I’ve lived in many houses in my life, but never an old house — that is, unless one considers the house we owned before the last, built in 1948, old. I’ve always been drawn to old houses and old places. Perhaps for someone who has moved often in her life, the seeming permanence of a structure that has long stood in one place is the curiosity. I think of the stories it could tell if someone cared enough to listen.
“Pick one room and make it yours. Go slowly through the house. Be polite, introduce yourself so it can introduce itself to you.” – Frances Mayer, Under the Tuscan Sun
In our new old house, I began with the room I’d determined would be the guest room, but only out of sheer necessity. Choosing a room to make it my own would definitely have to wait. My sister and mother were expected soon after we arrived to help with the daunting job of unpacking. Then, toward the end of that first summer, a dear friend and her husband planned to be here for several days. First, I’d need to purchase a bed, then after my family left, I’d have a couple of months to decide what to do with the room in general. It had been the previous owner’s studio for nearly 20 years, but now it would revert to the bedroom it was originally intended to be.
From what I have learned about the house and its first occupants, and from my questionable knowledge of how such people lived in the late 1800s, I imagine it was the head of household’s bedroom. It’s a large, bright room with a pleasant view out windows that make up three sides of the octagonal turret that rises above it. The room is uncomplicated and exudes calmness. I’d have chosen it to be our bedroom if there had been more than a narrow, deep closet to hang our clothes in. The room easily accommodates a large bed and tall chest of drawers. I picture the man who had the house built, a young and newly ordained pastor, sitting at a desk positioned in the bowed window space, writing his weekly sermons. Would that man have required a large closet in 1888? Most likely not. However, his wife may have, if anything, for the sheer volume of her bustled dresses. She probably used the bedroom next door — the one we now occupy. It has twice the closet space as well as a built in dresser and shelves hidden behind a mirrored door. The romantic in me thinks it served only as her dressing room and that they shared the bed in his room. They’d been married only two years before purchasing the land to build the house. Surely they’d have wanted to be together every night, wouldn’t they? I would only have been able to wonder about any of the former occupants when I began to work on the guest room because I hadn’t had the time to find out. At that point, my attention was squarely on what made the house unique.
As one would expect in an old Victorian house, there are peculiarities. Some require attention, most can wait, and others remain peculiar simply for the story they tell. Neither the door to the guest room nor its closet door stay closed. At some point, a former owner removed many of the original glass doorknobs on the second floor doors, installing reproduction antique door knobs instead—and poorly. If it’s my lucky day, the latch bolt on a door may actually catch the strike plate and hold, but several minutes later, it will slowly swing open once again. Most often, nothing can make either stay closed. Because there are many doors in the house that have a personality of their own, we’ve decided we’ll deal with them all at once, replacing the malfunctioning reproductions with period appropriate salvaged hardware which is functional. But not yet—not while the house is still testing our mettle, our willingness to learn how to do things the right way, our patience in understanding what actually matters.
It doesn’t matter that the center window of the trio in the guest room is painted shut. Thankful that there are windows on either side which open to allow a pleasant breeze to fill the room when the weather allows, I’ll attempt to deal with the stubborn window later. That would be when or if we hire someone to repair all the troublesome windows in the house—windows that sport several layers of varying colors of lead based paint. There are windows whose latches have come loose or don’t latch at all, windows with sash ropes that have worn thin and snapped, or have weights that jangle and thump when in operation. Windows with old, wavy glass have sadly cracked from all that jangling and thumping. In a house with 45 windows from the attic to the basement, unless water or freezing air is intruding, they, also, will have to wait their time. What does matter is the perspective the windows provide. I spend countless minutes staring out most of them at one point or another during the day. I admire our neighbor’s massive, ancient silver maple through the north window. The central window features our purple leafed Norway maple and the quiet intersection out front. On the right, the scene across the street is of an old house with an attached barn across an empty lot. It’s as beautiful in the starkest of winter days as it is when the trees that line the street are leafed out in summer, or blazing with color in the fall.
What else matters? The condition of the walls and ceiling — especially understanding how to care for them. Unlike several other rooms, the guest room’s ceiling is in fairly good condition. There are only a couple of long, thin cracks that appear to have been skillfully patched. To some extent, that makes sense considering the turret space in the attic just above is useable, but not easily accessed. Perhaps the lack of foot traffic has helped preserve the ceiling. Of course, the opinion of an old house novice like myself isn’t reliable. More likely, the weight of the enormous roof on this corner of the house is more efficiently distributed because of the turret and that has helped keep the plaster more intact. There must have been a roof leak in the turret at some point however, because it damaged one corner in the guest room. Unfortunately, someone did a poor job of repairing it. One wonders about a decision made to spackle over existing wall paper instead of removing it and reapplying plaster. There was no way I could rectify this other than sanding the area down and hoping it wouldn’t be too noticeable once I’d painted the wall. I suppose that relegates me to “owner not being responsible” status, but it’s something to be readdressed later. Read: when we have someone come to repair all the plaster. Although I have researched how to do this myself, I need to purchase the correct tools and work up the determination. There would be enough time to think about that later.
