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The RenOvation Blog

December 8th, 2012 at 8:00 am

History in the House: The Things We Find

(Note: During December, I thought I would only write about interesting stuff. Nothing technical, nothing newsy. Just … stuff.)

Remodeling is an interesting business to be in, especially if you escape the technical aspects occasionally. I find the people I work with interesting for the most part and their homes are often time-locked in history.

Sometimes we uncover some of that history. It might take on an everyday form or come in an unusual presentation. We’ve removed wall coverings and discovered straw used as insulation. Things like that aren’t particularly exciting but the history behind it might be. Thinking of the person who built the home using simple and plentiful resources as insulation and perhaps the pride they felt in providing a family with a warm place to live lead our thoughts to a different era of building.

A home in Romeo, Michigan had newspaper in place of building paper on the exterior walls. The room where the newspaper was discovered was an addition to the home that was originally built in the late 1800’s. The newspaper was dated 1916. It was fascinating reading some of the ads and articles. The paper was extremely fragile being so dry it would crumble into dust unless carefully placed on a piece of plywood. The homeowner although interested, didn’t see much way of preserving it because it was so fragile. Nor did I.

I’ve discovered many old coins working in homes. I always give them to the homeowners and let them know where I found them. One coin I found was particularly interesting. It was a 1919 penny in nearly perfect condition. It was in a very nice home built in 1927 and was used as a shim in a windowsill. After I retrieved it, I thought of the carpenter building that window and his need for a shim. Rather than fetching a piece of wood and whittling one out with his jackknife he likely pulled the penny from his pocket and used it instead. Perhaps it was to be temporary, just until he located a proper shim. After all, a penny would have been a good deal of money to a carpenter in 1926 or 27.

In the same home, we removed some heavy baseboards and discovered that under several layers of paint they were solid cherry, probably cut from trees nearby and likely milled on site. It was beautiful, knot-free wood. What made it so interesting though is what was on the backside. The baseboards had originally been stained and the painter or carpenter’s handprints and fingerprints were all over the backside of the material. It was as if he were in the room with us. It gave me chills. I could see him wiping the stain on, the smell of turpentine in the air, his heavy sawhorses holding several lengths of the beautiful cherry wood. As his sawhorses became filled with stained pieces he would pick them up with his bare, stain-soaked hands and lay them aside to dry giving a final wipe to the front side to remove all traces of his handling them.

Just recently, I was changing an interior door in a home. As I removed the last side of the doorjamb, I noticed a piece of paper stapled to the jack-stud. It was the tag for the rough building inspection, signed by the inspector in 1963. It was written in pencil, the words and signature still completely legible as though it had been put there a few days ago. The house was a typical production home in a 60’s subdivision. If it had been a custom build, I might have tried to locate the inspector who signed it. Maybe I should have anyway.

So, that’s how my day goes sometimes. I drift away for a brief moment to a time past. Carpenters and painters I’ve never met are in the room with me and we’re just doing our jobs. A vivid imagination, eh?

Remodeling is always interesting work but things like this are what make it fascinating.

is a full-service, design/build remodeling contractor serving Oakland and Macomb Counties in SE Michigan.

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