Why an Old House?

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Why do I want to live in an old house? People ask that sometimes (or imply it with their eyes, as they see our somewhat chaotic life as we work to restore and update this home that we've chosen). I thought I'd take a little time and list some of my favorite details about this place. (I'd hoped to make it to 100, but I just don't have the stamina tonight.)

In absolutely no particular order.

1. I love the aesthetics of older rooms. Wood floors, big mullioned windows, higher ceilings. There's something peaceful about their spaces.
2. I love living WITHOUT homeowners' associations, because I'm an untidy yard person. Nobody's going to sniff at me if I leave my hose lying out in the side yard. If there's a bag of egg cartons on the front porch swing waiting to go to church (for a member's neighbor who sells eggs), nobody will be horrified. I do not have to water or weed my "lawn" or spray it with chemicals to keep the neighbors from being terrified of its dandelions. There is freedom in that for me.
3. We live on a steep hillside, but my backyard has a perfect garden-sized terrace built into it, because everyone used to grow their own vegetables. All I had to do was kill a little "grass" (see #2) and plant.
4. Our view. This was one of the first houses in the area, and we gaze over valleys in three directions. It's not a grand vista, but it's charming to have a little elbow room around us.
5. Our walls. Solid wood, 1" thick, where drywall would be in a modern house. Beat that for sound and weather insulation.
6. Our hooks and nails. Wherever I find a need to hang a robe, a cleaning brush, a picture, a plant... there's almost always a nail or hook already there to fill the need. And not just a boring modern robe hook, but a lovely patina'd wire one, full of character, or a chrome Art Deco model, sleek and striking. Makes me grin.
7. The flowers. The original owner was a hardware store owner, his wife a dedicated gardener. Come spring, our yard erupts with hundreds of pink hyacinths, daffodils, and some truly giant ancient shrubbery-- lilacs, a pink dogwood, and a giant fuschia azalea. It's gorgeous and fragrant, fodder for some truly amazing bouquets.
8. Mr. Perme's modifications. The second owner of the house was a WWII carpenter, and when something was in his way, he cheerfully altered it. The bottom stair to the basement, positioned to bang your shin terribly, has been rounded and sanded to avoid just that. A low ceiling beam in the porch's crawlspace has a notch cut out of it-- just tall enough, I imagine, for Mr. Perme to move through the space without cracking his head. Two closets were added upstairs (absolutely vital for modern life). A giant bookshelf was built in the dining room. The basement is full of wooden shelving, benches, worktables. I think Mr. Perme regularly as I move through the house-- we would never have time or attention to add all this ourselves.
9. The backyard's circular flower bed, ringed with a low wall of stones and cement, that I plan to someday make very useful (strawberries) or very beautiful (flowers).
10. Over an acre and a half.
11. The wild purple flowers that bloom in the thicket's shrubs on the side lot in the spring. I don't know what they are, but they're beautiful.
12. A neighbor who gardens and hangs out clothes on a clothesline and loves their old house like we love ours.
13. An enclosed back porch that makes a perfect playroom; the kids can play there, or bring their toys into the living areas, just a few feet from where I am in the living room or kitchen.
14. Old windows with wavy glass that we can easily repair ourselves. We've already repaired (okay, my husband has skillfully repaired) at least half a dozen of the old sashes, and the windows go from being impossibly heavy to lift to being able to raise and lower them with just a few fingers. We can replace broken glass, even repair rotten wood in the frames, easily, without having to replace entire windows. Incredibly sustainable. (Yes, they leak some heat and cold. It's worth it.)
15. The "E.P." childishly painted in a pseudo-stained glass "work of art" in the upper panes of Evelyn Perme's old bedroom. It's hidden by a valance, and I'm not sure I'll ever want it removed. It tells a story.
