The house where I live and work is not old compared to many places, but it has acquired a respectable patina. Its timeworn charm and singular stand of fruit trees distinguish it from neighboring properties. “Plum Cottage” was the only fitting name for this vintage 1921 bungalow, which retains the refreshing humility of a bygone era before automobiles or televisions became must-haves in every household. An electric trolley ran down the main street in front of the house, but as the neighborhood aged, the trolley went away.
A gravel drive was never part of the plan; its addition made a retaining wall necessary in the back of the property. Needless to say the march of modernity gave this little runt of a house all sorts of peculiarities that, added together, make it unique. The impact of each change created other necessary changes, some of which we understand and some of which we don’t: a carport added in the 1960s, a tiny pass-through door between a breakfast nook and a set of stairs leading to the basement, a sign under the front port steps (1950s?) when salesmen went house to house selling encyclopedias and pots-and-pans:
At some point past, the neighborhood went into decline. Properties lost fences, children and animals ran helter-skelter across lawns and gardens, and someone decided the back of our property was a great spot for burning garbage. Over the past 25 years the house has been incrementally rescued from deterioration, and in the process, the entire side of our block has been revitalized. Many of the issues we’ve had to deal with have taught us what we most value in a home. We thought we needed a larger place at one time, but then we considered how we really live and what it takes to function. Although we are not minimalists per se, we have maximized a lot of our space by re-engineering our environment.
Based on our observations of the decline of civilization as a result of over-industrialization, we developed a philosophy of minimal technology. We believe the year 1910 was the approximate time when the cost of industrialization began to show diminishing returns for human good. For that reason, I always consider the industrial bloat after 1910 when deciding whether to bring some new-fangled contrivance into the home. (We have to interface with today’s world, so that does require some technology, but we have kept it to a minimum. We use the fewest electrical appliances and power tools that we can get away with and still function. Even our lawn mower is a push mower–the better to cut down on noise pollution.)
Every spring and summer we work on a new part of the house. This year we opted to change up an old breakfast nook that once served as a dog pen. The built-in book shelves seem to have been put in around the same time as some of our kitchen cabinetry, though we still don’t know if either is original to the house. Was this even really a breakfast nook in the beginning? Where did they keep the old icebox? It would have been (most likely) very small. Years ago the coal burning kitchen stove was removed from the adjoining room. All that remains of it is a round cover on the top of the wall where the pipe went.
When we set to work designing the shelving, we had just been in the middle of dumping a lot of extra things that were clogging up the carport and basement. We set out a “free” sign and people picked up the most unbelievable items. A worn rug and dilapidated five-drawer dresser went, as well as a nice painting with hand carved frame. Earlier we had unloaded a lot of metal stakes and cut up wire fencing. I’m always glad when people can figure out how to use these things.
Then we looked around at the other junk. What kind of shelves could we make without spending a dime? The tops of the side shelves are made from a single piece of board sawed apart. It had been a prototype for built-in night stands at the Davenport Tower Hotel (Spokane, Washington). The shelves under those were created from a framed wire-grilled baby gate that we used to keep our late Pekes in their pen at night. They hang from chains, and the wire grills keep dust from settling (easy clean). I found the straw basket in a thrift store and it was perfect for holding files I am currently working from.
I used to dream of living over a small shop like in the old days when families ran bakeries, cobbled shoes, printed books, wove fine fabric and things like that. Our basement actually is a shop (with another office), and our dining area is a working artist’s studio. My office is just off the kitchen where I have access to things I need for cooking, sewing and other projects at the same time I am writing, researching and carrying on correspondence. Guess we didn’t do so bad after all.