4/10/2008

Musings on an old home

Does anyone else feel like they're swimming against the current most of the time? I feel like my ideas about priorities and lifestyle are correct, they just aren't shared by the majority of the population. So much of our culture is about newer, faster, better, more.... When I mention wood siding, vintage appliances, or recycling, people look at me like I'm nuts!

I've always loved history and been interested in the way life used to be, even as a kid. I used to read the Laura Ingalls books and dream about living in the woods in a log cabin. While the other little girls were playing dolls, I was making bows and arrows and climbing trees. Seriously. As I got older, it chanelled itself into a love of old buildings and antiques. They are pieces of history that have survived; clues about the past. My love of the outdoors has given me a deep respect for the earth and a desire to preserve it. As a result, I like the restoration for the satisfaction it brings to both of my interests. I'm preserving a piece of history, plus reusing materials that might otherwise end up in a landfill. Also, by living more simply, I can lessen my own impact on the planet.

Does living in an old home just change you??

All of the homes I've ever lived in have been more than 40 years old. My mom has a '50s ranch, my apartment was built in 1902, our rental hovel was from the '30s. And now the Prairie Box, built somewhere between 1915 and 1925.

Not many people seem to understand the allure of living in an old home. All they think of is old windows, creaky stairs, and cold wood floors. Wavy, cracked plaster? A bedroom the size of a "modern" bathroom? Layers on layers of wallpaper and paneling? No thanks.

But does a new kitchen the size of the main floor of my old home equal happiness? Will a water-guzzling multi-headed shower make me cleaner? Will a new walk-in closet the size of my current bedroom really help me to be more organized?

The obvious answer is "no". I've been inside multiple houses 3 times the size of mine that were dirty, cluttered, and in disarray. And I've been in many more that look like they came out of a magazine shoot: not homey, just perfect. What I see is waste. These huge (to me) new homes have eat-in kitchens, formal dining rooms, formal living rooms, family rooms, dens, and rec rooms. Do 4 people need that much space? What's the purpose of having rooms you don't use?

My house may be small by today's standards, but every little bit of is is used (or will be when we've finished the renovations). I cook in my kitchen, eat in my dining room, sit in my living room. All of it flows together, and there's no place on the main floor that's isolated from the rest. It has a personality, and even without our "stuff" in it, it would still be beautiful and charming. Four generations of people have lived where we live. It's a home, not a house. It will share its story with those who care to look under the shag carpeting and paneling. I feel honored to be a part of its story and to help bring it back to what it was meant to be. Even when I wake up in the middle of the night feeling like I'll never realize my dreams for the house, it's reassuring to know that my house has seen it all before. This house has given me a vision of how my life should be, of an ideal to strive towards. What new house can do that?

6 comments:

Josh said...

Well said. Living with imperfections, accepting external limitations, repairing instead of replacing-- these are certainly counter-cultural values, but they are powerful ideals, too. Does living in an old home just change you? I think it can.

katek said...

I feel the same way. In fact, my husband just said (again) last weekend, "What would I have done if you didn't like old houses?" because I don't think he COULD live in a new house. I could, but it would have to be a really specific kind, and I guess when I say "new" what I mean is a really awesome modern house from the 50s, not a new mcmansion.

I live in Cambridge, MA, and when we were looking for apartments last year we had a lot of trouble, despite Boston's age, avoiding all the new high-rise buildings. We drove our real estate agent nuts because we refused to look at anything built after 1950. Eventually we found a treasure--a large 2-bedroom (plus the old maid's room behind the kitchen, which is my office) in a 1901 building that was *built as apartments*, instead of being an awkward division of what was a one-family home. As a result, the whole thing is so well designed. We have an actual dining room; between the dining room and the kitchen is the still-intact butler's pantry (and behind that but accessible only from the kitchen is the food pantry)... When we moved in there wasn't a single cupboard or counter in the kitchen, just a sink, stove and fridge, but we were able to put away every single thing we owned, including wedding china, slow cooker, all the different glassware, etc. because those two pantries are so well-designed.

We love the moldings, we love the way the moldings, hardware and flooring shift to simple, cheap styles starting in the pantries (servant's quarters), we love the embossed cast-iron back of the fireplace... We may not be able to hang things directly from our tenuously-intact horsehair plaster walls, and there may be some weird bumpy places, but we have picture molding in most of the rooms and we'd never trade the character of our place for the convenience of sheet rock.

There is life in old houses, and we are inspired by it. There is whimsy and humor and craftsmanship and attention to detail that cannot be found in any but the most high-end custom homes built these days. I do think old houses change you, but I also think you either get them or you don't.

katek said...

Huh, I was looking for something else in my blog archives and I found this from a year ago:
http://katek.wordpress.com/2007/04/26/why-we-buy-old/

Here are some pictures of the apartment before and afters...
http://www.flickr.com/photos/katef/sets/72157600890878260/

katek said...

GAH, I am a comment monster, I'm so sorry. Those link didn't work, obviously.

"Why we buy old" blog post

The apartment.

ben said...

which came first: the old home or the slower lifestyle? or more importantly, can we keep both? and when clerks at the big box stores look at me like i'm nuts, i usually am :D

tegdirb92 said...

I stumbled upon your blog because my husband and I just bought a Colonial foursquare in MD and were browsing for information. We have lived here two weeks and it certainly feels like home. Well put. Keep up the good work!