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Another One Bites the Dust

By Tina Traster

February 8, 2012 -- As I watched the yellow earth mover scooping out mounds of dirt, I crossed my fingers and hoped the folks who recently bought the house around the corner were making room for an in-ground pool.

Hope dimmed as the excavation got deeper and deeper, week after week.

“I guess they’re building a new house,” I said with a sigh to my husband, Ricky.

With sadness and resignation, I knew another old farmhouse in my neighborhood would succumb to the wrecking ball.

It’s a sweet house, really — not unlike my 150-year-old farmhouse. It’s a two-story, white, weathered clapboard that dates back to 1905 and looks like it’s been added to several times over a century. There’s a bay window and green shutters in the front and a brick chimney rising through the roof. Over the years, I’ve driven past the house, which is perched on a hill, craning to catch a glimpse of the large ginger cat in the window.

Then, I saw a “For Sale” sign. Not long after, the bulldozer arrived.

I’m told the old 1,492-square-foot house will be knocked down once the new 2,803-square-foot, two-story house, on an acre of land, is finished.

My daughter, Julia, says the new house looks like a tall birdhouse. I think it looks like the kind of mailbox that’s often affixed to a wall. You can picture it: It’s trapezoidal, and the roof slants in only one direction, as though it’s a flap that can be opened by the postman.

Down at the end of my steep mountain road, in the other direction, there’s a 1,408-square-foot green, bungalow-style home, built in 1854, on a 4-acre wooded parcel, that’s available for $450,000. A broker told me, “There’s no value in the house; the value is in the land.” Sure, it might have seen better days — but is it really unsalvageable?

Every time an old house disappears, we lose another shred of our collective American legacy. Who we have been and what we have endured and accomplished lingers within the walls in houses our ancestors built when they got around by horse-and-buggy or grew fruit trees or trapped mink.

All that dies when houses are demolished, particularly when larger, out-of-scale McMansions are their replacements.

When you have an old house like I do, you still find wagon wheels buried in the dirt when you plant a new garden. You unearth shards of pottery in the unfinished basement. When you renovate, you discover charred studs that tell you there was a kitchen fire but the house survived, and that newspaper (from the mid-1850s) was used as insulation and might have even been the cause of a fire that spread.

People who treasure old houses are like a fraternity. Get together with them and there will be something of a pissing match over whose stone foundation is thicker or who has spent more replacing aging infrastructure. We are superheroes. We protect something that is elusive and disappearing. We think of ourselves as rescue workers — even if our houses look like a “teardown” to brokers and builders.

I’ve read that 250,000 houses are torn down annually across the United States. (For more details, visit preservationnation.org and its interactive map.)

When we bought our house nearly seven years ago, it was in a state of disrepair — uninhabitable, really. Having come from easy co-op living in the city, I don’t know what possessed me to make an offer on the house. I can only say that when I walked inside, I saw, beyond the broken windows and cobwebs, imaginary vignettes of family life stretching so far back that I felt compelled to make my own history in this house.

The place needed a gut-renovation, but I was dead-set on maintaining its footprint and lovely bones. Three contractors who came to look at it did not want my business. A fourth said, “This is really a teardown.” Eventually, the house was rejuvenated through the miracle of carpentry and tiling and paint, but we salvaged old floors, an iron claw-foot bathtub and a brick hearth. I believe the Garrabrants, the family that built the house 150 years ago, would be pleased. And relieved.

An old house is a labor of love, so I understand not everyone has the time, appetite or desire to resuscitate or maintain one. I just wish people who have no interest in old houses would leave them alone for people who do.

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