Re-kindling that old house romance

The house as it appeared shortly after being moved to its current location and extensively re-built. Credit: Douglas Gantenbein

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.

In short, we’ve loved this house. I know it in a way that is almost physically intimate. The square shape of its antique nails, the texture of its plaster walls, the wavy patterns of light that shine through the old windows. It is all familiar to me.

But this house is a demanding mistress. Anyone who ever has owned an old house knows one true thing: Every minute of every day, an old house tries to fall down. Maintenance never ends — scraping flaking paint, ensuring the foundation stays dry, repairing old storm windows.  

And while we’ve hit most of our remodeling goals, there still is a large master bathroom to overhaul. That room is now defined by a giant glass shower enclosure I call “the terrarium,” and garish lighting around a big mirror above the sinks that reminds me of a bad Hollywood movie set. It needs a more period look, plus an easy-access shower. Radiant heat floors also would be nice, for those cold January mornings.

Meanwhile, I’ve built a new flagstone patio in an effort to capture some outdoor living space (for those two warm summer evenings we experience each year in windy Port Townsend). I now need to demolish a failing wooden deck and connect its replacement to the patio.

Even without that, weekends are an endless to-do list, and some part of the house is always a construction site. I feel as if every dollar I should be putting into my pathetic 401k is instead going to Carl’s Building Supply. I love those guys. But still.

And while the house is plenty livable, there are headaches. It never was insulated, except for some cellulose in the attic. Although plaster walls are excellent thermal regulators, and storm windows are nearly as efficient as high-priced new double-panes, our heating-oil bill can be shocking. I keep the thermostat at 62 most of the time, counting on heat from lights and PC and myself and my two dogs to warm the office to 68. Upstairs, where the forced-air heat doesn’t reach, it is just plain cold.

So with all this, in the past few years I have lost something. What it is I’m not sure. A sense of attachment to this old house, I think. One that has been replaced by a sense of resentment at its demands.

Houses talk to us, and we talk to them. This one has long said, “Come in, have a glass of wine, live.” And I’ve said, “Thanks, I will.” Maybe I’m wrong, but more and more I seem to hear, “Come in, grab a hammer, fix me.” And I reply, “Go to hell.”

I hope I’m wrong about that. And about a nagging feeling that people today don’t care much about old houses, and won’t want to buy this one when it is time for us to sell. Our daughter likes houses like ours. But our son and many of his friends are wowed by “mid-century” homes. Those seem old enough to be novel but new enough to be familiar, sort of like a “Mad Men” episode. Our Colonial Revival/Four-Square mash-up surely seems archaic to them, and not in a good way.

I’m trying to work through these issues. It really is a wonderful house. I am trying to talk to it more, to learn what I am missing. I am trying to think of it more as a home, and less as an investment. I am trying to admire its fir floors, and those wonderful porch columns. I am trying to have friends over more often for martinis and braised short ribs, and make the kitchen loud and warm. And I am trying to leave a legacy for whoever lives here next. Because somebody else will live here, 10 years from now, or 20. And they’ll hear the house talk, too.

I want it to speak well of me.

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