There is something special about an old house. The incredible craftsmanship, the quality materials, but most precious is the history and story they tell. It’s easy to get caught up in the nuts and bolts of how to cope a joint properly, or cleanly refinish wood floors, but sometimes I need to remember why I do what I do. So I thought I’d share with you why it is that I love old houses.
When I was a kid my parents lived in an old Colonial house built in 1759 in the Catskill Mountains of New York state. The house was incredible for a kid! There were secret hiding spots everywhere from the stone cistern in the basement to the hidden attic door in my closet. I loved to learn about the home’s past from my father as he slowly unearthed its secrets. The small town we lived in was apparently incorporated at a meeting in our house that George Washington himself attended. The property line was marked by a centuries old sturdy dry-stacked stone wall. All fun stories and bits of history. But the stories that I discovered myself were the most intriguing.
One time while I was mowing the lawn I noticed a flagstone peeking out from the grass. Curious what it was doing there I cleared away the grass to find it was rather large. I proceeded to poke around the area and see what else I found. I soon came across another flagstone laid in line with this one just a couple feet away. I continue my excavations and after awhile I had uncovered a flagstone path that started from the back of the house and led out about 75 feet before my mom made me stop. I never did find out where that path led and sometimes I still wonder about it today. Where did it go? Who put it there? When? How long had it been buried? I was like an explorer uncovering uncharted territory and it was exciting. I wanted to know! I still do.
The Story of an Old House
Old houses tell a story. They have a history. There is something about running your hand down a banister that generations of people have held in their hands for centuries. It gives you a sense of place and time and a perspective on where you fit in this huge, sometimes impersonal world. You are a part, a small part, but an important part of a much greater story. My parent’s house has stood there, unchanged (mostly) and unmoved while the world has changed around it. From colonial struggles of a home on the frontier to a small and burgeoning nation. People living in that house lived through the struggles of the War of 1812 when our nation’s capital was burned. They suffered through the Civil War. They watched as horses and buggies turned to cars and trucks. The world grew up and the inhabitants of that house watched it all through the wavy glass of its old windows.
A history book contains pictures and stories of what life was like in years gone by but those stories are locked within the boundaries of the binding. A museum displays actual artifacts from these times, but they are roped off and safely behind glass. But walking into a historic house is like stepping back in time and being wrapped up in the pages of that history book, being a part of the history. We are tactile beings and the ability to touch pieces of history and interact with them is the most profound way to connect to the time and place they came from.
The house I currently live in was built in 1929. The permit wall pulled in June of 1929 and it was finished in early 1930. Not nearly as old as the house I grew up in, but I can’t help but wonder what was going on in the lives of its original occupants as it was being built. The Florida Land Boom and stock market were almost at their peak before crashing down to begin the Great Depression in October of 1929 (just as they were finishing their house). Perhaps that is why our house is an interesting combination of high end designs in some places and simple detailing in others. Was money tight as construction finished? I don’t know, but I know it’s unique. Just like each and every historic house it is uniquely crafted to its original occupants. And as long as it stands it is a testament to what they endured during those years and a testament to their hopes for the future.
Each historic home I work on has its own story, and though I may make my living as a carpenter or tile layer or glazier, I am really just a reader of homes. Stepping into each old house is like opening a new book. And as I read I learn more and more until I feel comfortable enough writing my own chapter. Leaving my mark along with the artists and craftsman of the past whose work I respect so greatly. Hoping that my own meager contribution will be of a quality they deem worthy of inclusion in their book, from so long ago.
What is your story of how you came to love old houses?