Tuesday, May 28, 2013

For the Love of Old Houses

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by houses.

Mostly it was old houses, especially if they had old stuff in them.

There was a Victorian brick ruin near my elementary school; naturally, my sister and I explored it. We scared ourselves silly imagining ghostly women in long skirts. We climbed rickety, mahogany-trimmed stairs; peeling, flowery, wallpaper fluttered as we ran, giggling, startled by our own reflections in cracked window glass.

So many houses, so little time. The occasional trespass. But the houses! The stuff!

A yard sale with my parents, at a farmhouse with a detached kitchen, complete with a top- of- the-line chromed wood-burning cook stove. In a corner stood a Hoosier cabinet with a well-cared for porcelain top, though concealed under a layer of dust. How I lusted for the house, the kitchen, the woodstove, the Hoosier. Dad bought the Hoosier for $5.00. He and Mom gave it to me when I got married. I still mourn the house and the cook stove.

As a twelve year old, I read the real estate section of the newspaper regularly. At that time “urban renewal” was a new concept. Our city, in an effort to curtail the razing of historic houses, offered them for $1.00 (yes, $1.00!) to buyers who pledged to fix them up and live in them.

“Look, Mom, this one is from 1810, and it has the original wide-plank oak floors. Check out the crown moldings!” l called from the breakfast table.

Was there ever such a strange child? These houses needed to be saved, and I wanted to bring them back from the brink. Once they were gone, they were gone forever.

Mom politely read the piece, and while appreciating my interest in historic structures, threw cold water on my plans to use my babysitting money to buy a brick townhouse in the inner city. It would cost too much to fix it up, she explained, as kindly as she could.

“But, Mom, the tax credits!” Are you surprised that I later became a real estate broker? If there is such a thing as a real estate nerd, then I was one before Trump was a gleam in his daddy’s eye.

Contributing to my old house delinquency was my grandmother, Dorothy. Although we didn’t get to visit her very often, my Gran lived in an 1880 white elephant on Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire, during the 1960s.

This seemed completely typical to me. Didn’t everyone’s granny operate a “guest house?” A guest house was an early version of the bed and breakfast, without the breakfast. Gran and her husband catered to city folk escaping the heat of the summer, and skiers looking for bargain accommodations in the winter. The house had nine guest rooms that, gulp, shared one hall bath. Times have changed, eh?

Gran married her third husband, Bert Sawyer, in 1960, having met him while staying at the guest house he ran on the lakeshore. He was much older; she was a hard worker, with a resume as a fine cook and housekeeper for the wealthy.

Bert was always kind to me, his odd, house-obsessed step-granddaughter. I shyly returned his affection, and then fell head-over-heels in love… with his house, his basement, his attics, his barn, his numerous and varied outbuildings, his boathouse, his tenant houses, and his boat dock. Yes, dear Bert was house poor, but that was not a concept I had yet learned in my study of the real estate pages. The upkeep--think of it! Merely keeping a coat of paint on the structures would have been expensive and exhausting.

The Sawyer House, as it was known, was full, from basement to attics, with the accumulation of over eighty years of Bert’s collecting and ingrained New England thriftiness. Very little had been thrown out. In the basement, a dirt-floored room was full of salt-glazed earthenware crocks of every size, shape, design, and description. The hulking coal-furnace had been converted to oil, and cost “the earth” to run each winter, so Gran said. Closets in the house were stuffed with 1920s raccoon coats, tattered flapper dresses, galoshes with rusty metal buckles, ladies’ hat boxes, skis, and ice skates in every size for those long winters.

The house attic boasted a buffalo hide, trunks full of old linens, dusty rugs. Books were everywhere; for a bookworm like me, it was heaven, even if some of the books were a bit musty. The barn attic was accessed by one of my favorite features—a cast iron spiral staircase! I swooned over that stair, imagining that one day I would have a cast iron spiral staircase in my own house, somehow, someway. The barn basement was brightly lit by many mullions and smelled of sweet hay, even though the chickens, cows, and horses were long gone. I pictured the barn cellar converted to an artist’s studio, with the eastern light bouncing in off Lake Sunapee, and grownup me, in a smock, standing at my easel.

