I swept my porch today. That doesn't sound very exciting, and it wasn't. It's only noteworthy because the porch is made of some soft stone -- sandstone, perhaps? -- that is eroding away piece by piece, and the pieces collect in the well of each eroding stone and become rather treacherous underfoot, and when you finally sweep them away you see just how badly pitted the whole surface is. We are going to have to Do Something sooner or later, probably sooner, but what something is a matter of debate. Do we try and pry up the worst stones from their concrete bed and replace them? Patch the bad areas with concrete, which would be cheap but would look terrible? Do we rip out the whole stone porch, installed in 1929 when someone renovated our house from Basic Victorian to Tudor Revival? Every time we confront this issue, we come to no conclusion except that whatever happens, it's going to be expensive.
This house. This old, beautiful, complicated money pit of a house. Did I ever tell you how we settled on it? We looked at the house across the street, a cute foursquare much smaller that this one, but so charmingly fixed up. It had only four bedrooms, none of which were quite big enough for bunkbeds, but the price was so right. So right, in fact, that the house was going under contract that day. As we stepped out, we noticed the big Tudor with the For Sale sign, from which workmen were hauling old carpet. "Look at that!" we said. "Why wasn't that one on our list?" we said. It was not on the list because it was out of our price range, but we looked at it like big suckers, and we fell in love with the confusing floor plan and the upstairs hall lined with eight glossy six-panel doors (four bedrooms, two closets, the attic, and what had been the back staircase). The price came down, due to a few factors like the crumbling asbestos we had to have removed before we moved in, and the fact that the house had been on the market for four months and the heirs didn't get anything until it was sold, and since they had to split the proceeds four ways it hurt each one less to come down on price -- but it was still a large financial step up from our suburban box in Texas, even for a family getting a raise. And that's okay -- someone has to live in these older houses, and someone has to pay for the upkeep, and we're glad to spend our money in a way that surrounds us with beauty while keeping the kids from getting too dependent on modern luxuries like air conditioning or three-prong outlets or bathrooms that are warm in the winter.
Every time we start making lists of future improvements, it's easy to get bogged down in the minutiae. How much is it going to cost to restore all 11 diamond-paned windows which have warped out of shape? Do we find out where the leak in our shower is, which will require us to rip up tile embedded in three inches of concrete and will pretty much necessitate the entire renovation of the room, or do we just keep schlepping down the hall to the princess bedroom bathroom to wash? How long do we watch that patch on the ceiling in the back bedroom before we have someone in about it? How many slates have to fall off the roof before we call the roofers again? How many go-rounds will it take before we can find the leak in the chimney so we can fix the crumbling plaster walls in the kids' bathroom? When can we renovate that bathroom so we can actually use the space efficiently? When should we refinish the floors downstairs, and can it wait another two years? But the paint on the trim outside can't go another winter without being touched up, or we'll start to lose wood underneath. What about the support wall under the back porch, which seems like it could be buckling? What about the peeling paper on the ceiling in the living room? The peeling paper in the hall? Do we buy curtains, which will necessitate getting curtain rods specially made for the bay in the living room, or do we paint the living room first? And then there's the porch, crumbling above and eroding below, and how much is that going to cost?
That's just the maintenance on the place, regardless of the family chaos. A few years ago we went on a tour of the local historical society, and when I asked the fellow if he had any old photos of our house and gave him our address, he said, "Oh, I'm coming to your place today to take a picture for our Presidential Delaware project." Turns out that when our house was owned by Arthur Flemming, the president of Ohio Wesleyan University in the 50's, Herbert Hoover came to give a speech on campus, and he stayed the night in the house, probably in the princess room where we put all our guests because it has its own bathroom.
This is Hoover and that is Flemming, but the building in the background is not our house.
(Arthur Flemming is most notable for his tenure as secretary of health under Eisenhower, during which he touched off the Great Cranberry Scare, which actually made a Cracked countdown. Of more consequence to us, he must have been the one who renovated the kitchen in 1948, which blueprints are still in the house and will be of material aid to us when we fix it back from the misbegotten 1990 remodel.)
At home after learning of our past brush with greatness, I stood in the stairwell and I surveyed the dust in the corners of the stairs and the big girls' room with clothes and toys dumped all over the place, and my bedroom with the baskets of laundry piled up, and the dents in the glossy doors from Jack pounding them with a tap shoe, and the fine tracing of spiders' webs on the hammered-iron chandelier, and I thought, "This cannot have been how the house looked when Herbert Hoover was here." Wikipedia tells me that Arthur Flemming had five children, and then so did I, so I couldn't use that as an excuse. Of course, at that time the house probably had servants, unless Flemming was the one who demolished the back staircase to put in that crappy pantry in the kitchen, and left the small hole in the dining room floor where the servants' bell used to sit near the foot of the lady of the house. There's still a servant's bedroom in the attic -- the boys will go up there when they're old enough -- and there's one end of a speaking tube in the attic stairwell, communicating to nothing anymore, and the old house telephone box is still in the back hall across from the attic door, though the kitchen end of it was taken out (I don't know whose renovation to blame for that). But we don't have servants, only kids, and we are not ready, at a tidiness level, to have the former leader of the free world lodge at our house for the evening.
We're not even ready to have the neighborhood walk up our front steps. Not last year but the year before, I was prevailed upon to put the house on the local Christmastime home tour, for which they sell tickets and all. I immediately regretted this outburst of hospitality, because although I'm willing to take anyone on a tour anytime, I can't, in all conscience, expect people to pay money for looking at a house that is so obviously big family, especially when the nice neighborhood association lady asked how much decorating we did for Christmas and dropped gentle hints about how some people on the tour liked to take the occasion to do some renovating and redecorating. A few weeks later, however, I was off the hook again -- the lady stopped by and was all apologetic, but wondered: did we think we would be having the porch repaired before the tour? Because there were many elderly people who looked at the old homes, but it might not be safe... We parted with mutual goodwill, she because I hadn't been offended, and me because I was off the hook with all the Joneses.
I thought about that today as I wielded my broom. Someone in 1929 had thought it was the cat's pajamas to lay sandstone instead of the fusty old wood and concrete the neighbors had, and here I am 85 years later sweeping up the crumbling stonework while the neighbors' walks and porches continue in reasonable repair and period charm. I wonder what renovations future owners will curse us for making? Will anyone complain because I painted the insanity green tileboard in the downstairs bathroom in a checkerboard pattern? Will someone be mad because we took out the ugly 40's-ish chandelier in the library and replaced it with a vintage fixture from 1925? Will someone one day be scraping the paint in the front bedroom to find the iron-hard layer of beige under the green and the blue and the awful yellow and the blue primer that we've had up for half a year in readiness for the top coat? Will people miss the wallpaper in the princess bedroom after it finally all peels off? We can't afford to put the kind of money into renovations that the 1929 owner did (and I wonder if they were glad they spend it before the October crash, or if they wished they'd held on to the cash), but I think we can maintain the old pile in a way that respects both the history of the place, and the very present reality of six children and their tap shoes making their marks for future generations to study.