Your Turn: A responsibility to posterity turns 50 years old
It’s been a half-century this year since, in the midst of a grueling search for a house for our young family and my widowed mother that I spotted the newspaper advertisement for what has become our home ever since.
The classified ad was accompanied by a photo of a stately white clapboard house with two chimneys and a porch with Greek columns. A long, gracefully winding stone driveway made its way toward the house and a red carriage barn. A stone wall extended along the roadside of the property, and there was an old wagon wheel resting against it at the entrance to the driveway.
Maple trees lined both sides of the driveway and the wall along the road. I fell in love with the image even before I looked at the house.
I didn’t know a thing about classical American architecture. But I did know that the place had all the elements of a perfect picture, line, form, shape, color and space. People driving by still stop to take photos of it from the same angle.
I won’t bore you with some of the initial disagreements my wife and I had over the matter, but we bought it.
This was long before housing inspections were a routine part of buying a home.
I hadn’t noticed before we assumed the mortgage for the property that the roof shingles to the barn and house were disintegrating, or that the barn floor, over which concrete had once been poured, was collapsing.
Inside, the plaster ceilings were caking off (I’ll get into the topic of something called calcimine in a moment). Much of the paint on the decorative woodwork inside was peeling, exposing a green paint I guessed had been applied in the 1950s.
And there were generations of layers of wallpaper applied on top of each other. The furnace was a decrepit monstrosity that had been converted from coal to oil and was on its last legs. That doesn’t even begin to summarize the unpleasant surprises we encountered.
I got a clue as to what was ahead when, on the first morning I left for work, and pulled the cord to the fan in the tiny galley kitchen, it came off and I couldn’t turn the thing off.
The summer after we purchased the home featured lots of heavy thundershowers, exposing all the leaks in the roofs over our head and the barn.
If I had my life to live over, I might better have been prepared for this if I had chosen engineering or medicine over journalism, had I had the house inspected and had I negotiated a price that took into consideration all the obvious defects and then hired contractors to essentially rebuild and restore the house, a lovely though battered 1852 structure in the Greek revival style of its time, modern temples of domestic life in these parts before the Civil War.
Instead we set out to do the work ourselves, and that’s been a big part of our lives over the past 50 years. We became the devoted caretakers of that house in the picture I fell in love with in the spring of 1972.
Here are just a a few examples of what this entailed.
Restoring the ceilings. My Connecticut Yankee forebears approached the cracks in the ceilings with a substance called calcimine, which they spread generously over the defects, much in the fashion of my approach to such issues. Trouble is, by the time we moved in it was all caking off and it’s no easy trick to remove it. You have to strip off the paint first, and I recall I used a liquid paint remover. They say then you need to scrub off the calcimine, but I used a wallpaper scraper instead and though it was painstaking it worked pretty well.
Next, with an old-fashioned beer can opener, I cut v-shaped grooves in the exposed cracks and filled them in with one of my favorite restoration materials, joint compound, and covered that with another layer of the stuff and sanded it. Joint compound is on par with what later become another of my favorite fix-it materials, Gorilla Glue.
Another early project had to do with painting the outside, which bore decades and decades of coats of paint that was caking off and couldn’t be repainted. My neighbor built me wood scaffolding to do the job, and I removed all the paint with an electric-iron like stripper and repainted it one side at a time over a period of three years, from the Watergate hearings to the Bicentennial.
I brought to the tasks of maintaining this old house the cheap Yankee approach of patching wherever I could. I discovered that I wasn’t the first to use that method. I ran into many places where sheets of lead, which were soft, pliable and rust-proof, were applied over rotting wood.
I used plastic wood before I discovered Gorilla Glue and started fashioning pieces of wood and gluing them on. This was particularly useful in repairing the fine decorative work along the eaves of the house.
I learned so much do-it-yourself stuff that the publisher of a do-it-yourself magazine hired me to write articles for his publication.
The carriage barn was among other many other challenges I faced.
I built supporting pillars under the ancient floor beams to prevent the floor from caving in and, with help from my neighbor, jacked up one side of the barn to replace a sill that had rotted and several of the posts on that side. Before I started, I spent weeks in the local library studying the structural dynamics of raising a house without killing yourself.
If I had been wealthier, I would have hired a contractor to completely restore the post and beam structure, which my wife gave some thought to tearing down. But it was part of the picture in the newspaper, a rustic and beautiful view that I’ve never tired of. Everything is stabilized and ready for the next owner.
That’s the way I thought of things. I always felt a responsibility to posterity to do what I could do to preserve the classical structure and the landscape that surrounds it.
We’re not just owners of these beautiful old places, but stewards.
My wife has been my partner in the gardens and other plantings as well as in the wallpapering and painting we’ve done.
She is known locally as the “Daffodil lady” for her plantings along the wall in front of our house. A columnist for the local newspaper put a note in our mailbox once thanking her for the enjoyment she experienced from her gardens.
When our kids were finally through college and out on their own, we had an addition built to the el wing for a big kitchen, and turned the old galley kitchen into a pantry. This opened our vistas to the land behind our house that we had spent decades clearing and landscaping.
The pandemic provided the leisure time for my capstone project, restoring as best I could the Doric porch in the front of the house. There are many houses of this vintage and style in our neighborhood, but ours is the only one with a Doric porch. It is the most striking feature of the house and the one that still required attention.
I can’t say we restored the house by the book. But it is in far better shape now than it was 50 years ago. It still has the charm that drew us to it from that picture in the newspaper ad, and one of these days we hope someone will come along and take over the responsibility. These places are cultural treasures.
Greg Stone is the retired deputy editorial page editor and longtime writer and editor for The Day.
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