The Young Collector
We like the new place, it turns out. First of all, most houses built in the 1970s were built by people who had lived in houses from the 1920s, so you don’t even have to get out of your chair to find an outlet. There’s none of this business of running extension cords along the head of the bed so that there can be something as extravagant as lamps on both nightstands, for instance. And there’s an actual coat closet! For coats! So it’s not like having to sit in the dining room for five months out of the year with scarves falling on your head from pegs on the wall while you’re eating! (OK, there are actual closets of any sort, period.) And good lord, a utility sink! If we’d had one of these two years ago, it’s where Nat would have gotten all of his baths! And there’s a real thermostat, and the temperature on it corresponds to the true temperature of the entire house! You don’t have to subtract ten degrees to know what the kitchen floor is going to feel like! Amazing.
In the months of searching for a house, we came to a conclusion: there’s a lot of discussion about privilege now, and we benefit from many forms of it, but old houses are also a form of privilege. They’re a form of privilege we could not afford any longer, and that concept affects the antiques marketplace. All of our collecting and our antique objects and our historic homes are things we are privileged to have. We know that idea makes many people uncomfortable, with “privilege” being such an inflammatory word at the moment, but all these things we have are the result of money, which many of us have to a degree that many other people do not. And in our personal search for a house, we discovered that we did not have enough of that sort of privilege to have both a nicer house and an older house. Because we, as a society, do not often have nuanced conversations about things any longer, few people get around to pointing out that privilege has limits that vary. What we are saying is that we bumped up against the limits of ours. Privilege, after all, is really just an advantage, and everyone’s advantages run out at some point.
We have always been fairly open about our personal lives here. How can we talk about something so personal as the contents of our own home and the experiences of our own jobs, and not speak openly about ourselves? In the last few years before Andrew entered self-employment, with two small children, things were tight. It happens, even when you are thoughtful about your situation. Kids cost money, but not necessarily in a direct way that is easily calculated before they arrive. Stagnant wages and inflation are a bad combination. So we found ourselves sitting down at the beginning of each month to come up with some sort of hustle, to create a game plan between ourselves of how to generate several hundred dollars each month. Speaking engagements, freelancing articles, eBay sales, a quick auction flip—these things got us through, and the situation required vigilance and constant foraging.
And it meant the collecting had to stop. As Hollie said to Andrew at one point, if either of us had a hobby, such as playing golf, for instance, and we were enjoying it immensely, but it was taking time away from our family each week and costing money we did not have, then it would be obvious that that hobby would have to go. Its being more “intellectual” or work-related or filling our house with useful things did not change that.
We reached that same place with our old home. To be truthful, we loved it, but we ended up in it largely by accident. At the time (2006) we could afford very few options in the area, and it was the most charming of those options. We did not set out to have an old house particularly, and we were not looking at the kind of old house that most people would want. Many people observed over the years that it was similar to a dollhouse, which was apt—miniature and possibly more fun to imagine living in than to live in for real.
Old houses require care and not the gentle, fetishized kind of domesticity that dollhouses call for either. Of course, all houses require care. But with an old house, you have different responsibilities. Need to replace the floor? Well, you can’t afford cherry boards, but depending on the house, you might not feel that slapping down laminate flooring on a weekend is the right choice either. Want to remodel the bathroom? Well, nothing in the bathroom is a standard size, so you either need to spend much more money for the less common size or do an awkward refitting of a standard-size tub. We held our breath with the slate roof for a decade. It is now 123 years old. Replacing it when the time comes will not be a simple job. Will the new owners opt for the horrendous expense (and possible reinforcement requirements) of another slate roof? Will they choose metal, which would be closer to something historically fitting the house but also require changes or supplements to the substructure? Or will they go with the inexpensive but historically deplorable asphalt shingles (which will still also be more expensive than a traditional house’s roof because of the required installation of a subroof)? We were always dreading having to make that calculation ourselves. If you live in an old house for economic reasons, you do only what you can afford to do, but if you live in an old house for love of an old house, you are put on the rack between the opposing forces of what is affordable and what is accurate/responsible/period. These examples are simplifications, to be sure, but the mental mathematics for an old house are different and very often more costly.
