In which I’m thinking about old houses

I am currently recovering from the RT convention in New Orleans. This post is from the archives. Regular posting resumes Thursday. Enjoy!

In the same way that I love armchair travel, I adore books that deal with the reclamation of houses. I am secretly envious of people who move to foreign countries–or even from city to exurb or the country–to fashion a new life for themselves as they rehabilitate an old barn into a living space or charm a chicken coop into a home. (The queen of such conjuring is, without question, Lisa St. Aubin de Teran. I am fascinated by her because every few years she writes a new memoir, chronicling her experiences as she sheds one life and takes on another as easily as some women change clothes. If you have a chance, read The Hacienda, A Valley in Italy, and Memory Maps in that order.)

What I cannot quite imagine is how anyone can find the energy to convert a mill into a goat farm, or turn a ramshackle farmhouse into a cozy B&B. We bought a house that is over 70 years old–fairly aged by our town’s standards. (Everyone thinks that the buildings in our town are historical, but most of them date from a restoration in the 1920s. There are still plenty of authentically old structures, but not quite so many as visitors often believe.) What I’ve found from owning a house this old is that it is not just a house, it is a member of the family. It has its quirks and eccentricities–including a pair of benevolent ghosts and a singular lack of insulation. It stands on an acre of neglected grounds, and from time to time we find relics of the former owners–a bit of garden wall covered over with ivy or a tiny terra cotta frog buried in the azaleas. There are holly trees planted in the ivy bed, which witches will tell you is good luck, and the crawl space beneath the house is sound and dry. What it doesn’t have is proper ventilation in the kitchen or downstairs bath, a sealed basement, or decent windows. (Oh, the windows are pretty, but they are single-paned, proper wood-framed windows with divided lights, the kind you cannot get anymore and wouldn’t want to if you could because the glass itself hemorrhages heat in the winter.)

The question is, how do you know where to start? There is still, four years after we moved in, interior trim that wants painting, and landscaping that must be torn out and the ground regraded. There are all of the windows to replace–tricky with custom blinds at every window that we are determined to save. The azaleas will eventually have to be torn out, and a curious flower box dismantled and hauled away. (And don’t get me started on the magnificent evil of the voles…) There is fencing to be unrolled and tacked into place, a staircase to the garage apartment that must be rebuilt because it lists as if at sea, and while we’re at it, the garage apartment would be much more useful if it were plumbed and heated. Not to mention the various little bits of furniture that seem to do when you first move in but eventually just start to annoy you. And above all is the tremendous guilt when I think about altering ANYTHING from the original finish, with the exception of a little interior paint. We had to install two new staircases when we moved in to make the house functional and I’m still apologizing. (It is laid out like any proper house from 1940–lots of small, cozy rooms except for the downstairs living room, which I don’t even use as the ground floor is where my parents live, while we have the top two floors. I console myself that even though they have the spacious living room at least I got the better bathroom…)

There is so much to do–and it will all cost so much–that I usually lose heart halfway through making a list and wander off to read a book. And if I’m reading a book about someone who has gamely survived making over a house, what I usually find is a happy ending and a welcome reminder that it all takes a great deal of time and not even a yurt can be built in a day. (Okay, maybe you can build a yurt in a day. I’m too tired to google.)