I live on Cape Cod, one of the birthplaces of American residential architecture. A place where the oldest homes aren’t called, simply, “really old,” they’re called “antique.” Even if you’ve lived in one of these structures for decades, raised a family there and poured small fortunes into upkeep and repair, others in town will likely refer to your residence by the name of the sea captain (or smuggler) who built the original structure, perhaps some 200 years ago.
Driving Route 6A, the road that runs past my front door, is like taking a Disneyworld ride through American residential-architecture history. Instead of animatronic presidents, 6A presents salt boxes, classic capes in their half, three-quarter and full versions, Georgian and Federal style manses and Greek revival farm homes. Many of these long-lived wonders have been restored to their original appearance with textbook accuracy. You can stop at just about any point along this winding road and find a house with historic past worthy of conversation.
Unless, of course, you stop in front of my house.
Now, if you’re working on some kind of obscure doctoral thesis on classic 1960s Cape design, you might find a wealth of worthwhile information within my four walls. The use of knotty pine in just about any vertical application, say, or the evolution of speckles in vinyl tile flooring – 1965 through 1967. Otherwise, the 1,300-sq.-ft. structure that I call home is just another shingled Cape. It would fit comfortably in many aging suburban developments throughout the Northeast, but, instead, it’s been plopped down in the middle of the country’s longest continuous registered historic district. It’s simply new-old in a land of old-old.
After just a couple months of living in it, though, I find I’m falling in love with this undistinguished – and indistinguishable – house, despite its lack of pedigree. Life within its un-historic confines is proving to be surprisingly freeing. My neighbors have windows made from 200-year-old hand-blown glass and chimneys wide as redwoods, but I feel no sense of envy toward these historically significant Joneses. I drive past centuries of style with every supermarket run, and return to my 1960s Cape on its concrete-block foundation, knowing that if a pipe bursts or an electrical outlet shorts out, I won’t need an architectural-history degree to make things right again.
My last two homes in Chicago each had their own unique historical aspects, each an example of a classic style unique to that city’s storied design past. My spacious condo in a circa 1904, six-unit apartment building, had a gracious, airy floor plan made for entertaining, with a split-parlor living room, beamed-ceilinged dining room and original windows throughout. My most recent home, in the city’s famed Bungalow Belt, was one of about 80,000 brick houses built between the early 1910s and the late 1920s, in a collar around the city’s outer borders. It had two layers of crown molding, 9-ft. ceilings and built-in, glass-door-fronted bookcases on either side of the ornamental fireplace. Both of these places had acres of full-grained oak trim, still with the original finish.
Have you ever tried decorating with that much oak? There are, perhaps, three colors that go well with it, and I used variations of these dark, earthy, depressing hues over and over and over again. I could have simply painted the trim white to accompany a brighter palette, but covering original trim in Chicago is a violation akin to doubting the Cubs will, in fact, go all the way next year. And 100-year-old windows are only beautiful until you have to live with them through a Chicago winter. I could have parasailed down the hallway in my old condo, with the wind that passed through the ill-fitting sashes.
I went into each of these purchases understanding the possible shortcomings, but I had lived in older structures my entire life, and couldn’t imagine calling new construction, “home.” I saw these properties as valuable, yet ignored, resources in a time when society’s quest for newness was forcing our consumption of ever-larger portions of the world’s limited resources. Just as importantly, I think I felt a need to surround myself with history others had created, as I worked out what, exactly, my own legacy might be.
So I stripped wallpaper, pulled out rotting sculptured-pile carpet and sought out period-looking plumbing. I collected a forest-worth of paint chips and spent hours simply sitting on the floor, staring at the samples I’d taped to the walls. In time, as I got to know the history-rich quirks that defined these two residences, they each became a home I lived in, loved and, eventually, left.
Moving from my Chicago bungalow to the Cape brings me something close to full circle in my own personal history. In addition to simply being a beautiful place to live, this sandy spit also is home to some very fond memories of summers spent with my grandparents. They bought their little 2-bedroom, 1-bath Cape-style ranch in 1968 – one of the few brand-new houses anyone in my family has ever owned. The eight summers I spent with them there were spirit-saving respites from a life lived in the shadows of my parents’ unhappy marriage.
In coming back to Cape Cod, I am, in a way, using this place of personal history as a jumping-off point to a new beginning. Chicago became my home mostly because it wasn’t St. Louis, where my parents lived. It remained my home because the friendships I made there made it easier to simply stay put. With my conscious decision to move to this new house, I feel I’ve been given the chance to rewind the tape of my life and push “start” again, from a point of happiness and connection – a unique opportunity for anyone.
My new Route 6A roost is just a few years older than my grandparents’ little home, and sits just a few miles away. The neighborhood here, though, is markedly upscale in comparison. My grandparents lived in a middle-class, suburban-style development filled with houses that looked just like theirs and all built within a few years of each other – a Levittown by the sea, if you will. The two-lane highway I now call home, on the other hand, began life as a Native American trail and now serves as the picture-postcard image of Olde Cape Cod, and local historic commissions make sure it stays that way.
As a result, I still have to contend with history in my 1965 Cape – changing the color of my front door, for example, could require an appearance in front of the historic commission, to argue my case for, perhaps, “autumn harvest” red over the current forest green. But within my new home’s walls, I work with a clean slate. And this little house that needs work just about everywhere I turn is giving me a chance to revel in its potential.
Windows leak like sieves? Get new airtight double-panes! Think the fireplace mantle is just too wimpy? Chuck it! And what about that cheap, varnished-pine clamshell molding surrounding every door and window? I’m now buying Benjamin Moore Decorator’s White by the contractor-size bucket to cover it all up. After years of having to consider architectural significance, I now have the chance to create my own, instead. It seems that, in this land of 300-year-old salt boxes, I have found new possibilities, and a home that belongs, not to history, but to me, alone.