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.
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 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.