Years ago, before I moved to (then) working-class Somerville, I lived in an historic district in central Connecticut; most of my neighbors lived in lovely, expensively-preserved, eighteenth century homes. I did not. But even though I did not own an old home I somehow absorbed enough knowledge of Old School architecture to be able to spot historic houses in my new, gritty, densely-populated neighborhood.
Back in the day, I could also easily spot whenever one of my Somerville neighbors did any kind of home improvement. It was easy! Just as carefully as my historic-district neighbors worked very hard and spent lots of money so as to not reveal that anything about their historic house had been changed and that every colonial detail had been carefully preserved, my new neighbors made darned sure everyone knew when a window or porch had been replaced by not making the slightest attempt to match style or color or materials. “I’m brand-new!” these home improvements seemed to shout.
Nowadays, Somerville is upscale—which means, among other things, that plenty of people with deep pockets have bought homes in the ‘ville and, you guessed it, have spent oodles of $$ to restore their homes to look like what they’d looked like when they were new. (In most cases, the 1860’s) And, yeah, It seems I’ve retained an authentic and historically accurate sensibility from my Connecticut days because, I admit it, I admire what these folks have done.
But: there’s an old, old house around the corner from me, probably built about 1825, that is currently being renovated and, I’m guessing by the sloppy workmanship—leaving windows open or broken for weeks, propping sheets of plywood against holes in the walls, for example—is owned by people with not much money and who’ve spent no time at all researching that house’s history. (I could be totally wrong about this, of course.) And those homeowners will, I’m guessing, put in fancy new windows and doors, paint it in a color never seen in the 1825, make it into the home they want, a home that reflects their 2014 taste. (Or, perhaps, what they imagine will sell in the current super-hot real estate market in this neighborhood right now.) So who cares what it looked like when it was new?
But maybe that history—American history—never did and never will mean much to these homeowners. Besides, history does not equal holy. Let’s not forget that when that house was built, for example, slavery was the status quo. Indeed, a block away from that house is “Bleachery Court,” now a park and skating rink, but in 1825, that land was covered with a factory that bleached, yes, cotton. (The North has plenty of slavery-related history, of course.)
So, yes, I’m sad that an historic house has been gutted and its charming roofline radically altered and its story, to to speak, silenced. I’m sad that a daily reminder of the people who lived in my neighborhood so many years ago has been destroyed. I think reflecting on that past every time I walked by that house made my own life a little richer. I also know how expensive preservation is. And that holding on to the past simply because it’s the past is nuts.
So I’m hoping that, like a pay phone turned into an art installation, something just as delightful as that historic house will take its place.
(But I’m not counting on it.)