Houses, Old

How is it that I haven’t written about old houses yet? My first love. Maybe old houses are so in my blood that I take the subject for granted, like breathing or sleeping…

You see, although my father made his career as a journalist, the family business was really remodeling old houses. I guess I have to take you way back to the first quarter of the twentieth century to explain: My grandfather, born the seventh of fourteen kids on an Iowa farm, had a quintessentially hardscrabble twentieth-century American early adulthood. He got by working in meatpacking plants and directing streetcars in Saint Louis and Chicago; later his station improved and he ran a dry cleaning business and then a taxi cab business. By the time he was of retirement age, he’d saved up enough money to finally turn his full attention to remodeling old houses, his true calling. He lived out his days in my family’s hometown in Central Illinois and created something of an empire there, earning awards for historic preservation.

The crown jewel of my grandfather’s life with houses: The Edward and Florence Irving House, designed by Marion Mahoney and Frank Lloyd Wright in 1910. (Marion Mahoney, is a fascinating person, by the way, deserving of a discussion of her very own.)

The whole family became involved in “the business” in some way or another. My parents. My aunts and uncles. And just as much as my childhood memories of visits to Illinois were marked by the smells of verdant cornfields and chlorine at the pool, they were also marked by the smells of sawdust and wet paint. Trips home were filled with driving tours to look at houses: houses my grandfather had remodeled, houses that might be good candidates for future projects, houses, houses, houses. We would visit houses that were in progress, the walls stripped away to expose the framing, sawhorses in every room, new holes opened up for windows, staircases being reconfigured. We made recreational trips to flooring stores, window stores, lighting stores. I thought that this was normal.

Later, when I was living in Illinois, houses were a part of my everyday, not just my trips to the exotic Midwest. My mother and I spent virtually every Sunday watching This Old House on PBS. I would sit around drawing architectural plans of my dream houses, down to the plantings in the imagined back yards. I was unduly proud of myself when I helped my grandfather redesign a stairway of a house he was working on when I was in high school.

I hesitate to call my grandfather and those of my family who followed in his footsteps flippers, because to me that word has a dirty, commercial connotation. Flippers, like many of those people you see on TV, tend to turn things around in a soulless way. They focus on modernizing homes and often strip away any of a house’s character in the process. They add modern touches like those ubiquitous mosaiced backsplashes. They seem unconcerned with a home’s history and the beauty that’s intrinsic to the process of bringing that history into our modern lives. They tend to erase a house’s history rather than help a house’s history work with our modern lives. (I hasten to add that I also think MANY people on TV are not soulless flippers and I admire and envy what they do.)


It only gradually seeped into my consciousness that not every family cared as much about old houses as mine. In fact, I was faced with the unpleasant realization that most of my peers’ families preferred new construction, houses tailor-made for modern living. As much as we were passionate about this stuff, most people didn’t really care. My family celebrated the history of an old home, enjoying the quirky old closets that were no longer altogether functional, contemplating the lives of the people who had lived in these houses before us. I soon came to realize that, at least in Central Illinois, we were outliers.

I nearly went to school for interior design but got sidelined by the myriad distractions of living in New York in my early twenties. Instead, I poured my love of history into capital-A Architecture. And, yes, I lovelovelove capital-A architecture, which is why I wrote a big fat dissertation on Renaissance architecture. But put me in an old crumbling farmhouse, let me run my hands along the grain of the wood details, let me smell the old plaster as it heats up on a hot summer day, and something in me comes alive. Because it was in lowercase-a architecture that people lived their beautiful, ordinary lives. And this—just as much as the history of politics or policy or high art—is what has made us who we are as a culture. I find that thrilling.




3 thoughts on “Houses, Old

  1. Thank you, Ellen. The gift of the pen is a given, but you are your grandfather’s granddaughter. I loved spending time in the old house on a cold winter’s day. I had never experienced a corner fireplace that worked so brilliantly as in the home on Powers Lane. Gorgeous. Good memories.


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