Gimme That Old-Time Construction
By James H. Schwartz | From Preservation | September/October 2011
At the risk of alienating or offending, I'm putting my cards on the table. I gravitate to dogs instead of cats, carbs over protein, sloops versus motorboats, and sorbet rather than ice cream. And when it comes to houses, you don't even have to ask. In my world, old houses always, but always, win out over new.
In the past 30 years I've lived in homes built from 1885 to 1925, and every one of them provided a degree of angst. But I never considered moving. Why trade plaster for dry wall?
Like old friends, old houses have issues and you learn to deal with them. In our Washington house we once encountered a disturbing ticking coming from the c. 1900 galvanized pipes that run through a wall in the master bedroom. New valves and an enthusiastic snaking of drains failed to resolve the banging, so we turned to David Noss, an amazing house doctor who quickly diagnosed and repaired the problem with a few square feet of insulating material. (FYI, David traced the noise to a pipe chase filled with broken chunks of plaster. The chase was acting like an echo chamber.) In Alabama, the walls of my 1912 house kept shifting and cracking until an engineer figured out that a crucial support was missing from the living room. ("I don't know who changed the walls in that room," he said, "but the staircase is only standing out of habit.") His inexpensive solution: a lally column in the basement. And at our 1916 cottage in Maine, the kitchen has an irritating habit of freezing before the house can be drained, so we created a hatch in the beaded board near the sink. Propping it open seems to solve the problem, but if all else fails, we keep a blow dryer handy.
The homeowners featured in this issue treat their old houses like old friends as well. Whether preserving a historic brake shop north of the White House, restoring a beloved Queen Anne near Lake Michigan, or continuing to work on a suburban grande dame in New Jersey, they acknowledge the emotional appeal of history. Read their stories and see what they've accomplished. I bet that you, too, will feel the pull of the past—and experience a brand-new appreciation for classic, old construction.
P.S. Thank you for your enthusiastic and insightful responses to the survey in my last Editor's Note. Keep those cards, letters, and emails coming!
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