that was two weeks ago.  Not sure I want to go back to verify.  If we were younger, hardier, and less cynical than when we began, I would have called, would have pleaded, would have found a way.

But we’re in another age.  One that has a lot more bureaucracy, regulations, and expense.  One that cares more about the future than the past, as it is found in a few pieces of old wood, and wavy glass.

This one’s location is fairly remote, and a field of solar panels will inhabit its back forty for about that many years.  It’s called progress.

I was never a fan of houses built into a hill, where the front looks like a two story farmhouse and the back, like a cape.  The first level is essentially the basement and tends to be damp.  It’s a bit confusing as to which should be the main floor, up or down?   But this particular one retains a charm, at both levels.  The last owners/restorers did a really nice job.  The addition of glass and a door at the side of its basement/modern kitchen, I think, worked really well.  They held the dampness and mold at bay.

These owners gave it good windows, a wood roof, and lovely clapboards.  Inside they insulated, plastered, paneled, designed a charming kitchen, added nice electric sconces.  It was obviously loved.  As to what happened – it’s anybody’s guess.  Since left abandoned, for all to enter, many have, and much has been lost.  Vestiges of what was, fluted corner posts, exposed beams, lovely stone fireplaces, are all that’s left.  The present (corporate) owners have no vested interest in having the house remain, and vandalism is their best excuse for erasing a history they previously pledged to preserve.

Another good old house, its owners and its history, become ghosts of our colonial past.

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out of sight

Micro-switches to turn on lighting can be embedded in the edge of a door casing. Can you see it?  The main thing is there is no ugly light switch on the wall!

Micro-switches to turn on lighting can be embedded in the edge of a door casing. Can you see it?

Ambiance – one of the main reasons we choose to live in an old house.  The wood, the plaster, the history, the feeling that when we walk into a room, we’ve just stepped back in time.  To immerse ourselves in that and forget all that’s happening in the modern world outside our doors and small paned windows, we have to make sure that there are few, or no, traces of that world within.

In restoring or reconstructing an old house, one has to allow as little intrusion or change as possible.  If you let the harbingers of progress, aka the electricians, hvac folks and plumbers, have their way, each competing to have their craft stand prouder than the others, goodbye old house.   It’ll still be there, in the basement, in the attic, behind the walls. But the intimate spaces that you treasure will be marred.

I realize that some change is required, but there are ways to subdue it.  However, the homeowner will have to be pro-active.  They will have to walk softly and carry a big stick with the trades.  Inquire as to the least obtrusive areas to place outlets, switches, heat registers.  Think like a sleuth.  Plan like it matters.  You can’t just let the trades have a go with your rooms!  A plumber, who once arrived ahead of us, went right along and cut a hole in a wide plank floor board to run a pipe.  After our shock and subsequent repair we found another, hidden way.   We once let an electrician, who had been with us a long time, place the electric meter on an old house without our being there.  Turns out he let his apprentice do it without his direction.  We were shocked to find the meter on the front corner of the house!  Who does that?  Someone who cares only to get the job done and move on.  To them, I guess, an electric meter is a beautiful thing?  Of course, we moved it around to a less conspicuous spot on the side of the house.

Plan, persuade, rant and rave if you have to!  To maintain the integrity of these old structures, to witness them as they once were, you always have to take the path of most resistance!  And then you get to enjoy that ambiance, forever.

tiny micro-switch

tiny micro-switch

New England Doorways

Doorways of Old Main Street

Who doesn’t love a beautiful doorway?  Here are twenty five historic doorways from lovely old Main Street, but they could be from almost any neighborhood in New England.  These entrances are on Connecticut River Valley homes spanning two centuries – 1698 to 1898 – and are available as 12 x 18 posters at only $20 a piece.  I put this together myself – from snapping the photos to learning some 21st century technology in the process – all for the benefit of the South Windsor Historical Society.  It was fun to do, and the end result is a wonderful piece to hang anywhere in your home.  It looks especially charming in a barn wood frame, and makes a great gift for the holidays.  To order a poster, send your check, made out to the South Windsor Historical Society, for $20 plus $5 for shipping, and mail to:

Restoring Home, PO Box 362, East Windsor Hill, CT 06028.

You can also email me at restoringhome [at] gmail [dot] com if you have any questions.

Have a wonderful holiday!

Whitehall

While it’s the architecture that lures us to these houses in the first place, it’s discovering the unique  stories of the original builders that enliven the experience.  From heiress to sea captain, revolutionary soldier to merchant, post rider to pig farmer, all who had a hand in the birth and direction of this experiment, make every visit an adventure.  While the home of George Berkeley, 18th century theologian and philosopher, was not  open when we were there, it was still a treat to view the unique architecture outside, and impetus to discover the fascinating history of the man responsible for it.  A man after my own heart, in his love for art, philosophy and architecture.   One of the books in his vast library was by a British architect named Inigo Jones, who had studied the architecture of Palladio in Italy, a style that obviously struck a chord with everyone as it began to be reproduced in England and here in America in the 18th century.  George Berkeley thought it the perfect addition to his little cottage as well.   Only thing is, to achieve this double doorway on his center chimney house with tiny front hall, one door would have to be false.

