The two of us paused for a long while in the kitchen, marveling at the marble backsplash. We hadn’t been alone in that space, just the two, in the two years we had undertaken the venture of reconstructing this beauty. We had always been accompanied by builders, plumbers, guests, and yes, ghosts.
Hungry and ready to try out a new restaurant only four doors down, I finally broke the overwhelming silence. “Happy Valentine’s Day!” I shouted, wanting to put my voice in this space.
The home had been built in the 1870s, and consisted of three floors plus a basement. Italianate in design, it boasted no plumbing, electric, windows or stair rails, only wood floors in disrepair, a newspaper report on natural disasters from 1980s hanging in the basement, and a sprinkle of imagination and heart.
The bones of the home had been visible from the beginning. But new windows now let in new light. A kitchen had been built from the ground up. Someone (me, not servants) would cook in here again. Children would sleep in the upstairs quarters. A lively game of chess might break out in the front room – we are still pondering its name. Parlor? Salon?
Whereas once a family of seven, husband, wife, three daughters, two sons, occupied this home, when the move is complete, this house will be empty in the traditional sense of the word “nest”.
To the consternation of our builder and possibly the flooring crew, we chose to have the hardwood floors refinished. The floors are pine, and after staining, have a dark red hue to them. There are plenty of gauges, scrapes, scratches, each that could tell a story. We wanted to let the house breathe through these openings, a way of letting life back in.
And too, the builders were sure to shake their heads at the wallpaper remains that I asked them to preserve. They did so placing Hefty bags and painters tape over the paper through many months of restoration. Then one day, the bags were removed, the wallpaper remnants appeared within dark rustic frames, under looking glass. Layers of existence preserved next to the outlet for cable TV.
A fireplace surround was rescued, a limestone hearth held on fast too. A newel post found in a scrap heap became the cornerstone for the stairs, a way of anchoring the past. A handrail was handcrafted with precision and love. Plaster molding was meticulously restored, inches at a time. In two rooms, the rear entry and my office, we kept brick exposed. We had been counseled that, the original owner held a place in society and would not have left brick exposed. Laying bare the brick was our way allowing others who had called this home to also have their position duly noted.
A debate raged on for months about painting the exterior brick and limestone details. No one was convinced one way or the other. But painting proved to be the fresh coat this lady needed. The highlight of the ornate limestone doorway is the face of the man who I have named Oscar, after one of the children who first lived there. Red and white diamond shaped marble tiles were methodically removed from the front stoop. I had watched the contractor number and remove each piece, to be locked away, then cleaned and placed on the stoop again, sidled up next to scraps of carrarra marble tile.
There is light everywhere now, not just where we could once shine our flashlight and imagine. But Thomas Edison and God light, mixing in to create this wondrous piece of work we will call home.
I say too much now, giving away the character of home, when one must truly experience it with us, through our eyes, our pictures from two years ago, taken before paint replaced must as the predominant smell.
At a recent appointment, someone who had grown accustomed to hearing my stories about OTR and its resurgence called me a travel agent for OTR. Later in the day, a poem I found and spent my afternoon walk trying to memorize speaks of the “pilgrim soul” (WB Yeats – When You Are Old).
As travel agents, of course, we want to share with others the potential that living in the city has to offer, or for that matter, experiencing the city. Not everyone has to live in it.
I rather like the Yeats comparison better. We have set off for a new shore with this undertaking and will certainly find ourselves navigating new waters while our children are colonizing other worlds. Only the two of us know the moments that came before this, the ones that spurred us forward, the ones that will not grace our doorstep but through memory.
And only the two of us, having captained this vessel, can foresee that here, we will also have many moments of what Yeats penned as glad grace.
Valentine’s Day, 2013.