Friday, November 11, 2011

Where Would I Be Without You?

by Sheila Connolly

As I mentioned a month or so ago, I scheduled another trip to Old Sturbridge Village (I swear they aren't paying me to say this!) to hear Bruce Irving and his sidekick Norm Abram speak. Bruce, formerly producer of This Old House, has recently published a book titled New England Icons, in which he combined lovely photographs by Greg Premru and short essays, seeking to define what elements characterize New England in our popular culture, with a little dash of "why." Norm has written the preface to it.

As I've said before, I write about New England because of that mental image that we share—and because of all those departed ancestors who keep calling to me (yes, Bruce has a chapter on cemeteries). I'll admit I fell under the spell long-distance before I was in my teens, and I haven't been disappointed in the times ( plural) that I've lived here. It feels like "home" to me.

I went to this event because I wanted to meet Norm Abram. However, it wasn't until I was sitting at the event (a nice luncheon of locally-sourced foods, assembled a mere day after OSV regained power after the big storm) that I realized the impact Norm has had on my life, and on my writing.

I've been a devotee of This Old House since its first season. Long before my husband and I bought a Victorian home, I had virtually memorized the original book, about the renovation of a Victorian home in Dorchester, MA. (That one was written by Bob Vila and Jane Davidson, but Norm shows up in a number of the photographs.) I've also watched New Yankee Workshop for years. I can't tell you how many useful details I've learned from watching both shows. Mind you, I'm not a carpenter—in fact, I'm a bit scared of power tools, and use our miter saw with trepidation—but at least I know which is what and what to do with it, thanks to Norm et al. I even bought a spokeshave (look it up), which I've used for fitting shingles.

Lest you think I'm straying too far from a literary theme, I have come to realize that a lot of what I learned about renovation comes from books. Like any good academic, I had to read up on a subject before I could tackle it directly. A book gives you an overview, tells you about the sequence of events that must occur, warns you about pitfalls, and shows you the final product you're aiming for (as an aside, I feel the same way about Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking: she gives clear instructions, provides simple drawings, and tells you that if your sauce looks curdled, you can still fix it).

The television shows only reinforced the written instructions for me. In addition, I see now that each half-hour segment tells a story. The goals are set at the beginning (wire a room, pour a foundation, etc.); the tools and personnel are gathered; the work progresses, with a few detours and surprises (what, some idiot sawed through the major supporting beam?); and in the end there is a satisfactory resolution--and the owner has something tangible he or she can inhabit or sit on.

In addition, there has always been a subtext about the conflict between respecting the work of the past and introducing modern innovations. How much of the old do you keep? For example: In the early days of the colonies, wood was plentiful, especially compared to over-harvested England, where most of the colonists originated, and the builders went a little crazy with it. They built huge central fireplaces; no matter that most of the heat went up the chimney rather than warming the house, because they had wood to spare. It took a while before that first giddy exuberance was tempered, and fireplace design improved.

But today the practical and the romantic collide: most American homes, even the ones being built today, have fireplaces. We no longer need them for heat, but they call to us on some fundamental level. Even Norm admits that when he built his own house, he incorporated four fireplaces; the family uses only one of them, and the rest are a tribute to our shared colonial heritage. A house is not a home without a hearth (or four).

In the Orchard series I write about a colonial house built ca. 1760. Yes, it was built around a massive central chimney with multiple fireplaces (the brick piers in the basement are huge). Although the real house that I use for a model was modified in the 19th century, in the book I restored it to its original form—and my protagonist finds herself using the fireplace for its intended purpose when her furnace gives up the ghost during a blizzard. In the Museum mysteries, my heroine owns what was formerly a tiny carriage house, but when she bought it she made a point of installing a working fireplace for her own enjoyment. Obviously, consciously or sub-consciously I have absorbed the iconic nature of this architectural feature.

I couldn't have done it—refurbished houses or written about them—without Norm and all the other guys (and the occasional woman) on This Old House, so I offer my thanks to all of you.

What about you?  Do you preserve the old or embrace the new?

P.S. I did ask both men what was the most interesting thing the ever found in a house they were reworking. Sorry, no bodies, although they did find a carefully hidden bottle of laudanum.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, do you have a source or just an impression for "most American homes have fireplaces"? It sounds wrong to me--or is it just because I live in Manhattan?

Sandra Parshall said...

I seldom see a free-standing house that doesn't have a fireplace chimney -- even the contemporaries have them.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Love this, Sheila! And love Norm and Steve and the entire show, although I no longer get to see it often.

My first husband had an ancient house on Long Island and claimed to have found a skeleton in the crawlspace while working on the electrical system. Probably a body that had been buried by an early owner, with the grave site built over in later additions. Or considering who was telling the story, maybe something much more sinister -- and far more recent!

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