Saturday, August 4, 2012

Old Houses

I love old houses. All different kinds of old houses—cottages, castles, bungalows and beach huts. I especially love old houses that look as if they belonged in an earlier century of the English countryside. Brick and stone are my favorites, although I also have a weakness for the clean lines of 19th century American farmhouses.

Built in the 1920s, the house I have lived in and owned (with the mortgage company) for the past 35 years is a two-story Tudor bungalow with brick first floor and white-painted clapboards for the second. It has a finished full basement with fieldstone fireplace and a third-story attic. It also has lots of built-in storage, a marble fireplace surround with walnut mantel, walnut moldings throughout the house, wood floors, and large rooms with high ceilings. It has a screened side sleeping porch and a balcony off the second floor, plus a separate two-car garage and quite long front and back yards.

I should be in heaven, right? Then, why do I dream of my sister’s new apartment? When the last of her children moved out, she left her house and moved into an apartment complex where someone else mows the yard and repairs appliance and building problems. She has sparkling new appliances that work perfectly and tons of kitchen storage. (The built-in storage of my old house tends to be in halls and rooms away from the kitchen where it’s desperately needed.)

I’m tired. Tired of doors that don’t close completely
or close and won’t re-open. Tired of the plumber and other repairmen having to go to extra lengths to find parts for my house where everything is non-standard in size and shape and, thus, more expensive. Tired of the shortage of electrical outlets in every room. Tired of having to shut down the computer for the duration of thunderstorms—even the most advanced surge protectors can’t prevent the power outages and spikes we get in this old neighborhood. Tired of all the juryrigged construction, electrical, and plumbing workarounds that come back to haunt the modern owner. Tired of paying a fortune for tuckpointing on that brick first floor.

I still love my house—when I regard it with unbiased eyes—and consider myself lucky to have it. But when I visit people who live in new places without so many of these problems, places they’ve often had a hand in designing to meet the needs of their lives, I indulge in daydreams of leaving my old house behind and living somewhere with a kitchen designed for pleasurable cooking, somewhere that doesn’t always have 25 various repairs needed at any one time.

Sometimes for fun, my husband and I drive through neighborhoods in the city looking at houses. Kansas City’s good for this because it has so many distinct neighborhoods and great housing stock. We’ll drive through the wealthier neighborhoods, and I’ll point to a house I really like and say, “Someday we’ll live there.” Without fail, it’s an old house, probably even older than mine. 

So the new living spaces with great kitchens and all-new wiring and plumbing and electrical outlets in abundance will stay in my dreams, and I’ll remain in my big old house with its gracious proportions and gorgeous fireplaces and cranky doors and iffy plumbing. For better or worse, I’m just an old-house girl.


Jim Jackson said...

Linda, keep your hope.

My oldest house was built in 1795: its rafters were constructed with wooden pegs, and the nails had square heads. My next oldest was built in the late 1890s--a brick Victorian with high ceilings, Rookwood fireplaces,cherry mantels and large heating bills.

Down south we now live in a condo built in 2007 and up north we had our house built in 2005. In those everything is still square and has original appliances.

I enjoyed the old houses, but have no regrets moving into the new as we downsized.

~ Jim

Linda Rodriguez said...

Jim, that sounds wonderful. Maybe someday that will be me. I have faced the fact that, if I ever leave this house, I probably need to look for a house that's all on one floor to prepare for the limited mobility old age may bring. Around here, that would certainly have to be a modern home.

Gloria Alden said...

The first house my ex and I bought was quite old, too. When he added on a kitchen, he said he'd never live in an old house again. Our next house was one he built and everything was square, new and clean. Later we moved to another house, but it wasn't old, either.

When I bought my first house on my own after my husband had a midlife crises, it was an old farm house with 20 acres. Two basement walls had collapsed and wild critters lived in the basement. The roof leaked and the old man, who had owned it for 50 years before he died and I bought it, probably hadn't painted or papered it since moving in. Old newspapers under the linoleum we pulled up so we could sand and finish the floors was dated 1939.

With the help of my then 26 year old son - actually, he did 90% of the work, a new roof was put on, the basement walls were redone, the house was gutted so he could replace the wiring put in in 1917, put in a new kitchen for me, redid the floors, etc. etc. He said I was totally crazy to buy an old house. Yes, it still has flaws like a wet, yucky basement with low ceilings, but over the years he has built on a sunroom for me, extended a low attic up creating another bathroom and a large room I use for storage and my clothes. He still does much of what I need done around here, too, so I'm staying until I'm carted out senile or dead.

