What Makes Something Old?

By Nancy Jane Moore

I just bought a house. Or rather, I bought a project: It’s an old house, built in 1952, and though it’s been kept up pretty well — the owners fixed things if they broke — it needs work.

Nancy's house

I've removed the shutters since this picture was taken.

However, when I mentioned on the Book View Cafe email list that I’d bought an old house, I drew  polite snickers from the European side of the Atlantic — especially from Chris Dolley, who lives in a house built in 1790. A 60-year-old house isn’t old over there.

But it would be impossible for me to buy a house built in 1790 in Austin, because there weren’t any houses in Austin in 1790. In fact, there wasn’t even an Austin. The Native Americans who ranged this region at that time lived in tipis and didn’t build permanent settlements.

If you assume the number of houses in a community is related to the number of people there, population growth indicates that around 75 percent of the houses in this town were built after 1960 and half of them were probably built after 1980.

By that reckoning, an Austin house built in 1952 is an old house.

Old doesn’t mean historical, though this house is a classic example of “G.I. houses” — the wave of small houses built after World War II for military veterans. It’ll never qualify for an historical marker, but by looking at it you can pick up bits of mid-20th Century history.

It is small by today’s standards: 1100 square feet. It was even smaller originally: about 700 square feet, according to the original survey. The former owner added two rooms to it at some point, probably in the early 60s.

A 700-square-foot house with two bedrooms, a living room, kitchen and bath, was considered a reasonable size for a family of four in 1952. These days a house aimed at the equivalent market would be more like 2,000 square feet.

It has a huge yard for the city — a fifth of an acre. That was common back in the 50s, too, though maybe only in Texas, where land was still cheap. Even in the expensive city neighborhoods lots aren’t that large these days; you have to go out from the city to fancy developments to find larger lots.

Of course, back in the 50s in the small original house, you would just shoo the kids outside to play, so the yard came in handy.

The kitchen has the original tile-topped counter: pink and green. Very 50s. I’m not going to do anything with that — I like a tile counter and while I’m not all that fond of pink, I can live with it.

It also has hardwood floors. Think about that: a house built for young families in the 50s had hardwood floors. Only the rich can afford those now, and then only if they don’t feel environmental guilt. I plan to refinish them and cherish them — the ugly carpets and linoleum over them (more 70s than 50s) are so gone.

There’s a lot of plastic in the house. I took down plastic drapes and pulled off plastic shutters, though I’m going to live with the vinyl siding. That’s history, too, if not the most elegant part. Plastic made to look (sort of) like wood was common in the 50s and 60s.

It’s also pier-and-beam construction, meaning the foundation is a set of concrete piers with large beams laid across them and the floor built over that. You can crawl under the house (if you’re skinny enough) and that makes it easier to update the plumbing and electrical systems.

Pier-and-beam isn’t common these days. I think Federal Housing Administration regulations require concrete slabs for new construction in parts of the country (like this) where basements aren’t common. But slabs aren’t practical here, because houses tend to settle. I’ve been told that’s because of our soil and the changes caused by alternate drought and heavy rainfall, though I’ve always liked to think it’s because Austin is located along the (long dormant) Balcones Fault.

Whatever the reason, houses shift and slabs tend to crack and are expensive to repair. With a pier-and-beam house, though, all you need to do to fix the foundation is get a jack — like the one you use to change a tire — jack the house up, and replace the pier. Cheap and easy, as home repair goes.

Not that all old-fashioned construction methods are the best. I’m having the electrical system upgraded to make it safer and replacing the galvanized pipes with copper ones. Galvanized pipe was cheap back in the 50s, but it wears out. And I’m happy to note that the former owner replaced all the windows with modern double-paned ones: much more energy efficient.

I’ve got other plans — a deck or screen porch in the back, some drought-resistant landscaping (I’m thinking rock garden) — but those things can wait. Still, between the work I’m doing now and my long term plans, the house will change.

So will it still be old?


Flashes of IlluminationFlashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.

My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.

Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.

