Home & Garden

About the House: The Good Old Days

By Matt Cantor
Wednesday February 18, 2009 - 06:20:00 PM

I’ve long observed (with some glee) that houses and their owners tend to be alike in notable ways and that this only increases over time. 

Though a house may only share similarities with the owner initially (based on their choice of that house) the passage of time gives owners a chance to manifest their personalities in the style and condition of their house. And so it was today when I met Joan and her house. 

I arrived a bit early and, peeking through the window, surmised the house to have been prepped for sale and “staged” with perfect furniture, sparsely placed with just the right pillow tossed here and there. But no, it was, in fact, exactly the way Joan lives. 

Joan is a product of a time (as is her house of similar vintage) when order and cleanliness were considered extremely important and doing it right the first time was drilled into the entire population. Doing things quickly and cheaply was scorned behavior and the people and the products of the time (cars, houses, blenders) reflect it. 

The house was dated, both technologically and stylistically, but the quality of the foundation, while primitive compared to current methods, was awe inspiring. It was rock hard and showed barely a crack anywhere.  

True, the house did benefit from being from the late 30’s and not the teens when foundations were generally poor by comparison but still, the point stands. Given the methods that were available, everyone tried to do their absolute best work and even small, low-cost houses of this time show these traits.  

The idea that you would try to do things as cheaply as you could with little thought for the next generation was foreign and even repugnant to the Americans that grew up in the early 20th century. There is clearly a different thinking inside the culture today. 

Though some of Joan’s choices in the years since she lost her husband were designed to save money, each job was still done well and was monitored and maintained. I did find a leak in a porch outside but I am quite sure that neither she nor her army of helpers were aware of it or she would have quickly mended it. 

In precisely the same way that it would have been impossible for Joan to go out (to the Safeway!) without brushing hair, putting on a little makeup and accessorizing a bit, She was constitutionally incapable of hiring a part-time handyman to retile her shower. The house was painted the same way she lined her drawers and arranged her clothes closet. The right way (as best as she might assess). 

I have often noted the extraordinary variance that one can find in the condition of two apartments in the same building, explicable by nothing more complex than the most fundamental cleaning and maintenance tasks (e.g. picking up the bath mat after a shower and hanging it on the shower rod). One unit might have been occupied by someone like Joan (squeegee hanging in the shower to drive all the water away prior to exit) and the other by a bunch of college students who didn’t seem to get the concept of a shower curtain (water inside, not outside). Toilets and showers and whole kitchens might need to be replaced decades earlier in the latter case, while simple measures and a little prophylaxis (asking for the landlord to caulk the bath when those gaps appear) could prevent the need for even moderate-level repair. 

Now, this does not seem to extend to upgrades in the same way that it informs issues of maintenance. A house, such as Joan’s may be extremely well painted and neat as a pin but still contain an ancient furnace that should long ago have gone to the dust heap but this is consistent with the personality type in other ways. Joan’s generation (and I continue to meet some younger people like this as well) was very slow to throw out something that was still working. Labor cost was more in line with the cost of living and it was possible to hire someone to fix something like a furnace, perhaps several times over. Moreover, it was considered the right thing to do. Devices (and houses) were built to be repaired and manuals and parts were widely available. If a man (forgive me but we’re speaking of a different time and culture) did not own tools and a pair of overalls he was considered a poor provider (and probably preferred going to musicals too). 

Today, most people don’t know how to maintain or repair the equipment in their homes and even professionals are less skilled as the disposable culture makes these activities less warranted and significant. But I digress. 

The opposite case to Joan’s, the person who has no awareness of their surroundings or concern for maintenance will manifest their behavior through visible and non-visible vehicles. If the house hasn’t been painted for a decade or two, there is a good chance that the furnace filter is clogged, the toilet is loose and the broken window is still broken. 

This is handy when looking at houses and it even extends to areas that have nothing to do with the house so clues always abound. If you can walk through a house with crammed closets and signs of disorganization, the likelihood that regular maintenance has been in force is small. Sometimes the condition of a house is obvious from the street and it’s tempting to drive by and phone it in (but it’s too much fun to see all the juicy details).  

A well-built house may be within hopes of resurrection if the homunculi of destruction and their six-packs, have not been too long at work but a poorly built one, combined with poor maintenance may be devastated in a couple of decades. I saw this one last week. 

The siding on this house was a composite panel type that should never have been shipped off the assembly-line. A lack of paint and caulk had allowed for the quick destruction of several sections and the “shear” strength it was likely to provide in an earthquake was pretty questionable. It was bad enough that replacement of all the siding had be considered.  

The trim details attempted to defy all the laws of thermodynamics and several key religious principles and will probably end up in a slide show one of these days. There was lots more but you get the picture. These features, combined with the maintenance provided by a typical ‘70s cocaine dealer (I’m just guessing here but you follow my thinking) had produced a house that was starting to fall apart after about 20 years. Joan’s house was pushing 80 (a number she may have exceeded herself, though you couldn’t tell by her dress or manner) and showed few signs of age. Plenty of history but not much age. 

I guess this is a little like those pictures of people and their dogs. Sometimes I don’t get it but then you see one where the dog that has just been bathed, closely cropped and adorned, bizarrely, with a pink sweater that matches the owner’s and you see it. It’s not about biology (or carpentry). It’s about anthropology.