You don’t own a 204-year-old house, you steward it.
It’s an exchange: You get to live there, and for this privilege, you care for the house, you baby it, you keep every detail perfectly intact as long as possible, and you gently replace only what needs to be replaced when there is absolutely no alternative.
That semi-functional latch on the closet door is not an annoying anachronism to be tolerated: It’s a 19th-century treasure to be cherished. John Quincy Adams was president when that latch was installed; how can you think of trading it for a Trump-era doorknob?
This is Ipswich, Massachusetts, practically the center of the antique house universe. Replace that rotting newel post on your staircase, and the Ipswich Historical Commission will storm the site wearing three-cornered hats and carrying muskets.
I take very seriously the preservation of our little square of Massachusetts, on outer Linebrook Road, and the old barn-red dwelling situated on it.
So of course it was quite alarming to discover that my wife Kristina had nearly burned the place down. Not on purpose, mind you; but the flames licking up around your bookcase don’t really care about your intent.
Kristina has a lovely office upstairs, from which she runs our household finances. She also handles, from this room, all the logistics for the NewThing.net humanitarian charity we lead in Belarus. This is also “mission control” for her scholarly work, as she pursues a Literature degree at UMass Lowell. Then there’s FaceTime with our faraway kids, and there are Zoom conferences for various purposes, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting. But as you can imagine, all of this requires technology: computers and modems and battery-chargers, and an electric radiator, and lamps, and probably some other stuff I’m forgetting.
All of which has to be plugged in somewhere.
“Somewhere” is the key question.
As far as I can tell, Kristina’s office is in a part of the house that still has the original 1817 electrical. Eventually, who knows how many years ago, somebody begrudgingly put an outlet on the wall.
The only way to run a modern office in a room like this is to plug in a power strip, and then over time, as you add electric equipment to your operation, resist the urge to plug a power strip into your power strip.
Or give in, and hope for the best.
I have no idea what-all Kristina had plugged into that outlet. (That room is her academic inner sanctum. If I stay out, I run less risk of getting any Shakespeare on me.)
But the truth was soon to be told.
When she decided to paint the office walls a new color, she started the project by moving all the furniture to the middle of the floor.
The decision to switch from asphyxiation blue to jaundice yellow may have saved our lives.
There on the wall was the lonely, overworked outlet, with the telltale brown streaks of fire and smoke damage flaring up from its little rectangular nostrils.
We quickly called our favorite electrician, Marty, who has experience with antique houses.
He arrived with all the stuff an electrician needs, plus archeological gear.
He removed the beleaguered outlet, opened the wall, and began excavating.
The wiring he pulled out of that wall was basically Ben Franklin kite string.
It took so long for Marty to make everything safe and right, we eventually set him up with a cot, a microwave, and a washbasin. His children came by occasionally to get reacquainted.
But eventually, the work was indeed finished — with correct wiring, and extra outlets. The electrician went home to his family. Kristina plugged everything back in, and moved the furniture back into place.
We can breathe easy now.
We will not go down in history as the people who burned down this house.
At least, for the time being.
That little crack in the furnace is probably nothing to worry about, right? I don’t want to replace it. It’s Coolidge-era.