- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 8, 2006

Stuffed into the gap between walls and window casings of Phil Smith’s home on 13th Street Northeast were dozens of pieces of old mail.

Postcards from 1896. A water bill with a fee of $3.75 for an entire year. Ads for Rumford Baking Powder.

“We got the first batch when we were redoing the house,” says Mr. Smith, who put some of the mail in decorative frames and guesses it was stashed to provide another layer of insulation. “When we knocked out the plaster, all this came with it.”

As he and his wife examined the mail, they learned the names of the house’s previous occupants and were thus well-prepared for an unexpected encounter.

Mr. Smith came home one day to find a woman peering up at his house. When she explained that her mother was the granddaughter of the people who had lived in the house, he rattled off the names of the woman’s relatives.

“She was absolutely amazed,” he says. “I invited her in” — and a friendship developed with the woman, a Bethesda resident, sharing stories of her family with Mr. Smith and him showing her the mail-cum-insulation.

Given the sheer number of old homes in the area, there’s rich opportunity to find humble, hidden treasures in the walls — tools, bottles, coins, letters, toys — left long ago by those who came before.

“It’s not uncommon at all to find early objects in walls,” says Richard Hughes, director of the office of heritage planning and outreach for the state of Maryland. “Whether they are intentionally placed there or not, you almost always have to assess that on a case-by-case basis.”

A journal tucked away in the wall, for example, likely would have been placed there by its owner for an extra measure of privacy. Coins — which Mr. Hughes says “because of their representations of people and other objects may take on a talismanic type of meaning,” also may be placed in the wall on purpose.

Ed McManus surmises that the 1900 coin found in a wall of his Capitol Hill home during a renovation project did not wind up there by accident.

“I think the builders put it in the wall for good luck,” he says, noting that the house was built the year the coin — a British pence depicting Queen Victoria — was struck.

Chief metals conservator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Mr. McManus knew better than to try to scrub off every bit of tarnish on the coin; “overcleaning” could have damaged the coin, he says. He made a shelf with coat hooks for use in the home’s foyer and mounted the good-luck pence into the wood, where he and wife, Karen Lyon, could admire it.

Bill Chapman, on the other hand, believes that many of the objects he found at home in Enon Hall, in Virginia’s Lancaster County, literally fell through the cracks.

“I was removing some siding to look at the condition of the sill” adjacent to where an addition was being built to the home, he says. “At the gable end of the house, the bays between the studs are open to the second floor. And every time we open the wall, there’s dirt and sawdust that we always go through, because you never know what you will find.”

Indeed. Mr. Chapman and his family have found 18th-century pipestems, bits of china cups, a padlock with an elaborate etching of a sphinx, a child’s tiny rag doll and other items that occupy four or five shelves in the family library.

Making these discoveries all the more poignant is that Mr. Chapman’s forebears lived in the house from 1762 to 1939. (The house belonged to a series of other owners before the family was able to reacquire it in 1999.) Chances are good that at least some of the found items were used, made or cherished by people related to the house’s current occupants.

“Today you buy a padlock, and you don’t think anything about it,” Mr. Chapman says, pondering his sphinx padlock. “You start wondering how it was used and who used it, and you put together theories. And the more items you find, the more you start tying things together.”

His 12-year-old son, William, “is fascinated by all of it,” Mr. Chapman says, adding that the youngster is leaving messages as well as objects behind the walls for future inhabitants to discover.

In some cases, one man’s trash is another’s treasure. Chris Leone, a software engineer at Fannie Mae, lives in Great Falls, but remembers finding a cache of used razor blades in the bathroom wall of his home on Hawthorne Place in the District.

“Apparently men used to dispose of their blades by shoving them through the slot in the wall,” Mr. Leone says. “When we replaced the medicine cabinet, about 200 rusty razor blades were back in there.” He stashed the intact ones — “with cool names embossed on them in classic old fonts” — in a jar. To Mr. Leone’s regret, the blades were lost in the ensuing years, after two moves and the arrival of two children.

For some, traces of the past are on the walls, rather than in them.

Caroline Alderson, program manager at the Center for Historic Buildings at the General Services Administration, lives in Takoma Park at the intersection of Tulip and Maple streets. Written on the wall of the attic is a diary an adolescent girl kept one summer, judging from the dates she penciled in.

Among other things, “she mentions baking her first cake and saying farewell to a gentleman caller,” Ms. Alderson says. By examining old newspapers, she discovered that members of the Ford family — including a daughter named Cherry — moved into the house in 1893.

The best way to keep the spidery writing intact is simply to “avoid touching it,” Ms. Alderson says. “It has done very well that way. Plus, we keep the roof repaired.”


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