If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say, “There’s nothing historic about my house,” I would have…well, a lot of nickels. In the last three years or so that I’ve been digging into the history of houses, I have yet to come across one that lacks some kind of significance. Rarely has anyone famous resided in these houses; quite the contrary, most are ordinary individuals, but does that make them any less significant? Not at all.
So what exactly can a house really tell you, other than names and dates?
A house can tell you about the residents in particular, or people and society in general. They offer a glimpse of what a community valued, such as political leanings, religious culture, social norms, etc. In some instances you can see how these values evolved from one generation to the next. For instance, many older homes made room for extended family to live, whereas this idea shifted particularly after World War II when housing was geared toward the nuclear family.
The house itself makes a statement about the era it was built and the values held by its creators. The heritage of the first homeowners, their social status, and the way they made their living all affect the style and construction directly. The function of rooms evolved and reflected the changing role of spaces, too. Just in the last 125 years, parlors gave way to living rooms, bathrooms have been brought indoors, and kitchens have undergone numerous changes in how they were laid out. (Stay tuned for future blog posts on these!)
To some degree they can also provide a view of our local reactions to events and phenomenon of national importance. Many houses’ stories begin with the context of a shift in demographics, maybe to an urban or suburban setting, or people flying from one popular neighborhood to the next up-and-coming setting. When housing was in short supply, they tell a story about how we dealt with the problem by subdividing larger houses into apartments or building inexpensive homes to meet the demand for a growing working-class population.
Beyond that, you never know what kind of story your house is going to tell you that adds to the human element. There are always intriguing tales of triumph. Quirky eccentricities. Family struggles. Heartwarming stories as well as sorrowful ones. Unsolved mysteries. The variety of stories we have found will never cease to amaze and amuse me.
The most rewarding moment in what we do is when we bring your house’s history to life. There’s so much that we can learn from the individual experiences of those who lived within your walls before you. Revealing that significance to the homeowner is about as exciting for us as the homeowner themselves. Every house really does have a story, just imagine what your house might have to reveal to you!