This Old New House

This Old New House

Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk syndicate
Copyright 2009

I miss living in an old house.

I lived in an old mansion-turned-fraternity house when I was in college. My last day there was about 21 years, at Ball State University.

The thing was a dump. About what you'd expect a fraternity house to look like, sound like, and of course, smell like. There's nothing like the smell of stale beer in the basement carpet to smack you in the face on a hot summer day.

But it was our house, all the sights, sounds, and smells.

That house is gone now, the fraternity chapter closed down. Not too surprising: a house that smells like that tends to be a little more disreputable than the other houses on campus. (A reputation we were proud of.)

I have one of the few remaining bricks from the old plaec, having taken a few of them a few years before it was torn down. (Don't worry, no one was living in there at the time.)

Since that time, I have lived in four houses, all new. In fact, we just moved into a brand new house two months ago. It's missing something.

Don't get me wrong. I love my house. After renting for three years, it's the first house we've been able to call ours in a long time. The last house we owned seems so long ago, my 7-year-old son barely remembers it. But my new house is not an old house.

Old houses are great, because they're filled with character. They have personalities, stories, a past. The floorboards creak at the memory of the kids who played there decades ago. The door that never stays shut. The window that gets stuck when it's going to rain.

People who live in historic homes love their painted ladies, not despite their problems and weird quirks, but because of them. They learn to live with them, and even to love them, blaming noises on the the heat, the cold, or the ghost of the first owner who never quite left.

New houses don't have any of that. They lack the character and charm of the old house.

Our fraternity house was built in 1912, designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's. And 75 years later, it had all the charm of a Southern belle at a cotillion.

We had two sets of stairs, one of which creaked horribly. The steam radiators had to be bled once in a while to get rid of the air bubbles. And we had to cover the windows with plastic film during the winter.

While the house had all these faults, it was our house. We knew how to make the house work. We knew we couldn't let more than two people shower at one time. Or that you couldn't flush the toilet while they were in there. And that the dining room could not hold more than 20 people at once without the floor possibly collapsing into the basement.

It was sort of like your college car that needed a thump on the dashboard to get started on a cold morning.

When I lived in Syracuse, we moved into a brand new house in 1995, but it wasn't new when we left it. It had grown its own lovable quirks. One of the basement steps squeaked. When we finished the upstairs, the outline of the dormer bays looked like a coffin. And the crawlspace doors at the ends of the dormers would blow open if it was a windy day, but only in winter. I loved every inch of it, including the bathroom wall that was not quite square to the other walls.

I've done my best to give our house some character though. My most noticeable contribution is the black scuffmarks in the wall I made while carrying in our 10-year-old 70 pound television. They look like eyes squinting at you from inside the wall, like the kitchen is glaring at you.

On the other hand, old houses are cold in the winter, because they're notoriously underinsulated. There are so many cracks going into the attics that are big enough for a bear to crawl through. The only reason they don't is because they're afraid of the bats that live there.

On the other hand, my house is sealed tight against bats, rodents, and bears. And what it lacks for in creaking floors and sticking doors, it more than makes up for by being toasty warm in the winter, and pleasantly free of ghosts.

And no stale beer smells.

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