I love knowing that someone of his substance was willing to sacrifice convenience for the sake of good design.  Good design is everything.  And he was willing to live with the minor annoyance that he would never be able to open the door on the left.   But it was worth it.  I imagine that every time he walked up that pathway his new doorway reminded him of his travels through Europe and the magnificent architecture he had witnessed there.  He must have been excited to bring it here to this new land.  Thank goodness he did.

Whitehall,  what once sat on a hundred acres, now sits on one.   That it exists at all is a miracle.  Divine intervention, perhaps, since its owner was a famous clergyman.  Dean George Berkeley was a minister, teacher, philosopher, one of the leading thinkers of his time, who counted among his friends Alexander Pope and  Jonathan Swift.  He was considered one of the big three 18th century philosophers with Locke and Hume.  His philosophical work Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge made him famous at home and abroad, he entered Newport in 1729 a celebrity.   He was attracted to Newport for its forward thinking and religious freedom.  Here he planned to establish a plantation, a home base, from which he could furnish crops and supplies for the college he planned to establish in Bermuda where the sons of the colonists would be trained to become clergymen.   The promised funds never materialized, and he would soon return to London, then to his native Ireland where he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne.

His influence in just three short years here, from 1729 to 1731, was grand.  Before he left he donated most of the thousand books he brought with him to Yale, the rest to Harvard.  The divinity school at Yale was named after him.  University of California Berkeley was also named after him, inspired by a line from one of his writings – “Westward the course of empire takes its way…”  He influenced King’s College (Columbia) and Brown University.  He helped found Newport’s Redwood Library and the Literary and Philosophical Society.  He donated his house and land to Yale, the proceeds were to fund scholarships for students studying Greek and Latin.  Now a scholar in residence spends a few weeks a year in the apartment upstairs – amidst the books and spirit of the great mind that once inhabited it – how glorious!

and good will to men

This is one time of year that we take that old adage to heart – to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.  Homes everywhere this time of year are ablaze with them.  Candlelight shimmers from every window – small paned and large – homes are aglow.  It’s a beautiful sight.  One that not only evokes memories of a special season and holiday, but one that celebrates hope.  Hope, a light that is never quenched. A light that, no matter how weak the embers,  someone will always come along to stoke it back to life.  That is the message of the season, whether you are religious or not.  Christmas was not celebrated in colonial times, but their homes were brightly lit with candles, at all times.  What was once a necessity is now a charm, and a reminder  from the struggles of their past that with  perseverance, kindness and compassion, good will prevail.

During the recession of the 1930’s FDR provided hope for the unemployed with his New Deal.  Through the Works Progress Administration, millions were put to work.  Artists painted murals, engineers built bridges and roadways, architects and draftsmen documented American architecture.

I was looking for a book recently on Georgian architecture and pulled one off my shelf called Great Georgian Houses of America.  Usually I just flip through the pages looking for specific design elements and details, but this day I happened to notice the cover text above the title which read – “Architects’ Emergency Committee.”  What on earth was that?  The Preface explained all, and it was inspiring.  Thank goodness that these men were given this task, to give them a sense of dignity and hope during difficult times, and in return, they rekindled the hope that our most important American architecture would be preserved for the future.

I want to share with you the words that Mr. William Lawrence Bottomley, Editorial Committee Chairman, wrote in his Preface to Volume II of this Dover Publication.

“….The object in publishing these volumes was to give work to draughtsmen thrown out of employment in the recent difficult years and in so doing improving their morale, giving them training in an exact and serious technique and rendering financial aid.  It has been a great pleasure to this committee to see that many of these men joining in this work did so with great enthusiasm and to find that from being in a state of discouragement, with all its attendant ills, new courage, energy and happiness were the result.

This committee has made it a policy to give employment to all men making application irrespective of their experience in this type of drawing.  Many were well qualified and experienced while others needed much coaching.  While this training was valuable to all from the educational and technical points of view it was particularly useful to those whose training had been more on commercial and less on artistic lines.

In brief we wish to report that one hundred and ten different men have been given employment in the period from 1932 to 1937 and that this represents nineteen thousand, two hundred and one work hours during this time.  The first edition of two thousand volumes is almost exhausted and all the funds from these two volumes have been expended on this object without paying any profit or overhead outside of the actual costs of publishing and mailing….”

May we remember these old fashioned values during our own difficult times, and find ways to light candles, instill hope, and help others during this season, and beyond.   May hope, health and good will be with you over the Christmas holiday and throughout the new year.

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.

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