I recognized the smell as soon as I opened the door of Architectural Rescue Shop at The Jipp. It’s the sweet, heavy smell of wood and dust and age. I’ve loved old houses long enough that the smell is as familiar to me as the sound of creaking floorboards and the quality of light that pours through wavy window glass.
The Architectural Rescue Shop on Gaines Street in Davenport is a little overwhelming at first. Everything is sorted and shelved, but I don’t use the word “everything” lightly. There are drawers full of cabinet pulls and 100-year-old doorknobs. There are stacks of mismatched tile, rubber tubs full of pieces tin ceiling; elaborate metal floor grates stacked like books on a bookshelf; sinks and clawfoot tubs; stained glass windows.
There was a fresh layer of snow on the ground and a brittle chill in the air, but a man in the shop offered to open the barn behind the shop so we could see more of this endless collection. Inside the barn were doors, huge doors build for grand entrances into studies and sitting rooms of houses that were no longer standing. It was store, but it also served as a kind of museum to the surrounding blocks of the Gold Coast-Hamburg Historic District.
Since I moved to the Quad-Cities, I’ve been fascinated by that neighborhood that spills down the hill toward downtown and the river. It stands somewhere between its storied past and its bright future, a strange mix of repaired and crumbling houses. One house is lovingly redone and next door the windows are boarded up and the wrap around porch roof is braced in such a way that it seems a timber is keeping the entire structure from coming down.
I went to an open house in the neighborhood, crunching through the snow with a half-dozen others. There it was, that smell, as soon as I walked in the living room.
Only a crazy person would buy a house like this I thought. With every turn, I saw repairs and rehabbing, painting and scraping, tightening and tearing down. Only a crazy person would let this place continue to deteriorate, I thought. Each room has such a story to tell. How many people have sat on that back porch looking out over the city and the river?
I’ve owned a couple old houses – usually turn of the century Craftsman. Each time, I bought them against wise advice of family and friends, making the irrational choices of someone in love. Sign the closing documents, and the dysfunctional relationship begins. You open the windows of the old place and both you and the house breathe a sigh of relief. And then it starts asking for things – to be painted, to be repaired. In a kitchen drawer, you keep a list of projects that you’ll get to with each paycheck. You watch YouTube videos about how to fix cracks in lathe and plaster. You research period lighting fixtures. You learn life lessons one contractor at a time.
There’s something wrong with people who love old houses. It’s a little like owning a sailboat, which I made the mistake of doing once. It was more painting and patching and cleaning than sailing and even on a sunny day with a nice breeze, you see the lapping wake as a chance to crawl toward the bow and pull up a bucket of water to clean.
But just like a boat, you let yourself imagine that the old house loves you back. It rewards your hard work when you cut back overgrown hedges and discover a pear tree that comes back with a little pruning. You sweep away the cobwebs in the shed and discover a workbench with an intricate system of Mason jars for screws and nails and tiny drawers built by the old man who spent his days there decades ago. You find the carved names of children and a cameo necklace buried at the edge of a feral garden.
There’s a lot of debate about what houses, here and elsewhere, about what homes should be saved and about what makes things historically valuable. Each community chooses a narrative it wants to preserve and the things on the fringes of the story can be torn down and replaced.
But there’s another side of historic preservation that can’t be debated or city ordinanced. It has nothing to do with tax credits and lines drawn around a historic district. It’s purely emotional. It’s that smell.
Autumn Phillips is the executive editor of the Quad-City Times. 563-383-2264; firstname.lastname@example.org; on Twitter @autumnedit.