What It’s Like To Live In A Historical Home
Rachel Burris17-Minute Read
April 21, 2020
Historical homes have long been chosen as the backdrop for haunted tales within popular culture. So much so that when most people imagine a haunted house, they picture an abandoned Victorian home, ravaged by time, shrouded by barren, twisted branches and dark, stormy skies.
There’s no denying that there’s something eerie about old houses that have been left to deteriorate over time. Even the designation of a home as historical suggests that the house belongs to the past, to someone or something that no longer exists. However, most people laugh at the thought and attribute the sense of haunting to the physical danger that exists within dilapidated structures, from falling bricks to rotten staircases to collapsing roofs and floors.
However, for three homeowners in different states across America, living in a historical home has caused them to change their tune. This article was intended to highlight the more trying elements of restoring and renovating century-old houses. However, after speaking to these homeowners, it became clear that the process of preserving these homes involves far more than brick and mortar, hammer and nail.
What follows is an exploration of how living in and working on these historical homes have impacted the lives of their owners, causing them to forge connections with the houses themselves, as well as those who once inhabited their rooms.
Purchasing A Historical Home
Although not all of these homeowners were consciously searching for a historical home to call their own, for all three, the experience of finding their house was that of love at first sight. Let’s take a look at where their stories began.
Meet Jeanne Stanton: 1875 Brick Panel Townhouse
Courtesy of Jeanne Stanton
In 1977, Jeanne Stanton, author and former faculty member of Harvard Business School, set out to find a new home for her growing family and abundant contemporary art collection. Tired of being restricted by the rules and regulations involved in condominium-style living, she and her husband decided that they wanted a whole house of their own. The only problem was that most homes in Boston’s historic Back Bay district had been subdivided in the early ’50s, and few remained intact as single-family homes.
Luckily, they came across one of only 14 houses left in the neighborhood: A brick panel townhouse built in 1875. “I went in, and I saw it,” she says. “It was just extraordinary despite being very – let’s call it – dingy.” The sellers, who had been living in the home for the last 50 years, had added various types of wartime precautionary measures during WWII that still remained. Blackout shades covered the windows, fire extinguishers dotted the interior and chicken wire stretched across the skylight.
However, Stanton was able to see through the shabbiness. She was enchanted by the elaborate brick detail of the exterior, the charming wavy quality of the restoration glass windows and the gorgeous oval staircase that ran up the center of the townhouse to the skylight, which she knew would bathe the home in sunlight – once the chicken wire was removed.
Meet Don Allison: 1835 Vernacular-Style House
Courtesy of Don Allison
Growing up in northwest Ohio, Don Allison, author and founder of Faded Banner Publications, had been fascinated by the old house just off the highway. For years, he watched as it deteriorated. He had no idea it was on the market until his son began looking for his own fixer-upper. When they went to see the home, they found that it was too far gone for his son to live in, but Allison was intrigued.
In 2006, Allison and his wife decided to buy the vernacular home, which was built in 1835, with an addition later added in 1869. True to vernacular architecture, the home featured local materials and craftsmanship, as well as a compilation of various architectural styles of the time period. The two-story brick house was designed in a predominantly federal style but incorporated Second Empire architectural elements, like the mansard-style, slate roof and the dormer windows that protrude from it.
The home was in bad shape. Instead of repairing a hole in the roof, the previous owner had duct-taped a tarp to the ceiling and used a 5-gallon bucket to collect water when it rained. After the home was abandoned, water poured into the house, damaging the floors. By the time Allison finally viewed the home, he could stand and see daylight from the basement. Still, Allison says, “I knew this home was an incredible treasure, and I was thrilled to have the chance to save and restore it.”
Meet Pablo Solomon: 1856 Pioneer-Style Ranch
Courtesy of Pablo Solomon
In 1988, Pablo Solomon, award-winning designer and artist, spent a rainy afternoon with his wife, Beverly. They came across an advertisement in their local newspaper for a historical home for sale just outside a little town in Texas called Lampasas. On a whim, they decided to kill some time by checking out the home. But as soon as the real estate agent took them to see the property, they knew: “We walked in the house, we looked at each other, and we said, ‘We’re home, aren’t we?’” recalls Solomon.
Built in 1856 by a famous Texas Ranger, the home was designed in a pioneer style typical of the Texas Hill Country region. The two-story ranch features thick limestone walls, hand-hewed mountain cedar beams and 1,200 acres of land that includes a spring-fed creek.
But the house was in awful condition. Everything needed to be repaired or replaced from the roof to the ceilings to the floors. There was very little electricity and plumbing, so the house had to be completely rewired and plumbed. But Solomon knew that the important things – the expensive things – were all there: The water well, the storage tank, the septic system and the driveway were in good shape, and the home itself was made of solid rock. So, even before leaving the house that day, the Solomons turned to the real estate agent and told him they’d take it.
