Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Farm House Effect

As I mentioned long ago in the Journal, we didn't really know much of anything about Victorian homes when we purchased the Farm House. I knew Craftsman homes intimately from having been in and around many of them. My grandparents had a classic 1905 bungalow, and along the way I've lived in a few myself. I thus had a firm idea of precisely what details were appropriate for them, from light switches to kitchen fixtures. We in fact were looking to buy a Craftsman fixer-upper when we found the Farm House and fell in love. Landing it was the hardest battle Lydia and I have yet fought, but land it we did.

The thing is, once we did I felt like a car-chasing dog who suddenly discovers that he's caught one: okay, now what do I do? I mean, I knew enough to know that when the Farm House was built, it didn't have light switches or kitchen fixtures. Beyond that, I was pretty much clueless.

So I started to learn all I could about Victorian homes, and early on I noted that not only did they represent a distinct break from the homes that came before, but that the Craftsmen homes that came afterwards themselves represented a distinct break from Victorian homes. Pondering the distinctness of Victorian homes, it eventually dawned upon me that the people who built and lived in them must have been fairly distinctive as well. My area of study thus expanded dramatically: I had to learn not just the what of Victorian homes, but the who and the why as well.

At the same time, the people who had lived in the Farm House had not left many clues regarding how they had lived, and as I have discussed in the Journal, those they did leave indicated strongly that they had not lived the typical Victorian lifestyle—or at least that they had maintained that lifestyle for many decades after the rest of the world had moved on from it. Anne Wilson, who was born no later than 1865 and who lived in the house for well over 60 years, was clearly stubbornly intent upon maintaining the simple lifestyle into which she had been born; she did not install a gas heater until 1944, and the house was not electrified until 1950 by younger relatives (she was widowed by 1924). It's an intriguing history, but by no means a typical one, and not a terribly happy one either.

On the one hand, Anne and her grandson Dick left us a house that was still much as it was when it was built, with relatively few changes to obscure its original condition; this was a rare gift that few who undertake to restore an old house receive. On the other hand, they left a house with no memories save for sad ones, a house devoid of happy echoes, of dreams built and lived, of life.


The only characteristic the house had was its dogged stubbornness, its contemptuous disregard of the passage of time, its determination to withstand earthquakes and the relentless depredations of sun, wind and rain, its indomitable will to survive with dignity. It was this quality with which Lydia and I immediately fell deeply in love, and is so like the Anne we have come to know that we have to conclude that she did leave behind something quite fine, after all.

Thus, all we had to work with at the beginning was a strong indication of the house as originally built, and that air of indomitable dignity. We resolved to retain and enhance both aspects, but that was not enough. All this would give us was a museum, when what we needed was a home. Clearly, we needed more to work with.

So I conceived a narrative for the house's history. In this narrative, the Farm House had been lived in all along by a family much like our own, who had maintained the house reasonably well all along, but who otherwise had changed things no more than necessary to keep the house in compliance with the prevailing standards for comfort and utility. In this way, we hoped to end up with a home exuding Victorian exuberance with all the dignity that comes with age, one that continued to maintain the Victorian precepts of beauty in a modern context. This narrative has guided our work ever since.

To flesh out this narrative, I had to gain a familiarity with the way people lived not just when the house was built, but during the Farm House's entire existence. This added to my field of study not just the what, who and why, but the when and how as well, and not just for the Victorian period, but for every period between that one and the present. In other words, I had to become conversant in the history of everyday life since 1885.

Now, I was already up in such knowledge back to the late Thirties just from talking to my parents, who had come of age at about that time and were always happy to talk about the way things were. I knew, for example, that when my Dad was a young man before the war he smoked Wings cigarettes, because they were cheap but serviceable. He even told me how much they cost compared to name brand cigarettes. This is the kind of ephemeral knowledge from which one may build an understanding of how people lived, what their money was worth, what was important to them and so on. But before that, there was pretty much a brick wall. I knew a few details about a few things, but otherwise I was utterly in the dark. 

I threw myself into learning every little thing about American life from 1885 to 1935: art, music, architecture, popular entertainments, what they ate, what they drank, what they paid for everyday things, what they earned. And somewhere along the way, my sense of time changed.

Before this, I was like most people, I expect. Time began from my early memories, and everything before that was old. Things from before my parents' time were prehistoric. When I was 30, my date of birth did not seem terribly long ago, but 30 years before that seemed like 100 in my sense of history.

But once I started immersing myself in old ephemera, trying to get into the mind of the Victorian, the Edwardian, the Ragtime Bear and the Jazz Baby, my sense of history became quite linear. I began to understand the path from Al Jolson to Frank Sinatra as well as I did the path from the Rolling Stones to Nirvana. I started to view a film from 1925 with something approaching the cultural context of a man from 1925, and not as some moldy old piece of corn. With great speed, time was becoming less of a barrier to me, and to Lydia as well, because she has been right there with me all along.

Put another way, I was becoming the homeowner of my narrative, the man who had lived in the Farm House since 1885. I had synthesized a living memory that extended back many decades before my birth, and this synthesis continues to broaden and deepen as a natural consequence of the continuing Farm House restoration.

This is what I call the "Farm House effect": the extension of one's historical purview to encompass the lifetime of the old home he is restoring. I hypothesize that anyone who becomes intimately involved in the restoration of an old house experiences this effect to some degree, and that it becomes stronger the older the house is. I can only imagine what goes on in the mind of one whose labor of love is not a Victorian, but a Late Colonial.

I'd love to hear from those of you who are also restoring their old house, in order that we might compare notes. For my part, I will be providing examples of the Farm House effect in our own lives from time to time.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this passage:

    So I conceived a narrative for the house's history. In this narrative, the Farm House had been lived in all along by a family much like our own, who had maintained the house reasonably well all along, but who otherwise had changed things no more than necessary to keep the house in compliance with the prevailing standards for comfort and utility. In this way, we hoped to end up with a home exuding Victorian exuberance with all the dignity that comes with age, one that continued to maintain the Victorian precepts of beauty in a modern context. This narrative has guided our work ever since.

    Looking forward to more posts.

    ReplyDelete

Please don't let the "Comment as" dropbox annoy you:
Simply choose "Anonymous," and no one will check your papers.
Feel free to leave your name in the comment if you'd like.
I will be moderating the comments to keep out the spam.