Monday, May 21, 2012

The Old Houses

The Old Houses

If you frequent, visit, inhabit, stand to inherit, or intend to acquire one of the old houses in America, you should probably plan to have your expectations shaken a bit.  Like many areas in this realm, mythology seems to prevail and the general mischaracterizations are from books and magazines, but mostly, television and Hollywood.

When I say “old houses”, I refer to those inhabited by the same family or families for several generations (at least three in most cases), or by purchasers or heirs who are aesthetically inclined to leave things well enough alone that don’t need changing.  They are likely actually old (pre-Depression) and are normally in rural or now-suburban areas.

I am also not speaking of the showy palace-like houses of Newport, which occupy a different type category all together.  The old houses I refer to are those located in New England, New York, the mid-Atlantic/Pennsylvania, and the Mason-Dixon/Upland South (Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina), throughout Ohio, and around the older summer retreats in Michigan.

The Image

We like to think that these old houses are lavish mansions on the interior, with tail-coated English butlers and frill-aproned maids all speaking with submissive attention to the inhabitants.  We picture expensive bed linens and plush towels, antique leather sofas, gleaming sterling silver, sparkling crystal, and English/German/Dutch trade porcelain.  We assume that meals are exotic and gourmet, and that people dress like they are starring in second-rate PBS soap operas.  Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger would like us to believe that models inhabit each house and its accompanying expansive lawn, and are constantly in a state of lounging in one form or another.

While there are some houses that resemble this fairy tale, the majority can often be a let-down to first-time visitors.

The Reality

The settings of such houses are often far removed from easy accessibility, and are rarely anything approaching convenient.  Simple market demands have forced many of the old houses into horrifyingly high taxation brackets, and those near prosperous towns have rotted, been razed, rebuilt, or crudely subdivided into poorly maintained apartments.

Many great houses were built in areas which were once prosperous and picturesque, but have now become depressed and decaying communities, making the house itself even more of an island removed.  The effects of this mean that among other things, the food and its preparation begin to suffer.  When the house is passed down to Babyboomers, inappropriate modernization or liquidation often occurs, and the once grand parties disappear in favor of casual cook-outs and semi-involved birthday parties for grandchildren.

Inside the houses, guests are often taken aback by the plainness of things like the dishes or the linens, and the simplicity of the meals.  Where house staff were once dressed in uniforms, any staff that remains for the present generations are generally from the town, are not required to wear a uniform (nor would they if required), and often consist of only a single person either full-time or part-time.  If the house has very regular guests (year-round), the sheets and towels will be about a decade old.  If it is a summer residence in a colony with low-turnover, infrequent guests will often mean linens from the 70’s or 80’s, with odd or plain patterns that no catalog would ever feature.  Dishes can be from almost any decade, including the indestructible drinking vessels from the 70’s, which have outlasted all other glassware from parties involving falls onto slate floored decks.  Beige pushbutton telephones from the 80’s are still ubiquitous and a few still have only the last four digits of the number listed on the front.  Near these phones are jars or trays of pens contain specimens from the Carter Administration.

Guestrooms often still contain thin bedspreads atop a blanket or two (electric blankets in the northeast) and inexpensive sheeting are normal.  The fluffy and modern duvets are still infrequent in all but the master bedrooms, and only occasionally have rooms been modernized at all.  Many rooms still have lamps or alarm clocks from the 50’s, and the very old toasters (chrome finish with vertical toasting) have outlasted the people who purchased them.  Furniture in immediate need of reupholstering is not uncommon, and many families often opt to eat in the kitchen instead of the dining room (since they are preparing and serving their own meals).  Dishwashers are even appearing in some of the last hold-outs because Babyboomers are often unwilling to require their offspring to perform any household chores (a trait of worthlessness that is being passed down to the next generation too).

