British Television’s Downton Abbey is a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic and whether or not you enjoy the drama, there is a history lesson in every scene as we virtually walk through Highclere Castle, where the show is filmed. My curiosity led me to watch a documentary about the seventeenth century house and then shows about other such buildings until I realized that Brits are not only documenting these old structures, they are systematically trying to save them. Well, that got me to thinking about our own historic buildings.
On the mountain, we certainly don’t have any seventeenth century castles sitting around; in fact, we scarcely have any houses that have reached the century mark. Of course, we can find some old buildings in the surrounding areas and I would very much like to explore some of those with you on the blog.
I think we’ve pretty well established here that I don’t care too much for change. I never quite understand our American tendency to tear down historic brick and mortar buildings and replace them with concrete slab, steel framed, pre-fab structures. I’m puzzled when I see big old houses left to fall down with a house trailer pulled in just a few feet from the front door. Now, I certainly realize there are challenges to renovation as well as occupation of old buildings. So I ask you, do you think there is any value in keeping historic buildings? Can we learn anything from them? Do they give us a clue to life in the past? Are they only valuable - or historic - if someone famous lived there?
I certainly believe the answer is a resounding “Yes” to each of these questions. We know that our grandparents’ generation lived differently than we do today. We require more space. Lester Key had a little log house in Martha Washington where he raised seven children. It had an open loft where all of the kids slept. There was only one boy and his space was separated from the girls’ by a curtain. The whole house was maybe seven hundred square feet. The house was in no way unique to the area, most homes of the day were quite similar.
Houses of that generation had tiny rooms compared to today’s open floor-plans, and every room had a door. They planned and built for practicality since smaller rooms were much easier to heat and in a pinch, rooms could be shut off and left cold. And that brings us to the luxury of heat. One of my favorite lines from Downton Abbey was spoken by the Dowager Countess, Violet Crawley when she referred to her relatively small dowager house she said it was the first time she’d been warm in years. Those palatial, stone homes are notoriously cold – large rooms with high ceilings that were originally heated only by fireplaces are nearly impossible to get really warm.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be comparing our buildings to European country homes, but I certainly believe our beloved spaces hold as much value as those big houses despite the great difference in their age. Certainly families who were raised in some of the little homes like the Lester Key example, would argue that the families in those big houses couldn't have been any happier than them.
Am I just being sentimental? Probably.
As I watched those renovation shows, I saw houses that were hundreds and hundreds of years old. It opened my eyes to the real need for renovations. Which leads me to another question for you: Is it better to see homes greatly altered to suit modern lifestyles or to just have them razed?
I’ve now decided that I’d rather see the significant changes than to completely lose the building. Of course, I always appreciate an honest presentation. I recently learned (and maybe everybody else in America already knew this) that the White House was completely gutted and reconstructed in the late 1940’s. While that’s no secret, when we talk about the presidential mansion, we think of it as being built in 1800 and home to every president since John Adams. However, President Adams would be lost in the house sitting at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue today.
Still, if you learn about any home that’s been occupied for a century or more, you will undoubtedly learn of many changes as times change, technology evolves and the face of the American family shifts. I’ve now decided that I’m okay with knowing I’m standing in your spacious parlor which used to be the master bedroom or that the big bathroom you’ll direct me to at the top of the stairs was created from another bedroom since the house was built before indoor plumbing. It is better to see these changes and to know that a family is still loving a house that’s been standing for four or five generations, and it’s still home.
As I’ve talked to folks about their old houses and read history preparing for this series of articles, I’ve thought again and again, if only these walls could talk. Can you imagine the history we might learn? So for the next few weeks we’ll take a look around the area (and we’ll look inside whenever we have a chance) and see what we can learn. In the end, I hope you will want to leave a comment telling me whether you think these old houses are worth the effort.