Though my earliest memories are of a house of relatively modern vintage, that was simply where I lived. The real world was all about old buildings:
- the wooden two-room schoolhouse for first and second grades that seemed straight out of a Norman Rockwell illustration complete with giant slide (well, it seems giant in memory), seesaws and self-propelled merry-go-round (try finding any of those on a playground these days)
- the 1879 lighthouse on a rock where my classmate lived
- the cheerful little seaside commercial strip (circa 1880s – 1920s)
- or the revered but well-used historic area full of 18th century buildings, including the intriguingly creepy mannikins portraying colonial education in the one room schoolhouse (at right, postcard from 1971), and the tavern where costumed Colonial Dames (or something like them) served us cinnamon toast and tea in front of a roaring fire.
What is it that I find so appealing about old buildings?
Old buildings have nooks. There is some cozy animal instinct in us that likes the protection that nooks provide. I went to a coffee shop situated in a restored 1873 building recently and the only occupied seats were the ones in the nooks. As soon as someone left a nook, someone else would take up position in the nook. Old buildings tend toward nooks.
While new buildings are redolent with off-gassing carpets and mdf that give off a certain “new house smell” (or, more unfortunately, Chinese wallboard with its own special aroma), I equate old houses with the scent of privet, cinnamon, or mystery – you read that right — the smell of mystery: notes of musty mixed with a hint of dusty all of which conjure notions of great treasures hidden in the attic or fire the imagination with conjectured conversations from long ago. (Touring a house built in 1722 that features original finishes, hardware, etc throughout, I began to wonder if it would be possible to find fingerprints from the original Quaker tenants.)
Old buildings have grand public spaces that inspire me. Before elevators and fire codes came along, architects designed grandiose stairways, spaces that made the mundane effort of getting from one place to another into an experience of art and soaring height. Visit the central stair at the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the main building of the New York City Library (watch the wedding scene in the “Sex & the City Movie” if you can’t go there in person) and you’ll feel that sense of progression as procession. Those are “statement” stairs. But even the most common building had spacious, wide, often decorated stairs. The big, square brick building I attended for sixth grade had wide wooden stairs and I still remember the movement, the sound, the light, the railings. Going from one level to another had an awareness that walking today’s firestairs lack. The University of Pennsylvania campus has some wonderful stairs; during grad school I kept my fingers crossed for class assignments in certain buildings and I’d actually avoid the elevator to use the stair every time. I enjoyed the satisfying clomp, clomp of progress up or down and the social interaction with those going the opposite direction.
Old buildings have ghosts. Especially at this Halloweenish time of year, when the wind whistles through ill-fitting storm windows and the radiators grumble awake with strange creaks in the night, our houses seem to come alive. I relish a good ghost story from an old house. My friend gives me goosebumps with the tale of a dream about a doorway that wasn’t there and a little girl looking for her doll; over breakfast she was told about the covered-over door on the landing and historical tale of a girl who lived and died in the house long ago. There’s the country house tale of the ghost who was fed up listening to the weekend guests goof with the player piano; the next morning all the piano rolls were thrown around the room. Of course, new houses get their share of ghosts too; just rent “Poltergeist” (and when buying real estate, check maps for old burial grounds….)
Old houses fire the imagination. Modern panic rooms have nothing on secret passageways and hidden rooms. (A friend of mine is fortunate enough to spend holidays at the family “camp” in the Adirondacks where amused guests never tire of salacious speculation as to why one of the secret passageways ends at the master bath.) Even unexplained building features pose a puzzle. For several years I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of the mystery of redware saucer/pots embedded in the cellar floors of certain 18th century houses in Southern New Jersey – one per cellar. In their day, their use was probably so commonplace that there’s no written documentation of what they were for – and now we stand over them staring down at our feet listing possibilities – candle holder? Cockroach trap? Mouse trap? Why fixed and not removable?
The décor of old buildings conveys care. The really old buildings provide witness to the skill of an individual who learned a trade: metalwork, carving, working with glass or paint. The detail evident in later buildings tell me about the exuberance of new industry and the thrill of finding what factories were capable of – mass-produced, yes, but the design has an eagerness to please – cupids, swans, arrows, filigree. look out the train window at the railing at the newly remodeled commuter station and it is simply utilitarian.
Old buildings are wise. They can teach us some things about being “green” — like using front porches, window awnings, and cross-ventilation for cool breezes that passed for “energy efficiency” then instead of the modern default to an Energy Star HVAC unit recommended by the power company.
So tell me, why do you like old buildings?
“You must not go into the burial places, and look about only for the tall monuments and the titled names. It is not the starred epitaphs of the Doctors of Divinity, the Generals, the Judges, the Honourables, the Governors, or even of the village notables called esquires, that mark the springs of our successes and the sources of our distinctions. These are rather effects than causes; the spinning-wheels have done a great deal more than these.”
– Horace Bushnell, “The Age of Homespun,” 1851, quoted in The Age of Homespun: Objects and Stories in the Creation of an American Myth by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
My family decided to create a scholarship in my grandmother’s name at the college she was graduated from in the 1920s with a degree in teaching. The college asked the family to submit a bio of my grandmother. My dad wrote a draft.
And it was all about my grandfather.
Oh, sure, there were some basics: my grandmother was born and she went to school, but then she got married to my grandfather and other than a mention of children, thereafter it was all about my grandfather — where his job took them and so on.
What is it about women’s lives that gets reduced to “she got married and had children, The End”?
Let’s commit to changing this.
Sit yourself down and give some thought to your mother and her life. Write her down. Create the story of her life that shares her with the world with depth and layers. If someone reads it fifty years from now, what do you want them to know about her? What was her favorite color? Did she like to cook? Did she know how to do a cartwheel? What did she like to read? Did she ever make you a Halloween costume? What made her laugh?
Write her down. If she’s still here, ask her the questions that intrigue you. Write her down. She’s more than “the mother of…”, more than “the wife of…”, more than the cook, she’s a rainbow full of colors, she’s a book waiting to be read.
Women’s history is rich, but could be richer.
Write your mother down.
You can read more about White’s Mill, where my grandfather and his sisters were born, in this post.
Seen on a recent field trip. (Photo: Sabra Smith)
Visual evidence of why old windows are important. Seen in Lancaster, PA. (Photo: Sabra Smith)