Gran showed me old platters, feathered with age, taught me what “flow blue” china was, told me the romantic legend that goes along with the Blue Willow plates, and instructed me that fine crystal made a  musical “ping” when flicked with a finger. Her domain, the sunny, high-ceilinged kitchen, ran the full width of the house. The brightly windowed butler’s pantry with its tomato-red pots of geraniums faced west. On the sun porch, I napped on the ratty bench seat removed from an old Chevrolet.

Crackled cobalt blue vases and ruby glass pitchers gleamed in the window over the broad front stairs that wound up from the large foyer. Pocket doors led to parlors with faded upholstered furniture. Bert let me rummage in the cubbies of his roll-top desk. When I found a turquoise ring, he insisted I have it as a keepsake. I have treasured it all these years, and will never forget his unfailing kindness to a gangly girl.

We were sad when gentle Bert passed away in 1970. Gran sold the house to settle the estate with Bert’s grown daughters. We kept a precious few items as mementos. I asked Mother if she could buy the house for Gran and us. She explained that Dad’s job wasn’t in Sunapee, the old house took a lot of money to maintain, and that it wasn’t practical. It just wasn’t in the budget. The Sawyer House and contents sold for $30,000.

I can’t resist looking at old houses, and dreaming. Sites like,, and various preservation society’s web pages are my regular haunts. I imagine the people who lived in old homes in years past, and the ones who might move in and keep the houses alive in the future.

In fact, there’s a ramshackle ship captain’s house from the 1700s not too far from here that overlooks a saltwater creek. The floor is totally rotted away, but the ceiling beams are heart pine… just imagine what those beams have seen.

The houses, the stuff, and the stories will always hold me captive.


  1. You need to write a novel centered around an old house, maybe with the house as protagonist, and indulge your love for ancient artistry.

    1. When you're right, you're right, JAVS. I've been thinking the same thing. Thanks so much for the encouragement! Need to get this out of my head and on paper.

  2. My grandmother was an interior designer, and I spent many happy hours just wandering around her home, looking at all of her beautiful objects and artwork. We used to drive around our neighborhood looking at the gorgeous homes, creeping down "private" roads to see the more spectacular ones. I am also a real estate addict, and spend hours looking at design magazines and online real estate sites. We are kindred spirits!

    1. We just can't help it! And I don't think we want to. I love looking, and now with all the photos available online, we can really indulge ourselves, Sharon.

      Now that you mention it, whenever we traveled on family vacations, we always drove around the neighborhoods, snooping. Even my dad joined in and we all picked our favorite houses out for sport, imagining what it would be like to live in this one or that one. It must be genetic!

  3. I love Javs idea and I think you should do it!

    They tore down my grandmothers house a couple of years ago. But I can still see it and smell the burning of the old wooden stove. Now when we drive by all you see is the open pasture and it is a little sad.

    1. Ah, I wish I could see her house! Nothing like a wood burner, too. It is sad to see the place where a well-loved house once stood. But as long as you remember it, it isn't really gone.

      Gran's house in Sunapee was eventually bought by the Lake Sunapee Protective Association, so it is being used as an education center for the non-profit group that looks after the lake. Gran and Bert would be happy and proud to know that the house is safe and being used by people of all ages for such a positive purpose.

  4. This is a delightful, well-written post; I would love to use it in the next issue of The Woven Tale Press. You can see latest issue here:
    If interested, email me at referencing this URL.
    Do you have any photos besides this one? Would you be able to take a shot of that "ramshackle" house? Thanks, Sandra

  5. Hi Sandra-- thanks so much for your encouragement and interest. I do have other photos, and will check my archives for ramshackle ones. The ship captain's one I spoke of in the post I saw online at a preservation website, but there are other photos I've taken that I could rustle up in a jiffy.
    I'll go check The Woven Tale Press site and get back to you soon!

