The Perils, Pitfalls and Pride of a Historic Home Renovation Project
For a couple of empty nesters, an escape to the country rekindles the joy of restoration
My husband and I bought a 242-year-old house during the pandemic. Which is, for a middle-age couple, perhaps insane.
I blame the lockdown and the 1,472 hours I spent watching the BBC’s Escape to the Country, that British show where some disaffected couple from London sets out in search of characterful properties in Shropshire to grow show pumpkins.
Paul, my husband, watches the series to scold the contestants. “William, you’re an accountant. You know s- - - about pumpkins. This is a terrible idea.”
I watch to swoon over the properties. Those thatched roofed cottages, the Georgian parsonages with their stone-walled gardens, the oak-beamed barn conversions. At the end, there’s always a Mystery House, usually a repurposed chapel or mill. “Oh look, a water wheel! They still thresh grain! How romantic.”
Paul observes that a mill is probably damp and drafty. We agree that British sofas are inexplicably ugly. The credits roll past verdant English hillsides dotted with sheep. Fantasy over.
Except after two years of working remotely from a two-bedroom high-rise apartment in Washington, D.C., an Escape to the Country seed was planted in my brain. Where it grew and grew to the size of a show pumpkin.
Between us, Paul and I have owned five historic fixer-uppers. The aberration was spending six years empty nesting in a modern apartment. It wasn’t the best place to endure a pandemic. We missed extra rooms, gardening and slobbering dogs.
Finally, one dreary February day, I broke. “Let’s drive out to the country and look at some houses,” I said.
And that’s where we found it. A stately colonial built by Quakers in 1780 in the village of Waterford, Virginia. It backed up to 140 acres of preserved farmland, and there were sheep. My heart melted at the sight of livestock.
Did I consider the practicalities of aging in a 242-year-old house? If my knees really needed four flights of stairs? The risks of traversing warped antique floorboards at night? Shouldn’t I have given some thought to the energy efficiency of Revolutionary War-era windows?
No. Those are the sensible thoughts of a modern home buyer. You probably enjoy water pressure and closet space, too.
We listed the apartment. It sold immediately. We bought the Waterford house.
“It's a sickness, this love of old things and their potential. The only cure is to find someone similarly afflicted. And buy another house together twice as old as the last one.”
One last restoration project
We told ourselves that, in our 50s, we had one old house left in us. This is the way old house crazies talk to each other. “It just needs our love! Imagine what we could do to this place!”
When I first met Paul, he had a 3,500-square-foot project in Lockhart, Texas, which had no heat or air conditioning, but really impressive 12-foot ceilings. There was rusty plumbing, a dizzying array of hideous wallpapers and funeral parlor drapes. Worse, whenever you opened a cupboard, a burst of lead paint chips would descend like poison snowflakes.
At the time, I was living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in a Civil War-era house on the Susquehanna River flood plain. Which flooded, because of course it did. But hey, the wide-plank pine floors were to die for.
It’s a sickness, this love of old things and their potential. The only cure is to find someone similarly afflicted. And buy another house together twice as old as the last one.
In our defense, the Waterford house needed us. The sellers were a young couple who had butchered the woodwork. They’d slopped white latex paint on everything, except where they’d painted walls Easter-egg pastels, tarting up this prim colonial like some Jersey Shore beach rental.
Maybe the pandemic broke their brains and they could only express themselves through destructive paint choices and defiling 18th century paneling. It’s a theory. Otherwise, I cannot explain what would possess someone to hurt wood like that.
The paneling was like a crime victim calling out, “Save me!” Surely, I couldn’t leave its fate to the vagaries of the real estate market. What if the house were bought by some open-concept HGTV savages?
“Tracy, it’s too far gone,” said everyone about that wood. “Live with it or paint over it.”
But because I’m married to a fellow old house crazy, Paul understood my quest to own this house and save the paneling. He did not begrudge me the expense or the misery of living through weeks of paint scraping and the stink of linseed oil finishes. He feels the souls of old houses, too. (I later felt vindicated when I found documentation that the paneling was from 1730, and was salvaged from a now extinct property in Culpeper, sometime in the 1930s.)
It was probably a bit deranged to take it all on, but no regrets. Not even that first week when we found five snakes in the basement. Turns out, when you back up to 140 acres of conserved land, you also get 140 acres of wildlife. Some of which eventually made it into the basement. (Paul got a rake and carried the snakes out to the creek.)
Not even after a fox ate our free-range chickens. (Paul disposed of the remains.)
Not even after bats flew out of the fireplace into our bedroom one night and had a little bat jamboree around the ceiling fan. (Paul opened the window and shooed them out while I cowered in the bathroom.)
An appreciation for the past
Why does anyone buy an old house? Maybe as a creaky middle-aged person, sloping in all the wrong places, I felt a kinship. But I’ve owned old houses when I was younger, too. I think it’s because old house owners are suckers for a story.
Say what you will, but your vinyl-clad McMansion doesn’t have ghosts. It doesn’t come with a cupboard under the stairs containing the boot of a Civil War soldier. We were told it was found in our backyard and preserved for generations. The spirits of barefoot Loudoun Rangers don’t haunt your home looking for their shoes.
If you’re an old house person you don’t think: That’s creepy. You think: I must have a ghost. Tell me more!
Waterford is very high in ghosts per capita, and the area is lost in time. It was founded by a bunch of stalwart, abolitionist Quakers. When Virginia seceded, they voted against, and even fought for the Union, as the Loudoun Rangers. The townspeople did other radical things, like educate enslaved people and women. It was quite a hotbed of progressivism.
Alas, the freethinkers of Waterford were punished during Reconstruction. All the good roads, the railroad and water lines went to Leesburg instead, and the town was left to rot.
Fast forward 150 years, and Leesburg is a sea of suburban sprawl, while the entire village of Waterford has been designated a National Historic Landmark District.
Waterford owes its survival to the vision of some old house crazies from the 1930s who worked to preserve it. “It’s too far gone,” everyone probably told them. And then a realtor mentioned a cupboard with an old boot, and that was it.
I appreciate their pluck. To preserve anything means you have a long arc view of the world. You admire endurance. The craftsmanship of house guts. You know that old beams come from America’s virgin forests, with a wood density that no longer exists in modern lumber. You know a house was built by hand with a T square and zero machinery. That every nail had to be hand forged and each brick made locally.
And you cherish such things. You love this artistry and longevity above modern conveniences. You can look across generations, and know that with some love, this house will keep standing, because it’s been standing for hundreds of years.
Our home has lived through an American revolution, a Civil War in its backyard and the coronavirus pandemic. It’s endured neglect and bad paint, yet remains resilient.
And isn’t that the energy you want around you as you age? I hope Paul looks at me like I looked at that paneling — kind of a mess, but a gem underneath. It’s a blessing to have the ability to see past decay and appreciate quality undergirding. Thank God I’m married to an old house crazy.
Yes, a modern house would be easier, but it wouldn’t make for a good story. And we’re a couple of suckers for a story.
Good thing we found this defiant little town. The barefoot ghosts agree.
Tracy Schorn is a writer who runs the popular advice site, ChumpLady.com, and was the former editor of state news at the AARP Bulletin.
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.