by Jennifer McKendry©

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Don’t buy that old house — not if it has any historical or architectural merit. Let it die gracefully amidst the shady maples and crowding lilacs. That is, unless you are that rare species of owner whose restoration would be harmonious with the aims of the original builder.

But too often is an early 19th-century house bought by “city” people, in search of the proverbial “old stone house”, unhappily destined to become a bastard composition of half old, half new; half country, half city. Out come the old small-paned windows, and on go the aluminum storms. Picture windows reign triumphant (right). Off comes the old cast or wrought iron hardware, and on go the new “rustic” artsy-craftsy hinges, which take up half the door.

In rooms where delicate mantel mouldings complemented the painted walls and trim, now raw new pine covers up all traces of the glowing rose colors, blue-grey trims, and gay foliage of the old wallpaper. In our enthusiasm for those “pioneer” days, we have forgotten that most of our existing old houses are post 1812 War, in a day when bare wood panelling had been out of style for 60 years or more. Where split lath and plaster had discreetly covered up the rafter and joist construction of the ceiling, we expose it and call it “open beam”. A Regency gentleman, haunting his 1830 home in 1971, might quickly yearn for the grave again.

Tired of modern mass-produced high-rises and prefabs, we long for an old lived-in home. Yet the first thing we do upon achieving our dream is to plane smooth all those wear marks on the house. We sand down all the floors, and remove the bumps and signs of human habitation, until we get the surface of “straight from the factory” pine boards.

Forgetting that spinning wheels were relegated to the upper hail or attic, we sit it out on the front lawn, only to complement the wagon wheel fence, a feature which our ancestors never dreamed of.

I don’t mean to suggest I am advocating 19th-century living at least, not totally. The benefits from central heat over fireplaces and woodstoves can be attested to by anyone who has sat in front of a raging fire, and roasted his front, while freezing his back. Not to mention the questionable value in those early morning nature excursions to the privy in our Canadian winters. But one should consider the best type of heating system for an old house. At least with electric heat, you are not tempted to add those awful brick exterior chimneys to get rid of the fumes from a furnace. The bathroom can be discreetly located in a less important room, such as a storeroom or small bedroom.

In rooms which once glowed with the soft flickering light of candles, fire places or oil lamps, we unmercifully illuminate with fluorescent or over head light. Electric table lamps can be much more pleasant to eat by or to converse by, due to their softer lighting effect.

If you do have the privilege and pleasure of redoing an old house, go slowly. Initial enthusiasm can destroy all signs of unusual features of the house, such as the original floor lay out, bake-ovens stenciled walls, and so on. Try to assimilate the aspirations of the original owner. Was his mood predominantly folk-builder tradition, neoclassic, Regency or Victorian? How was this expressed in his building?

While we are willing to invest thousands of dollars in an old house, as we are impressed by the rising value of all things antique, we are not willing to invest the time in doing proper research on the period of the house, or to invest the money in hiring a sympathetic restoration designer to advise us.

Therefore, do not invade the countryside with your sheets of knotty pine to rape and plunder, but rather let those once proud country seats die inviolate.


This article was published in Weekend Magazine, Montreal, Issue 46, 20 November 1971

Photo on left by Blake McKendry©

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