A little over eight years ago, my wife Jane and I moved from the suburbs of Newcastle into a 100-year-old, 3,600-square-foot house in Port Townsend.We didn’t have too many illusions about the romance of an old house. For four years we’d already owned an even older (but much smaller) house nearby. And several efforts to buy a larger vintage home had shown us just about every imaginable old-house horror. Rotting foundations. Bathrooms shoehorned into hallways. Kitchens covered in country floral tile.
But we liked the sense of time and place older homes offered, and they appealed to our fix-it energies. The house we finally purchased seemed relatively fault-free. It had “great bones,” as the saying goes. The crawlspace was dry, the siding solid. And it possessed a remarkably modern floor plan, including a room perfect for home theater, another that was ideal for my home office, and a kitchen that was big and generous – if a bit too 1980s.
The house also had stories. The original house did not stand on its current site. In 1892 it was built about a half-mile away as a “Four Square” – a square house, two floors, four square rooms per floor. Then in 1905 the house was dropped onto logs and dragged to where it stands today. A Colonial Revival façade was added — two rooms on each floor, a wide front porch graced by fluted Doric columns, a second-story balcony with stupendous views of the Olympic Mountains, even a tall spruce flag pole that topped out some 70 feet above an expansive lawn.
Then there were the people stories. During the first half of the century the house was occupied by the Schlager family, who developed a commercial greenhouse business. A concrete step on the front walkway has a big, lazy “S” troweled into it. A few years ago an elderly woman out driving with her middle-aged children caught me in the front yard. Her aunt and uncle were the Schlagers, and she had spent many hours in the home during the 1930s. I showed her a picture we had of Ferdinand Schlager, a lean man with a magnificent moustache, standing next to a large, collie-like dog. Ferdinand was her uncle, the woman said. The dog was named Sandy.
Later, the Murray family purchased the house and expanded the greenhouse business. A good friend of ours, who grew up in Port Townsend, remembers coming to a greenhouse to purchase a corsage for the prom. The remains of that greenhouse, on a vacant lot behind us, are visible from my office window.
More recently, a former mayor of Port Townsend — from whom we bought the house — lived here with his wife Rosemary and raised a family. Rosemary died from cancer in this house. We know she loved the house. We sometimes think of her watching us.
We hope she would approve of our changes. We have gutted the kitchen, creating a vintage-appearing room with milk-paint cabinets and soapstone counters and the modern touch of a six-burner Wolf range. We have re-painted inside and out, scraped off wallpaper, pulled up carpet to reveal knot-free Douglas fir floors with boards that extend the width of the house, repaired old plaster, replaced knob-and-tube wiring. Eighty percent of the work we did ourselves, with Jane supplying the creative vision while I swung the hammer. I’ve acquired many new skills here, such as the ability to field-strip in under two hours a paint-stuck double-hung window that hasn’t opened for 50 years.
Along the way, Jane and I have tried to make our own history. Our four grandkids have all been born since we moved here, and now are regular guests. We’ve had glittering Christmas parties that filled the house with light and sound. We’ve listened to the November winds blow, and sat on the balcony at 11 p.m. on a clear July night, when there still is a bright smudge of light on the northern horizon.
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