Old houses have always fascinated me. Perhaps it is because I grew up in a sea of white aluminum siding in a neighborhood that was no older than I was. Which seems so quaint now that we are well into the era of the Vinyl Village. Which may be why I find those mid-century suburbs to be interesting and cool now – a good thing seeing as how I live in one of them. But in my youth it was the old houses that I loved, and I still do.
Like everything else, houses have undergone many changes in style over the years. And because of their longevity those changes are on display for all of us to see.
This thing for old houses bubbled up about a week ago when I helped one of my sons move some things into his first solo apartment. You know, the kind of living quarters that does not involve a roommate. The apartment is one of four in an old house in an old neighborhood that is trying hard to avoid the fate of so many old neighborhoods in our cities.
A walk up the narrow stairs took us into a small but tidy living space that is perfectly sized for a single person. It reminded me of a couple of places I lived during my college years.
This wood frame American Foursquare house was built in 1910 (I looked it up on the property records that my county maintains online), a time when many homes in American cities were built. The house appears to have been built as a double (Indianapolis-speak for “duplex”) that has had each half subdivided into two units at some point in the long-distant past.
I was struck by the durability of the old place. Places like this where I had lived as a young man struck me as ancient then, and they were probably as old as this one. So this one is – what – ancient plus thirty-five years?
In an era of plastic and planned obsolescence it is kind of amazing to me that these old places are continuing to do what they have always done – provide decent shelter for their inhabitants.
I wondered who built it. Was it a multi-generational family that liked the idea of two separate living spaces? Or was it built by someone who could only afford a new home if it brought with it the opportunity to create some rental income from the other half? A little reading reveals that it was a solid middle class neighborhood with a young dentist and a Presbyterian minister having built houses elsewhere on the block.
This house sheltered people who may have never heard of Serbia before a war started in Europe in 1914. Think about it – this place predates commercial radio by about a decade. If the first owners had a phonograph they likely played Enrico Caruso and John Phillip Sousa records, because nobody started recording jazz until about 1917. William Howard Taft had replaced Teddy Roosevelt as President only two years earlier.
Duplex living may have seemed a little old fashioned during the prosperity of the 1920s and maybe its first owner moved somewhere nicer. The place was there to catch those who fell on tough times in the ’30s and perhaps this was when it was subdivided as a way to keep up on the payments. I could see the small apartment later serving as home for a woman who went to work in a wartime factory as she hoped for the return of her man in uniform.
It was probably in the 1950s that it begun to serve as a place for the young looking to get that (inexpensive) start in life, a role that it likely kept into the ’60s. The 1970s and ’80s were a tipping point for many of these old neighborhoods, but this one has held on and is working its way back to being a place where a young person wants to live as he gets a foothold on life in the real world.
This is not the kind of structure that has undergone one of those television show rehabs that we see so often now. No, this place has the same old plaster walls and claw-foot bathtub with a shower curtain that hooks around a big metal ring near the tall ceiling. The siding displays over a century of painting – I wonder how many layers and colors we could find if we were to look?
The windows are still balanced by sash weights and the same creaky old wooden floors are there under the newer carpet and vinyl. The heating system seems to have been modernized but even so at least one of the old gravity registers is still there from some long-ago coal-fired furnace.
Yes, this ancient collection of wood, plaster and copper is there to welcome yet another generation to adult life in America. I am glad it is still here because it will teach its new inhabitant the same lessons it has been teaching for many decades.
It will tutor its tenant on the age-old battle of keeping the cold out and the warm in. It will transmit the sounds of others living elsewhere within those exterior walls, stoking the urge for home ownership. It will remind my lad that not everyone has the luxuries that he has grown up with – like electrical circuits that can handle a microwave oven, a vacuum cleaner and four lamps all at once. I am guessing on this last one, but doesn’t every old building have a circuit or two that blows a fuse or trips a breaker much too easily? I know I have lived in places like that.
Some young people from middle and upper class neighborhoods start out in places just as nice as where they grew up. I think this is a mistake. These old houses give young folks a grounding that will serve them well as they move on in life. He may catch the “old house bug” or he may run as far from it as he can when he is ready to upgrade. Either way this house will have helped to inform his decision.
Somehow I doubt that today’s cookie-cutter houses with their particleboard and other “modern materials” will be housing folks a century from now, at least not without massive renovations. But these that were built with the old materials and the old ways are still here doing just that. And will likely continue to do so for the next generation too.