Insult to Injury
I’d heard the rumors. That piqued my curiosity. I drove into the mile-long driveway to the top of the hill where the c1840 log church that I’d built for Jim Calladine and his wife Kathryn has stood since 1980. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I couldn’t see it for ugly additions being framed around it. How can this actually happen? I thought. The shapes bore no resemblance to the architectural norms of the past. Obviously, the new owners have other sensibilities, if any at all.
The monumentality of the church has been lost, at least from where I’m standing. And the grounds around the house look like a bombed-out war zone, so antithetical to the peaceful setting we were so careful to create. In all my many years as an active architectural restorationist and historian, I’ve seldom witnessed such desecration before.
I know how these things can happen when a house and its environs have passed into new hands. Perhaps I’m a bit biased in this case, having spent so many hours with my friends, months actually, staying on a course that was true to the respect that history and the land deserved. Do these new owners not realize that these reconstructed homes have survived a century or more and have done so while invested with soul? And how they came to inhabit the house?
Is it not possible that the original owner was seeking shelter for his brood? No doubt he put his heart into every stroke of the broadaxe. Perhaps the first tree that offered itself up to him has contributed too. They might even have considered that the generations that have lived fruitful lives therein meant to pass it on in nature’s way to their descendants or any future occupants, for that matter. Homes that have a true history, I think, come with a kind of promise, a promise from the past to the future, of peace, safety, beauty, and shelter, all of which is a duty with a soul built in. This is its true prosperity, its triumph, and its legacy.
These houses have character. We would be very remiss not to notice and appreciate the spirit behind the crafting of them. To turn an oak tree into a few square timbers by the strength of one’s arm was no mean feat. They were meant to stand for the generations to come and it seems that’s us. We have been given a gift we must recognize, the advantage of the monumentality of effort that created them in the first place. These natural materials with the earnestness that shaped them in evidence will cradle us as lovingly as they ever have. The house then becomes the haven that nurtures the soul that inspires and gives meaning to our lives. When these houses are threatened, often by the urban sprawl, sometimes by neglect, a few of us choose to save them and use our care and diligence to do so.
They are often reconstructed as they were first intended but sometimes need to be tailored for today’s homeowners. An architectural designer with traditional design experience can be of great assistance in this regard. It is important, if introducing modern elements, to add them without sacrificing the vitality and ambiance of the original structure. Needless to say, a particular sensitivity is required to marry the old and the new. The psychological power of rooms is often underestimated. Some rooms, particularly venerable old rooms, cannot be improved upon and we are well served to keep them intact, even to furnish them with our prized antiques. But there are many opportunities for drama. Take the current interest in converting an old barn into a home for instance. We have recognized that this kind of monumental space was not meant to be contained. It wants to soar. As do our souls.
As Thoreau put it “We are but a sojourner in nature.” Man’s journey has always followed a trail that steps from the past to a future where on both sides of the road are lined homes for souls to rest and share their lovely rooms. An afternoon after the house sat proudly on the top of the hill I wrote this:
This house, a lofty sentinel
sits above the valley below the clouds
that part to let the sun beat down approvingly.
Majestic it stands, this monument,
firmly fixed into the earth from which it came.
Not long before it was a seed
that journeyed through our mind,
borne aloft by our imagination,
our will the weight to press it home.
Its root goes down beneath our time,
a well that gives up dignity.
No stranger here, its friends the sun,
the moon, the winged and wingless
fly and frolic in its shadow.
As children beneath her skirt
she lifts us up to her, embracing us,
her folds become our own.
This grace bestowed, we thus inherit
a legacy that’s laid, a cornerstone
that’s set in love, the mortar of the soul.