Saturday, August 02, 2008

The archaeological dig in my house

I never realized what an exciting world archaeology could be until this past month, when we started a dig in our living room.

The dig was a pretty straightforward affair. With the girls attending day camp at one of the theaters downtown, Natasha and I realized that we had two weeks before us in which we could empty out the room and give its walls a long-overdue fresh coat of paint. We could get rid of the ugly carpet, and possibly sand and buff the hardwood floor beneath it. Best of all, we could do it ourselves and save hundreds of dollars!

The walls are painted and the carpet has been removed, but what has been most interesing about this experience is the layers of history we have delicately unearthed on the first floor of the house, and then ruthlessly ripped up and destroyed, like amateur Indiana Joneses toppling ancient relics and statues of Anubis in the Well of Souls.

Our house is going on at least 170 years old, so we knew there were bound to be some surprises. The kitchen and master bath -- and doesn't every house want to have the master bath located right off the kitchen? -- were added in the 1960s, and plenty of other things have been added in the course of the house's history. Electric wiring, for starters, or the roof we put on a few years ago when we also added the new gutters, or the first insulation ever added to the house, just last spring.

Ah, but those are new changes to the house. It is one thing to see your own life's work, but it is another to behold the work of ages past and to let it pass through your fingers. Working on an old house is to be like Belloq, who opened the Ark of the Covenant and stirred the dust of the stone tablets Moses once laid there. You risk being destroyed by the supreme revelation that will pass through your unworthy soul.

It might have been a crystal skull beneath the carpet. It might have been the Holy Grail. But, lo! it is linoleum, a long red sheet of it, glued directly to the hardwood floor by a homeowner of ages past, and on it lay the dirt and the dust of a thousand soles that have passed that way. And did those feet in ancient times walk upon England's mountains fair?

It is no wonder that a previous homeowner some 15 years covered the floor with carpet. That red linoleum was about as ugly to look at as the color known as "institutional green," and removing it has left a long black swath of a substance formerly known as glue and a papery substance that may have been part of the linoleum.

Removing that requires an evening with a cleaning agent that is so toxic you're not supposed to touch it, or even to breathe its fumes. I suspect that merely looking at will cause blindness.

On the other hand, we have found that soaking the Gunk from Beneath the Linoleum in water making it easier to remove, and that rubbing what residue remains, with vinegar, also works. So we're trying that, though it means our hallway smells of apples.

The most interesting discovery, though, is the walls -- specifically, how they have changed over the past 170 years. There is a section of baseboard along the back wall of the living room that does not touch the floor. This, we believe, is where a doorway once stood that joined our living room, once a dining room, with our study, once the kitchen. Someone some time ago decided to close the wall up and create two completely separate rooms.

However, due to the Principle of Wall Conservation, in which a house must have the same linear footage of walls when you sell it as when you bought it, this person also removed a section of wall from another part of the living room.

Unlike the new wall that separates living room from study, this one appears to have been part of a load-bearing wall. Nothing has sagged unduly, but there is a place in an otherwise decent hardwood floor where 2-by-4's appear, covered in cement.

Ah, the wonders this old house can tell to those who study its secrets. I just wish that if I have to be Indiana Jones, that I would get the fedora and bullwhip too.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

1 comment:

Zero said...

I think this single sentence was my favorite part of the post:

>> Best of all, we could do it ourselves and save hundreds of dollars!

It reminds me of another do it yourself project that was intended to save you a ton of money. Hopefully you won't have the same problem finding parts.

Good luck! (Seriously!)