Fixing Up A Historical Home
Cliched as it may sound, it’s true that houses aren’t made like they used to be. This fact tends to be what draws people to historical homes. As Stanton explains, “I feel the quality of the materials is much higher and the attention taken to detail. The craftsmanship is far superior.” However, as time takes its toll on these architectural gems, it becomes increasingly challenging to rehabilitate them.
Although great deals can be found for those willing to tackle extensive projects, it takes a specific kind of person who’s willing to dedicate their time and funds to the arduous task of restoring historical homes to their former glory. Stanton describes the process as being like a ship or bridge: “Once you get to one end of it, you gotta start over at the other end.”
That has certainly been the case for all three homeowners. Since purchasing her five-floor townhouse, Stanton has spent the last 43 years and approximately $1.3 million renovating its 7,500 square feet. Still, they spend a couple of thousand dollars a year digging into the walls to update the wiring, some of which remains from the early days of electricity.
As a more recent owner, Don Allison has been working to breathe new life into his home for 14 years. Having done a large portion of the restoration themselves, he and his wife have still put in around $50,000. Though there’s more to be done, Allison believes that the end is finally near.
The Solomons, who have also completed the majority of the work themselves, have spent twice as much fixing up the house over the last 30 years as they did purchasing it. Yet thanks to all their hard work, Solomon speculates that the home is now worth at least five times what they’ve invested in it.
Historical Homes And The Limitations Of Historic Designation
When fixing up a historical home, many homeowners are forced to contend with work restrictions. When working on a house that has a historic designation, homeowners must attend hearings, submit their plans for review and pray that they can come to an agreement with the preservation commission and obtain a building permit.
This process can be extensive and grueling for some, but for those invested in protecting the beauty and history of their homes, they often come out of it unscathed. For Stanton, Allison and Solomon, work restrictions were one problem they didn’t really encounter – partially because preservation was always at the forefront of their minds.
Working With Historic Restrictions
Living in a historic district, Stanton has faced the most restrictions, but they limit only what she can do to the exterior, just that which can be seen from the street. So, when she had wanted to add an oriel window to the back of the house, she needed to present plans to an architectural commission. Although the project was approved, Stanton ultimately decided against it.
However, no approval was necessary when installing central air conditioning in a former dumbwaiter or an elevator in an airshaft in the back of the townhouse – though the latter required all of the pipes to be reconfigured and replaced with smaller, more efficient ones. But Stanton has restricted herself in many ways so as to protect the home’s harmonious configuration.
Solomon’s house is considered a Texas Historic Site, but its significance stems from the Texas Ranger who originally owned it, as opposed to the architecture itself. As a result of this and the fact that the home is listed on a local registry instead of a national one, the restrictions are more reasonable. Solomon is expected to maintain the overall look and feel of the house, which mainly applies to its exterior.
So, instead of having to restore every aspect of the home, Solomon has been able to replace certain elements, like installing prefab windows that look historic. But Solomon has always been well aware of the bounds: “We’ve never even been close to pushing the limits,” he says. “Why would we want to? We want to make this as close to the way it was as we can.”
Defining Your Own Historic Restrictions
Although Allison plans to apply to have his home listed on the National Register of Historic Places, he has been holding off due to the recommendations of three other historical homeowners, whose properties are listed. “They said, wait until you are done with your restoration,” Allison explains. “Because they will tell you to do things that you may not agree with or may not be practical.”
However, Allison is not at all concerned about being accepted once they have finished their work. “We’re being very conscious,” he says. “This is most decidedly a restoration, not a renovation.” Installing kitchen cabinets is the only work he has done that is not period correct. But even then, he tried to use natural hickory and follow historic home guidelines.
Finding Skilled Craftsmen And Sourcing Historical Materials
Because housing materials and craftsmanship have changed radically over the last century, finding historically accurate materials and craftsmen who know how to work on vintage architecture can be a considerable challenge.
There are architectural salvage businesses that source specialized items. But once you get your hands on the right materials, you still must be careful about who you get to do the work. Even experienced carpenters, masons, plasterers and electricians may be amateurs when it comes to working on historical homes – and the havoc they can wreak on these houses is substantial.
The Difficulties That Can Transpire
Stanton is all too familiar with the difficulty involved in finding historical materials and skilled craftsmen. Although she has benefited from knowing artists who moonlight as painters and carpenters, trouble surfaced when she had to repoint her brick townhouse. Brick homes have to be repointed every 7 – 10 years to prevent leaks and physical hazards that arise when mortar deteriorates.
Because of her home’s elaborate facade, Stanton had to find a specialist. The first company she called was unwilling to do the work due to the challenges involved in the decorative brick paneling. The second company felt they were up to the task, but after gouging out and replacing the mortar, they cleaned the brick with an acid wash. When they were finished, Stanton noticed that all the windows had an awful, cloudy look to them.
