Ménage a Trois

By: Dan Cooper , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Musings

A friend with young children informed me that her offspring had a preternatural ability to sense when she and her husband, though exhausted by the demands of coupling career and parenthood, would take advantage of a spare 20 minutes for some time alone with each other.  No sooner had their undergarments slid to the floor, than the supposedly napping infant determined it was far too quiet in the house and would thus begin squalling, spoiling their precious moment together.

I cannot help but imagine that it had pushed their marriage just a little bit closer towards those unseen rocks.

You may be asking the purpose of my sharing the details of a young couple’s shattered sex life, and this is why: old houses are far more treacherous and insidious than any wailing newborn.  Houses wait and plot, and while eventually a child learns to pour its own cereal and turn on the Saturday morning cartoons, a vintage home never outgrows its needs.

An old house is a jealous thing; should a couple retire early and drag themselves to bed for the purpose of intimacy, it insists on making its presence known. It has left plaster dust between their sheets and the smell of solvent lingering in their hair and on their hands. Even as they struggle to summon up their weary throes of passion, the house reminds them that they are part of an unwilling ménage a trois.

Many is the misguided couple who assumed restoring an old house, like fabricating a child, would cement their relationship; in truth, it’s just as likely to become a wedge.

No longer do you lie in, watching the morning sunlight creep across the room. You pull on those once-trendy jeans, now reduced to stained and tattered work-pants, the moment you become aware of the dawn. Now weekend mornings involve activities such as sheet-rocking or stripping something; there is no end to the litany of tasks.  And this doesn’t even include the surprises; a ruptured hot water heater silently flooding the basement or part of an electrical circuit that’s mysteriously gone dead after functioning in a perfectly normal manner for the past century.

Of course, one doesn’t instantly transform from Lay-about to Sisyphean laborer; it begins with optimism and a sense of purpose. There you are, fresh from the closing, reassuring each other that “we’ll just go from room to room, painting and wallpapering.”  That is, until you’ve discovered that you can’t paint the dining room, because you’re going to have to tear through the wall that adjoins the kitchen to run a new plumbing stack to the upstairs bathroom that’s located in a bedroom that you want to turn into a suite, which means moving a door that opens onto a hallway at the head of the main stairwell.  Old House Gridlock ensues, and before you know it, there isn’t a single room in your home that doesn’t have exposed framing somewhere.  Thoughts of wallpaper have now been replaced with the chatter of Sawzalls and The Vigil for The Phantom Plumber.

The most liberating time of my adult life has occurred as a renter, between houses and spouses. On those fondly remembered weekends, I would blink awake, hours after the lumberyard had opened, trudge out to the kitchen to fetch the coffee pot and return to my still warm, hopefully occupied, bed and remain there until sometime in the afternoon, when the next great decision involved wine versus beer and which film and restaurant were in order.

But like a second child, yet another house entered my life and all that changed. You would think I’d have learned.

Dan Cooper writes for many architecture and antiques magazines, and is currently finishing a book on the architecture of Albert, Righter and Tittmann, to be published by The Vendome Press in the fall of 2009.  He is also president of Cooper’s Cottage Lace, LLC and is the United States representative of Enterprise Weaving Ltd., an English firm that specializes in historic Wilton and Brussels carpets.

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  1. 1 Response  to “Ménage a Trois”

  2. Aug 29, 2011
    Dan, Great article, I had to laugh. So true! My "other love" was built in '27, and when she is feeling lonely, she has her not-so-subtle ways of demanding attention. Such a drama queen...