  6. Hello there, Querida! First, I agree with JAV, you do indeed need to write a novel. I would read it in a heartbeat. :)

    I had to read this post VERY slowly, like molasses being poured; it was that tasty to me. Ah! You have to know that I love, LOVE old houses. And I kid you not when I confess to dreaming about big, old houses all my life. When I dream like this, I don't want to wake up. And I so wish I could have been one of those lucky people that could afford to buy an old house and fix it up. Sigh!

    I need to have Bob come and read your post. He, too, is a great admirer of very old houses.

    Here's sending you today love and BIG hugs, Amiga!

    1. What is it about the old houses? Maybe knowing that people have lived there for generations, with all their joys and struggles? When I run into someone who DOESN'T like old houses, that always amazes me. The old houses aren't for everyone, but glad to know you are part of the secret society, my friend.

      When you and Bob move to the South one day, we will find you a nice old house that needs just a tiny bit of fixing up, okay? ;-) One that is near to us. Hugs, my sweet!

  7. We lived parallel childhoods! My great aunt an uncle had an old white house with a big barn and lots of land on which grew many different fruits. They were antique dealers living in an antique house (1700's in Trappe PA). If we were sitting down for dinner and customers pulled up the driveway, it was not unusual to sell the table we were eating at. Everything in the house was for sale. She had one room off the parlor where she kept all the antique jewelry and glassware and trinkets. I would spend hours just looking around in there. My cousin and I did the same thing as kids in abandoned houses... ghosts and wild imaginations. Ahh... you took me back to my childhood this morning! xo

  8. Oh, Karen, that is wild. An antiques store in Pennsylvania? To me, that is arguably the state with THE best antiquing anywhere. And a true antiques dealer most certainly would sell the table out from under dinner, lol. Wouldn't it be fun to travel back in time to that glassware and trinket room?

    When I think back to Gran's house, I realize that I didn't even have a clue what I was looking at, and so many of her objects were not even considered valuable at that time. Now some of them would be called folk art or would be appreciated in ways they were not back then. Ah, nostalgia. Glad to know you are another girl with a spooky imagination-- we should get with the gang and dress up for a Renaissance fair or Victorian days event sometime, lol.

  9. This is just a fantastic piece. Of course it helps that I share your fascination, but the writing is spectacular. I agree with the commenter who said you should write a novel centered on an old house.

    My only option seems to be to comment with my google account. Hm. Well, we'll give it a go.

    1. Hi Renae-- thanks so much--we do share that fascination with ghostly things and now old houses. Thanks for reminding me that I have work to do regarding comments. I don't know if I should move over to Wordpress, but commenting here has gotten way too difficult for readers. That will not do! Can't wait to read your latest installment on life at the Paranormal Hotel!

  10. What a beautiful story. I actually cried when they sold the house and contents. I have an unreasonable emotional connection to the houses and "stuff" from my childhood.
    When we are able to get out of our trap we call a house, my husband wants to build new. I desperately want to buy a fixer-upper, and live in a rustic home in the mountains of Virginia, with a beach within driving distance!

    1. Maybe it's not so much the houses and the stuff, but rather what they symbolize to us both as we are now and as we were as children? I don't know. Are we hopeless romantics? I don't know. Is there anything wrong with that? Absolutely not.

      Hope you get that fixer upper in the mountains of Virginia, within driving distance of the beach, my love! Soon!

  11. This one gave me the chills a bit. I'm an old house geek, too. During my nomadic Army brat childhood, we had the opportunity to live in a house built in 1789 that had served as an inn in its early years. It was enormous and though not particularly well-preserved, walking through the front door was nevertheless a transcendent sort of experience for me.