Fifty One: Old, Cold Houses April 4, 2014Posted by Mark Folse in Toulouse Street.
Standing disrobed (literally, so as not to wet the velour sleeves) to do dishes in the unheated half of the house (the damn striker rarely then just barely manages a spark) lends a certain urgency to the matter. There is a bit of black mold on the baseboards just behind the toaster-over cart I’m going to have to get down and scrub away. My landlord and his man have searched every inch of the house but I’m pretty convinced the cold and damp come up through the floorboards, past whatever cheap underwood lies under the $2.99 a yard brown carpet. I hurried to get this thought down as soon as the dishes were in the dryer, so I’m sitting naked underneath my leaky, single-pane window which very effectively sets up a cross circulation of cooled falling air with the heater across the room. Sadly, I am sitting directly underneath that window’s downdraft.
So it goes with old house in New Orleans, especially the cheaper sort where they can still be found. I am not shure how I came to love old houses so. I raised in the self-designed home of one of New Orleans’ premier modernist architects, a thoroughly mid-century modern box with two sides brick firewall to protect us from the Levee Board-era frame houses just a drifting cinder’s gap away. The front and back first floor were walls of glass, the upstairs windows set in some sort of cement-renforced construction board left it’s natural gray. The roof was a commercial flat top of tar and gravel across which the neighborhood squirrels skittered in little avalanches of noise. It was just the sort of house the right-hand man of Arthur Davis and Nathaniel Curtis would build, a home for the man who oversaw the design and construction of the Brutalist masterpiece The Rivergate, with the world’s largest unsupported concrete span for a roof, every beam and cable exposed to showcase the builders work, soaring across horizontal space like with the grandeur of a secular cathedral, the wave-like undulations of its roof its sole concession to the works of god.
Sometimes I think of the Rivergate when I see the warped weather boards of an old New Orleans house, recall Brutalism as I shimmy among the glass insulation posts and faded cloth wiring of an old attic. The first old house I truly loved was not in New Orleans but in Detroit Lakes, Minnesota. The only new wiring was pulled for the stove and refrigerator, and I had to duck the fragile exposed post wiring every trip tp the attic. What remained of the horsehair or other 1910 insulation had mostly crumbled to about knee height, and there were not one but two large oil tanks in the basement that cost a fortune to fill. Because of the poor insulation the for sale paint job began to crack and peel the first winter as the heat bled out of the house,
How do you love a monstrosity like this? The windows were hand poured glass complete with bubbles and wavering irregularities which the entire weatherization budget of the EPA could not convince me to replace. The storm windows were also custom constructions of wood and glass, each numbered in an ornate font by a tiny screw on plate. To hang them the required climbing a 24 foot step-ladder and leaning much to far back to get them on their hooks. Still, I loved those windows, the knowledge that a glass maker and a carpenter had conspired to make each by hand. Nothing in that house came from the home improvement store except the ceiling fans I carefully wired to the old cloth-covered runs. There was a sconce light on my daughter’s room which contained the only conduited wiring, and I like to imagine the electrician fishing wires up old gas lines. It was a money trap homeowners nightmare and a work of craft and love to rival the most extravagant stick-and-Tyvek McMansion.
Old houses have character, are haunted in a loose sense by every craftsman who planed a custom board to fit just-so, by every tenants coat of paint you must scrape from the windows to make them work, and because I could tell me children that Old Man Norby (scion of the local department store, for whom it was built in 1910) was buried in back in the particularly fertile spot I suspect was once the privy. You are living in something which has acquired the patina over time not just of a house but of a home. it is not uniquely, custom-built yours with fashionable marble and special order sink fixtures. It is a part of the history of the community in which you live, in which you participate every time you step over the threshold.