Thursday, December 3, 2009

Old Winchester - Part 2

(If you haven't already, you can read Part One here.)

The descriptions of my husband and mother were just too tempting. So the next day after work I drove back to Old Win. I pulled in the drive of the township cemetery just down the road and debated with myself briefly. Then I quickly walked to the house and opened the door. I stepped about two feet into the house and pushed the door loosely shut behind me.

It was an eerie setting, and my heart was pounding. The large picture window in the room I was in was one of the windows that had been broken and was covered by plywood, so although it was early afternoon it felt more like twilight in the house. There was a heavy, damp smell in the air and a healthy covering of dust and cobwebs everywhere. I must have stood there, completely still, for at least two minutes as my eyes adjusted to the dim light. To my left was the boarded up window. To to my right was the doorway to the front room, floor to ceiling double doors, solid wood with all their original hardware. Through them I could see into the front room, dominated by a large plaster ceiling medallion centered over a a beautiful light fixture. Hanging from three chains was a very large concave glass fixture with raised ribbing and patterns. Just to the left of the double doors was the doorway leading to the front stairway. Straight ahead of me were two more doorways into other rooms. Every door (except the floor-to-ceiling double doors) had a transom window above it.

Eventually I relaxed enough to tiptoe toward the back of the house. I walked through a room with original unpainted oak wainscoating and into the kitchen. The built in cupboard was the only painted wood in the house, a mint green color that beckoned back to the Great Depression era. It had two large pull-out bins on the bottom, two drawers in the middle with two large cupboard doors above. Back in the wainscoating room I went to the bottom of the back staircase. Clearly the servants' stairs, they went up steeply, with horizontal wood planks in place of plaster on the walls. I walked up the stairs and stood at the top. To my left was a short hall along an open balcony. There were four doors opening from this hall. To my right was a step up into another room. From Charles and my mom's descriptions, I knew walking through this room would lead to the front staircase. I was about to venture into this room when the silence was broken by the sound of something scampering in one of the front rooms upstairs. My timidity was immediately conquered by fear. I bolted back down the stairs and out the door, almost slamming it behind me. I had just enough composure to replace the lock the way we had found it before briskly walking back to the van and leaving.

It was only a couple weeks later that Old Winchester was officially listed with a realtor. We had notified our agent that we were interested in the property, so as soon as it was listed she scheduled a showing for us. For whatever reason, Charles was unable to attend the showing, but my mom and I eagerly went back into the house. Neither of us let on that this was actually our second time in the house, but honestly, our enthusiasm that day was not at all an act. After all, it was the first time for me to see the entire second floor; and for both of us it was the first chance to inspect the home closely and to realize more fully the extent to which the home retained its original features. When we left that day I told our agent to prepare an offer for us. When Charles and I met her later to sign our offer she seemed astounded that Charles would agree to make an offer on a house that he had never been in. (Hee hee! But yes, folks, he really does trust me that much!)

In the waiting game that followed I did some research on Old Winchester. I once read on another houseblog that poverty is the best preserver of old houses. Based on our experiences, there's a lot of truth in that statement. The owners of Old Winchester were not poor, far from it actually, but for many years Old Winchester saw little of the money accumulated by its owners. The couple that built the house had only one son. That son moved to Cleveland and following his parents' deaths in the early 1940s and Old Winchester began a period that would exceed 50 years as a rental property. In 1998 the original owners descendents finally sold the property. The couple that bought it did some "improvements" - wrapped the house in white vinyl siding, put in poorly installed replacment windows, and put up a couple ugly, cheap ceiling fans - but other than that the house in 2008 was very similar to the house as it was built around 1900. Every door in the house was original, with beautiful Victorian hardware, hinges, plates, doorknobs. (Think lots of stuff like this.) The floor registers were original, featuring more beautiful Victorian scrollwork. (Like this.) Most every door in the house (even interior and upstairs bedroom doors) had a transom window - all still intact and with their original hardware. There were several very early light fixtures and gobs of original unpainted woodwork. The only change in the home's original floorplan had occurred probably at least 70 years ago when a bathroom was carved out of the corner of a downstairs room. The home had seven closets, all original, and four of those closets featured built-in shelving and drawers (with more original ornate Victorian hardware). The two stairways both had open bannisters on the second floor, and the walk-up attic gave plenty of room for storage. The house was under 2000 square feet, but laid out in a way that felt much larger, especially upstairs. The setting was lovely, with plenty of trees.

But when it went on the market Old Winchester was listed at less than $30,000.00.

The reasons were numerous. None of the replacement windows had been properly installed and multiple windows were broken and boarded up. The house obviously needed insulated desparately. Every crack and crevice surrounding doors and windows was packed tight with pastel colored plastic grocery bags. Rather than the basement, the furnace was sitting in the corner of a first floor room (or at least it was sitting there until vandals broke in and stole it while our offer was pending.) The wiring was frightening. The bathroom was revolting - the toilet bashed in with a sledgehammer, the walls surrounding the bathtub black with moisture. The kitchen was, well, let's just say "primitive" and leave it at that.

When my dad was in the house at our second showing he was pretty quiet. He knew from our descriptions that the place was rough. But in a closet upstairs he began to laugh out loud. This particular closet was carved out of the sloping roofline on the back of house, beside the servant's bedroom. The roof rafters were exposed, running diagonally from the roof down to the floor. The previous owners had "insulated" by taking the cheapest black trash bags imaginable (the kind that are semi-transparent and that your fingers poke holes in as soon as you try to pick up the bag, no matter how light the contents are) and had filled these bags with loose insulation. These bags filled with insulation had then been stapled to the underside of the roof between each rafter. This system had obvious problems right from the start, but those problems had been exasterbated by the home's most recent (four-legged) inhabitants. Basically, the raccoons had had a heyday in this closet, shredding the trash bags and leaving pretty pink fluff all over the place. And running through all of this mess was a prime example of the house's "wiring" - two wires draped from rafter to rafter. Where they met, the plastic covering was stripped from each with the bare wires then twisted together. As my dad plucked a pink tuft from the tangled wires he jokingly said, "If you buy this place, you know to disconnect the whole power supply and start completely over, right?"

"Of course, Dad," I laughed, "Don't you think we know at least that much?!?"

"Just making sure," he replied before we headed toward the next bedroom. be continued (Part 3 here)

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