I’m always house-hunting. I don’t remember the exact number, but I’ve lived at more than thirty different addresses, including an apartment on York Street in Denver whose address was 1234. Our phone number was 0123.
Locations intrigue me. Houses have spirits. Jimmy Webb wrote a song, “If These Old Walls Could Speak,” and I believe they do if you listen closely enough.
The first house I owned was built in 1905 and the daughter of the couple who built it was blind. She lived there until she died and perhaps because of her blindness, the wallpaper had never been changed. The light fixtures had been electrified, but were original to the house. So was the furnace—a big old octopus of thing that kept us warm and dry throughout the short two years we lived there.
We didn’t change much of the wallpaper. I liked knowing that I was looking at wallpaper hung in the year Edith Wharton published The House of Mirth.
A decade later, after rambling from apartment to apartment and city to town to city, I bought an Arts and Crafts Sears kit home. The husband of the widowed woman from whom we bought it had served in the Office of Strategic Services. In the large study an entire wall had been covered with classified OSS maps showing where troops were stationed in Europe and the Pacific.
I would never have covered up those maps. They were a tribute to his legacy and they were equally as much a part of history. I was privileged to live with them. Every time I walked by them I remembered how much it must have meant to him to have served in the intelligence agency critical to the outcome of World War II.
The house I live in now has, itself, a story. It was designed by its builder and we have sketches of the changes he’d made to it over the years; we even have pictures of the family—the mother playing the piano, a bearskin rug on the wall, the two sons picnicking with their parents in the backyard.
For the past year we contemplated selling. And so I began to look at other old houses, discovering that as the real estate market has become sluggish and short sales and foreclosures more commonplace, many houses languish—empty, cold and apparently unsellable.
Even empty, these old edifices tell stories.
I looked at several GE Realty Plot houses. Large and grand, these houses were built after General Electric purchased land from Union College, landscaped the area and created “an enclave of elegance,” as it has been called.
One of the houses was on short sale, which is an owner’s nightmare. It’s the period before a bank claims the house in foreclosure, but the owner has no real say in who can purchase it. That’s the bank’s decision. This means a lovely home might sit vacant, nothing much done in the way of maintenance, for years. The houses we saw seemed to nearly ache with the need to be lived in, to be loved and cared for.
I looked at an old farmhouse, well over 200 years old, that was being sold to settle an estate. The place bore the marks of its most recent, dedicated owners. They had raised their children here and had cared for the place with great respect for its original layout, keeping the small rooms and low, beamed ceilings, stenciling the wide board floors.
The place was a project too complicated for us to take on, but as I walked the rooms I hoped some historically-minded couple would come to honor the spirit of the house and bring it to life once more. Certainly a farmhouse in as picturesque a place as a small New England town would be a prize find. But this house is on an unfashionable street near a strip mall and shopping center.
The other day I drove through the streets of the towns near where I grew up—Lansingburgh, Cohoes, Waterford. There were many “for sale” signs. Many “for rent” signs, too. And looking at houses I’d seen as a child, houses I’d fantasized about owning and decorating and claiming as my own, made me sad and not simply because of the passage of years since I was a kid. It was something more than that.
Houses do have spirits. And empty ones seem gaunt and in need. In the rush to build new houses, bigger houses, in the push to live in manicured developments, we lose a sense of what it means to honor what was there before we came to be there. We lose a sense of the love affair we can have with a place.