This Old House

In a previous life, I was the Antique and Vintage Properties Manager at a real estate company in Norwich, Connecticut. Home to Benedict Arnold and lots of other famous and less seditious Revolutionary War folks, the city is a treasure-trove of fabulous old colonial houses.

I think I fell into the job since my husband and I once tied to rehab a mid-1800s farmhouse on 20+ acres on a dirt road in Garland, Maine. We never finished. At the time, we lived smack in the middle of the Lee Academy campus, and the Garland place was a weekend/vacation respite and retreat, and maybe, we thought, a house to retire in.

Inside, there were hand-hewn beams, wide pine floorboards and a trap door to the boulder-lined cellar. Outside, a disgusting chicken coop insulated with cardboard cartons and a huge rotting barn contributed to the “gentleman’s farm” ambience. I had fun with a crowbar knocking down sagging ceilings (lots of acorns, newspapers, and a rat skeleton), painting kitchen cupboards, and wallpapering. My husband John tried his hand at plumbing, so consequently the cold water came out of the hot water tap and vice versa. He hooked up the collapsing lean-to to his truck and pulled it off the back of the house, filling in the fetid pond. (The transmission on the truck was really never the same after.) We didn’t know about the bad well and bats in the bedroom until we moved out.

Despite its obvious drawbacks, it was heaven for our kids when they were little. So much space to run around. The chicken coop got cleaned up and converted to JACS’ house, a playhouse named for the first initial of each of our kids—Jessie, Abigail, Christopher, and Sarah. They drew on the unpainted sheetrock in their rooms. (Chris’s brilliant contribution in crayon: Girls are stopid. So is Sarah.) There was a tire swing. We’d sit in the barn on a sprung leather couch and watch the garden grow. I made jams, jellies, syrups, pickles, and froze/canned vegetables. John estimated each bag of peas was worth about $25, after considering labor, fertilizer, and the price of the rototiller. A neighbor borrowed the fenced pasture for his sheep and horses, so we had the benefit of animals without the responsibility. To return the favor, he’d invite us to go in his haywagon in the evenings to watch the moon rise and count the stars.

We sold the house when we moved to Connecticut, and it’s been re-sold several times since. The latest iteration on Zillow crushed me—the interior is unrecognizable, although the exterior apparently has not been painted in the 40 years since we left. No more wide pine floorboards, but fake gray laminate ones. (There was a recent article in the New York Times about the ubiquitousness of gray floors—and walls and cabinets—and how they’re all pretty depressing.) The Home Comfort wood/gas combination stove is gone, where I once cooked the Thanksgiving turkey with wood when we ran out of bottled gas. The fireplace tiles I laid have disappeared, as has the fireplace (blocked up, but still with a lovely mantel) and the shelves next to it which held my brown and white transferware. There’s not a scrap of wallpaper left. I have to remind myself that tastes change when it comes to renovation, and publishing too.

Apparently, the contemporary cozy mystery market is completely overstuffed with quaint book shops, sassy sewing circles, candy makers and cupcake bakers, plus unlucky caterers who find a body in the bushes at every outdoor wedding. And according to the P & L folks, historical cozy mysteries just don’t make enough money to acquire. (This, of course, is my preferred lane. Just my usual luck.) However, thrillers and suspense books are selling like hotcakes.

Or cupcakes.

I get tense just looking at the covers. Blood spatters. Frenzied fonts. Someone, usually a female, is missing and probably dead or wishing she was. When they are optioned for movies, I have to close my eyes when the tell-tale ominous music starts. I do most of my viewing on my computer screen, and my hand is primed to cover it at the first sign of trouble. I am a cowardly person.

To everything there is a season. We’ve seen vampires and witches come and go and yo-yo back, and once-dead contemporary romance has resurrected itself with cutesy cartoon covers. Let’s dig out the crystal ball. What do you think the next publishing trend will be? What do YOU want to read? How do you feel about gray everywhere?

The oil tank at the front door is an “improvement.”

