Distracting and Diverting


It’s a fair bet that I own my last Victorian house.  Never again.  In future, I intend to suffer only over pieces of architecture worth suffering over.  Some people are Victorian house people.  Not me.  Dark, pokey, irrational, over-embellished.

I invited a carpenter over this week to discuss my rotting front porch.  He helpfully moved on to questioning my chimneys and slate roof.  And he and I both know that I can’t fix the porch without painting the joint.  I’m sure the painter, when he arrives, will helpfully add another dozen things to the list.

In life, I generally like to own up to my problems. I grew up in New Jersey, and we really get a kick out of not sugar-coating anything there.  But owning old houses has taught me the wisdom of denial. My first house–a beautiful 220 year-old Georgian with 7 fireplaces–had a front door that never opened properly despite being planed a few times.  Sill issues.

I recently drove by and saw the new owners putting in a new sill, ten years after I sold it.  That seems about right.

If you want to live in denial, plants are helpful beyond measure.  Outsiders seem not to have noticed the condition of the porch because it’s draped in a fragrant old rose named ‘Russelliana.’  A red Asiastic lily that I bought in Lowe’s a few years ago–$7 for 7 plants–has now multiplied 30 times over and is a major distraction.

In addition to ‘Russelliana,’ I’ve also woven an ‘Alba Maxima’ in and out of the porch spindles.  Albas are a group of old European roses that have blue leaves and white or pale pink flowers–in my opinion, the most delicate and romantic of roses.  Growing up the side of the house are a variegated Virginia creeper and a volunteer Boston ivy.  The Virginia creeper is hiding an ugly cement block chimney the previous owners installed for a wood stove.

Yes, I know.  I am really living dangerously here, planting clinging vines on clapboard.  I expect it is going to be a real problem at some point.  Long after I am dead.

Plants may be the most powerful cosmetic on earth.  Let the garden get lush, and everybody is too mesmerized to complain about the condition of the house.


  1. Oh, denial, how I love you! However, that’s coming to an end, as we are coming closer to selling our home for an upgrade. We’re hoping it’s mostly cosmetic stuff, but I think there’s an electrical issue lurking in the garage. Keep in mind the sale is in two years, but this is stuff we don’t want to rush. It also makes it easier to pay as you fix. I am also happy we’ll be here for the house’s 100th birthday. I’m hoping the garden (and other great things about the house) will be enough of a bonus that prospective buyers don’t tune into the kitchen too much….

  2. We have a 1916 Craftsman bungalow. The floors aren’t flat, and the front door isn’t quite right. I had someone in to clean the chimney, and they condemned it. Still, we love our old house with it’s original woodwork and built-ins. I’ve had fun researching arts and crafts gardens. I’ve no desire to reproduce a period piece, but I wanted an idea of where to start. I get lots of compliments on the garden. Nobody has mentioned the house needs painting. Maybe I’ve distracted and diverted them.

  3. We have all the cramped rooms, warped floors, funky wiring and plumbing, etc., without the status of having a Victorian. The basement and foundation are half modern, half from the turn of the 20th century; part of the house was built in 1950, and the rest remodeled in 1980, with some improvements by us in the 1990’s (new roof and paint in the 2000’s). But everything works (for now). The beds surrounding the house are just getting sorted out. Whenever we think about making a major improvement (say, the kitchen), we look at each other and think: “Teardown! Start over!”

    But there are things I love about this house. The location and views are irreplaceable; the deck is wonderful; there’s a huge pantry; and it has a window in the shower that has a to-die for view of our orchard and local volcano, and can be opened up wide for showering “al fresco” (no neighbors). For now, I’ll tolerate the rest!

    • This sounds like my house. The original house was built in 1919 and it has been remodeled and added to several times since. It is crazy, doesn’t always make sense, and the newer parts are often the worst cases. As much as it’s a drain on our pocket book, however, I love the personalities of old houses so much better than new, modern ones.