Houses with tennis courts or pools have fallen into decay at a surprising rate, and several which were active even in the 90’s have begun to crumble and calcify.  Fountains are being resurrected only occasionally, and a stroll around the grounds will reveal over-grown bowers and once-idyllic sitting areas designed for isolated contemplation, painting, or reading.  Even stone boundaries have been overgrown by trees, reducing expanses of lawns to closed-in areas of reduced acreage.  Tall trees now obscure many of the once-impressive views, as 100+ year old trunks have tripled in size, and the dining room’s vista is obscured by wilderness, which is good or bad, depending on one’s school of thought.
As the old houses are passed down to subsequent generations, the staff diminish, due partly to the inhabitants’ willingness to perform cooking and housekeeping themselves.  Many of the subsequent generations are unwilling or unable to afford the level of employment their forbearers did, and feel either ashamed or uncomfortable having others live with them as part of the bargain, sadly allowing misplaced guilt to supersede the much-needed employment potential for local families.  Since people are performing much of the work for themselves, they occupy the rooms and systems designed for those who originally did the work.

The walls are usually unchanged in their art, and the references to exclusive colleges are still prominent, even though the latest generation was unable to convince the admissions board that he/she was worthy, as one’s family name is now held against college applicants instead of favoring.

Barns and outbuildings rot beyond the point of rescue, and electric space-heaters make up for the neglected fireplaces in winter, even though the heaters look and smell odd atop once beautiful rugs.  In many of the old houses, modern gadgets and devices are working their way into everyday life.  An aesthetically incongruous white cordless phone may sit on a marble counter-top, and white device-recharging wires are plugged into outlets throughout, sticking out like sore thumbs.

In one ghastly indicator of ill-adaptation, my wife and I were invited to a large country house for a long weekend several years back.  As the weekend approached, the host (the sole heir to the property and estate) indicated that the food and housekeeping was expensive, and inquired whether we would be willing to assist in the cost.  “I hadn’t realized that you were running a business” I told him on the phone.  “It’s just that I’ll have to keep [housekeeper] on for the weekend” he told me.  A uniquely cheap bastard.  We didn’t go.

To dispel a final lingering rumor, the coffee, tea, and alcohol served in old inherited houses tends to be unimpressively economical and plain (not that I mind at all), and liquor cabinets usually have plastic jugs of booze (think Gordons and not Hendricks) instead of the premium (Yuppie) brands.

I don’t want to portray these grand old houses as unpleasant, but their charm is often in places and aspects that visitors don’t anticipate, and is rarely in the form that popular images would have one believe.  Many (more than is palatable) will also be out-of-family (sold) soon, as the over-indulgence of the current generation begins it's retirement years sell-off, undaunted by generations of strict tradition, possibly resentful, and ultimately frustrated when they realize that they were provided this expanse of real estate through die-hard principles such as thrift and resourcefulness.  They will begin bickering with one another, suing siblings and relatives when they realize that their parents had afforded the impressive house with its staff not by being billionaires, but by not spending their money elsewhere.  I anticipate that the market will see many more of these houses up for sale in the next 10-15 years, and perhaps a few of those who purchase them will be inclined to leave them slightly rustic, cleverly impractical, and entirely charming,


  1. You've hit many nails on the head. These houses, in addition to their architectural quality, are monuments to the values and ways of life that existed when they were built, and I hate to see so many of them go by the wayside. Smaller families, geographic mobility, and changing standards of entertainments have all eroded the idea of 'home' embodied in these buildings.

    Still, the same process always existed to some degree. In the 19th Century, people walled off charming colonial fireplaces to install convenient cast-iron stoves, when they didn't raze the houses altogether.
    --Road to Parnassus

  2. I have a couple of friends with old houses who are probably of the generation that will let theirs go. As a gentle counterpoint to your too-often accurate picture, these men are both of the second generation in a row raised not to material aspirations but to ethical ones -- an ethic that concerned itself with service well before comfort. Two generations of that kind of thinking are about all that old fortunes can stand. It's only too bad that whomever will supplant them in these places might be of lesser fiber than the grandparents who dared to raise their children to be something other than stewards of an estate.

    That, and gone are the days when a headmaster's salary (in one case) would support both a city home and a "cottage" on a well-known New Hampshire lake.