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About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


What Makes Something Old? — 10 Comments

  1. I have no insight into the question in the title, but I’ve had similar observations lately. I’m a teacher and I generally feel like I’m barely getting by, but once in a while I remember the house of my childhood–under a thousand square feet and with but a single bathroom and a single telephone. And I remember that when I was growing up, a single bathroom was *normal*, and having extra bathrooms was a sign of wealth. I feel middle class, and yet I live in a house that I would have thought of as unambiguously upper class when I was a kid–Jesus, you could fit *two* of my childhood home in here! Our expectations as a society have definitely changed, and the sad thing is that if my family and I could accept a smaller home and a simpler lifestyle, then we’d feel, I imagine, less hand-to-mouth and more relaxed about our ability to keep making our payments. (And the sadder thing is that I type this, knowing full well that I don’t intend to actually *change* anything about my life; it’s almost just a thought experiment.)

  2. The apartment house I live in was ultra hyper super modern when it was built. It has electric elevators and even a landline phone connection in every room!

    The year, of course, was 1939. Which makes it, by our Eastern European standards, neither ‘old’ or ‘new’ but ‘respectable’.

  3. Joe, I should point out that I’m single. I’m not sure I could live with a family in this house — one other person, yes, but not three or four. And one bathroom means nobody ever gets a relaxing soak in the tub by themselves — those little luxuries are important, as is privacy. I had a friend in high school who was the oldest of ten kids and whose family lived in a house about the size of mine, and I shudder to think of it.

    Respectable. Now there’s a term I wouldn’t have thought of. I think “respectable” in the U.S. has more to do with neighborhood than amenities.

  4. The problem with one bathroom is that sometimes you really need it. It can happen with two bathrooms, of course, but it vastly decreases the odds.

  5. I thought hardwood floors were actually the preferred choice of the environmentally-minded, as long as the wood isn’t from an endangered or invasive species of tree. Some groups consider them better for maintaining healthier indoor air quality than carpets.

    As for the foundation, it is the soil – many areas of Texas have a particular type of clay soil that swells considerably when exposed to moisture and shrinks as it dries. Hence the difficulty with slab construction and the popularity of pier-type construction.

    Slabs can be done, but it takes post-tensioning (highly-stressed steel cable placed in the slab and foundation) to resist the forces from the expansive soils.

  6. Nancy,

    Your post on old houses, reminded me of a review I wrote of how housing in the states has changed over the decades. (Lest We Forget, a Short History of Housing in the United States, http://www.aceee.org/node/3078?id=1439) It was written before the latest housing crash, so some of the trends may have slowed down.

    Nothing profound, but a good reminder on how things have changed. For example, how recent pervasive indoor plumbing is in the larger scheme of things.


  7. I would love to hear how your xeriscaping goes. In the photo the big green bushes must have taken years to get that big.
    I have to replace some bedroom flooring, and am considering cork.

  8. Gary, I guess I assume that hardwoods are something to be used sparingly, since they take much longer to grow than bamboo or even pine. I don’t really know if using them in new construction is still considered a good thing. I know I love them, which is why I wanted an old house that had them so I could preserve them.

    Jim, that’s a fascinating paper. I hadn’t realized how much the average number of people per house had declined as the size of the house went up. That makes the McMansion phenomenon even more puzzling to me. And it’s not just McMansions: the cheap houses in the suburbs around here are also huge.

    The shift in heating fuels is also interesting. My house has natural gas heat — more common at the time than electric, though all-electric is more common now in Texas. Ironically, much of our electricity around here comes from coal-fired power plants, which makes me think we haven’t moved all that far from the days when people did burn coal directly.

    I also have a gas cook stove in the “new” house, which I am looking very forward to. Gas stoves were a huge improvement over wood-burning ones (my great grandmother used to cook for her entire hotel guests on a wood-burning stove), but electric ones are a step down from gas, at least from the cook’s point of view. Four years with an electric stove and I still haven’t mastered keeping the right temperature under the pot.

    Brenda, have you thought about bamboo floors? I think they’re very attractive. As for the xeriscaping, stay tuned: that’s a long term project. I don’t know what to do about the bushes, but they seem to have survived the drought OK and I assume the former owner wasn’t profligate with water to ensure that. The one idea I’m sure of is that the place needs a large rock garden and a lot of cacti. And more trees, especially since one or two look very unhealthy.

    Right now all the plumbing is torn out of the house and being replaced. Having seen some of the old pipes, I’m sure that was the right thing to do. And I need to go shop for a new vanity/sink for the bathroom. It all looks like chaos at the moment, but I think I’m going to meet my end of January deadline for moving.

  9. The insulative and sound-deadening qualities of cork is what I’m particularly interested in. I have bedrooms in this house where the carpeting is over 30 years old — time to get it replaced!!