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Altering The House

( Originally Published 1907 )



AND so, with the old white-porticoed maple-shaded house in our possession, it was to be a pleasant task to place properly within it the old furniture that we had, and then to look about for enough more to make the house complete. And the great halls and the lofty rooms, corniced with simple elaborateness, were a charming incentive.

"Old houses mended, cost little less than new before they're ended!" cried the cynical Colley Cibber; but assuredly that was very far from being the case in the rehabilitation of the once-while inn. For although the building, naturally enough, had some-what of a dilapidated appearance when we first saw it, it was firm and strong in essentials. The great, thick walls were good, and the roof was good, and the flooring was good, and the ceilings in every room but one were good. With such excellent points in our favor we could afford to smile at Cibber's cynicism; although perhaps a complete restoration, outside and in, including eaves and waxed floors and the addition of porcelain tubs and various convenient sundries not absolutely essential, would make Cibber sager than he seems.

The red and the azure-blue of the halls, from top to bottom of the house, a sort of acreage of space when we came to look at it, was among the things imperatively demanding attention. But a man, working for a couple of days, sandpapered away the offending colors, with only the accompaniment of clouds of dust, and then the white for the woodwork and the soft buff for the walls were quickly put in place; the walls being treated in tempera-that is, the color being applied with size instead of oil.

The old kitchen of the inn was a great room, twenty-six feet by sixteen, occupying the ground floor of an extension at the rear, opening from the end of the main hall. At the farther end of this room was a huge brick fireplace, whose structure extended from ceiling to floor, the opening in the brick being of the capacious width of eight feet, a height of six feet, and a depth of three. At the side was the ancient oven, built into the depth of the chimney.

There were wooden cupboards along two of the walls, there was a decrepit sink, and the fireplace itself was bricked in at either end, besides holding in its middle an utterly dilapidated range.

But in spite of the discouragements in aspect, the lines were there, and the fireplace was there, and the oak floor was there, and therefore the possibilities were there.

And, first, it was a sin against opportunity to use such a room for a kitchen. Its shape, and the hospitably capacious fireplace, and the pleasant location at the end of the hall, and the pleasing view toward the hills, and the fact that this comfortable room had a lower ceiling than any of the principal rooms of the house, all combined to mark it out as a sitting-room, a working-room.

He who would successfully adopt an old house must approach it with openness of mind and a readiness to metamorphose, and one of our first cares was to make this room what it was so closely fitted for.

Nor was it a difficult task. Like most of the eminently fit things to be done about a house, it was easily done.

The wooden cupboards along the walls, snuffy and of no design, were removed, as was also the sink. A pickaxe cleared away, in an hour, the broken old range and the brick at the fireplace ends. The hearth, of brick, was good and sound, and in front of this, before the oak flooring began, was a surface of brick, two feet wide, supported upon an arch in the cellar.

The brick of this two-foot section had woefully sunk, and a workman who was to repair it sent word that he could not come. It was a case of immediate need; and again, like many another case, presented not nearly so formidable a difficulty as it at first sight appeared to do. For, after all, "another man may do what has by man been done!" So, in the evening, with the butcher knife the sunken brick were lifted out, disclosing the bed of sand on which all old hearths are laid. The gutter by the roadside was full of fine sand, and some fifteen bucketfuls raised the bed to its proper level. The bricks were then relaid, and sand and water were used to fill up the crevices as the amateur worker had seen them used in the laying of brick sidewalks when he was a boy; and in less than two hours what had threatened to be a formidable task was entirely completed.

The walls of the old room had had many a coat of whitewash in the years that had gone. Scaly and yellow and blistered they were; but a man with a hoe soon peeled them down to the original surface.

Friendly discouragers told us that paper could never be made to stick on such a wall; but there is a way to make it stick. The paperhanger first put on vinegar to kill the action of the lime, then glue; then, at the end of a day's work in another room, he took what paste he had left and a pound of glue, and brushed over the ceiling and walls with this stickiest of mixtures. Then, indeed, the wallpaper stuck!

Low shelves for books were now placed against the walls, for the greater part of three sides of the room, and then all was ready for the furniture. "There was in the rear of the house," once wrote Hawthorne of another charming old building, "the most delightful little nook that ever afforded snug seclusion." And, somehow, we now had such a nook, except that it was not precisely what one would term little. But it was none the less snug, with its three windows, and the cavernous fireplace in which the flames would leap and roar.

But, having metamorphosed the kitchen into a sitting-room, it was necessary to transform ,some other room into a kitchen. However, there was a room all ready to our hand-the taproom! For in an inn that is no longer to be an inn, nothing so lags superfluous as the taproom. This one was conveniently situated for the new service to which we destined it. It was a matter of putting the wooden bar down in the cellar, of altering bottle cupboards into dish cup-boards, of transposing some shelving into a side-table; and the thing was done.

In this room stood one of the ancient Franklins; open-front arrangements of iron with gracefully curving jambs, half stove and half fireplace, of a good deal of dignity in appearance, brass ornamented and with bands of brass; the fire to burn on a flat open hearth, with the use of andirons; and such things were eminently fitting in a house of this sort because of their really having been the inception of the famous Colonial personage whose name still clings to them : the many-sided genius who, not content with fetching fire from the sky, wanted to show people how to use fire in their own houses.

