Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Anyone who's ever owned an old house knows it's a constant chore to repair, update, and replace parts of it.

Whether it's hardware that wears out, machinery that breaks down, or components whose efficiency and purpose have become obsolete in the face of new technology - there's always something.

It's romantic to think of restoring an old, elegant, historic house. When I was little, I loved old Victorian houses, and I loved reading stories that featured deserted old houses, where heroines like Nancy Drew uncovered the mystery within the spooky old-fashioned rooms of Blackwood Hall.

Put in proper context, though, the houses in those books I loved in the 1960s were not, in fact, centuries-old historical masterpieces. They were typical domestic structures perhaps 50 - 70 years old at the time the books were set in.

Bunker Hill house, Library of Congress Historical American Building Survey collection
Click to "embiggen" for wonderful detail

The kids in "Gone Away Lake" were simply seeing the architecture of their grandparents' time. The rambling and deserted house Mary Lennox roamed in the turn-of-the-century "A Secret Garden" was probably only 50 years old, to her.

But fashions in architecture change, and by the mid-Twentieth Century, Victorian houses were considered out of style, embarrassing, and tacky.

House on Bunker Hill, photo from Los Angeles Public Library

By 1940, the fabulous Victorian mansions of turn-of-the-century moguls on L.A.'s Bunker Hill were known as slums and eyesores. City planners intent on real estate development pushed the idea, and it was reinforced in popular culture.

You can see this in film and TV, too. Abbot and Costello's haunted houses had probably been built around the same time Bud and Lou had been born - Abbot's birth was in 1895. But they were pictured as shambling horrors.

Bunker Hill house, 1960. Photo by William Reagh, Los Angeles Public Library

The old house was considered as outmoded and lame as we consider Levittown's ticky-tacky little boxes today. Or a '70s A-Frame with earth-tone tiles and shag carpet.

So here we are in 2010, and my house, built in 1961, is now almost 50 years old itself. Does it look like "This Old House" romantic fantasy I always longed for?

Richard Neutra House, 2300 Silver Lake Blvd., Los Angeles, built in 1940, restored 1963

Well, no. It's a low-slung, flat-roofed split level, with jalousie windows, stuccoed walls, and vertical wood paneling. It style apes the International Style of Richard Neutra and Rudolph Schindler of a few decades prior to its construction. I will concede it does so gracefully, and the house is pleasing to live in.

But as far as a homeowner's chores go, it might as well be a shambling turretted Victorian wreck. Since we bought the house 13 years ago, we've replaced the kitchen appliances and cabinets. We've replaced some 20 of its windows, but there's another 20 to go. When we moved in, there were still dial telephones hard-wired into the walls - we had to have proper phone jacks put in. We had the wooden railings on the deck rebuilt, since the wood was rotting and becoming dangerous.

Master bathroom, Case Study House No. 22, built in 1960, designed by Pierre Koenig

We also put off more costly system replacements - the '60s-era electric furnace is about as efficient and effective as having a giant toaster in the basement. The bathroom is woefully out of date. And what keeps me awake some nights is thinking about the septic tank - which may fail at any time.

After thirteen years, it's also obvious that a fresh paint job will soon be necessary, but first we should replace some of the wooden siding where woodpeckers have drilled holes - and I guess that indicates a need to check for termites.

Right now those big projects are out of reach, so we keep going on day to day with a sort of triage approach. We repair that which is critical and necessary. Case in point - the stairs to our back deck are the kind made of concrete slabs cantilevered on steel beams.

One day our grown son was thundering down the steps when a chunk of paver broke off beneath his feet. We spent a week or so blocking off access to the stairs while we searched building supply houses for replacement slabs, and the Yellow Pages for a welder who could attach them. We even laid in a supply of spares in case it happened again.

When you think of restoring an old house, you think of painstakingly refinished intricately carved woodwork, not welding exposed-aggregate concrete slabs.

But it's a good thing we did that. Because just this Saturday, I tried to turn the '60s-era brushed aluminum doorknob to open our front door. It stuck fast. It had been sticking a bit lately, annoyingly, so I asked [The Man I Love] to give it a try.

No luck. It won't budge.

We've spent the last three days going up and down the back steps to get in and out of our house. It's no fun with a carload of groceries. Today I'm waiting for a locksmith to come. I warned him we'd probably need a replacement doorknob.

I wonder how much this is going to cost.

And I wonder what's going to break next.


Cloudia said...

Bless you for loving this old gem!

Aloha, Friend

Comfort Spiral

Von said...

Lovely post,beautiful houses, so precious and great to see when some are saved.
Your choice is either a ticky-tacky box or something that needs constant repairs and maintenance.
Approaching it with love as if it's a living entity and needs care and looking after, often helps.
We use a management plan just as for a business and can then plan the work that needs doing or in those that might happen in an emergency.It takes the worry out of it and makes us appreciate living in a relic! Good luck!

Anonymous said...

I tried to convince my husband that we should purchase an historic house here... or if not that, perhaps one only 100 years old (the county is over 250 years old). We did look at a 100yo home with lovely wood in the living room and front staircase. It also had a 100yo furnace, 100yo side porch, and many other items of interest. I still drive past it occasionally, but this 33yo home we ended up buying has enough upkeep! (And occasionally, I lose sleep over the septic tank, too.)

Blondie's Journal said...

It seems we all have the idealized perception of an 'old home', and then once purchased, reality sets in. We love the word renovate over remodel. Repair is not in our vocabulary.

We have done all of the crazy fixing and fixing up with both of our homes. The timetable is determined by the size of our bank account. And...our main house was bought at a steal as a 'fixer upper' and I sadly learned my husband was not the 'fixer upper' type.

So, my friend, it's a day by day thing. Oh, we just replaced the water heater.



Money pit indeed.

Sue (Someone's Mom) said...

We've owned 5 homes in 3 different towns. The one we are in now was 5 years old when we bought it...3 of the others were old homes, 1 was a historic 3-story built in the late 1800's. It was huge, had archways, built-ins, wonderful things. It was a mess when we bought it and we restored it back to gorgeous. By the time we were done...I almost hated it. It took so much time, work and money. Now that some time has passed, there are things I really miss about it. I will say that walking into a house that I only change things because I want a different look is wonderful. I think I'm done with old houses!


Gilly said...

I wonder if so many of your old houses have gone that way because of the greater use of wood than we would use in the UK?

Most of the good Victorian houses in the UK are still in fine shape, may need updating of course, and window frames, soffits, ouside doors etc. need constant attention (as does any painted wood outside in Britain!) But genenrally speaking, the bricks and mortar are fine, the slates on the roof might need one or two putting back into place, but otherwise all is OK.

I'm not speaking, of course, of the cottages thrown up during the industrial expension of our cities. They were badly built, usually single skin hovels, which have mostly rightly been pulled down. But many solidly built small homes are still standing, and doing just fine!

But then we don't have termites, or woodpeckers (ours stay in trees!) or a lot of hot sun beating down. We do have wind, rain, hail, sleet, snow etc. Especially this winter!

Our present house was built in the 2920's - its been rewired, and some replumbing, central heating put in, and we've had double glazed windows fitted. But otherwise, its still standing! And doing better than some 1960's houses which were rather 'thrown up' then!

Sorry for long post, I'll shut up now!

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