This old house

Around the block from my apartment, someone has been completely renovating his house. The neighborhood surrounding me is full of very big, very old homes—not as big as some of the monstrosities you find in Belmont, and not as old as some of the pre-Revolutionary homes you find in central Cambridge, but big and old nonetheless. Some of the houses are very stately and built of brick and stone, but many of the others (including the one being renovated) are wood frame homes built in the classic New England style.

The house being renovated is set back from the road a bit; its connected garage is the part of the house closest to the street. It sits on a corner lot. From one side of the L created by the streets’ intersection, you can’t see much more than the garage, since most of the house is behind it and facing the other side of the L. From that side, you can see the face of the house if you peer through the trees, but its distance from the road is significantly greater on that side. For someone who appreciates privacy, this would be a great house.

For my part, I appreciate old homes. In fact, I love them, and I walk past this one every day. Renovations have been continuing ever since I moved into the neighborhood back in August. From what I can tell, they completely gutted the interior, made some structural changes to what was left of the house, then entirely retooled the exterior—new gutters, new porch beams, and a complete resanding and repainting of the old wooden siding. They timed their work well and were able to move inside to begin interior work just as the snow began to fly. Now, it seems that the work is almost done.

I first noticed that I was attached to the old house in the late autumn, when they began to repaint it. The owner chose a very strange shade of blue—I might describe it as somewhere between teal and Prussian blue—that is just entirely wrong for the place. I had several objections to the color, actually. First of all, a color should make up its mind whether it’s green or blue. That  shouldn’t be too hard to do. Then, the house is already so shrouded by garage, fence, and trees that such a dark color will hide it altogether. Something very simple and light—even white—would have been a much better choice. Finally, I just don’t think that this is a nice color in and of itself. I wouldn’t choose it for anything, much less my house.

But of course it’s not my house, I had to remind myself as I walked by it on the day that I first noticed the color. As they began making more and more changes, though, this became harder and harder to remember.

The last straw came recently, when they bedecked the beautiful, simple front porch with some sort of awful gingerbread trellis. I don’t even know if trellis is the right word, really; whatever these things are, they’re flat, white, and flush with the front face of the house—one on each side of the front door, and twice its height. I can only assume that they’re meant for climbing plants, but the thought that they’re going to stand there for as long as it takes for some ambitious creeper to scale their heights nearly made my stomach turn as I walked past the house the other morning.

What have they done to my house? I thought. They didn’t even ask me!

The nerve.

Really, though, I’m the one with too much nerve. Of course, I write somewhat in jest retelling the story now, but I will admit that I had gotten rather attached to the house over the past few months. I certainly don’t own it, and I won’t have to live with any of the decisions that are being made about it now. It’s just that after watching it grow and take shape for so long, I began to feel that I had some stake in it—that I was concerned with how it would turn out.

My reaction when the trellises (or whatever they are) went up was no doubt similar to that of parents when their adult daughter comes home with some ridiculous tattoo: it’s not really for them to say anymore, but they wish she hadn’t done that.

By now, though, I’ve walked through enough neighborhoods (and watched enough episodes of This Old House) to know that there’s a dream house out there for me somewhere—and that it will need to be renovated. I don’t want to get all carried away about it or succumb to Mr. Blandings Syndrome (MBS), but when I picture where I’d like to live someday, I definitely do not see one of those palatial prefab mansions that are springing up every day in a suburb near you. (“Just think, sir; your very own unique and charismatic home in close proximity to several hundred others just like it!”)

No, I think I’m going to need a fixer-upper—a big old house just like the one down the street, with plenty of history and the homey, lived-in feeling that can only come with a house of some age. Learning the stories of my old house would be one of the best parts of owning it. Like a friend of mine in Chicago, I would love to be able to tell guests of the concert pianist who once occupied my home and invited all the performers who came through town—unless (or was it only if?) they were Russian. Like one of my uncles, I would love to research the history of my house and find the original deed of purchase—not because it makes good legal sense to do so, but simply so I can learn.

To my mind, a renovated house is the perfect combination of old and new, history and destiny, tradition and the personal touch. It gives you the opportunity to step into the stream of time and continue a line of succession that began before you and will continue after you, while at the same time allowing you to leave your mark upon a place and upon the past.

Of course, especially in such economically troubled times, I’m well aware that owning and renovating your own home is a big dream. But everyone is allowed to have a few of those. As Thoreau once put it:

“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

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1 Comment

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One response to “This old house

  1. LER

    Imagine the pain when you sell an “old” house you have lived in and lovingly cherished for 16 years – and the new owner guts it, throws out the gorgeous woodwork, the beautiful old light fixtures, etc., puts an awkward-looking third floor on it, and expands the garage to the point where there is no back yard left. And after all that, he puts it right back on the market less than a year later. Yes, yes, of course it’s not my house anymore, but it once was and I had to let go. I just felt so sorry for that old house. When we signed the sales contract, the buyer said, very convincingly, he would “take good care” of it. True story.

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