Getting along with an old house

Old houses have quirks and foibles, and they can sometimes be like difficult, grumpy old people. Even so, they deserve to be treated with respect and it is usually best to let them have their way. Shirley Jackson instinctively understood that moving into an old house requires a period of adjustment while the house and the new inhabitants get used to each other. In Life Among the Savages, a wonderfully witty, sometimes slightly creepy, memoir about raising her family in 1950s Vermont, Jackson got it exactly right. She clearly understood old houses.

“After a few vain attempts at imposing our own angular order on things with a consequent out-of-jointness and shrieking disharmony that set our teeth on edge, we gave in to the old furniture and let things settle where they would. An irritation persisted in one particular spot in the dining room, a spot which would hold neither table nor buffet and developed an alarming sag in the floor when I tried to put a radio there, until I found completely by accident that this place was used to a desk and would not be comfortable until I went out and found a spindly old writing table and set a brass inkwell on it.

There was a door in the attic that preferred to stay latched and would latch itself no matter who was inside; there was another door which hung by custom slightly ajar, although it would close goodhumoredly for a time when some special reason required it…One bedroom chose the children, because it was large and light and showed unmistakable height-marks on one wall and seemed to mind not at all when crayon marks appeared on the wallpaper and paint got spilled on the floor.

It was a good old house, after all.”

The idea is to work with a house not against it. One doesn’t want one’s house to feel like a museum,

this is a nice enough room, but a might too perfect. Is it the bust in the corner?

a hotel,

a hideously overdone Queen Ann mansion

or a decorator’s show-place.

Nice, but everything doesn't have to match. It's a giveaway that you've had a decorator do it.

I prefer the mix and match of time — I like to work slowly and look until I find exactly the right object at the right price that will fit with what I already have. And when I buy, it’s for keeps — I’m not interested in how current I am (I guess I’m very bourgeois). My house is definitely a work in progress. We’ve lived here going on twenty years, but it is a long way from being finished and that’s the way I like it. I think I’ve got most of the disharmony worked out (e.g., the 1960s orange, gold, and avocado green), but there’s still plenty to do.

I’ll say this for our ‘good old house’: it doesn’t mind a mess, grubby hand prints, or dust-bunnies .. and if you’re lucky, you can sometimes “hear a faraway voice in the house”, which will sing to you at night.