Sally Berneathy said...

I love your house! It has character. It's not boring.

However, when I bought my house, I decided against an old home for the very reasons you've named. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to pay for all the repairs.

But as soon as I hit the best seller list, I'm getting an old home!

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
liz said...

Please delete my previous post. I meant to click preview, not publish.

Thank you for this discussion and for your piece. Two 1/2 years ago I bought my first home, which was built in 1937, with renter's-eyes. What I mean by renter's eyes is that I overlooked obvious flaws, not thinking that I would be the one who would have to repair them and that I needed to look into what it would take to repair them: The Mexican tiles in the kitchen I fell in love with weren't installed correctly and many have cracked; the kitchen cupboards and patio floor need to be replaced; and, I don't even want to think about the orignal plumbing.

It's habitable, and I love the charm of my older home: coved ceilings, arched doorways, etc. But when I go to my sister's and her family's home, a much bigger home built in early 2000 that they purchased shortly before I purchased mine and that didn't cost much more than mine (she lives an hour away, outside Los Angeles), yeah, I wouldn't mind a newer house.

Unfortunately, anything in my price range that's newer in my city, Long Beach, Ca, is a tiny box, so I didn't have a choice if I wanted to live near where I work.

Next time, I'll buy a refurbished older home with charm intact or a newer cookie cutter home.


Warren Bull said...

My house was built in 1925, a newbie by Jim's standards. There are no 90 degree angles anywhere and I tell visitors if they drop a marble on the floor it will roll around four hours (an obvious exaggeration) because the floors are not level. But it is solidly constructed with woodwork around arched doorways between the rooms downstairs and the neighborhood has grown trees and winding roads. The the neighbors are great too.

E. B. Davis said...

You've had lots of work done on your house, Linda. I can tell by the type of ceiling joists (TJIs) in your pantry. It's the "silent floor" joist system. No squeaks upstairs, I hope.

I like old houses too. They have character, quiet spaces, cubbies to disappear into. But I have to admit that I don't like working on old houses. They're a lot of work so I understand your dilemma.

We've lived in our house for over twenty years and we are renovating, mostly updating, but we must tear out the upstairs bathrooms and our kitchen and start anew. All of them need a good throwing away. Unfortunately, they're all expensive redos.

Linda Rodriguez said...

I'm sorry to be absent today, but we had our Sisters in Crime meeting (a forensic dentist!) and then a big family celebration for my husband's aunt and uncle (60 years married, which deserves a celebration in anyone's book!), and I've just returned home. To my lovely spacious old house with so many great features and, like Warren's, no right angles and uneven floors.

Gloria, I bought this house with my late first husband. It was a compromise. I wanted a bigger, older house that was in better physical shape and in a better neighborhood. He wanted a cookie-cutter shoebox in an all-white suburb (great for our Cherokee-Choctaw-Mayan-Chicano-Irish-Scottish kids, right?) with a 55-minute commute.

If I bought again, I'd want a place like yours with some land around it. Too many years lived in the heart of the city for this old farm girl. Unfortunately, I'm married to an urban kid born and raised, so I'll never get a farm or even much land around.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Liz, so great to see you here! For our regulars, Liz Gonzalez is a fine writer and teacher of writing out in LA, who does a lot of great work for her community kids and all that good stuff.

Don't feel bad. Everyone gets burned on their first house--because we don't know what to look for and look out for. You'd be surprised what you can learn how to do yourself.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Warren, I had great neighbors, too, and an older neighborhood with mature trees. Until this damn crash. My sweet eastern neighbors had their pensions looted and a massive heart attack, all of which led to foreclosure. The folks who bought it from the bank cut down every tree and dug up all the perennials. Now, they try to have me thrown in jail for the flowers and herbs I grow in the front yard. My house is the photo with the big rose bush in front (which they call in as a nuisance weed every single summer after it's stopped blooming).

Linda Rodriguez said...

Elaine, that house has had lots of work, but it's not mine. I hadn't any photos of the juryrigged stuff, so I borrowed this from my friend Ron Tanner's great website,

Ron's an award-winning fiction writer and professor, and he and his (now-wife) Jill bought a gorgeous old rowhouse in Baltimore that had been used as a fraternity house for ten years and totally trashed. His site and his new book, FROM ANIMAL HOUSE TO OUR HOUSE: A LOVE STORY, detail the 12 years of work they put into turning the wreck they bought into a beautiful treasure.

