The History of a Room

The snow was up to our calves the day my husband Adam and I first looked at our house. It was unexpected that we’d be looking since I was halfway through my second pregnancy and it was the dead of winter, but here we were at the end of a dead end street at a house with four bedrooms, a double lot, a fence for the dog, and two garages. This was the first house we looked at, the one I had looked up online several times a day for a week trying to squeeze all I could from the posted photos. Perhaps there was something more I could see before we could get inside and look around.

We looked at other houses that day but knew all along this was the one. Under contract by the end of the day, we had the house inspected a few days later and heard from our realtor and the inspectors over and over: This house has good bones.

Good bones, yes. We knew that. We also thought that watching an infinite amount of House Hunters had prepared us to find just the right house, even if it was a fixer. Adam and I are definitely do-it-yourself-ers, so a little elbow grease and a handful of projects didn’t scare us. Then we moved in and started living and looking around into every crack and crevice and thought, What have we done?

Photo: Lindsay CrandallAs a housewarming gift, my mom asked if she and my stepdad could tackle one of the bigger projects in the house: my daughter Lily’s room. The room, quite obviously a little girl’s room, was a mess: three walls covered in lavender paint, the other wall bright green, bubblegum pink carpet (which had seen better days), and a mirror with unicorn stickers screwed to the wall. As we looked at the room to see what was under the carpet (linoleum!) and what shape the walls were in, we discovered that one of the walls had wallpaper beneath the paint. We had a lot of work ahead of us.

It was a bright September Saturday when my mom and I got to work. We did the simple things first: picked out a new wall color and gathered supplies. Then the actual work began with taking down shelves, pulling down the ceiling molding (which turned out to be baseboard molding), and pulling out an infinite number of nails. After unscrewing the mirror from one wall, we discovered that the room had once been a soft yellow. We started pulling back the painted-over wallpaper, scoring and squirting and peeling strip after strip. At closer examination, we saw that the wallpaper was silver foil with yellow swirls, apparently an accent to the yellow walls. We started guessing: from the sixties, maybe. Beneath the wallpaper was another green wall, a different shade from the other green wall, and enough mold to send Lily sleeping in the spare bedroom even after bleach and coat of Kilz.

The next day, with the help of Adam and my stepdad, we uncovered another wall of wallpaper, and it wasn’t coming off as easily as the first. It turned out that someone had drywalled over it when they couldn’t get the wallpaper off. The wallpaper on this wall was a small pink and gray country pattern, maybe from the forties. And we scraped and scraped and scraped. We fixed more nail holes than could be counted on our fingers and toes, and kept guessing at the history of this room. The weekend was over and still there was a lot of work to do: painting the walls and trim, hanging blinds, and choosing carpet.

My conversation with Adam that evening largely revolved around the layers of excavation we had just undergone. So much of what we found was unexpected. The room had been nothing short of five different colors over the years. We patched many large holes that had been carelessly repaired. We questioned the logic of a person who would drywall over wallpaper.

We don’t know much about the people who owned this house before us, but we know this: They lived here for forty years, and they were sloppy when it came to home repair. After we moved in and started inspecting the house more closely, we saw how the new backsplash in the kitchen is slightly off kilter, how one corner of the bathroom tile is square instead of rounded like all the others, and how the spare bedroom has three different kinds of ceiling molding, all three of them on one wall. Adam finds this all appalling, and I do too. We operate under the belief that you should do something right the first time, not keep slapping things together out of convenience or laziness. With this house, we have more than the handful of projects we originally thought.

But the more we talked and tried to piece together the history of Lily’s room, the more I felt grateful for the lazy workmanship, happy that when the room was changed more layers were added. Without them, we never would have seen all of this. We would have no record of the room’s story and what it has been through in some of its ninety-two years.

Photo: Lindsay CrandallIn one weekend, we virtually erased it all. We peeled back all of the layers and tossed them away to start fresh. It was the right thing to do, but I couldn’t help feeling a little sad. For every renovation and remodel we do to this house, we erase some of its story. This house has been through a lot — more than even the previous owner knows — and when we change it, we take something away.

A house can never tell the whole of its story. We look closely to see glimpses and perhaps unearth some of its mysteries. If it was treated well or if it was treated carelessly, we see it. But if the bones are good, the rest is just cosmetic. It can be altered, reversed, put back together again. That doesn’t change its story, just what we see.

Now my little girl has a room that is hers, where she can relax and rest and play. It’s for us to know what we found and for someone else to know how this room and this house were pieced together over the years. It’s important that we start fresh and rest in knowing that the house has good bones and an interesting history. Now it’s time for my family to add to the story of this room and this house, even if it means some of the story slips away.

Lindsay Crandall works as a freelance writer and editor, but her passion is for photography, particularly 35mm film and Polaroid. She lives in upstate New York with her husband, three-year-old daughter, and new baby son.

Folding My Way Home