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Madison Monday

Madison Monday: Living in a historic home

By August 22, 2011No Comments
Our house is the green side
No, Madisonians, this is not a post about Ribberfest. Despite the rumors of Eric Clapton’s impending appearance, I did not go. Ribberfest is a great event. Good music, a lovely lighted balloon parade, good beer. But we had a baby shower to host Saturday night, and it is, in the end, about ribs. And being a vegetarian, ribs are not as exciting to me as they might be to others.
I will share the Eric Clapton rumor, though, because it’s just classic as rumors go in its bizarre rumor logic. The rumor went (and there were several theories as to its source) that Eric Clapton was going to show up and play with Buddy Guy on Saturday night, because….they’re good friends, Eric Clapton often shows up to play with Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton had no other gig Saturday night, Eric Clapton’s wife owns property in Columbus, Ohio (just around the bend, I guess), and of course, Eric Clapton has always wanted to visit Madison. No, Eric Clapton did not show up, though some folks reported seeing him in the line for a lemon shake-up.
So, in lieu of a report from Ribberfest, I offer a reflection on living in a historic home. Mainly, this in response to Emily at As the Crowe Flies (And Reads!) who requested a picture of the outside of my house. Let me just warn you that the outside (at least in my opinion) is not as nice as the inside. Which is fine for me in a house…I live on the inside, and am less concerned with what it looks like from the outside. In fact, there’s a slight advantage to having a house that doesn’t look like much from the outside, as it sends the message: “Nothing to steal in here!”

My house had actually been on the market for almost a year when I bought it, and I think a lot of folks looked at the picture from the outside and decided to pass. First, the house is what’s called a classic Madison double. No, it is not a duplex. Duplexes came along later. But in the 1840s when folks were building in Madison, they often built two houses attached to each other. This isn’t so different from the row houses you see in places like Phildelphia, and there are some blocks of row housing here in Madison. But the double is more common.

My house is a front-gabled double, and that’s not as common in Madison. Most of the doubles are side-gabled. You have now heard the full extent of my knowledge of architectural jargon, but it basically means my house has the little peak in the front, rather than the side. Double houses were built at the same time and usually mirrored each other on the inside, but they were never one house. They were almost always owned separately, and they continue to be sold separately. In today’s age of the single family, detached home, this is kind of mind-blowing. My father is still not convinced that my house was not once one house that someone split in two, but I can assure you, it has always been two houses.

I grew up out in the country, with quite a bit of distance between us and the nearest neighbors. Every time someone moved even vaguely close to our house, my parents would plant a row of fast-growing pine trees between us and them. So the idea of living actually attached to your neighbor is really hard for my parents to handle. But the walls in these old houses are thick. For example, I had been playing the fiddle for a good 3 months before my neighbor realized it, and then only because he heard me as he was sitting on his front porch and I had the front window open.

Old houses, or at least the old houses in Madison, are porous. I think a metaphor my husband used once was that they’re kind of like ships in the sea; they take on some water, but they don’t sink. Or maybe that was my metaphor. At any rate, the bricks in these old houses were made of sand from the river banks, and so they don’t share the same properties as today’s bricks. If you don’t have some good, thick layers of paint on them, they’ll leach water in and you will get the inevitable plaster bubbling. Because, yes, the walls are plaster, and when plaster gets wet, it bubbles. Sometimes this happens even when you have a good, thick coat of paint, and then you have to spend a great deal of money figuring out why. And I learned just the other day that it takes 2 years after you correct whatever it was that was getting your bricks wet in the first place for them to totally dry out. So, owning an old house teaches you to think of time differently.

On the other hand, the beams that hold up our floor are poplar, and they probably came from the hills around town, which in the 1800s, were completely bare of trees. The plaster in the basement is horsehair, which means it has real horsehair in it. The ceilings are high, the stairs are totally not up to any building code from the last century, and there are doors in all kinds of strange places. I do my very best not to try to think about how many people might have died in my house, because after The Sixth Sense, it just creeps me out.

The rose bush in front of my house

When you have a historic home in a small town like Madison, every person you bring in to do some work will have tidbits to share with you about the history of your house. A plumber informed me that the mantle in our living room is not original to the house, but was salvaged from a hotel that was torn down in Madison. The plumber can also tell you how old the water heater is, because he installed it.

The best thing about the outside of my house is really the church next door, because churches make good neighbors. There’s a nice little lawn in front of what used to be the rectory where our daughter can play, and the light that reflects off the church in the morning keeps our house from ever feeling dark. And as the sun sets in the evening on the other side of the church, the light comes through the stained glass windows, creating quite a gorgeous show. And with the window open on Sunday, you can hear the choir singing. We get to see brides headed into the church to get married, and coffins being loaded out to be buried. That’s a lot of life’s pageantry going on right outside your door.

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