And Liz, they've done lots of videos of do-it-yourself repairs and jobs and put them on the website. Good resource for fixing up a house.

Ron was just here on his national book tour for this book (gave a presentation that had us rolling in the aisles), and I wanted to take him prisoner and put him to work on our home. (Just kidding, if you're reading this, Ron!)

Linda Rodriguez said...

Sally Berneathy left a comment, but as has happened before with my blog, it didn't post, althouhg Blogger sent it to me in an email. so here's Sally's comment and my reply.

Sally Berneathy has left a new comment on the post "Old Houses":

I love your house! It has character. It's not boring.

However, when I bought my house, I decided against an old home for the very reasons you've named. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to pay for all the repairs.

But as soon as I hit the best seller list, I'm getting an old home!

My reply:

Sally, you've got a gorgeous new house. You're one of the people who give me "new-house envy" when I visit. *sigh* If I ever get rich writing (we're mostly writers here, so you can go ahead and laugh your heads off), I will have everything on my house repaired, redone, and remodeled. Then I could be happy here. (If I could buy my neighbors out, too.)

Anita Page said...

Like Liz, I'm amazed at what we didn't notice when we were first shown this 1887 house: lack of closets, tilted floors, steep,shallow stairs that will someday be too dangerous to negotiate.

I sometimes think my dream house is a trailer on the banks of the San Juan River, just upstream from Jim Chee's.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Oh, Anita, I can see that trailer still from the books. Think how clearly Hillerman made that come to life that we're thinking of it when we talk real-life housing solutions?

Linda Rodriguez said...

My last comment was to another comment that didn't post, but that Blogger sent me by email. Here it is.

Anita Page has left a new comment on the post "Old Houses":

Like Liz, I'm amazed at what we didn't notice when we were first shown this 1887 house: lack of closets, tilted floors, steep,shallow stairs that will someday be too dangerous to negotiate.

I sometimes think my dream house is a trailer on the banks of the San Juan River, just upstream from Jim Chee's.

Maureen Harrington said...

Linda, we love old houses, too but bought a relatively new house when I needed an accessible place for mobility issues. I was happy at first, because it was clean and shiny with lots of light and space... but now I miss the old houses we lived in, in Massachusetts.

Those old houses had their own lives and strong character. Their histories were as important to our understanding of who we were, as they grounded us in space.

When I was a teenager, my closet was built around a huge boulder, and my clothes hung on either side of it. In the winter, the rock gave heat. In the summer it was cool. Two sides of the kitchen had a seating bench built into the walls. The lid was hinged, so you could lift it and see the stone wall underneath that had been there for about 300 years.

I was anchored there by more than my self.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Reine, I hear you on the anchoring, centering qualities of old houses. But you and I have mobility issues that make one-floor, newer, more accessible houses a necessity. I can manage for now, but I've had times in a wheelchair when this house was my absolute enemy.

Maureen Harrington said...

Oh, Linda, I know. If I can ever do it, though, what I would like now is to move into the first floor of a house back east and redo it for wheelchair access. My ideal location would be back in Salem or Marblehead. I would have a shop out front that would be a bookstore with a place to write. I can see myself talking with people and enjoying a day in pursuit of ideas. We are close enough to the ocean to see a little bit of it on the horizon. Doesn't that sound nice? Wouldn't you like to come visit? I'll show you the hollyhocks that the tenants who live upstairs have planted alongside the brick pathway leading to the backyard. Then we will have coffee there while we argue with the universe.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Yes, that sounds just perfect, Reine. I can come everyday to write in your bookstore. xoxo

Maureen Harrington said...

xoxoxo said...

I enjoyed this post, Linda!
Best to you!
Ron at houselove

Linda Rodriguez said...

Ron! Great to see you here! As you see, I've taken your name and your book's in vain. I hope you're home from the grueling book tour now.

Elinor Haswell said...

I also love old houses, Linda, but I have to admit, that not all parts of these old houses could be used. The owners of these old houses should consider remodeling too. Anyway, if these houses could actually speak, I’m pretty sure that they’ll have a lot of stories to tell to their current inhabitants.

Unknown said...

Hello, I just take a peek and I discovered your blog. I love also old houses , cottages and buildings. For me they have a unique architectural design. Thank you and keep posting.