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An 18th century house under renovation

Aging Gracefully

New home starts down/ renovations and additions up: Assessing the damage

full view of room under renovation.

Two weeks ago I had a conversation with one of Nantucket’s general contractors that went the way those conversations go. We were discussing the front exterior of my old Pine Street house:

“You’ll really need to replace most of the windows. They don’t match.”
“Well that’s because the side addition was later and the upstairs dormers were later too. Nantucket’s full of patch-worked add-ons. I’m ok with that,” I countered. He rolled right over my comment. We were standing across the street, looking at my inconsistent house. Two houses down a crew were on ladders replacing what looked like perfectly good storm windows with matching new ones.  Earlier I’d asked one of the crew what was wrong with the old ones. He’d shrugged.
“We’ll replace the cedar stairs with mahogany. It’ll look great.”
“I just sanded them this summer; I think they’re fine as they are.”
“ All the trim needs replacing, the gutters—we’ll put in copper downspouts. It’ll look like new, ” my contractor continued.
The scene froze. He’d said the “n” word. Not that “n” word, but mine.
“But I don’t want my 19th century house to look like new.” It was all I could do to keep a tremble out of my voice. How had I become reduced to this child-like state of feverishly grasping my teddy bear while a parent dances a primped up tart of a new bear in my face?

The exchange took me back to my Nantucket house-hunting days. Like a good Catholic, I had randomly declared 1920 to be the end of “ensoulment” for houses, after which year they were too young to have souls and therefore to be of any interest to me. The unsuspecting listing agents kept trying to wave magic wands to make new rooms bloom before my eyes.

“Of course, you would want to put in a new kitchen.”
“But the cabinets are solid wood. I can paint them.”

“If you just took out this wall you’d have….”
“A less cozy room.”

“The lot allows for a 20 foot addition; I was thinking just pop out the back.”
“It’s already got four bedrooms.”

“If you converted this side bedroom, you’d have a larger master bath.”
“But then I’d lose a bedroom.”

The assault on old houses in Nantucket comes from every direction. It certainly isn’t the exclusive purview of developers, whom I featured in my last post on the subject. Real estate agents, contractors, architects, interior decorators no longer subscribe to the “make do” ethos that was the prevailing sentiment of Nantucket in my 1960s childhood days. It wasn’t so much that the Greatest Generation was more historic-preservation-minded than we are. They just tolerated more imperfection, well crap really; their improvements took the  form of linoleum, shelf paper, plywood paneling, textured wallpaper, wall-to-wall sculpted gold-orange carpeting, and their thrift usually kept the old house underneath in tact.

So it’s ironic that the greatest threat to Nantucket’s historic houses has been our bourgeoning interest in home improvement and the industry that has developed around that shift. We are junkies for fix-ups and the island is loaded with pushers.
Renovations and additions far outstrip new home construction on the island—in the last eleven years (2001-2012) permits for additions and conversions more than doubled (from 87 annual to 218) while permits for new home construction in 2012 totaled a quarter (57) of what there were in 2001 (235). All this bodes well for land preservation but it’s not good news for historic preservationists. To hire Brian Fitzgibbon to restore your window sashes, you don’t need a permit. To have your old floors scrubbed with steel wool and then refinished, you don’t need a permit; to scrape layers of old paint off your doors and bring them down to wood or comb graining or feather painting, you don’t need a permit. So the 218 permits for additions and renovations the town recorded last year were for work more invasive than the historic preservation I’ve described, a disturbing fact even given the qualification that not all these “improved” houses are historic.

One particular statistic might contain the key to the story. The number of annual shingling permits has been on an almost steady rise since 2001, from 157 in 2002 to a whopping 349 in 2012; in other words it has more than doubled. What could explain this? Greater vigilance about applying for permits might explain some of this increase, but anyone who lives in my neighborhood knows the data confirms empirical evidence. Two out of four of my immediate neighbors had their houses re-shingled in the last five years. Are Nantucket’s shingles all suddenly expiring at the same time because there was a home construction boom that set the calendar in motion 50 even 100 years ago? (Depending on exposure, a house’s side shingles can continue to do their job for 75, even 100 years.) Or, as I suspect, have we simply begun to believe that if something looks old, it won’t last, or function well. Never mind the adage of our parents that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” we want to fix it when it’s showing any signs of wear.
This makes us easy prey to a construction business that generally operates like a car steering its driver, as in my contractor steering me towards a costly renovation. We can easily be made to believe that if we really cared about our house, or had high standards of home maintenance, we would do the checklist of renovations recommended to us.

In this way the problem with the way we treat old houses on Nantucket is very like the problems we face with our health care system. Over prescribing costly treatments hasn’t improved our health outcomes, neither has it improved the health of old houses. But people have a hard time saying enough is enough when it comes to themselves or their loved ones, or their beloved house.

In an article called “The Cost Cunundrum”, Atul Gawande investigated the curious case of McAllen, Texas’s exorbitant per capita health care costs. In almost every socio-economic, environmental and cultural-dietary way, it is a town almost identical to its neighbor, El Paso, whose health care costs are half McAllen’s. So, “what is going on in McAllen?” was Gawande’s question. In good journalistic fashion, he debunks one hypothesis after another until he finds his answer. Are doctors’ insurance rates higher? Nope. Are hospital facilities better? Nope. Are patient outcomes better? Nope. (Pause here to note that there is no difference in health outcomes in spite of double the health expenditure.) Are diets worse? Nope? Are there more environmental hazards? Nope. Do doctors prescribe more procedures, office visits, at-home care, drugs…Yep! The capitalization of medicine had taken hold of the entire town’s culture.

To play out this analogy I researched Edgartown’s building permits for the year 2012, to see if a comparable resort town would match Nantucket’s number of additions and renovations---in other words to see if Nantucket is peculiarly prone to home health expenditures. The year-round population of Edgartown is about 40% that of Nantucket with a similar spike in summer population.  In 2012 we issued 218 permits for additions and renovations; in 2012 Edgartown issued 59. So we were a little less than twice as willing to renovate and alter the condition of our houses than the tweedy little town on Martha’s Vineyard.

Being already inclined to see houses as living things, it’s easy for me to imagine what it must feel like to be one of Nantucket’s old houses in the 21st century. Your life is an endless series of joint replacements, transplants, amputations, skin grafts, “lifts” and morphine shots. You want to sit comfortably in that old chair whose cushions you have distorted nicely to fit your body over the years, but someone keeps making you sit up straight on something resembling a stone bench. It’s not that you want to be left alone to die; you want to be left alone to live, knowing full well that a diet of yogurt-based paints and hearty granola (with almonds) patch plaster will keep you going better than spending your life in and out of operating rooms. You never wanted your face to look like Joan Rivers after she’s “seen more knives than a Benihana!" but every layer of new finish takes away another layer of character and pretty soon you can’t even get a spot in a made-for-TV movie.