Monday, May 25, 2009


Since I moved to the town where I now live, I've enjoyed walking among the older houses, many of which are Victorians well over 100 years old. Many, if not most, have been lovingly cared for by house-proud owners who truly appreciate the details of their homes and seem to take joy in painting them in beautiful color schemes, the trim contrasting from the rest of the house.

I've always loved old houses and have fantasized about owning one, taking care of it like a living, breathing family member. Not surprisingly, I have a few favorites, and even one or two I'd love to own if the circumstances were right (winning the lottery, marrying wealthy, you get the picture). I keep an eye on them just to see if their owners are treating them well, because when you own a house like that, you're just a caretaker for the time being, making sure that the home continues to contribute to the character of the neighborhood. So far nobody's screwed up by tearing any of my favorites down or putting on hideous additions. As I said, this is a town that values its history.

There's one, however, that I'd been totally mystified by -- the haunted house of Orchard Street. The architecture itself isn't quite my style; I've been drawn in for another reason. It's looked totally abandoned. Tall shrubs at the property line hid a veritable jungle of a yard, with overgrown trees and ivy and all kinds of whatnot. I never saw any activity there, and the few times I passed by at night, there was no light peeking out from within. Either no-one lived there, or it was occupied by a hermit. Maybe the Collyer brothers? Was this my town's version of Grey Gardens?

One day a few months ago, I passed by to find the house standing in a bare yard -- the trees and shrubs and ivy had all been bulldozed away. And there was a large construction dumpster stationed on the side street of the corner property. On one hand, it was fascinating to see the house standing in the sunlight, while it had been obscured for so long. On the other hand, I was afraid it was going to be torn down any moment. It stood on a double lot, big enough to accommodate a huge McMansion, or maybe even two of them. Then again, wouldn't they have just taken it down with the trees if they were going to clear the lot? And nobody's building on spec in this market.

Needing answers, I started searching the web and found a real estate sale listing, which said the property had been sold last fall for just under $500k. That's cheap for this part of the country. The house, if in good condition, would have gone for twice that. My curiosity whetted, I found some old newspaper articles mentioning society events that had taken place in the house. Its previous owners had gone on a three-week European tour in the early '60's, and the owners well before that had hosted a sumptuous party with a string orchestra, with guests including the co-founder of Sperry and Hutchinson Green Stamps. Obviously, this house and its people had been something at one time.

Even more curious, I went to my source, a friend who grew up in town and knows people. He was the one who brought the happy news. The house was bought by a couple who are spending $1 million, more or less, to renovate it. In fact, a few days after I found this out, I saw a sign in the yard, advertising the company that's apparently doing the kitchen and bathroom work. And now many of the windows have been taken out, the openings reframed. With the windows removed, you can see ladders and whatnot inside, and that many of the walls seem to have been stripped down to the lathe.

When you've watched countless older houses get plowed under for the sake of McMansion 'progress,' it's a bit of a relief to watch some old bones get refurbished. I wonder what it was that convinced this couple to renovate rather than build, especially given the cost. Do they have some sort of tie to the house? Is there a reason they've fallen in love with it? I'm looking forward to seeing how it turns out, and I do wonder: would they mind if I one day knocked on the door and asked to come in?