I removed the rest of the old wallpaper covering the horsehair fortified plaster walls in pieces that ranged from small shreds to good sized sheets. In one section, I discovered signatures of the men who had done the wall papering from the very beginning. A father and his parter, then his son years later, from 1889, to 1948, then 1974. I was tempted to leave my find uncovered, but decided to take photos instead. After leaving the signatures visible for a while to appreciate them as I worked, I finally sanded, primed, then painted over them. While doing so, I apologized quietly and promised to make a print of the photo to frame and hang in the room. I’ve still not done that because the photos do it little justice. I hope the time we spent talking about the uniqueness of finding the signatures counted for something. My husband managed to locate the father in a photo of his graduating class taken at the old high school, a short block away. To think that we could see a bit of that young man’s history from his signature on our walls matters.
To finish the walls, I applied a patterned wallpaper of light blue and cream — something not too stuffy, but not too modern. Curtains from the dining room in our previous house were repurposed as more of a decorative touch after I thought long and hard about how to anchor the rods to the walls. I wasn’t going to let plaster be my nemesis, but I didn’t want to damage it, either. I installed roller blinds that don’t quite obscure the sunlight that streams into the room at 4:30 on summer mornings. A new jute rug added texture to the room yet allowed the beauty of the wood floors to be appreciated — floors that were originally a honey color, but had been refinished and stained a dark molasses. An old sofa fit perfectly in the window alcove, making it ideal for reading or a nap. Over time, I’ve moved things from elsewhere in the house to this room until everything has felt as I believe it should be. Welcoming.
On most days, as soon as I’m up, I’m drawn to the guest room. I look out the windows to appreciate freshly fallen snow, or a pretty spring day after flowers have begun to bloom. At dawn, it’s the best place to appreciate the brilliance of a fiery sky as it changes subtly with each passing minute. When winter temperatures drop into single digits, this is the room whose windows display the best ice crystals. Forming on the interior of the storm windows, they keep me enthralled with fleeting creations of feathers and butterflies, fern fronds and flocks of birds in flight, all frozen in the frigid air. Our first winter when I was often unable to venture outside, I took many photos of the ice crystals as well as the changing scenes through the windows — some of which captured my husband. “I’m going out for some exercise and fresh air,” he’d say, or “I’m going to drop something off at the post office,” only a couple of blocks away. I recognized the excuse to get away from his desk or to enjoy being out in the first real snow of the season. If I couldn’t be out there myself, then I could rely upon him for a first hand experience once he returned. In the meantime, I’d snap a bird’s eye view photo just for the memory of another event of many our first year here.
I remember how much our resident feline, Lizzie, preferred the guest room to others for months after we moved in. She kept me company as I worked on the room, so perhaps she had decided her moral support was payment enough for occupancy. She made use of the shelf over the radiator on warm summer days, or curled up in the coolness under the skirted bed. The sofa appealed to her as well, perfect for her marathon naps. In winter, the warmth of the radiator drew her to the area beneath the sofa, or back to the radiator shelf to sit in the thin morning sunlight. On chilly days, she buried herself between the pillows on the bed so well, I couldn’t find her. Clearly, there’s a sense of peace in this room or she wouldn’t have made it hers from the start. After I ruined my knee that Fall, I stayed in this room for several days, unsure of how comfortable I’d be in our bed with my leg fully wrapped and braced in a temporary cast. Lizzie kept me company around the clock, making sure all was well.
At some point late that winter, she decided to stop using her litter box which is conveniently tucked into the entrance of the service staircase. I think about the uselessness of this space in this century, but I’m thankful it can serve some practical purpose. Unfortunately, the guest room became Lizzie’s alternative spot to take care of her business. She left her odious calling cards beneath the bed and all over the rug. I didn’t want to close the room off because being able to see into the room gave me so much pleasure. Even if I had, the faulty door knob prevented it. Out of desperation, I moved Lizzie’s litter box into the room, hoping that it and the variety of cleaning products I used would help her get the message. Finally, it worked. It struck me as extremely odd that her behavior would change so radically about a room she had clearly enjoyed. Cats tend to sense things, and she’s especially perceptive. If I hadn’t sensed peace in the room myself, I’d have sworn there may have been a ghost who decided it preferred a room that stayed largely unoccupied and undisturbed.
I appreciate that about the guest room as well — its order. The bed is nearly always perfectly made, the pillows plump. Nothing is out of place. When the rest of the house has been affected by any of the projects I’ve taken on since our arrival, the guest room is an oasis of calm — perceived ghost or not. I may not have made the first room in the house mine, but I did put my heart into making a comfortable place to stay for people we care about. It will help us add our own stories to those created by the craftsmen who worked on this house as well as its previous owners.
That is what truly matters.