Within These Walls

By: Dan Cooper , Contributing Writer
In: Old House Inspection, Old Houses, Old House Musings, House Styles

More stuff about the micro-histories of a given place.

I learned the trade from a hippie-carpenter.  I do not find this term pejorative; I use it with reverence. From him, I gained much wisdom about how to restore an old house, both practically and philosophically.  Unlike the typical crew overseen by a General Contractor who will slash and burn under the guise of time equals money, I learned to reuse timbers, hardware and window-sash and to figure out clever approaches that involved reflection and understanding the structure at hand to avoid unneeded expenses while preserving the architecture.

My mentor worships old houses, and the care with which he approaches each one could be compared to that of a pediatrician who retains the enthusiasm that guided him or her to their specialty. He taught me to give my best effort, with the assumption that a century or two from now, another carpenter would be commenting on our work, just as he and I were doing. He feels that we should never compromise our efforts and thus dishonor our trade, for ours is the most basic and the most important: we provide shelter. I’ve never come close to equaling the caliber of his work, but I share his passion.

He feels that an old house is an entity, or at least the repository of them. This isn’t some sort of karmic/supernatural thing, but more properly, that the energy we put into our shelters leaves a trace of our tenure. Those worn stair-treads and handrails mean nothing to us as we leave them, but speak worlds to those who come after us.  Everything that we do to a house is part of its story, from the mundane plumbing update to the stripping of entire rooms of woodwork.

On every job on which he worked where a wall was opened up, my mentor would leave a coin, usually a quarter, on top of the header of a door or window. His only parameter was that the coin had to have been minted during the year he closed up that wall.  He always delighted in finding traces of previous workers, and knew that this was such an obvious clue to carpenters a hundred years hence: there was no way a coin would accidentally find its way seven feet above the floorboards.

The only intentional messages I have found are from paperhangers who signed the wall before papering it over.  The unintentional discoveries are often far more intriguing: a pack of Lucky Strikes, in a dark green wrapper (we know these to be pre-World War II) lurking in between the roof joists.  A chisel lodged in a stud cavity: now, where the hell did I put that? A favorite place to find remnants of past lives is between a mantle and the plaster wall to which it is attached; there are always family photographs and Christmas cards that slid down in this gap.  It’s especially gratifying, as we actually get to see someone who was living there at one point.  Heating ducts often contain surprises, like coins and such that fell through the grate.  In my current house, I found a huge stack of Hustler magazines from the mid 1980s deep within the three-foot-high, sand-floored crawlspace beneath the kitchen.  My heart goes out to that poor teenage boy in the pre-internet era…

Whenever I open, and then reseal, a part of my house, I try to leave something more substantial and revelatory of my time here.  I’ll leave a dated note, with an explanation, on why a wall was removed or added, along with details of what was there originally.  My dining room was once a kitchen until a wing was added in the 1970s.  While working there, I found traces of an original window, entry door and bulkhead. These have been so noted and committed to a space in the walls between the studs.

Many years ago, I moved a doorway within a wall between two rooms.  I asked the two young girls who shared these adjacent rooms to put their photos and a couple of sentences about themselves in an envelope, and then I closed up the wall with these inside.  Just recently, I was recalled to those rooms by chance, and had to move the entire wall to accommodate a different use for the area.  I had forgotten about their messages, and my heart leapt as I saw the tiny, decorated envelopes hanging at eye level from a drywall screw.  The girls have long since left the house; they are women now, but I reburied their childhood notes in a space that I hope will be opened again decades from now.