Code Blue! Calling all old house people!

Category: Daily Diary

Would the cheerleading squad please report to the House in Progress? Any fellow Old House people in the house?

'Cause we have an old house motivation emergency!

Hi, JM:

I am a frequent poster and reader of your site and I am in serious need of motivation lately. I was looking on the internet and the forums, newsgroups etc. about WHAT exactly motivates us Old House people?

I could (and did) have the Big NEW house in the suburbs. The main reason we left was the people that buy houses like that lived all around us! (we were the only ones who ever got out on a ladder). But we still could have bought another NEW house on more land (also with mature trees, like old house neighborhoods) to fix the neighbor problem. WHY OLD?

Have you posted a post about this? Why Old for you? Will you make it a topic upcoming? Can you help me remember what my rationale was? Help me figure out what to tell my (new house) brother when he comes to see the place and asks "you paid HOW much for this place? are you NUTS?"

Please help me- help us all in your eloquent way. WHY did I do this? WHY all this work for such a small house? -- Carol from NC

JM: Okay, everyone here at Old Houses Anonymous (OHA!) say hi to Carol...

Everyone more or less in unison: ...HI CAROL!

JM: Carol, you aren't the only one to ever ask this. I'm sure that back in the first tent made of fur, one couple asked another couple, "A CAVE?! Why would you buy a cave when you could have a nice new moosehide tent in the 'burbs?!"

Moments of doubt pulse through me like, um, great BIG pulse-y things at least 5 or more times a day on the average. Sometimes it sinks to one, sometimes it's WAY all averages out.

I have this goofy, deep love for things that are built solidly and with integrity. When we got this house, there were holes in the walls so you could see into a lot of places that you usually don't get to see. I would be amazed and touched by the craftmanship where a rafter met a wall. Or how a window was placed "just so". A team of builders really cared about what they were doing when they made these parts of the house you aren't supposed to see.

Some choices depend on where you live and the price of things. A new house that has this level of construction (rafter tails, old hard wood, fabulous wood doors and floors, trim, gorgeous wood windows, this style) would cost a fortune here in Chicago. Million dollar range. Plus, we would have had architects and contractors too. So there wouldn't have been any way around that. We would have needed to live somewhere in the meantime.

We couldn't have afforded it. Especially not anywhere near the city, near family and friends, where we can walk everywhere and neighbors have lived here forever and take care of each other.

It's hard to find craftspeople these days who really care about building fine NEW homes. They do exist and are infinitely more rare. We're lucky...we've found GREAT craftspeople after a LOT of looking. Owners of new homes forget this level of quality because everything is new and clean. Those first few years don't seem like much maintenance is needed because it's a new home, right? Until the gutters clog up and water is in the basement and it has been discovered that the contractor forgot that oh-so-important piece of the plumbing...and you are 48 mortgage payments in. Owners of old houses get surprises too, but we also get to chant to ourselves, "She's lasted 90 years. She's lasted 90 years." Although a small thing, it means a lot.

Demo and construction can be rotten and no fun. My husband was talking to friends the other day, "Well, when we build our retirement house..." I did a double take and then gave him "The Look." He said, "What? What?" And I told him. "You will be building a retirement house after I've died in this one, because I'm not doing this again." Everyone laughed, including me, but on another level I was kind of serious. (Aren't I awful? I think I am. I don't usually jump all over someone's dreams this way. First sign of burnout.)

Then there comes this softening...this life...these little "a-ha's." The day I realized that location and design can matter much more than big. That there is such a thing as "big enough." Just like hearts, old houses find interesting ways to expand and cram people in without needing a transplant.

And solid a good friendship or marriage. I'm know there are a few flaws here and there in the corners and on the edges, but my love of the whole is so much more than than the sum of those flaws. Then, occasionally, those flaws can look so beautiful in the right light and circumstances.

It's the real KNOWING. Having seen inside of the walls, I can trace the line of each pipe and wire when that wall goes back up. There's everything I've been learning...not just about the house, but about myself and my priorities and limits. I've never been one for process and patience. I'm all about closure and big dashes of getting things done and perfection. It has been hard to let go of some things in the quest to balance myself out.

I despised those darn weeds in the back garden until I realized that my dog was getting old and there was no place that she would rather snooze than in the grass next to me as I pulled and swore under my breath. I love her and I enjoy her pleasure. So I will pull weeds for her and pray that she lasts as long as there are weeds in my garden.

The constant recleaning tires me as does the stripping of wood. I've tried to use that time to reacquaint myself with my older CD's. We're going to send out a few doors to be dipped because I will be in tears if I have to do them all. I've been trying to keep as much packed away as possible and get rid of much more. All the rugs have been rolled up and stored away and I use slipcovers that I can throw in the washer. Good pieces of advice that I got from the Brickmans of Brickman house. I make the Sisyphus joke and attack the house and it rarely feels good to be constantly cleaning.

Then I allow myself to really examine what I'm working on. How's it doing? Everything okay? Any patching needed? Or repairs? Look at how the notch here on the rafter tails lines up so perfectly with its did they do that? I am in second grade all over again and Mrs. Hangen of West Elementary is encouraging me to examine a butterfly cocoon or a shell. Time slows down and I lose myself in the pleasure of being absorbed in something sensory. The "to do" list, general overseer of my hours, falls off the edge of the roof and I do not miss her.

There is working alongside of this man I married and who I admire as we figure out that he is better at the framing and I am better at the maintenance of the appliances and we barter and teach each other how to do things and drop into bed exhausted.