16. The smallest windows in the house are on the west and east sides, to shield the house from the freezing old and blazing sun. The largest windows are on the south side, to bring in light and heat in the winter, and light without heat in the summer. Every bedroom but one has windows on two walls, which makes arranging furniture a challenge but lets in wonderful breezes and air when the windows are opened. Double-hung windows will let cool air in the lower openings while letting hot air flow out the upper openings. Wonderful "green" design from 90 years ago.
17. Because of all this thoughtful design, and the fact that our living space is all downstairs and our bedrooms all upstairs, we've learned that the house is entirely livable 95% of the time without any heat or a/c on the upper floor. Enough heat rises in the winter to keep us cool, but not cold (as is good for health and good sleep); enough night air can be drawn in through the upstairs windows with fans in the summer to keep us cool enough to sleep. It's amazing, but I see no need to invest big bucks to install ductwork and a climate control system. 5% of the year, we're uncomfortable. That's a tiny amount.
18. The "J.O. Wilson, March 7, 1920" written in the concrete of the garden retaining wall. The original owner, leaving his mark. (The house was four years old by then; I think the date represents the day the concrete was poured...?)
19. The low stone wall on the south side of the house, lined with hundreds of iris plants that erupt in bloom twice a year.
20. The double-drainboard cast iron sink on its metal cabinet in the kitchen.
21. A cool basement for keeping potatoes and onions and such. (We're trying to grow our own this year and will need a place to store them.)
22. Wiring and plumbing that's simple and straightforward, and made of higher-quality materials than can now be bought at any normal price.
23. Insulation board that Mr. Perme has crammed into every imaginable crack and orifice of the basement and back porch. I'm sure it's part of why our utility bills are so reasonable-- but he was obviously obsessed.
24. The pull chains on the bare-bulb fixtures in the original closets upstairs, which turn on and off with such a smooth, flawless motion after 90 years. (I compare these to one modern one we have-- it's cheap, flimsy plastic and has to be pulled so hard that I'm afraid I'm going to break it each time I need to use it.)
25. The medicine cabinet oddly installed on the back porch, which has never been a bathroom. What on earth did they need to store there?
26. Woodwork that's heavy, thick, and elegant, on every window and baseboard and doorframe of the house.
27. The "pass-through" hole in the wall between the kitchen and the dining room, created by Mr. Perme when he got sick of bringing the telephone from one room to another via the doorway. (According to their daughter Evelyn, Mrs. Perme was NOT home when he knocked a hole in her kitchen wall, and she was NOT pleased when she returned.)
28. Mail delivered to the mailbox on our porch railing, rather than in a box out on the street.
29. A big front porch swing.
30. Big, big, big oak trees surrounding the house-- but not overhanging it. I especially appreciate the shade and privacy they provide in the summer.
31. A hook by the front door that's just right for a holiday wreath, and little cup hooks installed all along the front porch that hold a string of Christmas lights perfectly.
32. Our little one-car garage, made of local stone with the original tin tile roof still intact. (Now, I do wish we still had a door on that garage, but I guess one can't have everything...)
33. Gutters that feed directly into underground drains that dump rainwater far away from the house.
34. Concrete borders built on either side of narrow beds flanking the sidewalk leading to our front door: a perfect planting bed for hostas.
35. Old windows, hinges, window locks, panes of wavy glass, light fixtures, etc, all carefully preserved in the basement and shed.
36. A heavy old metal window fan, a gift from the Permes when we bought the house, that is strong enough to pull cool air in from every window upstairs on summer nights.
37. An old wood-handled flathead screwdriver, fished out of a window, that somehow works better for the old screws in our hardware and doorknobs.
38. Layers of linoleum and contact paper in the kitchen cabinet that tells the story of decades of decor changes. I'd never remove those.
39. Sweet pea vines that spring up, wild and crazy, and cover areas of the yard with blooms and fragrance in the summer. They're messy, but I can't bring myself to remove them yet.
40. Old glass storm windows on the playroom windows, that multiply the wavy-paned effect and make the room swim with light.
41. Rabbits that live in the thicket on the side lot and occasionally appear in our yard, nibbling clover. (I may change my mind about those rabbits now that we're trying to grow vegetables...)