After having the windows inspected, she learned that acid etches and destroys restoration glass. There was no way to fix her windows, so she had to replace them. Although she was eventually able to buy old glass through an architectural salvage company, it took her ages to find enough to replace all of her windows.
The Advantage Of Personal Experience
Courtesy of Pablo Solomon
While there have certainly been upsets involved in working on their homes, in many ways, these homeowners have been lucky that much of the work and materials they needed to do it have fallen into place. For Solomon and Allison, much of their success has stemmed from childhood experiences working on older homes.
Solomon spent his youth learning the tricks of the trade from his father. “We literally lived in the shadow of downtown Houston, across the street from a railroad yard,” he says. When his father wasn’t working on the railroad, he took Solomon with him to work on the homes in the neighborhood, most of which dated back to the 1860s and ’70s. Solomon recounts tales of crawling under the brick platforms of old houses and discovering cannonballs from the Civil War. The lessons he learned repairing these historical homes left him well-prepared to work on his own.
But after decades of working with his wife to restore their house and a sculpting career that had him taking hammer and chisel to stone, Solomon says his shoulders have taken quite the beating. Although there’s more work to be done on their home, Solomon has instead been trying to pay forward the knowledge and skills he picked up from his father.
“One of the most heartbreaking things is how we’ve lost so much knowledge,” says Solomon. By teaching the younger generation how to work on his own historical home, Solomon is doing his part to ensure that the artistry is not lost to time.
Allison has also benefitted from his personal experience, as well as having a contractor and electricians in the family. When he was in high school, Alison was taught how to use tools and do masonry repair while working on an old farmhouse from the 1860s. He refers to this experience as invaluable, but perhaps even more fortuitous is the ease with which he has been able to find historically accurate materials for his home’s restoration.
The Luck In Finding Historically Accurate Materials
If you were to look at Allison’s home, you’d have no idea which parts had been restored. At the same time that Allison had to replace the floors of his house, a barn from the original family homestead was being taken down. The owner allowed him to salvage all the wood, which happened to have been cut from the same woods as the original floor in Allison’s home.
Allison tells similar stories about all the materials he’s required. When a co-worker decided to put new windows in her house, she gave him windows from the 1850s, some of which were exact duplicates of Allison’s original basement windows. When some of his bricks deteriorated, a friend, who owns an architectural salvage business, provided him with bricks from an 1864 structure that were produced in the same kiln.
His luck has come from not only having a wealth of generous friends but also living in a vernacular home built with local materials. When discussing his good fortune, Allison says, “It’s almost like this house was meant to be for us. It’s pretty incredible. When you look at the property, we don’t have that much into it.”
Connecting To The History of Historical Homes
The incessant work that historical homes require may be a drawback to owning one of these architectural treasures, but through their preservation, these three homeowners have found an extraordinary window into history. The connection that Stanton, Allison and Solomon have forged with their homes goes well beyond their physical walls. It has compelled them to dedicate their time to researching the history of their dwellings and the families who inhabited them long ago.
As the fourth family to live in the nearly 150-year-old townhouse, Stanton has traced the previous owners back with the care one would their own bloodline. She speaks of her home’s three previous owners with the knowledge of a historian and the affection of a relative. She boasts about the Putnams’ contributions to the Boston medical community, mourns the financial reversals that forced the Wells out of their home after only 10 years and exults in the philanthropic interests of Dr. Keener and his wife.
It was Allison’s role as a local historian that first made him eager to learn the history of his home. In the early 1980s, the Ohio Historical Society conducted a survey on historical buildings across the state. He was lucky to find a lot of information on his property documented, including the fact that it had been a stop on the Underground Railroad.
For Allison, the process of working on his home has caused him to feel closer to its former residents. “Going back when we were stripping paint, we went with a lot of original colors. As we were going through the layers, the time frames, I could just picture the families doing the work originally,” he says. Allison’s investment in his home has fostered a genuine concern for the lives of those who came before him. “I can sit here and just unwind, thinking of the four Civil War soldiers who grew up in this house – two of them didn’t make it home.”
Solomon and his wife joined the local historic commission shortly after purchasing their ranch and participated in compiling the first comprehensive book on their town’s history. As a result, Solomon tells the story of his house with the kind of detail and enthusiasm one would expect from Moses Hughes, the famous Texas Ranger who built it.
Hughes first journeyed to the area with his wife, Hanna, after Native Americans told him that the local springs had healing properties. Hanna had fallen quite ill, and Hughes had been determined to save her. After drinking and bathing in the water, Hanna recovered so swiftly that Hughes decided to stay in the area. Having received the rights to 1,200 acres of land due to his family’s participation in the Texas Revolution, Hughes chose to build his house close to the springs. Though Hanna died 6 years after the house was built and 125 years before Solomon ever stepped onto the property, it’s evident from Solomon’s telling that her history has inexplicably merged with his own.
