Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

I Can Fix A House That Isn’t Fixed

My wife and I go out for a walk most days.

She goes out more than I do. I have bad feet. Three times a day is common for her. There is a substantial grid of quiet streets near us with sidewalks, and you can simply walk in the road most of the time. Rumford is the county seat, but it’s hardly a metropolis. Whenever I walk, I mostly look at dwellings, and my wife looks for gold finches.

I’ve built a lot of stuff. Houses, too. I’ve repaired more houses than I could count. I know all about them. I repaired houses while the occupants were living in them, especially, so I was privy to exactly how people actually use their houses. I painted the privy, too.

The single-family home is the most interesting thing about the United States, outside of the people who have inhabited it. Well, it was, anyway. Since houses are the sticks-and-bricks manifestation of people’s wants and dreams and desires and idea of comfort and mores and habits and taste and style, they are more telling than any thousand autobiographies would be. People lie to their therapist. What chance does an interviewer have? I went to Mount Vernon and I knew the guy.

Rumford is mostly dreary to look at. It was always a utilitarian place; a big, hulking paper mill squatting over the river was the entire reason for the place, after all. But it was handsome, once, at least part of it. There were whole streets of big Victorians with turrets and bays and rambling porches.

The picture at the top of the essay is the only truly beautiful structure we go by on one of our short walks. It was an animal barn, and is now a garage, but as far as I can tell no one uses it. All the other buildings we pass, dwelling or outbuilding alike, have been so defaced by the occupants “fixing” them that they are only barely recognizable as what they once were. The houses are entirely maimed, and you can trace the evidence of the endless procession of snake-oil no-maintenance energy-saving eco-friendly con-men through time written on their facades, now exposed by the inevitable neglect presaged by the original desire for a free lunch. The layers flap in the breeze like an archaeology dig.

Oh, the durability of paint improved with wonderful lead! If you have spiders, put a slug of mercury in it, too! Cover up that nasty, chalking, lead paint with asphalt tab sidewall shingles! Save energy with our new asbestos siding! Cover up that nasty asbestos siding with space-age aluminum siding! Get rid of that nasty old, dirty, dented, faded aluminum siding and put eco-friendly vinyl siding! Who needs windows when you can have little plastic hatches shoved into the holes where the windows used to be?

It’s such a pleasure to walk by the unusual place where the occupants were too lazy and cheap to even wreck their home properly. I can fix a house that isn’t fixed.

13 Responses

  1. Just thinking, if that animal barn/garage was in the Boston NYC suburbs it would sell for a half million dollars and be called "quaint" or " marvelous" by a realtor driving a cute little Prius

  2. I once read an ad in a National Geographic magazine from 1927 that touted the health benefits from having your house painted with lead paint.

  3. Hi Bretton- There is a planned neighborhood from the early 1900s in Rumford called Strathglass Park. The man that made the mill developed it to look like a Scottish park. It was for mill workers to live in. There are magnificent brick duplexes in a kind of British Arts and Crafts style. It was magnificent, in every way.

    It's all gone to seed now. If it were in Boston it would shame Louisburg Square, but you can buy a duplex there for $25k.

  4. It costs quite a bit here to get things back to basics and not look like they cost anything much at all.

  5. I have started looking for a home lately. The realtors are shocked when I give them my list of what to look for. If it has vinyl siding or aluminum siding or asphalt shingles or masonite siding, just forget it right off the bat. I get told all about how low maintenance it is and how economical it is to have this siding there but no sale to me. I also want a house that can breathe, something else that most realtors can't seem to grasp. I guess I was just born to late to find the kind of home I really want since even after telling them all this I still keep getting offered all kinds of vinyl-sided homes. Whatever happened to a well built stick built home that people can live in.

  6. I have been house-hunting, too. On top of my list is a house built on a pier-and-beam foundation. Boy, does that stop the conversation.

    In a city with 6,000 houses for sale—San Antonio, TX—I have found only two pier-and-beam houses for sale, and neither were suitable otherwise. But I just can't bring myself to live on a concrete slab.

  7. Speaking of goldfinches,went for a walk the other day and at the edge of our field saw a black spruce about 12 feet tall just filled with goldfinches. They were lit up by the westering sun on a semi-overcast afternoon against the dark green of the spruce foliage. It was the prettiest thing I've seen in a long long time. There must have beeen fifteen or twenty of them, it looked like a Christmas tree lit up with birds.

  8. My folks lived briefly in Park City, Utah in 1972. So many of the grand Victorians had been stripped of their gingerbread – turned posts and fretwork laced porches had been either completely removed or replaced with wrought iron! Really bad…

  9. I love walking and looking at structures, yards, and what people are doing.

    Unfortunately, I live in a subdivision– the house charm killer.

    I still like to look though — and tell the wife, we have tons of gold finches in Georgia. I can send them your way — they're feisty.

    Sorry for the deleted post — edit problem. 🙂

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