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Older houses: Living better with less?

Sometimes I think the modest things I have in life are so much better than anything I could buy for a zillion dollars. Maybe I suffer from the sour-grapes syndrome. But…well, you tell me. Is this sour grapes or common sense?

The hall with the unbounded ceiling
The hall with the boundless ceiling

This morning La Maya invited me to go with her to an estate sale in one of the tonier parts of the far northwest Valley. The sale organizer touted “upscale” goods in a “4,000-square-foot house.” So shortly after dawn cracked, we set out for the ocean of orange tile roofs that is the westside.

When we got to the neighborhood where the sale took place, we found ourselves in one of those curvilinear tracts where all the stuccoed houses look pretty much the same. This HOA dictated dust-brown paint with mud-brown trim. It being a fancy tract, some of the houses had stone facades: dirt-brown granite, every one. If you came home late at night and three sheets to the wind, you’d never figure out which of the half-million-dollar shacks was yours.

But seriously: the area was clean, obviously expensive, and very nice. I guess.

Inside the target house, we found more beige paint and brown stone, plus lots of very expensive designer furniture, mostly brown. And huge. There was a freeway-sized L-shaped leather sectional, big enough to accommodate a theater full of movie patrons. A fat chair and ottoman that would seat three children and a labrador retriever. A leather-topped desk and $999 leather desk chair. An outlandish leather-covered ultra-king-sized bed. And on and on. 

All this stuff needed to be huge, because the house’s stratospheric ceilings created so much empty, soulless space that you felt you were inside a cave. But nothing about the size or the priciness of the furniture made the house feel like anything other than a showplace for some interior decorator’s contract project. The overall effect was about as cozy as a hotel lobby.

Houses in outlying suburbs here are notorious for their shoddy construction. When we went into the professionally landscaped backyard with its spectacular outdoor kitchen and elegant two-level pool, what should we see but gaping structural cracks just about everyplace we looked. One wing of the stuccoed structure that held a gas grill, a sink, a refrigerator, and storage cabinets had pulled loose from its adjacent segment. The second level of the pool arrangement had two big splits, one on the north side and one on the south: given time and a few soaking rains, the whole lash-up will collapse into the luxuriantly finished lower pool. 

The house itself looked sound…but it’s hard to tell. A skilled craftsman can cover a wealth of sins with stucco. A single crack of the sort we saw out back would create some serious homeowner headaches.

Inside, every ceiling, even over the halls and closet-sized bathrooms, was a good 16 feet high, creating vast walls to have to dust and paint—you couldn’t paint them yourself, because you’d need scaffolding to do the job. God only knows how many cubic yards of empty space had to be needlessly air-conditioned. And the effect?

Well, after we left, I remarked to La Maya that the house seemed kind of depressing. She agreed: she said the towering walls struck her as cold and unfriendly. I said I didn’t think the house could possibly be 4,000 square feet—it was only three bedrooms, none of which was significantly larger than the rooms in our houses, and although it had a generous family room and kitchen, there were only two other public rooms: a dining alcove and what must have been intended as a formal living room (the owners used it to house a pool table). She speculated that the high ceilings somehow, by a trick of perspective, made the interior seem smaller. 

Could be. The house wasn’t really a house. It was a warehouse partitioned with plasterboard masquerading as walls, any one of which you could punch your fist through without bruising your knuckles. For a half-million dollars or more, the owners had themselves a cheaply built barn better sized for giraffes than for humans, a dwelling with the mood of an empty train station.

Both of us came away feeling that our houses, which certainly cost nothing like what those shacks do, are so far superior that we wouldn’t think of trading “up” to such a place. At the outset, neither of us wants to live in an outer arm of the galaxy. But more to the point, our homes are proportioned to fit people. People who actually live in a house. Simply by the way they’re built, with rooms that enclose living space, not empty air, they start out more inviting. The saltillo tiles throughout La Maya’s and M’hijto’s houses, the none-too-airtight banks of sunny windows and French doors, the varying ceiling heights and floor levels, the generous yards, the diverse and variegated neighborhoods…

The 60-year-old tract house M’hijito and I are copurchasing in the central part of town is, amazingly, vastly more pleasant and charming than any shiny new styrofoam-and-stucco affair out in the far-flung suburbs. Besides being close to everything—he’s within bicycling distance of work and walking distance of the new light rail system, to say nothing of the shopping and restaurants he can walk to or reach in a five-minute drive—it’s sweetly charming and it has a vast yard, which we soon will transform into a fine, shady xeriscapic garden. The double-course red brick walls have an air pocket between two layers of block and are finished on the inside with lath and plaster. Almost a foot thick, the walls insulate the interior so that on a 95-day degree day the house needs no air conditioning to stay comfortable indoors. 

My own tract house, now 38 years old, has its own charms: centrally located on a large lot, it’s bright and cheerful with lots of natural lighting; its five citrus trees produce a never-ending supply of oranges, lemons, and limes; it has an almost trouble-free pool; and its bedrooms are huge by new-construction standards. 

