Now that spring has sprung, it’s time to say a few words about landscaping. When you buy an old house, spring can be a series of surprises. Bulbs start popping out of the ground in unexpected places. My old favorites, like daffodils, bleeding heart, and lily of the valley, make me smile. Sometimes the landscape surrounding an old house can look positively dramatic. Plantings from the late 1800s through the first half of the 1900s look like that. As the exterior of houses became more dramatic with the popularity of the Victorian style, so did the trees and shrubs planted to complement the house. The architectural style accounts for the weeping varieties of trees like willows and cherries, or the odd difference of the smoke tree.
Here in New England, it is all about the maple trees, especially the sugar maples. There were two huge, old sugar maples in front and one in the back yard of our house when we bought it. They provided an elegance and leafy shade for our outdoor living. The two in front dated from early in the last century. Sadly they are gone, replaced by two October Glory red maples. In the fall, the October Glory maples show off by turning the brightest, most electric shade of red imaginable. I think of them as the sassy teenagers. I find myself missing the two old ones, though, with their fall color changing from yellow to bright orange.
The third sugar maple still graces our back yard. It sits about twenty feet off the back of the house and provides a wondrous canopy of foliage that cools our back deck and creates the effect of a room for our outdoor living space. We treasure this tree as much as anything in our house that reminds us of the past.
Two old fashioned lilacs, one purple and one white, came with the house. They bloom in the spring with a pretty display of old fashioned elegance. Their intoxicating scent smells of nostalgia to me. These little things are sometimes missed when you plant a modern cultivar of a tree or shrub to replace an old-fashioned variety. The newer plants may have been bred for characteristics like showier flowers at the expense of scent or other characteristics.
To keep up the tradition of planting beloved plants, we planted a couple of our favorites shortly after we moved in. Needless to say, there will be no spiral or pom-pom junipers for the foundation of this old house! In the backyard, we now have a flat-out gorgeous Cut-leaf Japanese maple and a Korean Spice viburnum, whose heady scent really has no rival. I like the idea that, as in the house, we have tried to work with what remains from the past, while adding our particular imprint on the sense of place here.
For more information on landscape plantings, old and new, I recommend the best. Dr. Michael Dirr’s books on hardy trees and shrubs have been the standard for many years. They are the definitive guide and discuss the merits of a plant in a straightforward manner. Try Dirr’s Hardy Trees and Shrubs: An Illustrated Encyclopedia. I have this book and my thirty-year-old copy of Manual of Woody Landscape Plants: Their Identification, Ornamental Characteristics, Culture, Propagation, and Uses , both still in heavy use in my reference library. Dirr’s Encyclopedia of Trees and Shrubs will be my third Dirr book. There is also an app called Dirr’s Tree and Shrub Finder, which I am sure is the excellent resource that all of his other works are. As one reviewer wrote, it’s “tree”mendous!
Seriously, it is a rewarding challenge to live in, and perhaps renovate, an old house. But it’s pretty cool when your kid is reading The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne for school, written in 1850, and you can point out that the house you live in was already twenty years old at the time!
But it’s a good thing I don’t have any extra money! However, if you are in the market….
The day we almost moved out of our old house was a warm and sunny one during early spring. We had been living here for less than a year, and survived our first winter, stuffing up drafts and nursing a cranky old furnace. Signs of spring were popping up all around the house, crocus and daffodils in the flower beds, and old-fashioned lilacs with their heady scent. Naturally, one’s thoughts turned to sewage.
We had moved into this beautiful old house nine months earlier with grand plans and dreams of renovation bliss. I had visions of myself as Renovation Girl – first designing and then competently implementing all that needed to be done to bring my old house into the twentieth century. We knew a lot needed to be done, but it would be a nice part-time hobby for the evenings. Reality came bubbling into my dream that morning when the sewer line started backing up into the downstairs bathroom.
Now, we knew the size and location of the sewer line because it was marked on our property survey. We had been very happy that the house was hooked up to city utilities, thinking that we would not have to replace an old and under-performing septic system after we moved in. How could we know that the pipe connecting our house to the sewer line in the street, an old clay pipe, was being invaded by tree and shrub roots over the years? Our first clue was the funny-colored, murky water coming up through the bathtub drain. Soon, the toilet and the vanity sink were involved. You get the picture. After many hours with the plumber, checking fixtures and snaking drains, it became apparent that we would have to replace the sewer line out to the street. But even that is not why we almost moved.
Sometime later, I was standing in the front yard, telling my tale of woe to my neighbor Bob. Now, Bob’s Victorian house is younger than ours, built by members of the same family, and he found $ 900 dollars in his dining room ceiling when he tore it down. These stories always happen to other people, but can spur on the renovator with a false sense of purpose. (When we tore ours down, we found a steel beam, held up by nothing, splicing together two timber beams.) As we’re commiserating about old houses, I can see the old lamp post, out by the street, begin to fall over in slow motion. Incredibly, the post had rusted out at ground level and fell over on this day, of all days. If the house had been burning down at that minute, I’m not sure I would have called the fire department.
Years later, this is one of the funny renovation stories that we tell during parties, or when visitors are admiring the house. So many other things have happened over the years to test our patience and perseverance, that this story seems almost whimsical. (Someday, I’ll tell you about the old tin signs used as roof flashing.) But for us, this renovation has been about making a home, a home with history, and has been worth it every day.
If you ever get the chance to visit the Hudson Valley in New York, take the opportunity to see some of the grand old houses there if you can. Not only are the houses beautiful, but many of them are sited to take in the stunning views of the Hudson River Valley and surrounding countryside. They have housed descendants of some of the earliest families to settle the region, and some of the wealthiest families in the country. They have been homes for statesmen and artists and writers. Some of the houses are publicly owned now, and serve as museums or venues for events (like weddings!), and some are still in private hands.
Here’s a story from today’s New York times about the life of, and life in, one of these grand old houses.
It tells the story of the life of an old house in the middle ground, between being strictly preserved and completely modernized, of a house that is lived in and valued for what it was and what it could be. It’s a great story.
For more information on houses in the Hudson Valley, see “The Great Estates Region of the Hudson River Valley” by McKelden Smith and published by Historic Hudson Valley Press.
For up-to-date listing of happenings in the region see the FB page of the Hudson River Valley National Heritage area.
In case you haven’t heard, there is a new lead paint abatement law in effect as of April, 2010. If your home pre-dates 1978, when the sale of lead paint was prohibited, your contractor must be certified in lead paint removal if they are disturbing more than six square feet of area during a renovation. While this will surely add to the cost of your renovation, studies have shown that even a small amount of lead paint ingested or breathed in can cause neurological damage in children. The safe removal and mitigation of renovation activities is a good thing for everyone. You can read more about it here.
The Consumer Energy Efficiency Tax Credits are in effect until the end of 2010. These tax credits may cover renovations like windows, doors, insulation and roofs. Read more about it here.
Be an educated consumer when it comes to renovating your home!