Historical Homes Or Haunted Houses?
Through the process of interviewing our three homeowners, it became apparent that each one had experienced some form of the paranormal within their historical home. The revelation was astonishing, but more striking is the fact that their depictions negate the usual cliches about ghosts and their haunted houses.
Haunted houses have long been depicted as places that instill fear. In popular culture, the iconic ghost is a tortured soul determined to frighten and drive away anyone who tries to claim the home as their own. So, when people speak of apparitions, distant cries and mysterious slamming doors or moving objects, the general consensus is that these occurrences suggest the presence of an imminent threat.
However, that is not what these homeowners describe. Despite having experienced the incomprehensible, none of them characterize what has transpired as frightening. If anything, they seem to consider the spirits within their homes to be protective, comforting forces.
The Haunted Tales Of These Historical Homes
On the first night that Solomon and his wife, Beverly, slept in their house, they felt a strong presence hovering over their bed. Having felt it at the same time, they decided to go outside to discuss what they had experienced.
“We were not particularly afraid,” says Solomon. “We both felt it was Hanna Hughes, that in effect, she was checking us out to see if we were worthy of the house. We felt she was telling us that we, like other occupants of this home, would have challenges to face. But that she would be there.”
Solomon describes Hanna’s presence as that of a compassionate gatekeeper. He says that he and Beverly felt that she was telling them they would be protected and blessed if they devoted their best efforts to the house and faced the work ahead of them with courage. It seems fitting that Hanna, the woman whose illness initially drove the Hugheses to the area, would be the spirit who watched over its preservation.
In an email, Allison had said that there was something “even spiritual” about the atmosphere of his historical home, but it wasn’t until speaking over the phone that he explained what he meant. He was clearly testing the waters to see how the information would be received, though it turns out he had already written two books on the subject.
At the end of the conversation, Allison explains that when he and his wife began working on their home, they thought they were losing their minds. They would hear doors open and close, the sound of people walking around upstairs despite no one else being home. Digital radios would change stations by themselves, seeming to be partial to specific channels.
Allison has continued to experience these baffling occurrences throughout the process of working on his house. “With batteries,” Allison pauses. “This may sound crazy – but I can almost tell if they like a project I’m doing. If they don’t like it, the batteries on all my tools drain immediately, and I have to resort to plug-in tools.”
The presence that Allison describes seems to monitor how he restores the house, gently nudging him away from projects that may threaten the home’s integrity. But Allison’s goal has always been aligned with that of the spirit that appears to watch over him – he has carefully restored the structure both inside and out. So, he describes these paranormal experiences with fascination instead of fear. “The vibes are very pleasant,” he says. “We feel like this is where we’re supposed to be. This is very much our home for now. We’re just borrowing it.”
It has taken Stanton some time to come to terms with the bizarre incidents that have taken place in her home, which she recounts and investigates in her upcoming book, “The Hairbrush and the Shoe.” She tells of “strange, inexplicable things” happening in her townhouse. A bed that mysteriously moved. Laundry that was folded when no one was home. And a hairbrush that disappeared while she was on the phone only to reappear in an odd place 6 months later.
But she pinpoints one specific event that forced her to process the possibility that these experiences were, in fact, the result of the paranormal: “When a workman was pushed and hissed at by something invisible on the stairs, I decided to take the idea of a ghost seriously.”
Stanton’s account of the workman being bullied by an invisible force appears to be correlated with Solomon and Allison’s experiences. Much like Solomon’s tacit message or Allison’s inoperable tools, the pushing and hissing Stanton describes seems to be motivated by a presence that yearns to preserve the sanctity of the historical home.
Final Thoughts On Historical Homes: Explaining The Inexplicable
Whether or not you believe in the paranormal, it’s hard not to see the pattern that these experiences form. All three homeowners have devoted their time and resources to rehabilitating their historical homes. All three have been careful to preserve the integrity of their dwellings and learn about those who once occupied them. And yes, all three of them have experienced inexplicable, benign events that suggest their work has been supervised by someone or something that evades scientific reason.
Keep in mind that Stanton, Allison and Solomon were not selected for this article because of their paranormal experiences. They were chosen because they each lived in a historical home. The rest was mere coincidence. Or was it? Is there something about living in and restoring a historical home that lends itself to these mysterious manifestations? It’s unclear.
However, when speaking to these three homeowners, you can sense that they feel indebted to those who came before them. They each share feelings of respect, concern and appreciation for their home’s former residents. Sure, you can try to explain away their experiences, but part of the honor of buying and restoring historical homes is the opportunity to bring a piece of history back to the present. So, regardless of whether Hanna still roams the 1856 ranch, the Solomons have indeed resuscitated her by resurrecting the home she once lived in.
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