When I lived in Boston many years ago, there was a show on television called “This Old House.” Each season of the show, the host Bob Vila, handyman, architect, contractor and visionary would select an old house in the Boston vicinity. Many times, these homes were not merely in need of renovation—they were in need of resurrection. Week after week, episode after episode I would stare at the screen transfixed as new masonry replaced crumbling stone walls, and beautiful decorative moldings emerged from coats of old paint, much of it leaded. I marveled at the fact that one did not have to destroy an old house, raze it and tear it to the ground in order to have a new and better house emerge. It was all about preserving the “bones”, the integrity and the beauty while bringing new technology and materials to bear.
My husband and I owned two old houses when we lived in the Boston area more than twenty years ago. The second house was a Georgian style colonial, built in the 1920’s from red brick left over from building the “houses” at Harvard. When I first saw the house, it had been untouched since its birth during the Jazz Age. Strings of glass flapper beads hung in the opening between the dining room and the old closet that served as a kitchen. Gilded tin repousse valences topped windows that showed bubbles in the old glass. There was a foot of standing water in the basement. The well, as it turned out, had been dug on the neighbor’s property—folks just didn’t seem to pay all that much attention to property lines back then. I was instantly smitten. Two years, and my entire salary for those two years later, the old place was fine indeed, with a new kitchen, a new family room and a new master suite. Oh, and a new well. We made the final payment to the contractor and a week later, watched as our belongings were loaded onto a van for the move to San Diego. I cried.
Last Sunday I begged my daughter’s indulgence as we drove out Route 9 to Route 16 to the rural town of Sherborn, so we could cruise by—not the brilliantly renovated Georgian colonial–but the very first house we bought when we got married in 1980, an 1860’s post and beam Victorian, quite ridden with decay by the time we made our proud purchase. As we passed the old place at 10 Everett Street, I made her mortification complete as I spotted what appeared to be the latest owner in the driveway and hopped out of the car wielding my camera to introduce myself. When we lived there, the house was very small, barely 1500 square feet. Using Google Earth, I had convinced myself that the old homestead had been torn down and a brand new house built.
Staring wide eyed at the beautiful home in front of me, I realized that was not the case. The old aluminum siding had been taken down revealing the classic Victorian “fish scales” under the peaked eaves of the roof along with moldings mounted in a zig zag pattern, painted a dark burgundy against the pale khaki of the wood outer walls and the dark green window trim. The carriage house, which had been in a state of near collapse when we owned the place, had been shored up and connected to the main house with a new family room. The old garage apartment was now an art studio. Smiling, the owner invited me in. The front door still had its rippled stained glass, and the hardwood knotty pine floors underfoot still carried the coats of polyurethane my husband applied 33 years ago when he sanded the old paint off in a labor of sweat and love. She said, “We saved everything that was good about this place. We love it here. We will never leave.”
She led me through the house to the expansive back yard, the place where our first deerhounds ran to their hearts content and my daughter picked lilacs and forsythia and blueberries in the spring. She said, “I saved the best for last.” Suddenly, I spotted a new structure—a wooden barn painted to match the house. Two horses grazed in the field. Inside the barn was hung a painted sign which read, “It’s never too late to live happily ever after.” We romanticize our past when we should be planning our future. Happily ever after, indeed.