I’ve been looking at houses. I’m not buying one yet, but I’m probably closer to buying it than further, in the spectrum of my life. You probably wouldn’t be surprised for me to tell you I have fallen in love with several houses built before 1950. I love them. I also grew up in a house built well before 1950.
Last year at this time my mother replaced the windows in two of the rooms of my childhood home. Doesn’t sound like such a big deal, right? Well, one of them was my bedroom, which still had the original windows from the house’s construction in the very beginning of the 1900s.
Let me explain to you how annoying having the original windows nearly 100 years later was. First, they were terribly noisy. Whenever the wind blew, the whole window shook and slammed. If it was a stormy night, I probably wasn’t getting much sleep. They were still on the pulley system, they didn’t stay up well. After a while we couldn’t keep air conditioners securely on the sill anymore. They wouldn’t come all the way clean, the wood was warped. This is what happens during a century.
The house in general is full of all kinds of turn-of-the-last-century convenience. I grew up in a steel-manufacturing town. Once upon a time there was an entrance to the house through the basement, where a showerhead stands in the middle of the room. Because the house I grew up in is one of a street-full belonging to steel mill workers, this really worked out. They were pretty dirty. You got a shower, and then you would go into the rest of the house. We had a claw-foot tub in the bathroom, which is also pretty special, but there was no shower. My mother, when she was pregnant with me, got tired of going to a cold basement to shower. A showerhead was put into the claw foot tub, just like a kitchen was added on by previous owners. We always change our home ideals, don’t we?
I probably don’t always think about the changes in American homes because I grew up in such a vintage-esque structure, in a town priding itself on its historicism—though, our old stuff ain’t got nothin’ on Europe’s old stuff. In the 7th grade I had a pen pal from Paris whose house was build in the 1200s. Now, imagine that. Her house is older than my nation. I live in a town that boasts the oldest bookstore on this continent, and where I just attended a party at the same hotel where George Washington stayed, yet it’s all so new in world-comparison. Do things ever really change? Yes, I think they do.
Recently, I read Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. In the story, the Industrial Revolution is reaching this sleepy Ohio town, and everything is changing for the Ambersons and everyone else. The Ambersons live in palatial estates, they encourage others to live in palatial estates, they frown upon those who do not. When it is suggested that the patriarch of this family build apartment buildings rather than multi-level single-family homes for rental income, the old man scoffs and says that, simply, the fad of apartment buildings cannot last. Basically, people won’t be able to stand living in spaces so small for long. Well, HA! This turns out to be a huge joke on the family, but really, also on us when we think about it in the long run.
What happens to the way we live? What makes us change our mind about where we want to live, and how we want to live?
The Romans were fans of the apartment. Should it be considered evolutionary that we moved into full homes, as practice, from apartments? What does that say about us, largely, returning to the use of apartments, especially in our big cities? It’s chic to have a New York apartment. It’s more expensive to have a New York apartment than a significant house in many communities surrounding the metropolis. Imagine that: we pay double for half, and do it eagerly.
Really, we don’t have many structures on this side of the Atlantic that date much past the 18th century—and even those are few and far between. But at some point, what’s the difference? Once your house is 300 years old, how do you tell it apart from your neighbor’s house that is 400 years old? Is the paint just a little more chipped?
Last week, at my day job, we were discussing the dorms at my alma mater. My boss’s daughter was just on a visit to the same school and loved it; we started talking about living conditions. Another person joined our convo, and she had also gone to the same school, starting in 1971. Back in 1971, I learned, Hemlock was the brand, shiny new dorms around campus. Minsi, the dorm I was in for three (beloved) years, was the old dorm, around for decades before, but the dorm that was known to be the most fun. When I showed up thirty-three years after my now co-worker, there was no visible difference in age between the two, though Minsi was certainly still where all the fun was going on.
In January, I went with my boyfriend to Wilmington, Delaware. We went to see a brand new restaurant his friend is the chef at (it’s called Ernest & Scott Taproom, and I highly, highly suggest it if you are in Wilmington. It was so amazing I think I would make the drive regularly just for dinner here. I could go on for another 1,400 words about the food and atmosphere here.) But we did want something to do during the day. A quick Internet search led me to the Hagley Museum and Library. It looked interesting, it had budget friendly admission, and so we went. And I am so glad we did.
The Hagley Museum is the former DuPont Black Powder factory and homes of the family running it. You can take a two-hour tour on a bus across the property, getting out at different destinations and experiencing it. While this was a public tour, no one else signed up for our same slot on the sunnybut cold January day, so we basically had a private tour. Our tour guide was Debbe, and I have to take a minute to say she was wonderful. She really knew her stuff and seemed to care about imparting it to us. She clearly loved doing the tour, and I loved that. I would venture to believe all the guides at Hagley are great, but I know from experience that I would be thrilled to have Debbe again if we go back later to see things differently in the warm weather (which we would love to do).
Here’s the point about the black powder factory: the family lived on the same land. You probably know as much as I knew about black powder factories before this tour, but I’m sure we all agree on this opinion: they are dangerous. Now, can you imagine living on the same little plot of land? I can’t.
Through the different generations of the DuPont family, there were several houses built in the area—two, I believe, on the Hagley property—but one I specifically want to explain to you. The original house oversees the original factory. Let me make sure you get what I’m saying: the house is up just a hill from the making of black powder, aka gunpowder. The house is within blow-up distance of gunpowder being produced. Oh, you know, no big deal.
Now, I understand why this is done. Families know this is a dangerous job. They are sending their men off to maybe not come home again. Therefore, knowing that your boss is secure enough in his company to put his wife and children this close is quite a statement. What’s also a statement is that while we were touring the house, damage from explosions were pointed out to us.
I know I tell you to “imagine” frequently, but really, imagine. There was damage evident on a dresser and in the walls. Imagine. They had to replace windows umpteen-million times. Imagine. What if that was your house? Industry a hundred and fifty or two hundred years ago was a completely different thing. And apparently so was housing. Would you live there today? Could you fold laundry and eat lunch knowing that the sweaty men you can see less than a football field away might blow your house to smithereens at any moment?
Then again, after all the accidents this house did endure, maybe there was something a little sturdier about the construction of it. Maybe we just make flimsy houses now. But, they’re where we live.