Tag Archives: Old House Love

5 Years at Home

It’s my fifth housiversary!

The first summer

I closed on this house five years ago today. On previous housiversaries, I’ve blogged about that first day, and about random spring cleaning.

But this morning, I was feeling reflective. We tend to do that on birthdays and anniversaries that are divisible by 5.

When the alarm went off, I laid in bed for a few minutes, stretching and yawning, listening to talk radio as my brain woke up. I gazed over the river and watched the sunrise sparkle and shimmer on the water, promising another bright spring day.

Sure, I’ve done a lot of improvements, replaced a lot of windows and doors, painted, maintained, etc. And there are still things left undone from the very first to-do lists.

But more than anything, I’ve made this a home in a way that none of my apartments ever were. Living in a place over an extended period of time, you get comfortable. You try things in different places and learn that the Christmas tree fits best along that wall, or the best place to put the patio table for optimum sunshine. Every spring, the bulbs planted that first fall continue to delight.

You spread out, and hang souvenirs and photos throughout the house. Add shelves, configure storage, and reconfigure six months later when you find a better solution. You add scuffs to the walls and baseboards from day-to-day living and moving around.

The place is thick with memories. From turning the key that first day to celebrating new jobs, birthdays and grad school to surviving snowfalls and basement geysers, every room brings back a flood of memories and moments, from the monumental to the mundane.

Most of all, though, it’s home. There’s a sense of relief that envelops me as I cross the threshold after a rough day. It’s knowing that I don’t have to abide by an Alzheimer’s-addled landlord who forgot he cashed my check and threatened eviction.

And it’s community. I moved to Elgin knowing barely anyone, and not really sure I knew what I was getting into. But the neighbors and community I have found have surpassed my wildest expectations and make the entire neighborhood and city, beyond my property lines, truly home.

So here’s to the first five years. They weren’t perfect, and I really, really need to finally replace those damn light fixtures that have bugged me since Day 1, but I’m lucky to have made such a great home. Here’s to many more.


Humility, Thy Name is Level

Monday morning started off like most others: I grumbled at the alarm clock while thankful it was a work at home day, padded downstairs, made breakfast, started a load of laundry and settled in with coffee as I flipped through my work email.

An hour later, I remembered the laundry and went down to move it into the dryer. I discovered that everything was soaking wet. The water had drained out, but apparently, the spin cycle hadn’t really spun anything.

I fiddled with it and tried the spin cycle again. Nothing happened. And again. The motor was running fine, but the agitator wasn’t spinning. I started Googling and called my dad. We were able to guess it might be the belt – after all, there had to be a belt that somehow connects the motor to the agitator, right?

In the meantime, I wrung out, by hand, an entire load of mostly pajamas, sweats and other heavy clothes, squeezing nearly five gallons of icy cold water into a bucket.

Wednesday night, I tried to get the screws off the back of the panel to open up the machine and find the belt. I hoped the belt had merely slipped off and could be repositioned, or, barring that, had snapped and could be replaced. A couple of the screws were rusted on and stuck, so I called Dad again. He agreed to stop by today.

My parents came over this morning, tool box in tow. After figuring out the panel situation, we couldn’t find the belt, but upon investigation, we could see it at the bottom, beneath the basin. We tipped the machine back and saw the belt, perfectly intact, perfectly in place, and spinnable.

It looked like the dreaded repairman was in my future. Googling had said it could also be a pulley in the motor, or the sensors, neither of which we were prepared to fix.

But then we decided to do one more test run, just to see what happened. And after putting it back together and re-leveling it, the darn thing worked.

Apparently, all along, the problem was that it was grossly, egregiously out of level.

No floor in this house is level, and the basement is no exception. There’s a pretty good slope in the concrete, in part so that if water does get in, it flows down towards the floor drain. I’ve always adjusted for that with a small shim under one of the washer’s feet, but the shim had slipped and apparently, it was enough that the spin cycle wouldn’t spin.

I felt like an idiot for calling my dad all the way to Elgin to help, so he helped me hang a new spice rack I just finished painting. (It’s hard to judge appropriate height, mark the holes, etc alone.) But as he pointed out, at least I called him before a repairman. Then I really would have felt dumb, shelling out money so someone could tell me my floor’s not level.