Ultimately, owning an old house, either the one we had or another one, was a luxury that we could no longer afford. It was odd to come to that conclusion, because living in an old house, one tends to acquire an air of martyrdom. You do not think of yourself as enjoying luxuries so much as you think of yourself in a self-deprecating way, as you sigh your way past dead spiders and sticky windows and “creative” plumbing solutions. Mainstream society has given us the idea that we are weird and quirky for these decisions, and many old-house people we know are somewhat apologetic for what they realize are not mainstream choices. So it is easy to forget that living in an old house is a huge privilege, a luxurious choice, for many who do it. Instead, we trick ourselves into not seeing it as an indulgence. (Not that we have anything against indulging. You should see our snack cupboard.)
We did not consider a single older home that would not have been a serious indulgence for us. Character, yes, they all had that, but in order to live within the aesthetics that we wanted, we would have also been signing on for the opportunity to spend extra money (that not everyone has) on heat, for the luxury of spending free weekends (that not everyone has) restoring window after window, for the gift of financing (that not everyone has) elaborate zone heating systems. Older homes, those lived in by choice rather than by finances or some other necessity, are endless indulgences. They are a gift we give ourselves. People who choose old-house living can typically afford to fix all those problems with new and efficient materials or techniques. But they do not! Because many of them would rather use new and aesthetically appropriate materials! But they do not! Because serious old-house folks look for only period materials. They have the luxury of spending thousands of dollars (or thousands of free weekends) to replace shabby-drafty with period-drafty.
Otherwise, a house gets modernized. We sold our old house to a young woman who had family financial assistance and has found herself in the enviable position of not having much of a mortgage. Before she moved in, ceilings were taken down, plaster was removed, and the whole interior was given a bright white coat of paint. (We left a circa 1840 grain-painted door. It is now white too. That is our only sadness.) It is bright and fresh, but she will still have many of the same challenges that come with an older home, updated or otherwise. Ultimately, though, we are grateful for her privilege. In any other situation, she might not have been in a position to see our house as a house of possibilities rather than a house of problems.
We think it is wonderful that people can preserve homes and that they do. Saving a house can be a means of making an individual and lasting contribution to history. But old-house living can also be similar to living in a dollhouse. They become playthings, hobby houses (a term we’ve used before). Choosing an old house can be more about fun than about mere shelter, and anytime you get to the place that you can choose a house for the entertainment value, you do have to remember that you are in a position others may find enviable. Buying an old house is subscribing to a lifestyle that is absolutely, unequivocally not the easiest or the cheapest. Not everyone has the ability to make that choice, and we finally reached the point where we did not either. There are braces, school trips, and college funds for us to think about, and that, we fully realize, is a privilege and a luxury as well. We just came to the place where we had to choose between the two.
Years ago we wrote a column (two columns, actually) about the things we loved about living in an old house. And we still love those things and believe them. An old home absolutely made us better and more accepting people (and parents), for instance, and in that same vein, we accept that our old house has moved on in its life, and we accept that it will survive these recent changes too. An old home also taught us about making the hard but important choices, and we know that even having those choices is a privilege. From zoning conversations to tax incentives, we have the means to protect older homes, to make them more attractive to young families, to make them more affordable to repair or restore. We can also soften our expectations of what we “require” for older homes. While no one wants to see a prominent local historic home gutted and outfitted similar to a Malibu beach house, surely we can bend a bit for, say, a small one-room schoolhouse on a busy road. One could even argue that there should be the expectation that we do so, that there is an element of noblesse oblige at work in lives so filled with lovely things. If we care about historic homes, we need to market them as the privilege they are and do what we can to extend that privilege to others.
We welcome ideas, tips, criticisms, and questions regarding “The Young Collector.” We may be reached by e-mail <[email protected]>, on Facebook (www.facebook.com/TheYoungAntiquesCollectors), or by writing The Young Collector, c/o Maine Antique Digest, PO Box 1429, Waldoboro, ME 04572.
Originally published in the November 2017 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2017 Maine Antique Digest