Some visitors come through and some see our vision. Others do not and are "truly horrified for us" and say so. I smile and nod and when they leave, I crawl onto the sofa with a cup of tea or something stronger and sob until Aaron comforts me. I pledge to develop a thicker skin and wonder out loud if I can avoid showing the naysayers future pictures of our children...I just don't think I could take the critique. Aaron says something funny and I laugh in little hiccup-like sobs.

I guess what I am saying is...ALL houses are maintenance and layers of memory and much luck. (All marriages and friendships and family relationships are like that too, I suppose.) I like to take my chances with the tried and true. After 90 years, if that old girl is still standing, I think she'll be here for awhile more.

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JM: The best written defense of old houses that I've read yet. I would add a few things:

1. There is something to be said for building something stronger than you think it needs to be. Our 1941 (OK, not very old, but bear with me) Cape Cod style house in the outskirts of Boston is framed with rock-solid seasoned timber. The walls are so tight and well done that when the cable installer came, he drained a full battery on his drill trying to get through the wall.

2. There is something to be said, in houses as well as wine, for expressing the local terroir. Our house has a basement fireplace built from stones found in the back yard. It's not a custom house, especially; the builders just decided to incorporate it as a favor to the homeowner.

3. That said, there is still room for improvement. There are good decisions, and then there are bad ones (like leaving a rough hole in the ceiling to access bathroom pipes hidden by a kitchen cabinet for the next guy to discover). Or the lack of electrical outlets.

4. But you can't buy soul. And that's what I try to keep remembering when the sewer line backs up or rainwater comes ten feet into the garage. It's a little like "My Favorite Things" that way.

JM: Thank you, as always, for your articulate and thought provoking entries. I have been visiting your site daily since May, when my husband and I signed the contract for our 1923 bungalow in suburban New York. I grew up in an old house in this same town and I take real comfort in passing the threads that connect me to history on to our young daughter. I am continually appalled by the comments from visitors about the size or age of our house, as if somehow, we have not "measured up." I wouldn't trade it in, though. Living in an old house fits with me -- as a dreamer, an environmentalist, a lover of beauty. As a psychologist, I truly believe that what makes us tick is our relationship with the history we contain within us -- both our personal history and that of generations before us. For me, the old house is a physical manifestation of a psychic need for connection to the past.

Hi! I've been checking in with your site for a while now (discovered thru the American Bungalow site), and this is my first time commenting. I am moved to do so because, for me working on our old houses (we're deep into our second remodel!) not only brings a sense of pride and accomplishment that is true soul food, but it satisfies the thrifty part of me that loves to re-cycle! Why throw everything old in the landfill? If you are adept at barganing, scavanging, and repairing, you can find treasures everywhere and fill your old house with ready made character, for far less money than going and buying everything new, whether from Lowes or WalMart. Find and fix-up old solid wood doors, interior hardware (such as door knobs, plates and locks, heat vents, drawer pulls), light fixtures, windows (re-cut old exterior window glass for interior cabinet doors), and re-use or re-mill old lumber. Not only does it save you money, but often you can rescue something that otherwise would have gotten tossed in the trash, or thrown on a burn pile. So that's my 2 cents worth; Fix up an Old House--Save the Planet!

One of our motivations is saving something special. We feel a bond to the history of our neighborhood and city by having and restoring this particular old house. We also feel like a part of the future, by doing something good to what was a blighted property. We are part of a continuity, and at the same time part of what is changing in our area.

We want an old house for the neighborhood and and the city and the way the interior feels, and yet we couldn't afford to buy a house that we'd like already livable in any area that we'd want to be in. So we had to fix one up...

We've got a house that has lasted longer than the Soviet Union, that is older than some US states, and that has seen trolleys replace horses and in turn be replaced by cars. In a country where something like 80% of the housing has been built since 1950, this is special.

I am a little less-close to the edge now: you are all very nice for the encouraging words, especially JM! I had trouble looking past the monetary (oh God will we ever recoup this?) before today to look at the spiritual (karmic) side of old house living and renovating- that the imperfections are actually (in the right light) beautiful. That the tasks I do put me at one with Dog and Human. Who is transforming who now? Before reading JM's post, the obvious things to me were the spiritual vacuum and sameness (its too EASY! just too freakin easy!) of the new house 'burbs and the fact that living close to town will cost you more for what you get. I am eager to hear more opinions on the subject. Thanks, all!

I just want to ad my comment that old houses have a sense of history and in these days of MTV, and sensory overload, I feel nostalgic for earlier periods in history, when life was simpler albeit probably more difficult in certain ways. I am old fashioned in many ways and old houses suit my values. Things made to last, relationships made to last too. ;o)

One of the best defenses of old houses I've ever read. I swear, every time I come to this site I get re-motivated.

Hello, this is the first time I have posted a reply here. We just bought our first house - and it's old. Here's our reason. When you buy new, you love it for that, but after a few years it's not new anymore, and you need a new new house. We love our house because it's old and has this history that's greater than us. And very year we live in it, it becomes more of what we love. It will never be not old. I say this as I am regrouting our original pink kitchen tile counter that I have promised my husband I will make him learn to love. Best wishes - Leslie

great postings...i live in NC, in a house built in 1896 that was owned by only two families prior to us. i love this house and all the eccentricities that come with it.

a suggested reading for 'old house people' - Red House - by Sarah Messer - "Being a mostly accurate account of new england's oldest continuously lived-in house" - it is an interesting read about family, home, history, restoration, respect for the old.... i just finished it and it pretty much solidified my desire to always seek out fascinating and old property with a soul and a story.


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