Something old

by Jennifer on February 22, 2008

I love old houses. For years, I have dreamed of living in a house filled with old woodwork and leaded glass windows. A house with walls that hold the echo of old voices and floors that bear the marks and smoothness of steps from other lives. The idea that the history of other families unfolded in a house, moments and days at a time, is not only romantic to me, it’s essential to my ability to fall in love with a house (and oh, how I’ve fallen).

I admit, I’ve fallen in love with a great number of houses. I have an ability to see a house, disregard its location (or sometimes fall in love with that, too), and within a short amount of time (sometimes minutes) completely construct a version of our lives that supports purchasing that house. Mr. H is a bit more pragmatic, as our family’s main breadwinner and all, so he’s learned to wait out these little storms.

adirondack-house.jpgIf I had ridiculous amounts of money, I would go to the Historic Properties website, and contact at least a dozen or two real estate agents about properties listed there. This property, in upstate New York, begs for a restoration. It was built by Thomas W. Lamb, who was an eminent theatre designer in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and it’s a good deal at $255K. However, the work it needs would cost well over half a million (I’ve asked). And I can’t stop thinking about that house and its historical importance, and how it’s just sitting there, deteriorating. I also think about how my kids would love playing in the river that flows through the property. And how it might be kinda nice living in a little town like Elizabethtown, New York. Except how would we support ourselves? Oh, that. (Someone please buy it and put me out of my misery.)

The fact is, I am passionate about historic preservation, and not only as it applies to my desire to live in an old house. I think it’s one of the highest forms of recycling when someone buys an older home instead of using resources to build a new one. Not only is it environmentally sound, and often more economical than new construction, but buying an historic home preserves something important in our society, something irreplaceable. Every time an historic building is razed, some essential part of our national soul is destroyed along with it.

I trace my interest in historic preservation to a day years ago when, for the first time, I visited The American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. The collection included almost two dozen rooms from old American houses, many or all of which had been torn down. The rooms featured beautiful woodwork–staircases, crown molding, and carved mantels. In most cases, a photo of the house accompanied the display. I remember feeling such sadness that these houses had not survived. Almost 20 years have passed since my first visit to that exhibit. In that time, countless historic homes and buildings have met the same fate as those houses. Fortunately, organizations like The National Trust for Historic Preservation have raised public interest and prevented greater losses. Habitat for Humanity has even rehabilitated properties in some locations, rather than building from scratch. All across this country, there are neighborhoods and downtown districts filled with homes and buildings that have been protected and restored by owners and preservationists who stepped in as careful and loving stewards.

My old house is out there, somewhere. I suppose there’s another family living in it now, but that’s all right. Their stories will become part of the woodwork, too, just as those who lived in it before, until they decide to move on. Layer upon layer, like old paint, the stories accumulate. Until one day (I hope I don’t have to wait long), my family and I will add ours.

{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

Eric Hundin February 22, 2008 at 4:48 pm

I found your site on technorati and read a few of your other posts. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed to my Google News Reader. Looking forward to reading more from you.

Eric Hundin

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liv February 22, 2008 at 6:51 pm

girl, i love the old houses. have done the old houses, and the only, only thing that makes me nutty is that the local “hysterical” societies have so many restrictions. you can’t do things that would be more energy efficient or cost effective because it’s not 1000% in keeping with the way it originally happened.

now, i know i don’t win a lot of friends with them for saying this, but wouldn’t it be better to keep the homes standing in close to original form rather than completely rot because nobody can afford to do them the way the bureaucrats insist?

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suburbancorrespondent February 22, 2008 at 7:50 pm

We lived in a historic house once, as renters. It came complete with historic peeling wallpaper and historic moldy basement and a number of other characteristics which made me yearn for my 35-year-old townhouse back home.

But if I had unlimited money, I’d beat you to that NY house. The location is superb! And the house is gorgeous.

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cce February 22, 2008 at 7:51 pm

Ahhhh, I have an old house. We bought it two years ago while wearing rose colored glasses, romantic, dreamy, rose colored glasses. The house has good bones. It has many, many windows and wood floors and that je ne sais quoi that is missing from most modern structures but still…IT IS EATING US ALIVE. The amount of money required to save her and update her in a way worthy of her inherent character is astonishing. I’m not sure we’ll be able to stay here and it will break my heart to have to leave. But it also tears me apart not be able to care for her in the way she deserves. I can only say be cautious. Though we’d never tear her down, it would have cost us less to raise the structure and start over. Food for thought and a little bit of fodder for depression.

