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

Praying For Anti-Freeze

Our bathroom, just as we found it. I think that’s anti-freeze in the toilet. I mean, I pray that’s anti-freeze in it.

I’m a fairly effective forensic carpenter.

There, I lied again. I’m a really good forensic renovator. I’ve had as much experience with old homes as four Bob Vilas. I’ve also spent an inordinate amount of time reading about old homes, especially American versions of old homes, because I’m profoundly strange, so it’s hard to spring anything new on me. I’m a little sketchy below the Waffle Hut/IHOP line, it’s true. But then again, there wasn’t much down there in the first place to miss out on. It took air conditioning to get people living down there in big numbers, and air conditioning for the masses is a recent development. Besides, Sherman burned everything else down, anyway.

By “forensic renovation,” I mean that by taking a house apart, or better still, looking at the benighted surfaces visible to the naked eye after generations of neglect and visits to Home Despot, I can usually tell what used to be there, or at least make an educated guess at it. My current house in western Maine was really easy in this regard, and really hard at the same time. It was really easy to tell what the original roofing from 1901 was, because it was still on the roof. It wasn’t doing anything rooflike up there on the roof, but I could look at it if I wanted to. The original service entry for the electricity was there, the original electrical wiring, flooring, door and window trim, window sashes — where they weren’t removed entirely and boarded up, anyway. Hell, when I repaired the central stairwell and upstairs hallway, every single layer of wallpaper going back to William McKinley was still on the wall. The original was beautiful. It was a rich green, flecked with a bronze-y tone in metallic ink. The layer over it was a less fine but still nice 1940’s block print in a sort of classical revival motif. There was a fifties chinoiserie attempt on there after that –not bad. There were two or three more layers of meh. The room got bigger just by removing the wallpaper.

Three of the bedroom ceilings still displayed their original coatings on the ceiling, two of the three completely untouched, the third on patchwork display after sleeping under a 1970s attempt to put textured paint over calsomine. Calsomine paint — isn’t. It isn’t paint. It’s paste, like something Tom Sawyer would con you into painting Aunt Polly’s fence with. People tried painting over calsomine paint for decades back in the day, and it would peel forevermore, because it’s essentially a coat of chalk, and everyone got disgusted with trying, some putting in asbestos tiles, others drop ceilings, desperately trying to keep the lead paint chips out of their Wheaties. That usually worked until they were able to solve the problem once and for all by burning their house to the ground. They often accomplished this by plugging in their leg lamp and their Christmas tree at the same time, using that socket that already had the radio, four other lamps, and an extension cord for a toaster in the next room. The lamp was a major award, so you just had to plug it in. It wasn’t their fault.

Just because I’ve been tasked with (unsuccessfully) repairing calsomine ceilings a couple hundred times in the past, doesn’t mean I was ready to see one essentially fresh off the brush. It wasn’t like unearthing a triceratops skull — it was like finding an actual triceratops rummaging through your trash cans. It was a wonder to me. The ceiling in what’s now my older son’s room, the nicest room in the house, was a lovely canary yellow color. In the Spare Heir’s room the ceiling was a delicate robin’s egg blue. The decrepit room where the kids play music had a yellow ceiling too, slowly exposing itself like a hobo in the library as the crust of pointless attempts to cover it up sloughs off.

All the woodwork in the public rooms is oak. Big, blocky, oak. Barbarous oak. Ropy, solid, Arts and Crafts oak. Like so many houses built early in the twentieth century, it straddled the line between Victorian and Arts and Crafts. Most of the houses in my neighborhood are like that, or were, before the owners decided they’d prefer to straddle the line between Home Depot and Lowe’s instead. My neighbor across the street lives in a four-square house that would look at home in the midwest, if it wasn’t half taken with old Yankee Victorianism, too. He keeps his house in good repair, which is not easy. He’s a hell of a guy, and a great neighbor.

