Smiling nervously while posing in front of what is now our house in a beautiful borough in South (not Southern) Jersey a year ago last Wednesday (the photograph was actually taken before the closing), I did not anticipate all that I would learn (or need to learn) in the coming year about caring for a historic building. I was unprepared, despite my experience researching and managing historic structures and even directing a continuing education program about historic preservation. More importantly, I did not anticipate how much I would learn about caring for a historic building from Instagram. Yes, the wildly popular social media outlet we innocently started using to document improvements to our 1916 house as a way to keep our families informed about what we are up to is a great resource for owners of historic homes.
At first, what we needed from #OldHouseCommunity, the hashtag to follow on Instagram for all things DIY and old houses, was minimal. Our initial tasks were mostly aesthetic and required skills and expertise that, as historians and material culture scholars, we basically had already. We started by removing wallpaper (do use a wallpaper steamer); painting walls (do investigate non-VOC paint, which, we are told, is not as toxic as other paints); finding and hiring floor refinishers (it’s so difficult to hire someone to work on your house); fixing plaster; and removing ancient window AC units (thanks, Keith!). We documented, but we did not have many questions.
As fall passed and winter set in, projects that required more expertise, time, and money started to surface. When I posted that we were quite suddenly faced with having to remove an old metal chimney (pictured below) when we realized it had beed a graveyard for birds, one of our fellow travelers on Instagram commented that old houses have a way of telling you what they need and when. And tell us it did.
The rain came. Then the snow. The painted wooden porch started to show obvious signs of rot.
Certainly we referenced books (we have almost 2,000, including The Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual, newly updated). And we turned to Instagram. We learned from #OldHouseCommunity there are many ways to remove paint and that there are many quality latex paints out there. But we also learned that many DIYers (not to mention restoration professionals) use infrared paint removers to take paint off (they supposedly don’t heat up enough to vaporize paint, which could be an issue if you’re working with lead, and they don’t contain carcinogens you find in many paint strippers) and linseed oil paints (yes, they cost more, but they spread farther and last significantly longer – though we are currently racing against the seasons to get it on there before the temperatures dip below 50). And then we learned that this process takes a very. long. time.
But it is worth it. If we were not removing the paint ourselves, one pull at at time, we would not have discovered some of the original construction markings on the porch panels or the many colors it had been over the years (yellow, greens, pinks, beiges, and blues). We would not have met some interesting and helpful people in the area, including a local supplier of hard-to-find traditional linseed oil paint and the owners of a local hardware store in the next municipality over who always seem to know what we need. And we would not have cared as much about our house as we do now.
If there is a turning back point right after you buy an old house that needs some work, we passed it about a year ago. As I write this, I watched two different people walk down our street and glance questionably up at at our facade, which, decorated with sloppy, irregular paint tests, looks a little out of sorts on our very neat block. Another #OldHouseCommunity member noted that the point where things start to look ugly is precisely the point when you just need to keep going. And so go we will, bringing to bear the lessons of our professional work on our own home and vice versa, caring for the history we own but also the history we merely have the honor to care for on your behalf.