Consider it a lesson learned.

Must Everything Go?

This morning, I attended my first estate auction, held at a house just a few blocks away. Built in the 1880s, the house has been vacant since its owner, Bernice, died 7 or 8 years ago. She had grown up in that house, then married and lived there with her husband. They had no children, so after she passed away, it sat, full of antiques and a lifetime’s worth of accumulated stuff.

The online advertisement talked of how rare it is to find a house with its contents so intact, and surveying the rows and rows of tables filled with everything from beautiful antique furniture to the minutiae of life – pots and pans, tablecloths, Christmas ornaments – made me kind of sad.

It took only three hours to auction off an entire lifetime of things. Each of those items had a story behind it, and I’m sure Bernice could have told you that the large platter was a Christmas present from her husband or she wore that broach to her best friend’s wedding. Maybe the books and books of stamps, so lovingly collected over the years, were a hobby shared with her husband. Did she receive the china as a wedding gift?

Even sadder were the photographs. Those were auctioned off in lots, and when interest waned, they started combining boxes, so three boxes of assorted family photographs – for a family whose line has ended – were going for a bid of $10. There was a pair of old photographs of the house itself, dated 1887, that should have stayed with the house, but instead they were bought and carted away.

I know that, with no heirs to speak up for the items, an auction is the logical way to dispose of it all. But I wonder if Bernice could have ever thought that the entire box of mementoes from her career at the Elgin National Watch Company would fetch just $20 from a stranger some 30 years later. And when I got home, and surveyed the items I’ve collected in my travels, I wonder if the silver Turkish coffee set I haggled for in Istanbul or the hand-painted clay puppets from Greece will some day be part of a similar auction.

I never raised my bid card, though I wish I would have on the Lady Elgin pendant watch, gold-filled, that went for $25. And the green Depression glassware was so pretty, but I had no real use for it. A friend won a couple lots of quilts and goofus glass, and gave me a pair of Japanese plates that had been thrown in. They’ll look nice in my built-in china cabinet.

Overall, it was an interesting morning, standing in the pouring rain under umbrellas, watching an entire houseful of items be inspected and carried off. (The mimosas and hot coffee definitely added some joviality to the affair.) I think I’ll go to more auctions in town, if even just to see the old photos of Elgin as it used to be. And maybe I’ll find a watch, or a photo of my house, perched up on the bluff.


Multi-Hued Windows

I’ve been putting off the big task of scraping and painting my windows since last summer. Though I’ve replaced many of my windows, especially those in highly used rooms, the enclosed porch still includes 11 old windows, and the two in the back hall are also due for some fresh paint.

I decided I would do it right, and scrape off the old peeling white paint before I put on fresh coats of primer and paint. My dad cautioned me to take my time and just do a few at a time. I bought the paint a couple weeks ago, but it’s been raining or humid each weekend, so today was my first chance.

I pulled down the window screens on either side of the front door, since I could easily reach them without a ladder. I set up my scraping area on the driveway, shaded by the garage, and set to work.

I quickly discovered a layer of black paint beneath the white paint. Apparently these windows had been black at one point, like much of the trim on my white house. But as I scraped (and scraped, and scraped), I discovered a layer of rust-red paint beneath the black. And more scraping revealed a bright blue paint.

So many layers of paint...

Finally, I realized that I could spend months scraping 13 windows all the way down to bare wood. Once I had scraped everything I could, I sanded things thoroughly, and then applied a coat of primer.

I sanded and primed two windows today. I’ll paint tomorrow, and then repeat the process next week. If I bump it up to three windows at a time, I’ll be done by mid-September.

But it’s kind of interesting to envision what my house would have looked like with blue or orangey-red trim. I have old black and white photos, but nothing in color.


