Back to the Studs, Which Are Not So Studly

In the beginning, there was a plot of land. Some miles away, there was a carriage house. Around the turn of the century, someone said, Instead of building a new house, let's just move the one we have.

That's when the fun began. Now that we've taken our house back to the studs, I can see a lot more of the house's history. It looks the way history often looks -- a record of decisions made under duress, from shortsightedness, cheapness, failure to plan.

To start, it seems the house was set down carelessly. The crooked back wall has never been plumb. The foundation is ringed all around with concrete blocks which, for some reason, have been used as structural elements. These blocks support the studs that in turn support the wooden header beams over the back doors. These header beams are holding up the second floor, which contains a cast-iron tub, not to mention the roof. Two of these enormous header beams are cracked, straight across the middle. In the front of the house, over the doors and windows, where you might also expect to find headers, there are steel beams. Steel. Two of them, mortared together with what appears to be toothpaste. Why steel, here? And not in the back? Hard to say.

The steel beams are resting on two-by-fours. It is a shock to realize, as I am standing there, that I truly do not know what holds this house up. Prayer, perhaps. God's good humor. God is certainly laughing. The house is a testament to the fallacy of "the original" as something worth "restoring." Restoration purists can kiss my nail gun. The only thing "original" about this house is the original cockamamie conception of it -- everything else just followed logically from that first crazy idea. "Let's move the carriage house, instead of building it new." There is no "original" house here -- just an original sin. And, just like the original Biblical sin, its consequences have extended and ramified.

Curiously, it seems the whole house was originally lined with beadboard. Even the ceilings were beadboard. Some of it is bright blue; in other places, it's navy. One section, possibly the oldest, is tucked up almost to the second-floor plate; it was painted gunmetal gray. Discovering it, I thought of Hegel: "When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then a form of life has grown old..." A new feeling blossoms -- a sympathy, of all things, for Gehry, for Wright. The "tear it down, make it new" reaction seems perfectly understandable amidst all this... stuff. All these bad decisions, piled on each other. How many imperfectly soldered steel beams are required to hold them up?

But, perhaps perversely, I want to preserve something of this record of human folly. As a historian, I like stories of folly; I'm partial to history in the satiric mode (to use Hayden White's typology). Perfect restorations of originally perfect houses -- do such things exist? -- now seem bogus, false. They seem like Disney.