La Maya and La Bethulia’s house, a cut above mine and in the pricier neighborhood a block closer to the park, is paved throughout with genuine, antique Saltillos, unlike any flooring you can get today and absolutely gorgeous. So are the walls full of French doors that look out onto the pool area and into the front courtyard. A previous owner added a wing on the front parallel to the garage, converting what was an early snout house into a hacienda wrapped around a sylvan courtyard with a wall fountain, gardens, and a flowering peach tree. 

All three houses fit human beings. Because they were designed on a human scale, they feel like homes and not like partitioned barns. They’re comfortable to live in, places you want to come home to. Not only that, but they’re furnished with stuff that matters to us: with tables and chairs that belonged to our mothers; with bedsteads we picked out for ourselves, without benefit of an interior decorator; with things that were given to us or pieces we scored at estate sales. Ceilings vary in height from seven to ten or twelve feet, but none enclose a volume of wasted space. The houses look and behave like places people live in.

Our houses cost nothing like the eave-to-eave palaces we saw out in the hinterlands this morning. But we think they’re better. We think they’re built better, they look better, and they live better.

Are we imagining things? Or is less really more?

7 thoughts on “Older houses: Living better with less?”

  1. Character makes up for all kinds of deficiencies of the extravagant kind. Those houses are kinda interesting to walk through and remark upon, but mostly in a museum sort of way: you don’t really want to live there. At least, I don’t think so. The only thing I might envy is the preconceived notion that all that extra space and air might seem cooler because my much smaller home seems oppressively hot in comparison to my friend’s over-large, luxurious Tahoe home. Turns out, the real difference is that they’ll run the a/c, cooling all 3000 sq. feet, where I won’t cool a 1000 sq. foot. home! That’s the difference between us and the rich folk: money for coolth! 🙂

  2. It makes sense that the older houses you see now are going to be somewhat better constructed. If someone built a shoddy house 60 years ago, it would have fallen apart or been razed by now; only people who have serious skills would be looking at them.

  3. @ frugalscholar and Revanche: The house my ex- and I had in the city’s historic section would be 80 years old now. It did have high ceilings…so high, in fact, that even after the ceilings had been lowered to accommodate air-conditioning ductwork (it was built before AC was invented), it still had a 16-foot ceiling in the living room and about 12-foot ceilings everywhere else. But it was gorgeous. The proportions of the rooms–the square footage to the volume–seemed to work better. It’s hard to put one’s finger on the difference…maybe the fact that the high ceilings were functional in that house whereas they’re only decorative in the newer houses, and they’re all the same height no matter what the space. Because of the way the building was designed and laid out on the lot, that house did not become uncomfortably warm until exterior temperatures went over 100 degrees. It wasn’t cheap to air-condition, but it didn’t have to be air-conditioned as much as a newer house does…something has been forgotten over the past eight decades.

    The plastic and styrofoam construction, however, is better insulated. The historic house’s thick, solid block walls functioned just like a trombé wall: when days were hot and nights were cool, the west wall would stay cool until about 4 or 5 p.m., when it would be begin to radiate warmth into the rooms on that side. A styrofoam-padded wall — or even one made of Superlite block, with holes in the center — doesn’t do that. On the other hand, styrofoam is eminently flammable.

    @ Synapse: Around here, there certainly were houses that were shoddily built sixty years ago. Whole swaths of development around here were cheap junk when they were built, and now they’re old cheap junk. We used to call them “instant slums.”

    People speculate that the styrofoam suburbs will become slums in short order. I don’t think that’s going to happen, busted bubble or not. In the first place, many of the new houses are quite attractive: the design can be very handsome. Second, it’s the schools. People who live in historic central districts by and large have no children, or else they can afford to put their kids in private schools. We put our son in private school because by kindergarten he hadn’t learned to use a knife or a club, and because our neighbors discovered their boy had reached the end of the first grade without learning to read a word — he had been memorizing the books as the teacher read them to the class and then bringing them home and reciting them. They got suspicious when they realized he couldn’t read a stop sign or a billboard. Until we upgrade our central-city public schools, we will have sprawl.

    IMHO, in Sunbelt areas like mine, where vast amounts of money are to be made in building housing tracts, there’s a powerful element in the leadership that does not want to improve central-city schools, transportation, and other infrastructure. To find the cause of central city problems, follow the money trail.

  4. Re “styrofoam is eminently flammable”
    And waaay more toxic when it burns. Creates all kinds of airborne particulate nasties.

    “To find the cause of central city problems, follow the money trail.”
    And for many widespread problems these days, eh?

  5. I have a 75 yr old Craftsman style bungalow. I love older houses. They have a lot more character that construction in the last few years (both good and bad points there LOL). I know what you mean about being ‘people sized’.

    I have a friend who lives in a “McMansion” – the house is quite nice, but her utility bills – OMG WTF? I refuse to spend one paycheck a month to heat and cool the place and pay to fill the pool!!!

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