He was born and raised here, and his father worked in the big mill that squats over the river in the center of town. He moved away, then came back and bought the family homestead back. I told you you could buy any house in town any time you wanted to, but you didn’t believe me. Anyway, wonder of wonders, he was poking around his house and found pictures of mine — in 1968. Awesome!

Before you go off on a jag, making fun of me for living in an arctic wasteland, I’d like to double down and point out that these pictures are taken in the autumn, at least a month before winter even begins. Snerk. But there’s my house, halfway between being built and having us infest it. My neighbor Rich pointed out everyone in the photo by name. They all still live around here. The dog is dead, though.

This is Rich’s brother, standing on his lawn, looking down on ours. Rich still looks down on us, every which way, and with good reason. And to give you some of the local flavor, Maine in the sixties, let me point out that Rich’s brother is casually holding a hatchet.

If you look at the first picture, you can see a catwalk with a railing that led to a screened-in kitchen entry at the back of the house, which was a 16 foot plunge to your death without a railing when we moved here. Don’t worry, I instructed my children to play in the street, where it’s safe, and stay out of the yard. We’re devoted parents in such matters.

Look even closer, and you’ll see a Zenith sign on the front roof. A previous owner fixed and sold televisions and radios out of the basement here. I work down there now, and find evidence of his labors here and there from time to time. There’s a basement under that basement, too, about the size of a two-car garage. The fellow had a nifty Dodge delivery van parked out front.

When I said the forensic carpentry was both easy and hard at the same time here, I told you all the easy stuff. Hell, nothing’s easier than looking at pictures of it. Now the hard part: Everyone destroyed everything else. Ripped it out, tore it up. Sold it into slavery, I think. Hell, down in the basement basement (that’s not a typo) they tried to burn it to a cinder to put me off the scent. There were at least five doors gone from the first floor alone, and I counted eleven (eleven!) windows that had been removed and boarded up. In the infinite wisdom of people who board up windows, all those windows faced South. They boarded them up because someone told them that windows leak heat, so they took out the ones facing the sun, their only hope of any real comfort in this climate, and installed ceiling fans in every room, figuring the heat must be in this house somewhere. Maybe it’s up by the ceiling, refusing to cavort with us down on the floor.

We moved into the house without any central heat in it, and not even any decentralized heat for the first week. Trust me, if there was any heat in there, I would have found it.

(to be continued)

7 Responses

  1. Sipp, in case I haven't said it lately your talent for description is brilliant. The line about the hobo literally made me laugh out loud.

  2. Have you ever had the dubious joy of dealing with one of the early attempts at latex paint? I encountered a layer of that valiantly clinging to the calcomine beneath it once. It came off fairly easily, but rather like melted latex gloves well smeared in soggy chalk dust. It clung to everything…
    I thought it came off anyway, five years on and the ceiling (of course a ceiling) has begun to develop the dreaded flakes once more…

  3. I counted eleven (eleven!) windows that had been removed and boarded up. In the infinite wisdom of people who board up windows, all those windows faced South. They boarded them up because someone told them that windows leak heat, so they took out the ones facing the sun..

    Back in the '80s, a leading – if not the leading- building contractor in my hometown had his own house built with solar windows- on the north side.

    Such stupidity apparently crosses town, county, and state lines.

    You would think that anyone who has spent at least a month in a northern hemisphere winter would realize that winter sunlight comes from the south. The farmhouse my parents bought 60 years ago had no windows on the north side, and a full complement on the south. You don't need to have a Nobel Prize in Physics to figure that out.

  4. Great &post. We live in a house built in 1898, and have spent the last 22 years trying to make it look like old again, shedding its various fixes and remodeling efforts to turn it into a 1980s house.

    We rescued some doors and woodwork from a house in town that was built the same year as ours, before it was torn down about 15 years ago. A nice flat parking lot replaced it.

    We used the doors on their sides as paneling for one room, and as replacement doors elsewhere.

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