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.
If 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.