renovations, past and present

IMG_7740Our house feels like a living thing, even when it’s not covered with ivy.

The house I live in was built around 1880. Its original construction predates a whole bunch of technical marvels we take for granted these days—telephones and refrigerators, washers and dryers, home entertainment centers that focus on anything beyond the piano in the parlor. It’s a skinny brick townhouse at the end of a long row, bay after bay, alternating bowfronts and box fronts. There’s some land line wiring in the basement that looks like Alexander Graham Bell did the original work himself.  The whole block has been standing almost as long as Memorial Hall, our grand and gothic neighbor to the west. It boggles my mind to realize that the names of Harvard’s men who died for the Union cause were being etched in stone just before our home came to be.

IMG_2436Our memorial neighbor down the street.

I like thinking about who might have walked by my front door over the years. Elizabeth Agassiz, founder of Cambridge’s first school for girls and the first president of Radcliffe College, could have, since she lived just around the corner. Later on, e.e. cummings probably wandered by on the way from his house to Harvard Square, both before and after he lost the cap lock on his typewriter, I’m guessing. Julia Child of The French Chef fame and Nobel laureate John Kenneth Galbraith lived nearby when we first arrived, allowing me to boast for a time that we lived in the neighborhood with all Cambridge’s old, tall, famous folks. You could weave a remarkable “six degrees of separation” patchwork out of the folks who may have meandered by our bumpy brick sidewalk.

IMG_1341Julia Child signed the sidewalk, down the street from my house.

It’s hard to know what our house was first built as. It isn’t grand, not by any stretch. It may have begun as an equivalent of graduate student housing in its day.  That, or rooms for rent to the non-live-in help who kept the nearby upscale homesteads humming. It’s doubtful that our townhouse was originally a single-family home, and if it was, it certainly had shifted to something more in the boarding house ilk before long. When we first got here, there were still patched-in doorbells on each landing and utility meters for every floor, even though we purchased it as a duplex with a third floor income unit and a separate back stairway. We moved in and became landlords, regular Ethel and Fred Mertzes to a series Lucys who rented the third floor apartment upstairs. They were all women who were quieter than Lucille Ball by a long shot, and didn’t mind the smell of my early cooking experiments. It felt like we were turning into grownups.

Then we had a baby, and then another, and all of a sudden, what had seemed like our grand city home was starting to feel a tad…cramped. That, plus the noise from our second floor nursery zone became something of a liability, rental-income-wise. So we said goodbye to our last tenant (and first babysitter) and moved our grownup selves on up, turning the airy third floor into our master bedroom and walk-in attic/study, while the rental kitchen became a closet that happened to have an oven—something that came in handy every Thanksgiving Day.

IMG_0505Big boy shoes aren’t so cute.  And they take up a lot of space.

 * * * * *

Fast forward a couple of decades, and here we are.  Over the years, the house that stretched to fit our growing boys, from Thomas the Tank Engine to Lego bricks to laptops, is finally getting a breather. Our back hall was stuffed with sporting equipment and footwear and hats and jackets and sweatshirts, until all of a sudden, it wasn’t. My sons have grown into men, one off on his own, the other just one academic year away from his college commencement.  As soon as it felt like we were about to burst at the seams, we found ourselves at the junctures where we four–mom, dad, son and son–were reduced to three living under one roof, and now, soon nearly completely, back to two.  It’s the passing of an era, the evidence of which lives in photo albums and portfolios full of art, file folders of transcripts and health records and yes, boxes of stuffed animals, too precious to give away, even now.  We were reading Harry Potter on the sofa, there were foam floaty toys in the tub, I was cutting the chicken into bite-sized pieces and finding alternate dinner options for my budding vegetarian, and then I wasn’t.   Space that once was devoted to toy storage now belongs to linen closets,  homework stations have morphed into home offices. This space has been witness to our family’s history, as it has to unknown generations before ours.

And what was a brand new kitchen in 1985 had grown old and tired, along with the peeling paint and ancient appliances and waterlogged insulation and disappearing ceramic tile caulk, some in each bathroom dating back to the Eisenhower era, some to the Reagan years. Apparently tilework only ever got undertaken at our house during GOP administrations. It’s been time to do some significant fixer-upper work at our house for a long time now, and here we finally are.

IMG_7696Well, not here anymore.  But it was amazing, how quickly this space we’d been living in, this kitchen where I’d canned hundreds of jars of applesauce and cooked thousands of dinners, was peeled back to its original bones.

IMG_7785Reducing everything down to the structural elements that were there in 1880 means you get to see some layers. I’d entirely forgotten that there were pink walls in our house when we began.  Pink, then various shades of yellow.  Not sure what that little sketch is a detail of, or from when.

IMG_8541There have been so many different iterations to our back entry, it’s hard to figure out what came when.

IMG_8537Here’s a completely new entryway to the third floor.  That it is possible to cut a tidy hole in a brick wall is beyond me.  There’s a whole bunch of work going on in my house right now that I’d just never visualized before.

IMG_8547Honestly, I have no idea what I’m looking at here.  There’s the wood flooring to the right that’s in our living/dining room.  But as you look left into the kitchen where I’m standing, from that light wood to the dark wood underneath it, to the remnants of some sort of metal element, perhaps a floor grate that just allowed warm air to rise from the furnace (coal burning? Who knows?) to an odd assortment of floorboards and plywood and open space…it makes me wonder what was holding up our kitchen floor all these years.

IMG_8525Again, I have no idea what this means.  Just glad someone’s on it. 199, guys, not 198!

IMG_8526This I do understand.  It’s a mistake.  Someone was moving something and punched a hole through a wall that was staying put, and which will now need some patching and painting.  The builder asks his workers to initial things like this, so he knows who to be annoyed with.  Own it, bud!

IMG_8528The spots like this one, where you can see the original construction materials (old fashioned lathe, in this case) are getting boxed out and covered over with breathtaking speed.  Most of these photos I took just to let my beloved know what was going on, while he was out of town.  But now I’m glad I have these peeks into the very beginnings of this place we’ve called home for almost thirty years.  It feels respectful, somehow, to pay attention, to say a little thank you for over a century of hard work, holding this home of ours up, protecting us from the wind and the weather.

IMG_8529A pile of just-in-case bricks, for patching as needed. They will match, no doubt.  I am grateful to have a builder who keeps the pieces that could be useful down the road. Also feels respectful of our home’s original skeleton.

More later. Walls coming!










3 comments on “renovations, past and present

  1. Andy Macomber says:

    I loved all this. I think I’ll print it to keep in my 85-year-old fashion, and read again whenever I come across it.

    Sent from my iPad


  2. Kristen says:

    I love renovation projects like this, especially in older homes and ESPECIALLY when I am not the one living through it! 🙂 I always like the treasures and head scratchers that are inevitably unearthed. And I agree with you: it’s so amazing what these builders and craftspeople can do, like that brick entry way. But perhaps my favorite part here was seeing how the contractor makes his workers initial the dings in the wall. Priceless (and smart!). I hope you’ll keep us posted with more of the progress!

  3. holly butterman says:

    I hope that you left a copy of this – or something with a little historical data – significance behind those lathe slats .. for the person who SO wonders 100 years from now .. about the transformation your wonderful home has been through .. love you sister .. and remain in awe of you .. your writing and your beautiful family. xox – h*

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