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.