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Jennifer February 22, 2008 at 8:09 pm

I’m undeterred (but I’m stubborn). And I also plan to go back to school for a degree in historic preservation. I think if organizations like the NTHP continue to support efforts to make it easier to own and manage some of these older homes, then homeowners will end up with more economical ways of maintaining these homes.

Yeah, my rose-colored glasses are still firmly in place. But over them, I’ll be wearing safety goggles as I continue restoration work on my imaginary house.

*I’m coming back to edit this comment since I rushed through it the first time. In my post, I didn’t mean to downplay (or ignore) the inherent difficulties of owning and restoring older homes. (That’ll teach me to rush through a post without presenting all sides.) There are some obvious downsides, as with anything. But I will probably always believe that if we can preserve something (even if it’s difficult to do), it’s better than the alternative, which translates into losing an important part of our heritage.

Old houses aren’t for everyone–but they are for me. 🙂

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marlee February 22, 2008 at 9:43 pm

amen, sister! 🙂

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Manic Mommy February 22, 2008 at 10:08 pm

I always wanted an old house, now that I have one, I want to build a new house. I love the character but could do without the lack of insulation, the drafts, the uneven floors, the electricity, the small closets…

Satisfaction issues…

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Angela February 23, 2008 at 2:00 am

We have an old house. It is small, but charming and thoroughly loved. It loves us back, and we are happy. Cramped, but loved. And we will never leave.

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Tootsie Farklepants February 23, 2008 at 3:45 am

I love them too. I told Mr. Farklepants that if we ever came into a tremendous amount of money I want to buy a historic estate in England complete with ghosts.

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JCK February 23, 2008 at 3:50 am

I am so in love with your writing. It is inspiring.

And old houses….yes, yes, yes…to dream….even if the reality is not as good as the dream. The dream is great!

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HRH February 23, 2008 at 4:00 am

I am not up to the maintenance on such a project, but I love the details. When we built our current house I sat for hours at auctions bidding on old stained glass, doors and trim. They are some of my favorite parts of our house. The stained glass is the best and just makes me happy every day.

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Lisa T February 23, 2008 at 2:28 pm

I just love that website. It has always been my dream to have an old victorian. My husband is actually in real estate and he is pushing me to build a ‘new’ victorian but I’m sure you will agree it is not the same!
I hope you get your dream ‘old’ house!

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Milena February 23, 2008 at 5:25 pm

I think that more than the architectural value of an old home that needs restoring, there is that thread of history and as still unfolding story that seduces me the most about places that have been around for a long time. The same goes for old clothing, old books, old furniture even, older people. I love the idea of continuity, of adding to the echoes of forgotten moments. For me, this is what makes an old home so distinctive, the fact that they have lived like new homes haven’t as yet had a chance to. I can only dream of having piles of money with which to buy and restore a particular home that I have always been in love with. In lieu of that, I relinquish it freely to whomever saves it that can because, it deserves to continue living.

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Jamie Donahoe February 25, 2008 at 12:41 am

I too love old houses and would like to tell people about an organization, Heritage Conservation Network, which lets you spend a volunteer vacation helping restore a historic house (or other type of structure) without needing to suffer any of the anxieties caused by discovering yet another thing that isn’t quite right with it.

Sort of like loving to play with a baby and being able to hand it back when its diaper needs changing!

Check them out at http://www.heritageconservation.net. You may even be able to learn how to tackle a particular aspect of a restoration project and practice it before trying it at home…

Jamie

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Samuel February 25, 2008 at 3:39 pm

I live and own a historic home fixer uper in our national historic district. It takes a lot yes, but I love it. High ceilings, screams energy, answere ceiling fans, NO closets, build them, peeling what… on and on and start again… That is how it is. I am glad not to be in a cubicle house. My 9 foot doors and 7 foot windows with so much sun light keep me from going insane on a no sunshine day. Check out our nationally reg. historic dist. neighborhooe website at http://www.historicnearwestside.com Anyone can afford a house here.

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