Then & Now: If the devil is in the details, why is it so interesting to get lost in them?

Vestibule door scutcheons, Circa 1884. On left, nearly as found, with three layers of paint; removal about to commence. On right, after manual paint removal which preserved the bronze-like patina.

By STUART EISENBERG — Historic districts take all kinds. I live in a Victorian-era house built in 1891 that’s done in a mild version of the Carpenter Gothic style. Maybe it was the wrong house for a detail-oriented carpenter/cabinet maker to purchase. But my wife, Kathy, really loved its front-hall newel post  — the only intact, unaltered, original architectural element in the entire 1,700 square-foot house — so here we are, 27 years later. We can talk about the cool scandal attached to the home and its first owner in my next column; for now, we are asking, “What did the house look like 128 years ago?”

In the privacy of my home, I can be heard muttering or cursing out loud over the design choices of previous tenants and owners of our home. Does this sound like you? “Yeah, I’d really like to know which genius decided to raze the entire original full-width front porch of this house, building an undersized portico in the wake of the removal.” (From old insurance maps, we know the original porch was still there in 1933.) Or this: “Who made that keen decision to remove the two oaken staircase ceiling finials at the ground floor hallway?” I really have some pent up resentment for that person’s pedestrian sense of style.

I ask anyone within earshot, “Who was it that removed entire sections of the upstairs hall balustrade, and why would they do that?” (I did step up, though, and taught myself to turn wooden baluster spindles on a spindle lathe, just so I could match the replacements to the original  balusters.) I will eventually find out who thrust these evils upon me, though, since I have collected the house’s ownership and tenancy records as nearly as can be recaptured through deed and court records and census research. Not that I’ll be able to do anything about these insults but complain — and work to restore integrity to the house and its structures. 

In addition to my previously disclosed hardware fetish, I also suffer from a need to restore nearly all of the original features of this old house. The fact is, I have come to love the hidden stories and structures that are revealed underneath the surfaces I explore as part of renovating this house — or any building, for that matter. Unexpected revelations guide me, and they help define how I’ll navigate a renovation project at home, or even a redevelopment project in my day job.

Most recently, while working on the restoration of our front vestibule, I was startled by the discovery of a completely untarnished section of the door hardware hidden on the undersides of a pair of scutcheons that I had removed so I could strip off their old paint. For just a moment, I was rewarded with the frisson of discovery, a 128-year-old glimpse into the past. My very own time machine. So that’s what it looked like!

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