Good Common Sense

By Maida Korte

“Simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication.”    Leonardo da Vinci

Building a large and safe house starts with digging down first into the unknown rock and mud below.  It is easier to start this way since the expectations of function and aesthetics are on paper and inefficiencies are not mocking you as you begin.  In starting our own renovations we had a big rambling old house in the way.  It loomed over us and around us and whether we walked up a set of stairs or down another, it was always there.  Creaking floors, dripping faucets, leaking foundations, mixed with smells undecipherable and indistinguishable from musty earth and dank clay, we forged ahead with our plans. 

Andy called me on a Tuesday and said that I had to meet him for dinner.  We never eat out on a Tuesday night.

“Ok baby, what is it?”

“We have to spend all of our money on doing things you cannot see.” 

“What IS it?”

“The sewer pipes have exploded in the front lawn, the water pipes in the basement have burst, the concrete floor has failed, and the heat system will not last through the winter.  Also, we have to lift the house up and off of its foundation bringing in engineered steel, in order to keep the house from sinking down into the earth forever.”

“I’ll be right back,” was all I could say.

As I walked to the bathroom in order to stand in a stall with my head leaning against the door so no one could see me, I started laughing.  I deserve this I thought.  I have renovated countless homes for others and now the houses were paying me back.  These houses had been content to lie in their misery until our company arrived to wake them up from their ill-fitted hibernation and now my house was expunging all the pent up anxiety that the storms of projects past had brewed.  With my forehead against the stall door I had visions of past kitchen pipes exploding when a nail gun riveted into them unknowingly.  I could see the slabs of marble falling off of trucks as though the house knew we didn’t like its bathroom and the house was offended.  I saw the buckets of paint spilling onto white carpeting and the fire which started for no reason at all in the middle of the wood staining process on stair newel posts.  I started to laugh and cry as I left the bathroom, tears of a hysterical nature bridging from anxiety to hilariosity.  Andy could see me walking toward him and he looked worried.  I sat down across from him and said, “Ok babe.”  There was so much more to say and I couldn’t find the words to describe the connection I felt to this house and to my life, our lives.  This house needed to start over from the inside out and so did I.  I had some leaky pipes and a foundation with a crack in it, where little insidious insects can set up camp, things like insecurity and doubt and a nature hell bent on work where fun often comes to die.  My own life had to change and why not start at ground level with our house.

Our Victorian house was built in 1903, three years after my maternal grand-father was born.  He was a man who loved to putter and I remember spending countless hours as a little girl sitting on an old stool in the garage watching him make little wind-mills. He would take very thin pieces of wood veneer and fold them origami style, forming a little wind instrument that I could hold in my hand and blow on making it turn and spin.  Grandpa Allan would “plant” these around his garden and we would watch them turn around and around in the breeze.  My grandmother would make the gingersnap cookies that were Grandpa’s favorites and so I grew to love them too. 

I remember the electrical wiring in their house because it could be seen outside the walls in spots. Soft brown cloth, appearing as shoe laces, rolled and laced its way over white ceramic knobs. My grandparents told me not to touch and so I didn’t.  Little did I know that this same system of bringing electrical current into a house would grace my own home over 50 years later.

The discovery of knob and tube electric in the attic mystified me a bit, but filled my husband Andy with the kind of excitement a scary movie brings when the main character ventures down the dark stairway into the cellar.  “Don’t go down there!”  But down they go and up my husband goes to the attic, grabbing white ceramic knobs once he gets there.  Each white knob has the same soft brown cloth I remember from my grandparent’s home.  This fabric acts as the only insulator over the wire where the electrical current brings electricity into our home.  I can still hear my grandmother telling me not to touch.  

I fear Andy will electrocute himself and tell him so. He then explains excitedly to me that the voltage from Eureba’s circuit on the land of Mars has ventrilocuted the ceramic orbs from the cloth ventricles of lantropin and I have nothing to worry about at all.  I nod mutely.  Without knowing why I want to know, fearing the answer more than the question, I ask Andy if all the electricity in our house is like this.  When he tells me yes and that we have to rip open all of the walls in our gracious grand dame four square Victorian, and gut her from the inside out like a large trout, I decided it would be best that I go and lie down.

 Since there were numerous places where the electrical white ceramic orbs of death could be found, opening little quaint doors in the walls became marine warfare: we never knew if a mine was about to go off.  I took to wearing safety goggles in my sleep.  I kept a pair at the side of my bed and brushed my teeth each morning and night as though I was about to enter the cockpit of a plane.  Since our house could burst into flames at any moment I thought we should, at the very least, protect our eyes.

