Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Just a thing that happens

“It always amazes me to think that every house on every street is full of so many stories; so many triumphs and tragedies, and all we see are yards and driveways.”
-Glenn Close

You remember that we were on our way to Charleston to look at this house. It is etched into my soul now, this place. But not in the way I hoped.

A long time ago, things began to go wrong for this home and it should be a lesson to us all. Having lived in Charleston, a city known for saving itself historically in a short period of years to become the thriving and beautiful tourist mecca it is today, I have watched more than one historic structure be saved. I have also watched more than one go straight into the peninsula without a salute.

We need to talk about this. We need to say the words that stop what I saw: If you cannot afford the house, do not keep the house or mortgage to get the house. Because the thing itself, the four walls around you, they were many things before they became the piano on your back: A dream of a good life and home for the family that built it, Grandma's house, Granddaddy's old farm, a place that survived wars, hurricanes, and fires only to be brought back to the earth by things with far less conviction or commitment than any of those things: Neglect and carelessness.

This one, she has seen it all: But the worst of the things that befell her were generations that could not afford her and her sale to people too heavily leveraged to complete her renovation in the manner which befit her grand entrance onto our nation's soil. She was heralded upon her arrival by a loving a family and a historic town which was rebounding. Today she is a huge house, just four walls and the remnants, so long disrespected, of the grand girl she was on her first day. Parquet floors and ten fireplaces. Seven bedrooms, seven baths. She was victimized by three mismatched additions. The place is now so cavernous that for a moment I could not find my two year old Daughter and passed through a half dozen rooms on one half of the second floor to get to her. No, she is not dangerous, it was not that kind of neglect. Not yet, anyway. But now she belongs to a bank, so time will tell. Just the latest insult for a grand dame, just a thing that happens here. Not like the example of Grey Gardens, where we learned how it is where I grew up: the town will just come out and find a way to stop it. Not here, though. Here she will drop column by column over decades until the lot is sold for pennies and a gas station is put in.

If you shored up the columns, if you put in a new kitchen, and were to seek the guidance of the historic folks in town, the Board or Architectural Review (the BAR, in local parlance), went over to College of Charleston and got their professors involved, the ones who have saved half the South, you could pull her back from the brink. That is all we would do. We would not do slap-shod, six pack renovations nor bring in architects who meant to merely update rather than restore. She deserves a restoration. She needs more than us. More than we can give from Washington, Jacksonville, or New York.

If one wanted to just make her workable, as she is indeed livable as is, it would take a few months. But in truth, I estimate more than a year, if your half million dollars was already assembled, and the wrecking ball standing by to take off the intolerable final addition to the rear of the structure. And Howell Beach standing by the side of the drive waiting for the heavy equipment to leave so he could reclaim the lot horticulturally-speaking, in the name of Southern history.

It is not beyond us to move in that direction in parts over years. And we were ready to spend a lifetime in stewardship to a historic home, my having been both the product and student of one, but I wanted to love the place straight out, not have the bittersweet feeling of loving something whose good is almost gone; near ruin. This is a job for a girl with a less tender heart.


An Aesthete's Lament said...

Have you interior photographs? I would love to see more of this. Great fan of Charleston here; my brother and his family live there, also numerous friends. I dream of palmettos and magnolias.

Mrs. Blandings said...

I wish you could take it on - she needs a capable mistress.

Blushing hostess said...

Working on it for you AAL, bit of a malfunction, er... user error...

Mrs. B, my thoughts exactly, only I am already so tired.

The Countess of Nassau County said...

I could have written exactly this essay about many, many houses my husband and I toured during our house hunting a few years back. "It's just too far gone". Was a common refrain of mine.

I currently live in one of the nation's oldest suburbs, and we see two sad trends in abundance 1)ridiculous additions that don't complement the house, the lot, or the neighborhoods, and 2) homes being leveled in order to build hideous new homes.

I recently had my master bath renovated and the biggest complement my wonderful carpenter gave me was that it perfectly matched my 1920's era house. But alas, the desire for space and modern convenience and the status of shiny and new far outweighs architectural integrity or appropriateness in the eyes of many.