This old house

I love my house. I’ve loved it since I first laid eyes on it. It’s possible they may never get me out of it, unless it’s feet first. But it’s got, let’s say, issues.

The house is a big old Victorian with a wraparound porch and a turret. Like most houses of its era, it’s got solid bones, under a few geologic layers of unfortunate plastic surgery. When we arrived in 2013, we set to work gleefully ripping up terrible pink shag carpet and fake wood paneling, only to discover why it had been installed in the first place. When plaster goes, it goes all the way.

Behind one wall in the kitchen, we found a puzzle: a weirdly pointless round steel tube sticking out of the ceiling, through the center of which somebody had helpfully threaded a much smaller heating vent. We dubbed it the Series of Tubes, and wondered.


The house has just one chimney, which at one point obviously supported close to half a dozen woodstoves, going from the number of sloppily bricked-up flues we’ve found lurking in the walls. On the whole, the house is rather revealing of the prevailing architectural philosophy of the early twentieth century. Who needs insulation when you can just have fires everywhere?

The ghosts of inscrutable renovation decisions past lurk behind every wall. On the front porch, a rectangle of cut siding reveals the spot where the front door used to be, before somebody walled it off and tacked on a parasitic little mudroom. Why? Well, why not? On the second floor, there’s the Porch to Nowhere, forever marooned from the rest of the house when somebody decided to just drywall right over the door. Yay! In one bedroom, which obviously used to have grand double-hung Victorian windows, someone decided to put in long horizontal casement windows — the kind that crank open — so high on the walls that they were completely impossible to see out of. Thanks, guys!

My favorite, though it’s gone now, was the Throne: a toilet that stood proudly on a huge concrete plinth in the middle of the basement, spliced into the house’s water system with some truly creative plumbing. It didn’t have its own bathroom, per se, but someone had the propriety to run a lace doily across a nearby window. We eventually dug it up to get at the underlying septic line. I was half sorry to see it go; it lent a thrilling Silence of the Lambs vibe to the whole basement situation.


In the course of our home renovations, we’ve found all sorts of objects in the walls and floors: a pair of reading glasses, a tattered black parasol, a half-empty tin of fin de siècle Vaseline, a disturbingly specific-looking tool that we figure is probably some sort of horse groomer. Why anyone would stash these dubious treasures under floorboards and behind wall lath is beyond us. There may still be more we haven’t found.

Some of the house’s mysteries have been solved. Neighborhood gossip has it that the bedroom with the terrible windows once belonged to a teenage girl, which explains a lot about 20th-century patriarchy.

About a year after moving in, we had a serendipitous visit from a local guy who grew up in the house. Coincidentally, he’s also my stepfather’s first cousin, because of course he is; it’s tough to kick a rock in this town without hitting a relation.

We invited him in and followed him around from floor to floor, hanging eagerly on his tales of growing up there with a pack of siblings in the 60s. At one point, he casually pointed out the spot in the kitchen where he accidentally drank a cup of bleach as a tiny child, an image that will forever be burned into my parental lizard brain. Along the way, he revealed the mystery of the Series of Tubes: it was originally a laundry shaft his dad had MacGyvered to make his mom’s life easier. Naturally! Why hadn’t we thought of that?


Four years after we moved in, the house continues to surprise and baffle. We may never know who decided to cut a two-foot square hole in the attic wall, or why they felt like covering it up with plastic wrap afterward was a good idea, but we’re sure they had a reason. To the designing mind behind the biscuit-porcelain-and-gold-flecked-lino upstairs bathroom — a.k.a. the Museum of Bad 70s Decisions — we raise a glass. Whoever spray-painted the fieldstone basement pumpkin orange, we salute you.

Once we get a few other things done around the house, we’re planning to embark on some serious kitchen and bathroom renovations. I can only hope to pay all this befuddlement forward to some future homeowner. “Who in the hell thought Corian was a good idea?” she’ll say, grimly wielding a crowbar. What can I say? 2017 was a weird time.


There are 2 comments

  1. wheelie

    “Some of the house’s mysteries have been solved. Neighborhood gossip has it that the bedroom with the terrible windows once belonged to a teenage girl, which explains a lot about 20th-century patriarchy.”

    What exactly does it explain?

    1. Lissa Harris

      I mean, if anybody’s going to rip out a gal’s big gorgeous double-hung windows and replace them with these grim fortress-slit things nobody can see in or out of, it’s 50s Sitcom Dad, no?

      (A rhetorical question. All I know is, we put them back.)

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