Cover story: Old houses tell their stories in unexpected ways

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When home inspector Stephen Showalter made his way through a historic home on the Eastern Shore recently, he noticed something a bit quirky.

“The main beam in the home was actually the center keel of a boat,” said Mr. Showalter, a Maryland state home inspector whose Showalter Property Consultants frequently deals with older properties. “Back then, people often reused and recycled things.”

And thereby hangs a tale. Older homes, whether they are historic, centuries-old properties or were erected just 50 years ago, all have stories to tell about the people who worked and lived there. Bits of the past are all around, in the ghosts of millwork or the outline of a long-ago stair, in the scars left by a saw in an old beam, or in the wads of newspapers stuffed behind a wall — great insulation back in the 1920s and 1930s.

“You’ll find old root cellars, old coal chutes, old coins under the hearth,” Mr. Showalter said. “Sometimes, you’ll even find the original slate roof; good slate can last 200 years.”

Piecing together those bits is a large part of the allure of owning an older home in the first place, their current stewards often say.

“An old house can tell us a lot,” said Arlington historian Kathryn Holt, herself the owner of an old house. “How houses change can really give you a sense of history.”

Old-house people know what to expect when it comes to their homes — leaky basements, creaky floors, walls that can be more than a bit out of plumb. Others tend to come to the place by happenstance, drawn by a quirky cornice or unexpected turn of the stair or just by the look of the place, so unlike today’s predictable homes.

“I knew someone who found a false wall and behind it was a fireplace,” Ms. Holt said. “Between the 1890s and 1920s, fireplaces were no longer fashionable, so a lot of people took them out or covered them over.”

For old-house people, a large part of the allure of an old house is that connection to history and the ways people adapted to changing circumstances.

“They added on here, they added on there,” Ms. Holt said. “Now people just tear down and build a McMansion.”

Additions could point to growing families and changing lifestyles. Some can reveal something about the technology of the period — or lack thereof. Ms. Holt’s 1890s-era house boasts a kitchen floor that’s a step up from the other rooms on that level, to allow for what was then a state-of-the-art pumping system.

After World War I, homes generally got smaller, Ms. Holt noted, as women began doing more of their own housework without servants. Hence, the smaller bungalow.

Styles of architecture also are revealing. Using a good reference, such as Virginia and Lee McAlester’s “A Field Guide to American Houses,” can help you fix your home’s place in time. Paint types, nails and the telltale marks of a handsaw also can help you date your home, or at least parts of it.

Still, modern-day renovators often find themselves staring at something completely different from what they expected once they strip away an exterior wall or peel off some old wallpaper.

When Bruce Wentworth, a D.C.-based architect with more than 25 years of experience, removed the asbestos facade from an Italianate 1870 row house, he was surprised to find something else along with the cedar clapboard siding under the asbestos shingles.

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