Old can be good

Published 4:21 pm Friday, November 17, 2017

The pink flap of covering on the wall upstairs in our old house at 219 E. Third St. only partially hid a deeper layer, barely visible. I reached over and gently grabbed one end and started to separate it from the wall. It was thin, just an aged layer of dried paint. As the layer came away from the wall, I was greeted not with other layers of paint on the plaster, or even wallpaper, but a newsprint page dated May 31, 1957, from the Washington Daily News. The more I gently pulled, the pages of the newspaper were exposed, stretching out from all sides of the tear. I was exposing a workingman’s wallpaper.

In the same room, now gutted, the skeleton of studs revealed wood with the original tree bark still attached. Downstairs, with the ceiling exposed, beams reflected a journey of necessity, walls advancing and retreating over the decades as families adjusted the physical structure to fit their needs. More than 120 years or more of diverse owners and a score of boarders and renters, the beams and studs, the walls and floors, tell a story of a blue-collar dwelling, still standing because of its adaptability to need. Photos over the last 80 years and maps dating back to the turn of the 20th century capture an evolution of structure and purpose, first an outbuilding, then an attached one, a barn, a fire, and yet a new barn. The house stood near the curb, then was moved back and raised.

People lived in the house as it stretched and breathed to meet the needs of its inhabitants. Agile and flexible, in all its permutations and gyrations the house became a home for each of the families and boarders across the decades for diverse Washingtonians living under its ageless, rolled-seamed roof.

Confronting crisis or longstanding issues means solving problems. In some cases, attacking the problem involves rendering physical or social structures into rubble before starting over. If a link in a chain, or even a whole section of fence is rusted and hanging by a thread, replacement may be the only solution to retain the structure’s integrity. New could mean increased “strength” or resilience. But what if new or starting over actually means reduced resilience?

Historic preservation and historic districts are good examples of this principle, where community resilience is promoted by preserving the integrity of the individual structure, like our old house, to bolster the authenticity of the larger district. A mouthful, I know, so let’s dig deeper.

A historic district, like Washington’s, reflects a residence pattern 120 years ago that promoted a tightly-knit community, where businesses, recreation and the river were within walking distance. Often residences were located above businesses. Many urban places, reproducing this historic pattern, have brought economic and cultural growth to cities like Washington, including the ever-present Main Street and surrounding neighborhoods. Maintaining that sense of historical continuity reinforces a sense of neighborhood identity and, in turn, promotes community resilience.

Rehabilitating structures within the historic district — while also setting up programs to intercede with owners prior to houses falling into disrepair — preserves the district’s integrity and fills in “gaps” of empty space or failing structures that disrupt historic continuity. Rehabilitation also reduces security issues linked to vacant and rundown buildings.

Many historic houses have stood for years because owners built them to last generations. Bringing back to life and giving new purpose to old houses takes advantage of the solid “bones” of many historic houses. Our house was built to last as a home for an extended family. The fact that three, even four generations called the house home at the same time is apparent in the flexibility we see in the modifications to the house.

Building community resilience demands adaptability to different situation, and the ability to sustain solutions to problems with long-term success. Problem-solving is better met considering an array of options and not just “tossing out the baby with the bathwater.”

Our old house in its solid bones gives us a good foundation for our reintegration home for female veterans, but also provides a lesson on building community resilience by paying attention to the past.

Robert Greene Sands is an anthropologist and CEO of the nonprofit Pamlico Rose Institute for Sustainable Communities located in Washington.