  3. Marvelous post and right on point. Without staff and the means to support such an establishment, one becomes an increasingly resentful slave to the house and grounds, and standards spiral down to bare subsistence. Better to sell up and get out than serve one's (rare) guests Swansons frozen dinners and cheap booze (by the thimble-ful) while endlessly talking about how it all had once been so grand, back in the day. RD

  4. I suspect you've read George Colt's book, The Big House.

    1. I'm reading it now. What an excellent tome! Both informative and almost wistful! A great read for those of you who haven't yet had the chance! Highly recommended!

  5. In my experience it seems clear that the last remaining old houses represent something that really is gone, and are only running on the fumes of a previous way of life. They aren't museums, thank goodness, so if the continuity of spirit they represent has died out, then they should die out too. Real tradition is always still alive, once it isn't alive it's just history.

    Generational switches happen faster now than they did in agrarian economies, both for the worse but also for the better in countless ways. If a reasonably good (sane, worthwhile, worth preserving) way of life lasts four or five generations, that's pretty good these days. The one that was established in the tens and twenties is more a lesson than a reality now, and if the reality is often stale, the lesson isn't in the staleness but in the aspects of them that is still somehow totally refreshing.

    It also seems to me that there is a real return to the country going on now in many of the places where the old houses were. I mean the high quality organic farms being run by voluntarily retired investment bankers, the furniture makers, distillers, and so forth that have reappeared, and the far larger number of highly-educated people who are once again thinking of having a country place in addition to their city life. If this resolves itself into something worthwhile, and if a sense of architectural value comes back into play, we may find that these were the years when we were starting the next wave of old houses. If caretakers and local small-farm partners take the place of the servants, I can live with that.

  6. Sigh. This makes me miss my grandparent's Berks County, Pennsylvania farmhouse terribly. We lived three generations togehter in that house when I was young, while my dad, mother, and grandfather commuted to and from Manhattan corporate jobs. 200+ years old, made of field stone with 3' thick walls, it lacked the grandeur of larger Bucks County and Mainline places, perhaps, but the grounds were park-like, and the house had its unique, quirky charms. Sadly, it passed out of the family, when my grandparents sold it in 1994 and real estate prices in the area have sky-rocketed since. If ever I won a really BIG state lottery. . .

    Best Regards,

    Ulrich von B.

  7. Having been the recipient of such a place (which was sold off long ago) I can attest the the veracity of the above dissection. The place was horrible to live in..but it did look grand from the outside! Now I am most happy to live in a small house with no upkeep and find myself more engaged by reading, blogging and vacations than the constant turmoil of broken plumbing and cracked plaster.
    I say, abandon 'em and let 'em rot.

    1. I don't think you really get the gist of the blog article....

  8. Here in Connecticut houses like these remain highly prized once sold off by the declining "aristocracy" of yesteryear (i.e., the previous generation's arrivistes). It takes lots and lots of money (like, millions) that the original owners no longer have, but it is certainly possible to bring them up to modern snuff while maintaining at least some of the charm of past years. Those who can now afford the taxes, the upkeep, and the renovation often do maintain some of the feudalism of yesteryear--at least, they're certainly not doing their own dusting or childrearing. (Though cooking and farming are for some unfathomable reason today's leisure activities for the affluent.)

    I stayed last summer in a peeling, creaking, leaky Victorian mansion on Martha's Vineyard that family friends were still clinging to. It was extremely unpleasant and uncomfortable, and I'll stay elsewhere next time. Hopefully with a rich friend.

  9. Are always smaller than you'd think they would be?

  10. Old houses in China tend to get damp in the summer and attract cockroaches...The fancy ones as you have pointed out, are the ones being well preserved by some organisations as showpiece

  11. I'll toss my comment into the ring. Firstly, a great article and one I re-read to enjoy. I fear it's a growing tax situation where any house over 1700 sq. feet is considered a "mansion" by today's standards and local/state public sector comrades seek more and more revenue for their perceived guarantees of lifestyle. The ridiculous growth of government and the political-class is what has lead us to this point where an estate has to be sold off or fall into decay; rather than retain it's splendor through multiple generations.

  12. Our government actively discourages the passing of "real" estate from one generation to the next. Everyone here understands that, right?

  13. One thing to add: Conservation. Easements!


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