The Big Brick Review 2015 Essay Contest:
2nd Place ($200)

Building on the narrative of our brick at a time.


Working Back to the Old Place

by Richard Hague

AFTER HIS FIRST visit to this 1890 beauty of a building my wife and I purchased in Madisonville in l981, my brother confided to my mother that he would never buy a "used" house. I smiled when, much later, I finally heard his phrase through the family grapevine. And I have had occasion to recall it, sometimes ruefully, over the years my wife and I—and more recently our two sons—have lived here. For it certainly had been used, and used it certainly continues to be, this four-fireplaced, hardwood-floored, somewhat leaning old-timer of a house, this late Victorian, calmly vernacular carpenter's pride, this wonderful heat-leaking draft-catcher with its never-painted woodwork, its baroque and mysterious plumbing, its airy, high and haunted attic.

My brother's no fool. He built himself and his wife a new house in Mentor, and then in Twinsburg, Ohio, and then again in Reading, Pennsylvania. The walls of these houses are square; their steps go straight up and do not complain when trod upon. Their dusts are of a contemporary kind and not of archaeological interest, and their attics lack head room for even the most stunted of escapees from some dark Arabesque of Poe's.

Still, I think he's missing something. My wife and I have always been collectors of debris and suggestive junk; the house was simply the largest item in that line to come our way. Headed somewhere else one afternoon, we saw it and had to pull over. Trespassing excitedly, we climbed its sagging porch steps and pressed our faces to the windows. We squinted into the parlor and saw its grand varnished fireplace, the gorgeous gingerbread over the pocket doors, the gleaming woodwork, the dim promise of the rooms beyond. And, stepping back, we saw the rotting posts of the porch, the rank barberries that crowded the front walk, and the two rusted downspouts, hanging from broken gutters and bearded like villains with their dank overflow.
But we were caught; the house had us, and would hold us. Even the great dead maple in the front yard—so old a corpse that it had shed its bark and stood throwing its gray arms upward as if in supplication (or warning)—did not daunt us. Within two weeks, we'd bought.

We moved in on the first day of autumn. The ash tree out back and the two maples in the sideyard—one of them a graceful Japanese beauty—had already begun to drop a few leaves; the recently mown year's growth of Johnson grass and poison ivy had commenced its slow rot, filling the air with carbonic exhalations and smothering the sparse bluegrass that struggled beneath the remains.

We were all ambition and excitement. We set up our kitchen, a hot plate on a card table, in the bay-windowed dining room. The actual kitchen looked as if it had been struck by a meteorite. There was a hole the size of a casket in the ceiling. An old refrigerator (the Kelvinator! per its embossed logo), which we had gingerly plugged in upon our arrival, stood spattered with gore in a corner, its compressor muttering and gurgling. The original floor lay somewhere beneath successively more tragic layers of linoleum—which peeled up here and there in painful strips like the flayed skin of a mutineer.

Blithely, we went to work. The entrance way, the parlor, and the dining room needed the least initial effort; a cosmetic coat of white paint, applied after soaking off an ancient wallpaper border (printed with what appeared to be funeral wreaths), settled things down in the dining room. Its airiness became apparent; with the autumn sunlight slanting through the saffrons and scarlets of the maples outside, it glowed invitingly. Curious, we stripped the varnish from the top of the mantel: cherry. We smiled.

In the darkening days of that autumn, the entrance, parlor, and dining room at least liveable, we attacked the kitchen. My father's reciprocating saw shrieked for ten minutes, and the old sink and cabinet—a mass of scratched enamel, loose rust, and floppy doors that reminded me of the wrecked Buick I'd once stumbled across at the bottom of a gully outside Steubenville—was gone, hauled, appropriately, to the garage. A day's work by Mr. Hansen—a free-lance plasterer who had worked in the now-vanished house across the street forty years before—and the ceiling recovered nicely, only a few sags and uncertainties here and there hinting at its former decrepitude. My father took some cleanser and old rags to the refrigerator, and soon it looked spiffy, a rotund butler willing to stand in attendance, though still grumbling under its breath about some long-remembered outrage to its innards.

It was during those days, too, that we discovered one of the fundamental principles of interest to all amateurs who restore old houses. After scouring the outside of the Kelvinator, my father attacked its interior with a mixture of household chemicals. In the course of his cleaning, it happened that, now and then, a few splashes of his elixir fell to the floor. Right in a place where we'd peeled back the linoleum to preview what horrors awaited us. A quarter inch of black mastic, of the same consistency as the asphalt of LaBrea's tar pits, covered the flooring. And like the LaBrea goo, it was riddled with shards and remains: hairpins, slivers of glass, even a tarnished Mercury dime (whose date revealed mintingjust a few years after the Battle of the Bulge).
But of most interest was the action of the refrigerator cleaner. Where it had fallen and soaked in, my father found that, upon scraping with a putty knife, the mastic came up in a wet strip, leaving the resinous yellow pine beneath it remarkably well-preserved. A week before, dreading the job of getting the floor down to where we could restore it, my wife and I had called various businesses about the problem. All had warned us against using any but special liquids—liquids whose fumes were sure to turn our brains into calcified softballs and our lungs into sad bags resembling old pantyhose. But here we had something: not too offensive in the fume department, and cheap. If we worked fast, keeping it from soaking through to the wood and raising the grain, maybe it would do.

It did. We worked quickly, cleaning a two-by-two-foot space at a time, on our hands and knees, holding our breath just in case. And, in a mere fifteen hours, we had a floor ready for sanding and finishing. One result of all this was our discovery of two important restorer's principles: first, there are probably more ways of doing any specific job in an old house than there are experts consulted, and second, the right way is the way you blunder onto that works. Concomitant to these is the principle that the way you discover will always be the one that takes the most time.

They call it ‘sweat equity’ in the old house game. We had improved the kitchen by one floor's worth; who was counting the hours spent and sweat produced, when the delight of not counting out dollars to some supercilious though efficient and knowledgeable stranger armed with years of experience and all the right tools for the job was the only alternative? As Thoreau inquires, ‘Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?’ A sense of virtue settled on us; we began to drift into a mystical state compounded of blindness, exhaustion, and penury.

The blindness was the most interesting. We gradually noticed that living in daily familiarity with our house resulted in an increasing inability to see rather obvious problems. For example, the doorways at the bottom of the back staircase, which ends in a short passageway between kitchen and dining room, are three inches higher on one side than on the other. Rudimentary architectural speculation leads to a clear diagnosis: the post beneath this spot is settling considerably. I inspected it soon after, found it was so, though recently repaired. I made a note to myself to look into it later.

I still have that note, tacked to the cluttered message-board of my brain, and I am confident I will get to it before the turn of the millennium. (Note from September, 2014—I didn’t).  Meanwhile, I take what seems even to myself an almost masochistic interest in watching a rip in the wallpaper just above that door climb slowly ceilingward, growing a bit larger, a bit longer, every year. It holds a vague geologic or seismic fascination for me; it is the architectural equivalent of continental drift, or the slow creation of a new river in Nature. This house too, it says, is a living thing, like the dirt it is built upon. And like any living thing, it will not stay the same.

Editor's note: This essay first appeared in Ohio Magazine

Richard Hague and his potter wife Pam continue to live in the house described in his essay; it has stood now for 125 years. Currently, it is surrounded by Erie Gardens, his small urban farm, on which he grows upwards of 150 varieties of vegetables, flowers, fruits, and herbs, including hops for beer, and keeps a diverse flock of laying hens. He also serves as Writer In Residence at Thomas More College in northern Kentucky. 

"Grandma's Keys" photo © 2015 Gregory Gerard


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