Monday, January 13, 2014
In my dad's notes on our nursery's history, I found one terse entry for 1964:
1964 Tom & kids dismantled big houseThat event looms rather larger in my memory than that brief entry would indicate :)
The “big house” he referred to was the first house I lived in, as an infant (I have just a couple of vague memories of it). As a child, I knew it as “Uncle Donald’s house” – where my uncle Donald, my aunt Marion, and my cousin Jonathan lived. It was an old home even then, built near the highway (US 130). It had three stories (including the unfinished attic) and a full basement, and seemed enormous to me as a kid. Even after my family moved out of the second story apartment and into our own house, I visited there frequently – most often to play with my cousin, who was one year older than I.
The house was full of beautiful woodwork, most especially the grand staircase. There were several other features of that house that made a big impression on me. It had a roof made of thick slates (not at all like the fragile, thin slates used today), with gutters and flashing made of tin-plated iron sheet. The window screens were made of copper, with the horizontal “wires” being narrow flat pieces angled like a Venetian blind set to keep out the sun. I can't even imagine what such a screen would cost today! The interior walls were hand-plastered over lath. Some of the electrical wiring was still old-fashioned cloth-covered wire on ceramic posts, soldered and rubber-taped at the joints. In the basement, one light switch was still an exposed knife switch. The nails used throughout the house were cut from flat metal, not round wire as modern nails are. They were also made of iron, not steel. My dad once told me that the house had been built by a team of Italian craftsmen that were brought over from Italy just for this job.
As you entered that house from the door we normally used, you passed through a small, narrow kitchen on your left, then past my uncle's office on your right, and into the dining room. Further on was the living room, which opened onto the staircase to the second floor. There was my cousin's bedroom and his parents' bedroom, and the small kitchen and bedroom that my parents lived in when they were first married, and when I was an infant. My mom tells me that we moved into our new house on September 10, 1953, when I was just one year old. The only rooms that were finished at the time were the kitchen, dining room, and tiny bathroom off the kitchen – everything else was just studs!
My mom told me something this morning that I'd not heard before: the landscaping for the big house was done by Frederick Olmsted, a famous landscape architect. He chose all the big trees around the house: a ginkgo, a scarlet oak, a Norway spruce, and a Magnolia acuminata. Most of these trees were uncommon in our area.
In 1962 and 1963, my uncle Donald built a new home for his family, far back from the highway noise. It was a “kit” house, delivered by railway car. In the summer 1963, when I was 10, I “helped” him with some of the carpentry work. Uncle Donald was constantly in a sour mood, complaining about one thing or another, but most especially about how he just could not get his son (my cousin Jonathan) to take any interest in building the house. He was grateful for my help, especially on the tedious sawing and nailing involved in the sub-floor installation. As he finished framing each section of the wall, he and I would lift it from the horizontal to the vertical position, and I'd go up on a ladder to nail the sections together. I didn't realize it at the time, but I think Uncle Donald was uncomfortable on the ladder.
In early 1964, Uncle Donald and his family moved into their new house, and their old house needed to come down (I believe it had actually been condemned for some reason). So ... if you're a farmer, and you need to demolish a house, what do you do? Why, you put the kids to work, of course!
In 1964, I was just 11 years old, so my memories of this are a bit fuzzy. I remember my dad, myself, and my brother Scott working on the demolition. I think my uncle helped some as well. I don't remember my cousin being there, though it seems like he should have been. Julius and Chalky both helped when needed, especially Chalky on some heavy work. I think my sister may have helped some as well, though I don't have any specific memories of that. My grandfather (my dad's father) was there almost every day, working out in the yard straightening nails on an anvil. He was recovering from the effects of a traffic accident that had almost killed him, and straightening those nails was one of the few ways that he was able to participate. He straightened several barrels full of nails from that house.
What did we kids do? Most of what we did was smash, pry, and throw. We smashed through plaster walls, pulled all the plaster and lath off, then pulled out all the cotton batting and newspaper insulation we found. Much more carefully, we worked up on the roof, prying off individual slates and carrying them down to pile up (they were worth saving). We pried out windows, tore apart the window frames, and pulled out the cast iron counter-weights. We hammered on pipes until they broke apart, and occasionally had to saw through one. We threw all the debris we collected out the windows onto big piles on the ground. We worked on the roof, on ladders, on precarious piles of junk – violating just about every safety principle known to mankind in the process.
My brother Scott remembers feeling powerful and useful as he wielded his sledgehammer. I remember teasing him about being sort of a mad dog at this work – he was really getting into it. I was fascinated by all the things we found as we ripped that house apart – there was so much of its construction that was very different than the construction I'd helped my uncle with the year prior. I've already mentioned the flat nails. Another big difference: virtually nothing in the construction of that old house was straight or square. Nearly every joint had one or more wedge-shaped shims (made of oak) that were used to force the joint into square. Also, many of the joints – even in mundane things like the studs – were made with hardwood pegs wedged into place with nails. Wherever we saw a drilled hole, it was obvious that it had been made with a hand-turned twist drill – they were never straight, and the sides of the hole bore the scars left by the imperfect drill bits.
My dad seemed to be everywhere as we tore that house down. He would have been 40 years old that year, and in peak physical condition. So far as Scott and I could tell, he never got tired, and only rarely ran into something beyond his capacity. If we got stuck, unable to pry something loose, or to lift something, generally he'd come over and do it easily. There were just a few occasions when my dad needed to get help, usually just from us kids. We took the big staircase out in one piece (to install as the stairs to our basement in our house), and for that I remember we had my dad, Chalky (who was even stronger than my dad!), Julius, Scott, and I – and we struggled to get it out without damaging it.
The house came down from the top down, of course. We took off the roof tiles first, then the roof's framing. In the process we dislodged a large number of bats, which all took off, annoyed, to our neighbor's farm (owned by a Mr. Sadley). We also found a flying squirrel in the attic, which became a pet: Jingles. My dad built a big cage for it, wood-framed with hardware cloth walls. Scott had a big problem with an allergic reaction – to the plaster dust, bat and rat droppings, or maybe the cotton batting. In any case, his nose was running badly the whole time we worked on that house. I wasn't so badly affected.
Tearing that house down was sustained hard physical work, day after day for several weeks. It's the first such burst of work I remember ever doing, and oddly enough I remember it as being satisfying and occasionally even fun. There were definitely moments that weren't pleasant – a couple of times I managed to cut myself, and I recall one close call on the roof (when I lost my purchase on the roof and started sliding toward the edge). But the memories that have stuck for nearly 50 years are of comradeship, of shared work, and of satisfying accomplishment (even if it was of the destructive kind :). Mainly between the three of us (my dad, Scott, and I) we completely demolished a three story house – reducing it to a few piles of stuff worth saving, and a large pile of rubble...
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