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You Are the History of Your Old House

photo of newel post

There are many reasons to love old houses, but one way or another, they have to do with people. Consider the work of the mostly anonymous craftsmen that built them. There is pleasure, even comfort, to be taken in their simple professionalism. Did they ever imagine their work would be useful and admired for decades, even centuries?

Think about the people that grew up around old houses, that made them part of the unconscious backdrop of their lives, when the houses were newly built, and as they passed through cycles of neglect and renewal.

To live in an old house is to make a connection with the generations of people and families who left their own distinctive imprints, and to realize that you, too, are writing its history.

In my old house the imprints, great and small, can be found everywhere. There are obvious ones: original choices, additions made, paint colors chosen, windows bricked in. Then there are scars: indelible marks, dents, stains, scratches, amateur repair jobs, and all the rest that make the house less than a perfect specimen of the building arts. Finally, there are the ghostly imprints: the newel post worn down by the countless grips of countless hands. The stair tread that squeaks and has squeaked, I’m told, since the 1950s.

photo of stain on floorI spend a lot of time and energy celebrating or ruing these imprints, and leaving my own, including many that qualify as scars. Yet, what I enjoy the most is to imagine the people that made all the imprints before me, and also the people who will come after me and contemplate the impressions that I have made.

It doesn't take much imagination to conjure up these people. Here, in this room, must have stood a radio, and someone listening anxiously for tidings of a loved one fighting World War II. These kitchen cabinets held, or didn’t hold, the Argo Flour and Domino Sugar that saw the occupants through the grinding years of the Depression. See this closet? In the '70s, when male boarders lived here, it must have held some fine polyester shirts, and white, worn-out, size 13 bucks, next to whatever fluid it was that leaked and left that odd stain.

Someday, perhaps, a man will enter this house, the front door of which will open by itself in response to his voice. He’ll look down, and for the hundredth time wonder about the knucklehead (me) who tried to cut the base molding to accommodate a heating vent. He will sigh inwardly and head on up the stairs, his foot on the squeaking tread, his hand on the worn newel.

Old houses are glorious things, but they are more than things -- they are a connection to the tide of human history itself, past, present and future.

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from the blog

The Life of Old Houses.

by Joe Copley, the founder of OldHouses.com.

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