42. Marbles dug up when we planted the hostas in the front yard: evidence of children playing on the sidewalk, long ago.
43. Oak floors downstairs, which refinished beautifully.
44. Original pine floors upstairs with lovely gaps between the boards because of their age. (Most of those floors are carpeted now for the childraising years, but someday, we'll refinish the rest of them too.)
45. A beautiful staircase with original dark wood on the railing and newel posts. I love how the finish on the posts is worn by the hundreds of hands that have rubbed against them as their owners traveled up and down the stairs.
46. Stairs that are markedly shallower than standard stair sizes today-- making them easier for little feet (and someday, old joints) to maneuver.
47. Funky old chrome handles on the kitchen cabinets.
48. Pocket doors on the living room and pantry doorways that still slide perfectly after all this time.
49. Old clown wallpaper on the back porch playroom's walls. I'll have to replace this soon, as it's getting fragile and discolored, but I love that it was obviously a child's place long ago, just as it is now.
50. A big, deep old cast iron tub in the bathroom, perfect for soaking.
51. A chimney that runs up the center of the house, with the perfect vent spot for a woodstove in the dining room already there. (Should we ever decide to invest in that.)
52. Flocks of bird visitors to our little feeders.
53. A front porch that's broad and deep enough for chairs and even a dining table, with broad concrete railings perfect for sitting on as well.
54. The beautiful original wallpaper still showing in my closet, and the unpainted original dark wood still visible on the trim inside the closets upstairs. Someday we WILL refinish the doors at least, to show off a bit of that beautiful wood that's underneath the paint.
55. Sturdy wooden ceilings that allowed my husband to hang my HEAVY choice of a dining room light fixture without ripping out ceilings to install additional bracing in the proper spot.
56. Soundproofing by the solid wooden doors and walls. So total, it's hard to hear my children crying from another room if their doors are closed. (Bad thing now, good thing in a few years!)
57. Windows that let in sunlight all day long, creating pools of warmth for my little old dog who loves to sleep in them. You can always find her on the east side of the house in the morning, the south in the afternoon...
58. The heavy cotton curtains decorated with Egyptians that are hanging over the utility shelving on the back porch. I wonder if they've been there since the US's Egyptian fad in the 1920s.
59. The little bars of soap I keep finding stashed in odd corners, even years after we moved in. Mrs. Perme's idea of air fresheners, I imagine... we find another one occasionally, like magic, even though we've certainly been over every inch of every closet already.
60. The giant glass bottle with pump sprayer that we found in the garage. It's perfect for spraying liquid fertilizer, and I love how it looks sitting on the old shelf in there.
61. The hilarious-but-very-useful utility shutoff valves that have been installed into the beautiful (but leaky) original exposed plumbing in our shower. It's very handy to be able to shut off the shower flow without adjusting the temperature knobs, but more than that, I love the sheer fuction-over-form ugliness of it: practical Mr. Perme strikes again, I'm sure.
62. The currently unused water cistern below the kitchen windows. It's dry and covered with concrete pavers and a birdbath right now, but should I ever get brave enough to fashion myself a rainwater catchment system, I have the perfect vessel right there to hold it.
63. A pole I just discovered this month near the garden. It probably used to support a clothesline, but will be perfect for me to mount a tall pole with my future bat house on it. (Bats eat thousands of mosquitoes every night, and that is probably my least favorite thing about this house... we are hounded by mosquitoes every evening here.

Whew, what a list. I'm sure no one is still reading at this point, and that's okay. It was lovely for my state of mind to write all this out. I'm feeling very blessed.

...those are also #27-90 of my gratitude items, because I've been grateful for each and every one of these old-house quirks as we've lived our lives in this home for the past two-plus years.

Thanks, J.O. and Mrs Wilson. Thanks, Perme family. You've prepared a lovely home for my family.

We are happy here.