I live in an old neighborhood. I was drawn to the area because the houses are all different and there are some families who have been here for decades. My next door neighbor (the good one) grew up in his house and bought it from his father about ten years ago. He has told me stories about the elderly couple that lived in my house when he was growing up. Apparently, the lady paid neighborhood kids a quarter per bucket of acorns they collected in the fall, then parceled them out to squirrels over the winter. (Personally, I think she created an unnecessary middleman, since modern squirrels seem to have no problem digging nut holes all over my yard and flowerbeds.)

In the history of Elgin, my neighborhood was the home for many of the workers at the Elgin Watch Company. At the time, it was called Dutch Flats since it was originally settled by Germans who fell into the common mistake of being called “Dutch” rather than “Deutsch.” From where I sit at this very moment, I can see across the river to the site of the former factory and tower – though now it’s a somewhat seedy strip mall. In the summer, the grove of trees block much of this view.

When I was buying, I knew I wanted an older house, since they often have far more character than the newer cookie cutter houses, plus they’re more often situated in the older, urban neighborhoods that are walking distance to (in my case, anyway) the train depot, supermarket, library and the historic downtown. True, new houses can have the manufactured charm of built-ins and woodwork, but that usually comes at a steep price. Plus, I could afford far more old house. I gave an emphatic no to the new cornfield subdivisions that require a car to get milk. I didn’t want to live in a place where visitors had to know the exact house number to differentiate mine from its identical neighbors. I like being able to say, “It’s the white house with the big porch.”

When I found my house, the realtor guesstimated it had been built in the early 1900s. The inspector guessed about 1920. The township said 1900, which seems to be its default date for the neighborhood. I went with the inspector’s guess and imagined my house being built during the Roaring 20s, with Prohibition and a booming economy.

Then, last night, at my neighborhood meeting, someone brought a copy of an architectural survey the city did a few years ago. Excitedly, I flipped through it. Each house in our neighborhood was listed, along with date, style and any special significance. My house is listed as a Gabled Ell style built circa 1890. Apparently the Gabled Ell features a floorplan with the entrance in the corner (check), a steeply pitched roof (check), a second floor gable of nearly equal height to the main roof (check) and tall second floor windows (check). They were built using a simple design, but allowing for more light and cross-ventilation than traditional. That last bit was one of the big draws of my house – it felt very open and sunny upon first look, and that remains true. In summer, with windows open, I get a great breeze, especially since I’m perched on top of a hill next to a river.

But now that I’ve discovered my house is older than I originally thought, I’m anxious to research my home’s pedigree. Apparently the city has a trove of resources. Some rainy Saturday, I’ll head down to the library and see if I can trace its history. Depending on the number of owners over the years, I might be able to put together a pretty comprehensive history!

What’s that noise?

My last apartment was in the attic of an 1890s Victorian house. When the wind blew, the house shook and rocked back and forth. It creaked and groaned as it settled or when big trucks drove by. But it never really bothered me.

Now my cat makes the dining room floor creak. New hairline cracks appear occasionally – or were they always there and I just never noticed? Has that door always been slightly crooked?

Yes, yes, of course I had a home inspector give the place a good once-over before I bought. The house got a clean bill of health with only a couple very minor problems that are well par for the course for a home built in the 1920s. But now that it’s my house and I’m responsible for anything that might go wrong – and its resale value – the little things worry me. Is that little crack indicative of a much bigger problem? Is it warning of structural failure? Will it cost thousands to fix?

Or is it truly nothing?

I think growing up in a relatively new house – built in the 70s – is partially responsible for this neurosis. The house hadn’t had decades to settle and show its age. With routine maintenance, nothing ever really broke. Sure, we had a new roof put on when I was in high school and I remember having the electrical upgraded, but everything else was merely cosmetic and entailed replacing the ugly harvest gold appliances and fixtures.

Even though I worry about the age and health of my old house, I do love it. I looked at dozens of houses online and in person during my hunt, and the search reaffirmed my love for the older house, with charming woodwork and built-in cabinetry. Plus, I’m not in a neighborhood filled with identical beige cookie cutter houses. On one side, there’s an 1860s yellow house with purple and green trim. My wonderful neighbors on the other side live in a mint green house built around 1900.

But still, when it’s late and the house is quiet, save for the ticking of the clock, I wonder if that crack on the living room ceiling has always been there.