This Old House
Owning a home centuries old means living with history
I watch TV episodes of “This Old House” with a jaundiced eye. It sometimes features renovations only the Kardashians could afford – the equivalent of building the pyramids, all completed in a weekend. Well, I’ve owned old houses for most of my adult life. The truth is that repairs are ongoing, the budget will almost always be busted and everything will take three times longer than planned. Yet there are hidden rewards.
My husband Pete and I bought our circa-1770s colonial 25 years ago this week. The previous family owned the house for 54 years. Pete was more enthusiastic than I. He wanted a house with land, and this one came with 10 acres. What I noticed as we toured the house was the truly ugly concrete-and-flagstone monster of a fireplace in the kitchen - one which I knew must be hiding the original keeping room fireplace inside the wall.
“What do you think?” Pete asked.
“I hate the fireplace,” I replied.
“I’ll buy you a new one,” he said instantly.
He was as good as his word. When we tore off the concrete, we uncovered the gigantic, old, fireplace, the mainstay of a colonial kitchen, with its beehive oven for baking bread at the back of the hearth. I wish we could have restored the fireplace to its original grandeur, but alas, too many other projects awaited us. But along the way, the house has taught us more than we ever imagined.
The joists in the basement were logs, presumably sawed from somewhere on the property, sanded and cut to fit. When we moved in they were not holding up much after 200-plus years, so we decided to replace them.
But removing the kitchen floor and letting sunlight fall upon the old beams for the first time in two centuries was a revelation. Someone overseeing the original construction had carefully carved Roman numerals into each of a dozen logs, clearly marking the order in which the beams were to be laid. We kept the old beams in place, and put new joists beside each one to do the heavy lifting. Preserving the house’s history became just as important as improving its structural integrity.
The floorboards throughout the house are American Chestnut, driven to the brink of extinction in the 20th century from blight. My favorite board, extending from the kitchen to the dining room, is 22 feet long and 19 inches wide. I can only imagine the size of the tree it came from.
The adage, “I wish these walls could talk,” came true one day when we were taking down some of the horsehair plaster in one wall. The house had the 19th century version of insulation in the form of newspapers from the 1850s. Whole pages were plastered intact, some of them still readable; the legs of type had anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic rants from the Know-Nothing party, the right-wing extremists of their day.
The walls became an issue with the advent of wireless internet. We couldn’t understand why so many parts of the house had dead zones. A technician set us straight as soon as he walked in and looked around. “Do you know what is one of the hardest materials for Wi-Fi to penetrate?” he said, smiling. We shook our heads. “Horsehair plaster,” he replied. Oops. We became a multimodem house.
The acreage is bordered with stone walls, reminders that this land has been inhabited for hundreds of years, first by the indigenous Mohegans, and then by white settlers. The combination of severe freezes in winter and deforestation by colonials accelerated the heaving of stones from the soil, according to the book “Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls,” by Robert Thorson. Yankee farmers wryly called the preponderance of rocks “New England potatoes.” It’s one reason why the six-state region was once crisscrossed with 250,000 miles of stone walls, enough to reach all the way to the moon, according to one 1879 estimate.
The land burps up more than rocks. We’ve uncovered farming implements, old nails, a pitchfork and in one case, a huge circa-1700s hinge from a long-ago barn, which a blacksmith hammered into handles, hooks and a beautiful knife for the kitchen.
The house is drafty in winter, but on the other hand, its center chimney makes it cool on the hottest summer day. When the weather turns stormy, the post-and-beam construction of the house means it is unlikely to budge short of an F-5 tornado. It’s solid, but not modern. A walk-in closet is the stuff of dreams. My house has exactly four closets. Only one is a moderate size.
Yet what makes any house a home are memories. We have had countless dinners here with neighbors and friends.
The kids are long gone, but the rooms echo with their laughter in my mind. When I look outside I remember moonlit sledding parties, my daughter catching turtles from our stream and my son and his small friends building forts in the bushes.
We have added our history here, only the latest of a long line. There is no doubt people within these walls gathered to speculate about the outcome of the War for Independence, and later, the Civil War. Babies were born here, and who knows how many weddings took place. Five years ago, my daughter became the latest radiant bride to walk the grassy expense beside this old colonial, arm in arm with her smiling groom.
I’m sure she wasn’t the first. I hope she won’t be the last. For what I have learned after 25 years is that we don’t really own this old house at all. We are merely its fortunate caretakers.
You have found your niche, my friend. I'm loving these posts!
It was a beautiful location to host an autumn wedding.