There is a broad hallway at the second floor landing of our home, containing many small doors in the walls, each carefully trimmed with elegant moldings and antique brass fittings.  These little doors opened to expose unusual electrical connections that at first appeared mystifying, then quaint, then terrifying.  “Rip it all out,” Andy, ever the contractor, dismissed this with a wave of his rugged hands. I stood my ground at keeping the little doors, but the innards were indeed ripped out leaving vacant space that diverted my attention away from the circuitry waiting to harm the children.  I re-designed these little doorways into hidden wall spaces that open to surprises like unusual wall coverings where little monkeys hang from trees by their tails. Andy does not understand why I am putting so much effort into a little doorway no one will ever see.  I explain that someone might open the door and find the paper and be tickled in a small but experiential way and that this kind of happy discovery is what a house should do.  He does not understand though smiles at my delight, ignoring my goggles as I mix glue and splatter it onto wall paper that will begin to redeem the house and help me forgive it for scaring me. 

Houses should do that; surprise and delight, but that comes later because first, houses are supposed to make sense.  The door knob is expected to be in the right place and when it is not we balk with snorts of indignation.  We continue though, to open doors that have ornery entrance knobs, and move on our way to the next violation to our ergonomic senses. Just as Rob Petrie finally learned to dodge the ill placed ottoman, we learn to bob and weave our way around the hazards in our homes.  I work in an arena where people are fighting with their houses and the houses are often winning.  My husband and I labor each day to solve house problems for clients with unworkable homes and I have spent the better part of my life moving walls that are in the wrong place and moving light fixtures that hit you in the head. 

Who hasn’t been in a home where you open a door only to hit someone in the face, or have to do a full turn around in a bathroom in order to step out of the way of the toilet in order to have a little privacy?  Okay…..step in…..lurch around bowl, shimmy past sink, suck in stomach, close door reaching over toilet, do your business, and reverse steps.  Houses need instruction booklets with warnings that should be posted at all doorways.  Look, listen and proceed with caution!

I have read tired sounding solutions that appear in the form of government mandates about the placement of toilets and how much space is required between a wall and a hand rail.   Often this only complicates the problem since codes vary so much by location.  Every township has its own set of rules about what is allowed and what gets the slap of a red sticker across the door.  The direction of the door swing may not matter in rural Peoria, Illinois, but 60 miles to the north, they do matter in Walworth County, Wisconsin, just over the state border.  So solutions are often made based on zip-code rather than on the function necessary to provide an enhanced life.  Demonstrating a better way of living in our spaces cannot be done without planning and visions of ergonomic solutions for our country home danced in my head.

I was determined to lift our Victorian four square out of its dysfunction even though it seemed that our house didn’t know that it was miserable. It was happily ensconced in rotting wood beams and stairs where it was possible to fall to one’s death and hit yourself in the head at the same time. It was my belief that eventually it would appreciate the gracious living good design can bring and so we moved forward with our plans.  I felt like I was parenting my house and that these early years of renovation were the toddler years of bad attitude where the house did not appreciate the guidance Andy and I brought.  Each groan of a long old nail, slowly arching out of a stair tread, sounded like a mournful cry to be left alone.  I had been a Mom for too long to pay this any mind.  Out came the nail, plopped with a ping into an empty coffee can and on to the next tread.  I like to think that our house grew to appreciate us though, as later each night we would pound those same nails straight and use them when anchoring the new stairs in place.  A mutual respect began to grown between us and the house.  I could only hope that eventually we would be friends. 

Andy is a calm man, hard pressed to anger and gentle in his gruff approach to life.  The combination of his temperament mixed with my hair-on-fire over-reaction formed a great alliance with which to deal with the terrors of our house.  My screams of discovery brought Andy from wherever he was working and I would run away leaving him to handle things like bats and owls who flew in upon occasion to check on us.

 With terror in my eyes, but determination in Andy’s soul, we plunged head-long into the unknown warfare of very old house remodeling. Fearing a result much like Lot’s wife, we have never looked back.  So, with a hearty respect for pillars of salt, we lifted the house, dug it out of its misery, rehabbed the stairs, moved ceilings, rearranged walls and dragged it kicking and screaming into the land of code obligations where electricity stays in neat little metal pipes and water launches heartily out of faucets.

4 Responses to “Good Common Sense

  • I mis read the last word of the post I read “toilets’ and that would have been a fitting conclusion, yes?

  • Oh that would have been perfect!

    3 years ago

    Maida, I adored your Victorian home but the best thing about it was you. I know it is not as grand without you in it!

  • Miranda Soule
    3 years ago

    So many wonderful memories in that home!

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