  4. You hammered it! Your post cracks me up because I live in a town of crumbling adobe homes that visitors find charming because the vines, hollyhocks and ancient trees disguise the decay. I’m all for preserving history but if there’s nothing significant to save and you can afford to let the investment go… maybe just think of it as a compost pile and let things happen. 🙂

  5. Having extensively remodeled about 15 houses — some were total gut jobs — I really have to wonder about the “service” that TV programs like “This Old House” are providing to the public. Yes, these old “painted ladies” are truly charming right after refurbishing, but the boys never seem to tell you that you are NEVER done fixing and maintaining. You have not just bought a house; you have also bought a full time repair job.

    The thing that makes these homes especially bad is that there are no small jobs — everything is a major undertaking. I was involved with a major restoration project of a grand old Victorian mansion overlooking the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa. We did quality work and cut no corners, but we would no more than get one job done and another needed to be tackled.

    If one takes even a cursory look at any of these buildings, they ALL have significant deferred maintenance. Never again!

    I sold out and built a new, energy-efficient home. In 8 years, I have only had to fix a minor drip in the kitchen faucet. I have enjoyed this home — not spent every free hour painting, fixing and maintaining it. It even leaves me more time to garden! (And I don’t have to hide anything.)

    Dan Mays

  6. I, too, own an old Victorian, and it’s true that the maintenance is much, BUT that said, unless you build your own house yourself like Dan above, new houses (at least in Texas) can have significant problems. They are often poorly built with poor quality materials.


    I had a former co-worker whose brand new home foundation was off by 9″ from front to back.

    I’ve met a new homeowner who had half of their new home sliding down a hill because the foundation had cracked. The builder wouldn’t make it good.

    I also remember the new homes being built near our old house where most of the nails missed the studs and when they didn’t pour the foundation correctly, they made another pour beside it.–A good space for termites to enter the home. The siding was also paperboard and that included the window trim.

    The building inspector I used when I bought all of my homes told me a story about a builder who refused to tie the home to the foundation. He claimed it was unnecessary. Since the home was built in the country, there were no laws governing this.

    You can’t sue most builders because of their arbitration contracts, and the builders win in arbitration 99% of the time.

    The sill on a new home may not be any better than on an old home or at least not in Texas.

    I used to be part of Home Owners for Better Building or HOBB. You can Google this organization for all the awful things you don’t want to know about new homes.

    One last thing, anyone in Texas can be a builder. My dead dog, Chancey, has his own business cards as a builder.–Totally legal in Texas. If you want to hire him, contact me.

    As for me, at least I know what’s up with my antique house.

  7. If it weren’t for the garden, I’d question the whole concept of home ownership. As everyone has pointed out–if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.

  8. About 15 years ago, we bought a new house. I thought there’d be less work required. There wasn’t. Things still break and go wrong in new houses. Not to mention the effort and expense of painting a house full of off-white rooms because the builder would have charged way more than I wanted to pay to paint the rooms different colors. And, of course, there wasn’t a single curtain rod – let alone any curtains.
    I was even more excited that the yard was a tabula rasa. Oh, the plans I had. But there we sat, in the middle of a field. I’d go out on a weekend and plant 5 bushes and they’d hardly show up. After 8 years of planting it was really coming together and I had to move away. I would never buy a new house again.

  9. I’ll just add one thing to the spot-on comments above – If it weren’t for the tax deduction, few other than the wealthy, would bother with home ownership a second time.
    The first purchase it’s all about the romantic notions of home ownership.

  10. My advice for home buyers is the same I give for car buyers – When choosing between the one you love and the one that might make more sense, choose the one you love. You will always forgive it when it breaks down.

  11. My 20 year old home was built by a fantastic builder. The people who had it built wanted a rectangular box with no character. But it is built very very well, and is an extremely efficient house which I appreciate when the winter winds are a blowing. My garden is hiding the boring exterior now. I have planted climbing hydrangeas and taken out most of the grass.

  12. Just someone help me inform my husband to paint the ugly brick that was a feature on our 1977 quad level home. Oh and take and replace the rusty wrought iron column at the end of our overhanging from “porch”. At least the garden beds help distract from the house…..

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