As I watched the yellow earth mover scooping out mounds of dirt, I crossed my
fingers and hoped the folks who recently bought the house around the corner were
making room for an in-ground pool.
Hope dimmed as the excavation got deeper and deeper, week after week.
“I guess they’re building a new house,” I said with a sigh to my husband,
With sadness and resignation, I knew another old farmhouse in my neighborhood
would succumb to the wrecking ball.
It’s a sweet house, really — not unlike my 150-year-old farmhouse. It’s a
two-story, white, weathered clapboard that dates back to 1905 and looks like
it’s been added to several times over a century. There’s a bay window and green
shutters in the front and a brick chimney rising through the roof. Over the
years, I’ve driven past the house, which is perched on a hill, craning to catch
a glimpse of the large ginger cat in the window.
Then, I saw a “For Sale” sign. Not long after, the bulldozer arrived.
I’m told the old 1,492-square-foot house will be knocked down once the new
2,803-square-foot, two-story house, on an acre of land, is finished.
My daughter, Julia, says the new house looks like a tall birdhouse. I think
it looks like the kind of mailbox that’s often affixed to a wall. You can
picture it: It’s trapezoidal, and the roof slants in only one direction, as
though it’s a flap that can be opened by the postman.
Down at the end of my steep mountain road, in the other direction, there’s a
1,408-square-foot green, bungalow-style home, built in 1854, on a 4-acre wooded
parcel, that’s available for $450,000. A broker told me, “There’s no value in
the house; the value is in the land.” Sure, it might have seen better days — but
is it really unsalvageable?
Every time an old house disappears, we lose another shred of our collective
American legacy. Who we have been and what we have endured and accomplished
lingers within the walls in houses our ancestors built when they got around by
horse-and-buggy or grew fruit trees or trapped mink.
All that dies when houses are demolished, particularly when larger,
out-of-scale McMansions are their replacements.
When you have an old house like I do, you still find wagon wheels buried in
the dirt when you plant a new garden. You unearth shards of pottery in the
unfinished basement. When you renovate, you discover charred studs that tell you
there was a kitchen fire but the house survived, and that newspaper (from the
mid-1850s) was used as insulation and might have even been the cause of a fire
People who treasure old houses are like a fraternity. Get together with them
and there will be something of a pissing match over whose stone foundation is
thicker or who has spent more replacing aging infrastructure. We are
superheroes. We protect something that is elusive and disappearing. We think of
ourselves as rescue workers — even if our houses look like a “teardown” to
brokers and builders.
I’ve read that 250,000 houses are torn down annually across the United
States. (For more details, visit preservationnation.org and its interactive
When we bought our house nearly seven years ago, it was in a state of
disrepair — uninhabitable, really. Having come from easy co-op living in the
city, I don’t know what possessed me to make an offer on the house. I can only
say that when I walked inside, I saw, beyond the broken windows and cobwebs,
imaginary vignettes of family life stretching so far back that I felt compelled
to make my own history in this house.
The place needed a gut-renovation, but I was dead-set on maintaining its
footprint and lovely bones. Three contractors who came to look at it did not
want my business. A fourth said, “This is really a teardown.” Eventually, the
house was rejuvenated through the miracle of carpentry and tiling and paint, but
we salvaged old floors, an iron claw-foot bathtub and a brick hearth. I believe
the Garrabrants, the family that built the house 150 years ago, would be
pleased. And relieved.
An old house is a labor of love, so I understand not everyone has the time,
appetite or desire to resuscitate or maintain one. I just wish people who have
no interest in old houses would leave them alone for people who do.
Read more about Tina Traster’s move from the city to a rural suburb in
“Burb Appeal: The Collection,” available on Amazon.com.