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15 Responses to This Old House

  1. judy says:

    I do not want to read tense suspense or horror. Give me a cozy, historical or just plain mystery instead. The tide will turn…I sincerely hope! Gray painted brick houses are OK, inside gray is depressing. Bring back the original features of a house if at all possible. Old houses that are modernized are not to my taste. Thanks for your post, it was fun to read!

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      Thanks! I had fun remembering the crazy stuff. We painted this old house gray, so I’m not totally opposed, LOL.

  2. Love it! My husband & I renovated a vernacular style Greek revival farmhouse in Windham years ago. Laughed at how you described the interesting things you found while working on the house. We still grimace at what some people do to old houses these days.

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      It’s a never-ending process, isn’t it? I live in an old house now too–1878.

  3. Louisette (Louy) Castonguay says:

    Started writing a series some (well many) years back. Finished it up like last year. Six books. At the time of the start, they qualified as cozy. Now, not so much. They don’t sell as cozy. I’m marketing as Outdoor Adventure mystery. Glad to hear it is swinging back to less uh, dimpled and ddumb blondish stuff with vectors on covers that look like cartoons, for the most part. Meanwhile, on to things like culinary cozy, or historical mystery??? I’ll see whart my next will be.

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      Good luck figuring it all out! I’m a sucker for books with recipes, though I never cook them! 🙂

  4. kaitcarson says:

    What a great farmhouse. Maggie, I’m so sorry about the interior. Gray everything? Not my choice.

    I recently zillowed my first Florida home – painted the entire thing white, including the brick front porch, put up a white laminate fence, and, at the time the photo was taken, were in the process of planting a “natural” fence at the street. I’d love the tell them the history of the house, share the memories of the old newspapers that stuffed the air conditioner surrounds, explain to them why they will never get reliable cell signal, and show them the beauty of the tongue and groove Dade county pine roof. Doubt they’d appreciate the effort.

  5. maggierobinsonwriter says:

    Yeah, I truly feel sorry I ever looked up the house. But we still have our memories! Like when the mice hid dog food in my boots.

  6. Judy Alter says:

    Thanks for an entertaining and informative column. I never go back into the early twentieth century stucco that was my d ream home–hand made Italian tiles covered with Fabcrete, etc. Like you I have memories, and like you I think historical mysteries will come back and the too-cute trend will disappear. Nice to hear someone else say it.

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      I grew up in a stucco bungalow built in 1918! No fancy tiles, though, but we did have a clawfoot tub that got boxed in to “modernize” the bathroom. So wrong, LOL. I’ve seen the outside on Google Street or whatever it’s called, but would love to take a peek inside after all these years.

  7. John Clark says:

    Gray is fine in clouds and fog, but not so much inside houses. I seem to be on a steady diet of YA dystopian fantasy with an occasional SCI-Fi novel thrown in. Guess I’m mentally prepping for whatever apocalypse is coming.

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      No apocalypse please, John. Things are bad enough! I think I’m more of a beige person, although that’s not too exciting either. 🙂

  8. Pat Dupuy says:

    I was addicted to Zillow when I was searching for a house in another state. One lovely old house had been HGTVed inside so badly its soul was sucked out. No character left. I did eventually find a house built in 1915 that we bought. The former owners had made improvements inside but left the outside maintenance undone. The metal roof is scraped and repainted now and the house has gone from an icky yellowish beige to a light gray that the neighbors have complimented as they pass by. As for books, I love historicals. Serious or funny. Romance or suspense. I also enjoy the contemporary romances when there is humor involved.

    • maggierobinsonwriter says:

      Pat, I don’t like it when houses are too “done” either. Soul-sucking is right. I belong to a Facebook group that features older houses, which is always fun to follow. I love to see people’s color choices, especially in those Painted Lady Victorians.

  9. Sandra Neily says:

    Maggie, I just LOVED how you and all and esp yoru children loved the old place: all the wonderful experiences you had because you relaxed into it. Loved kids drawing on unpainted sheetrock! Thanks.

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