Around here old houses were built sometime in the 20th century. It’s a big deal. Whole ‘historic districts’ have been demarcated with little signs on top of the street signs like the ‘scenic road’ signs on the highway. The landlord of a house I looked at recently pointed out all the little things she had done to keep the house’s appearance ‘period,’ which in this case was the 1930s. She had torn up the linoleum floors and scraped off the white paint to reveal the wood planks underneath. The house had to be excavated from underneath what these days is midcentury detritus. As far as houses are concerned, the 1930s are more hip than the 1960s.
Our house, in this older-is-better logic, suffers under more recent fashion atrocities. It was built in 1908, and when my parents moved in, in the 1970s, there was a wraparound porch, and a large central wood stove. The more recent additions, back then, were the thick brown carpets, the hallway that connected the main house to a smaller cottage, and several electric heaters mounted around the house.
In the winter I remember living from heater to heater. Whatever we were doing it was always next to the stove or a heater. The stove gave me two childhood fascinations: the stove was all cast iron, so it was possible to place a cylindrical magnet on the side and watch it roll all the way down without leaving the stove’s surface. When the stove was hot, spit became mesmerizing. One droplet from my lips would sizzle violently and move itself at random across the stove’s flat surface, disappearing after a few seconds.
These things are tinged with nostalgia because at some point in my childhood my parents decided to remodel. They had fallen into a sizable chunk of cash, and apparently had been building up fantasies of what the house could be. The porch--where once my brother and I had run around in Superman costumes getting splinters in our feet--moved inside. The living room, as a result, became enormous, and was lined with huge windows. The brown carpets and smallish windows had made the house dark, and now it was seething with sunlight. The carpets were taken away, and pale wood floors were installed. The basement was turned into living space, the awkwardest that ever was: a bedroom without a door, attached to an office. If we’re stuck with positive adjectives, our house had gone from cozy to spacious. If on the other hand we’ve only negative, then from cramped and dark to empty and blinding. We still like to say that it was built in 1908.
This house has gone the opposite route, for far more expense. Instead of remodeled it has been restored. It received the most elaborate paint job in town a few years ago. It’s eye-popping and ostentatious in easter-egg shades of purple, aqua, and gold. Behind a black iron fence it looks to be an untouchable, pristine relic. I have never seen anyone enter or exit it. This could be because the entrance is an alley away from prying eyes. Public and private has been defined rigidly here: Two sides of the house are to be seen, two are not.
This year that paradigm has been finalized. The most solidly build privacy fence I’ve ever seen has been constructed on the private side. It’s made of thick, well-stained wood and iron slats. The alley along which it is built is one I walk several times a week (it’s my route to the library). When it was being built I saw the trench in which it is now anchored. It was three feet deep. This fence is more like a wall, and it isn’t going anywhere.