It’s a calculated risk, moving into a 200-year-old house. You’re not really the owner; you’re a temporary steward. The house has already lived longer than you ever will, and unless you screw up very, very badly, the house will still be standing there, aboveground, long after you’ve moved below. Living in a historic home is a privilege, an honor, a responsibility. And occasionally a pain.
In my chosen hometown of Ipswich, Massachusetts, my house — the back part built in 1797, the front part in 1817 — is regarded as “new construction.” Ipswich is famous for having more First Period homes (1626-1725) than any other community in America. Technically I can’t call my house “Colonial”; the historians have specified “Federal” for this era. This house is too “new” to be “Colonial.” If I refer to my house as “Colonial,” someone from the Ipswich Historical Commission shows up at my door with a musket.
Buy a 200-years-new house and you make certain assumptions. You may love the beautifully preserved original touches, the period detail. You may be charmed by the nooks and crannies. But you may also have to live with tilted floors and crooked doors, leaky window casings, and ancient systems. A historic-house expert once visited our dirt-floor basement, saw the odd assortment of makeshift columns holding up the floor above, and pronounced a simple, sexist, and probably accurate verdict: “What you have here is 200 years of lazy husbands.”
An owner may make improvements as their budget allows. After our house was built by Deacon Timothy Morse, some subsequent owner put in an oil tank and radiators. Someone wired the place for electricity. And someone sprang for the most important enhancement of all: indoor plumbing.
I’m no engineer, and I’ve never needed to be. I’ve lived most of my life, 60+ years or so, in reasonable houses, built in my own lifetime, with completely modern conveniences. Today, if I want to microwave yesterday’s pizza while someone else is blow-drying their hair, the house suddenly goes dark and quiet. You’re going to need to find something called an “electrical panel” and “reset” something called a “circuit breaker.” I don’t know what any of this means. All I know is, growing up in Chicago, I could toast a slice of raisin bread while watching Bugs Bunny. Now, I can’t.
This week, I learned — in greater detail than ever before — about the imperfections of yet another system in my beloved antique dwelling. Thanks to occasional minor emergencies in the downstairs bathroom, I have learned to use a plunger. My wife is the practical member of the team; she owns all the power tools and understands all the mysterious ways and means of our old house. But she was away at work, I was home alone, and the toilet backed up, so I plunged.
My very good neighbor across the street is a plumber, and he taught me the ideal technique for plunging: It’s not just push-push-push. The more effective practice is push-push-PULL. I push-push-pulled for half an hour or so, and finally got the line clear. I was so proud of myself, I decided to celebrate by doing my own laundry.
However, as the washing machine emptied, water started flowing from the base of the toilet, and backing up out of the adjacent shower. I found the bathroom, the hallway, and the laundry room flooded. I sprang into action. I spread an assortment of beach towels to sop up the water — I texted the news to my wife — and I left town.
In my defense, I did have a previously scheduled speaking engagement in Connecticut.
While I was there, I got the report from my wife. It turns out that the decades-old pipe between the centuries-old house and the who-knows-how-old septic tank was clogged. So for some unknown number of days, we’d been pumping all of our waste — from every sink, shower, tub, and toilet — into our basement.
By the time I got home, my wife had hired emergency drain-uncloggers, and all we had left to contend with was our basement floor. Instead of Federal Period dirt, we now have Jurassic Period swamp.
Our plumbing system? Intact. Working as well as it did the day it was installed, back there in the 19th Century.
Our house? Intact. Occasionally a pain, but we’re going to keep it.
Our marriage? Intact. I married my handyman. She knew what she was getting into.
Doug Brendel lives in a state of perpetual confusion on outer Linebrook Road in Ipswich, Massachusetts. Check in on him, please, at DougBrendel.com.