This particular Franklin, however, had to be taken out, as it was not fitted for kitchen use. It was then a simple matter to have the wall bricked up where it had stood. Then a modern cooking range was set up (for the love of the old does not properly or advantageously carry with it a love for the defects of the old) ; and there was our kitchen, with a door into the broad hall directly across from the dining-room.

The double parlors of the inn, one of which we made our dining-room, possessed fireplaces which had been bricked up. This bricking up of old fireplaces is often done and looks formidably final, but it was the task of less than half an hour to have the brick torn out and ready for removal. Finely pro-portioned fireplaces were revealed; but alas! there were none of the treasures which we had fancied might be there. In many an old house there are the fine andirons, or cranes, or perhaps even a fender, of iron or the now precious brass, hidden away and forgotten behind the boards or brick with which the fronts of ancient fireplaces are closed. In this entire inn, however, with its wealth of fireplaces, we found but one pair of andirons thus forgotten-but it was a pleasure to find those!

Putting the rest of the house in a state of preparation for furniture was now, in the main, a matter of no lengthy detail.

A hole in the wall between the once-while kitchen and the dining-room, for convenience in serving, was no longer of use, and it was bricked in and papered. Every Franklin in the house was painted black. Here and there was a stovepipe hole through the ceiling, and every such mar was repaired.

Wallpaper had to be chosen for the various rooms, and this was a matter requiring time and care, to secure papers which should accentuate the old-fashioned period, harmonize with furniture and pictures, and be beautiful. In a general way, our choice fell upon greens and yellows, of which, in these days, it is possible to secure specially effective designs.

Some of the doors were without their original brass knobs ; and in those cases new knobs were put on-new old knobs, that is, as we possessed a considerable number of old ones, picked up, from time to time, in anticipation of need, at junk shops or village carpenter shops, and even two pair that we found on a street stand in an out-of-the-way corner of Naples. It is well to cultivate the habit of gathering such things-the small change of furniture, so to speak.

The front door was without its original knob, and had an ugly one of white crockery. There was a similar one for the bell wire. Fortunately, in our possession was a pair, found long before in Pennsylvania, of beautiful oval knobs, of brass, attractively grooved in rays, and these were used.

The old knocker had long since disappeared, leaving upon the door only the marring marks of bolt-holes stuffed with putty. By sheer luck an ancient knocker, found in Quebec and long treasured, was not only precisely the style of knocker for the door but its bolts so exactly fitted into the ancient holes that it was not necessary to damage the door in the slightest degree in putting it on. A number of old residents have said, "Why, I see you have found the original knocker!"

In addition to the brass knocker and brass knobs thus placed beneath the white portico, there was a brass knob on either side of the steps at the foot of the rail. These last knobs, however, did not appear to be of that metal; for so long a period that village memory ran not to the contrary they had passed as knobs of iron painted. green; but a thorough polishing showed the brass.

The banisters needed a few new spindles and the village carpenter, himself an aged relic of the past, was willing to replace them but was fluttered by the very thought. Weeks went by. But when, one day, a spindle to serve as a pattern was pried out of its place and carried to his shop and laid down be-fore him, all was at once simplified. "Why, of course!" And that afternoon he appeared at the inn with the new pieces made carefully out of a mahogany plank, and forthwith proceeded to put them in place.

With the gate beside the house there was more difficulty. A stone wall was there, and in the wall a gap with a pair of iron sockets which had once sup-ported the gate, which long before had gone-gone none knew whitherward, perhaps on some old-time night of Hallowe'en.

The old carpenter shook his head. "A long and expensive job! The hinges will have to be made specially to fit these sockets, to begin with!" He shook his head dolefully. "And I haven't any suitable wood, either!" And, after another presentation of the case on our part, "What do you want a gate for, anyway?" he asked whimsically.

But, driving with a friend a few days afterward, a fallen fence and gate were spied. The owner, found, had no use for the gate. It looked as if it would fit the gap in the stone wall. And so we triumphantly carried it home, and it was not only found to be a perfect fit in width, but its hinges were precisely the kind of hinges needed for the sockets and of precisely the needful size. The gate needed to be turned upside down, to match the way of swinging, but that was easily done. The friend assisted, and gleefully helped to saw and nail. In a little while an ordinary picket gate had been trans-formed into one with diagonal crosspieces, to look the better in a stone wall, and the thing was done.

After a while it came to us that another problem was to be solved. The inn was a little too large. More than the two lower stories was not needed. But to lessen the roominess it was not necessary to tear anything down. A partition was placed across the hall, at the head of the upper flight of stairs, shutting off the entire third floor completely : a partition simply constructed by setting up packing frames which had been on screen doors shipped from the city. The frames fitted with almost no trouble at all. They were easily covered with a few hangings, giving them an air of completeness. And there was a far greater sense of coziness, and a house easier to keep warm; and at the same time, by a convenient arrangement of doors, we were still able to go into the third floor, through a door into the room at the head of the stairs and from that room into the next, and so around the screen, and thence, if desired, to the outlook. The original builder could not have made it more ready to our hand in this respect.

None of the changes were difficult of achievement, and they were made by simple methods and with no great outlay.

And now, in regard to this inn which was our home and no longer an inn, we thought of those words of good omen of old Doctor Johnson : "There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn."

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