How a Gut Renovation Revealed a House’s Secret History
Author Celeste Ng on the surprising things she learned while remodeling her century-old house.
It was charming: That’s what we thought at first. We were recently married, childless, and moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where we hoped to settle and start a family. The real estate agent, a George Lucas look-alike who smelled of cigars, walked us through.
“It’s the top two floors,” he said. “The owner used to live here, but he’s moved to Gloucester. A young couple is renting the first floor.” He opened the door. ”It has everything,” he said. “You’ll love it.”
He was right, on both counts. The house was old (built more than 100 years ago, we’d learn later), but it did have everything: a claw-foot tub, a kitchen with dark wood cabinets and an island, a tiny office—hemmed in by French doors—where I could write. The owner turned landlord had been a photographer and amateur woodworker, and he’d added plenty of quirks: built-in cubbies and bookshelves, a pair of closets with carved elephant-head door handles, even a spa-like shower made of ipe wood. And my husband and I did love it. We signed the lease on the spot.
The day after we moved in, we went for a walk through our new neighborhood. I was already besotted. “If Steve decides to sell,” I said, referring to our landlord, “you know what we should do? We should buy it from him.”
Four years later, that’s exactly what we did. We were good tenants, and I was handy, which endeared us to our landlord. He had lived most of his adult life in the house and was touched to see someone taking care of it. He sold it to us at a discount, and we were thrilled. By that time we had a young son, and we were relieved that we wouldn’t have to move. The neighborhood was family friendly and safe. My husband could walk to work. It was the perfect spot for us.
But by then it was clear that the house was not quite perfect for us. Many of those quirks that we’d once adored had gradually turned into annoyances. The kitchen by this time was 25 years old, and the grout in the tiled counter left sand when I wiped it. Decades of use had worn a dip in the floor of the claw-foot tub, so it never drained properly. My office had been carved out of a larger room and had no heat. And that shower—though our friends found it memorable—was dark and cave-like, and I could never scrub the mildew stains out of the wood.
Plus, as we were now learning, the house had not been built for children. It was full of open shelving, which our toddler gleefully stripped bare. The stairways were open, steep, and impossible to add safety gates to. And the cast-iron radiators were scalding to touch yet still left the rooms chilly.
It was time for a change, and as soon as our downstairs neighbors had moved out and we’d saved up some money, we decided to renovate the house and convert it into a single family. We would tear it down to the studs and start afresh, we agreed. We’d clear out all the old, leftover stuff and make it exactly what we wanted: a perfect clean slate for our family.
The first thing the workers found was the typewriter. “It was hidden way back in the attic,” they told me. “Do you want to keep it?”
It was an old Sears plug-in from the ‘70s, beige. THE COMMUNICATOR, read the label on the front. A thick layer of dust coated the case. It must have been up there for ages, I thought, peeking into its heart. Decades’ worth of letters overlapped on the ribbon inside, gray against the black, so many that I couldn’t make out a single word. What had this machine typed, I wondered: business agreements, love notes, a will? Who had used it, and who had left it in the attic for us to find?
Next, wedged behind the radiator in the upstairs guest room, was an antique tin windup toy—a cat that would nose a ball across the floor. On closer inspection, we found holes in the window frames, for window guards. This must have been a child’s room, I realized, and I wondered what it had looked like then and whether the child who’d lived here was still alive. Whether she had ever missed that toy or never even knew where she’d lost it.
Every week, it seemed, the workers discovered another relic of the many people who’d once called our house their own. Behind the phone nook in the kitchen, an old chimney, the stovepipe holes in its sides covered with tin lids, each carefully painted with a farm scene. According to the Internet, they dated from the 1930s. I thought about someone in the heart of the Depression, carefully selecting the exact pictures they wanted, then sealing them in the walls, not to be seen again until now.
RELATED: The One Renovation That Isn’t Worth Doing According to The Property Brothers
Some of the finds were mysterious. In one crawl space we found a musket ball, but we’d never know how, or when, it got there. Other items were startlingly specific. In another back corner of the attic, we found a wedding invitation. I Googled, trying to find out more about them, but to no avail. Whoever the couple was, they’d left no record—except this one oddly capitalized, oddly worded artifact of their lives, tucked away in the house that they’d once shared and that we now shared with their memories.
The last items we found had been left quite deliberately: a certificate from the Nikon Advanced Systems program, stapled inside the wall of our kitchen, dated 1990 and bearing the name of our former landlord. Pinned to it was a small medal, but when I reached to remove it, it fell between the cracks of the floorboards, where it remains to this day. Then, wedged behind one of the studs in that same wall, we found an envelope, with a water-stained note: “These photos were enclosed in this wall during the 1989–1990 renovation of our house.” Two black-and-white photographs of Cape Cod, undated.
With each discovery, I asked myself the same questions: Who had left this? Why had they chosen this to save for later? What did it say about them, and what had they intended it to say?
By gutting the house, we thought we’d be starting over, building a home that was ours alone. But even the space, we soon realized, would always be shaped by everything that had come before. Why did the wall stop right there? Because behind it was a chimney, from the days of coal heat stoves. Why had they put a soffit there? Because long ago, someone had run a pipe to make the upstairs bathroom.
The lives of all the former residents overlaid the house in just the same way. They would always be there, and they gave the house its character. They made it not just a house but this house, our house. A house that had held many lives, that bore in its bones many memories. We’d never know all the answers about those previous lives, but the more we found, the more we discovered we didn’t want to strip all that history away. We wanted instead to add to it, to find a way for our lives and those other lives to overlap.
Before the workmen closed up the wall of the hall closet, we made a time capsule of our own. It’s not the whole story of us, of course, but it’s the way we’d like to be remembered, the memories we’d like to leave behind for whoever rebuilds our house 20, 50, 100 years from now. Two family portraits: one a photograph, one crayoned by our then 5-year-old. A business card with the cover of my novel and my email address, in case we’re still around for them to contact. And plans of the house as it was built and as we’d changed it.
There’s no such thing as a clean slate, I reflected as we tucked the envelope into the closet wall.
Now that we’ve moved back into the “new” house, it looks quite different. We’d moved doors here, created rooms there. Our furniture fills up the rooms; our pictures hang on the walls. But I’ve framed the Cape Cod photos that had been sealed up in the kitchen and hung them in the dining room; I’ve mounted the elephant-head door handles in my office. I posted the wedding invitation in our guest bedroom, and every time guests visit, they ask about it, and I tell them the story again.