"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Stories Old Houses Tell

I could (should) be cleaning my house right now, but I'd rather tell you about it than deal with it. Its history is more interesting -- such as I can piece together anyway -- than its present.

Our house was built in 1916. It's one of those old rowhouses one finds in many cities on the East Coast. Brick. Sturdy. More or less spacious if you have the whole thing to yourself, as far as urban living goes. Many similar houses in our neighborhood have had their insides demolished and rebuilt into condos -- one condo per floor that, these days, cost more than we paid for the entire house back in 2002.

I used to turn up my nose at all that expensive refurbishing. Who would want something small and pricey that had had all of its history destroyed if one could have something three times the size with most of its original detail -- with relics from its original owners, from nearly a hundred years ago, still remaining up in the attic?

Peaches and I were both pretty naive. Yes, the house was a good investment, but we had no idea how much work and cost it would take to maintain -- and how unequal to the task we would prove to be. In the first few years, Peaches did some re-wiring (the electrical system hadn't been updated, the inspector told us, since the 1930s); I painted the bathroom. And then we sort of realized that neither one of us was really that into (or good at, on my part) home improvement projects. And so, yes, we have beautiful hardwood floors and molding around the windows and doorways and baseboards, and we have a cool clawfoot bathtub and a beautiful pocket door ...

But we also have ceilings that look like this in places:

You can see the beautiful wood trim but also where the plaster has come down, more than once. And then there's the brick work both outside and in the basement (right now, we're just doing the floor in the basement -- bricks will have to wait), the 100-year-old windows, the plumbing, the porch, the roof ...

Sigh. Those renovated condos start to look pretty good.

Except, what you will never find in a renovated condo is something like this:

We found this painting up in the attic when we moved in, along with some old furniture, a candelabra, about a dozen empty antique Jack Daniels bottles, and a stack of dental books from the 1920s.

Who is the woman in the painting? Who painted her? Who sat up in the attic studying by candlelight to become a dentist at a famous Historically Black College, in a segregated city, drinking whiskey and dreaming about the future across the rooftops on warm breezy nights?

It must have been a fine house back then ... way, way back when Langston Hughes was writing poetry and working as a busboy quite literally just down the street ... Did the artist live in the house? Did the woman? Were the artist and the dental student the same person? How were they related to the woman? Perhaps the woman was the artist herself and had painted a self-portrait?

Way, way back before the 1968 riots destroyed many old houses here ... When we moved in a decade ago, there were still houses boarded up, still a few burned out shells. This neighborhood has seen its share of highs and lows, and while the gentrification that's taken place recently has its critics (and, personally, I despise the brand new, large condo/apartment buildings that have also gone up), many of these old houses, unlike ours, were uninhabitable until they were refurbished -- in many cases, completely rebuilt.

But there are plenty of houses like ours that have been unnecessarily torn up, their histories thrown away and replaced by stainless steel appliances and granite countertops and bright new, white paint ...

What will happen to the stories these old houses once had to tell? Who will remember? What will happen when our cities forget how they came to be, how the extraordinary but ordinary lives of those who once lived here built, brick by brick, individual by individual, the places and spaces -- houses, cities, societies -- we have come to call home?


  1. The stuff you found in the attic is too cool. Wow. My house was built in 1991 and had one owner before us. I think they left behind a few newspapers from 2002 when they moved...not quite the same thing. :)

    I have complex thoughts about new construction. Like you, I don't ever see *myself* living in a brand new construction home/condo, and I can't stand seeing whole blocks razed for trendy new developments.

    But at the same time, every old house simply isn't going to be bought and renovated. And as someone who grew up in a city known for having a LOT of abandoned houses (and even entire abandoned blocks/neighborhoods), I've seen that sometimes cities have no choice than to raze old houses to either promote growth or prevent crime. But it's certainly not ideal. Old houses have so much character ... I don't foresee anyone in the future waxing poetic over the construction of today's new-built houses. :(

  2. I wouldn't say that I could never see myself living in a brand new house or condo, although that is more or less how I used to feel before I had any sense of the time, work, and expense involved in living in an old house. If we stay in this area, certainly we'll stay in this house and continue, bit by bit, to fix it up. But if we ever do move to another area and have to sell this house, I would absolutely consider newer places. I'd miss the "character" but not the hassle and expense.

  3. If your house is on 3rd street (near Florida Avenue?), like the book says, then I think I have your man. He was a black lodger in the home of the John Burns family (also black) on 3rd St. in Washington, D.C. in 1920. He was born 1895 in Texas. Was working as a parcel sorter at a railway station in 1920. He was gone by 1920. The Burns stayed in the house and took on new lodgers.

  4. That's really interesting. The house isn't on 3rd Street, though -- same general vicinity but a few blocks further west and north.

    I would love to know more about the original residents, but I'm not sure about how to go about finding out (you'd think a Ph.D. would, but my work wasn't archival...). Maybe a title search on the house would do it. What I'd especially like to do is preserve the painting and find out who the woman is. I'm doing my best, but it's pretty fragile and was already damaged when we moved in ...