Back in June, I was lucky enough to have the Globe & Mail offer to publish a piece I had written on my story falling in love with old houses, and all the work that comes along with them. Here’s the article, as well as the wonderful illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick.
I never intended to own an old house.
But in the summer of 2020, amongst the quietest moments of COVID, my wife, Sarah, and I couldn’t resist the option to finally buy our first home, afforded to us by the new opportunity to live anywhere.
It was easy to describe our vision for our first home. It would be modern, tech-enabled, energy efficient and sleek. Design magazines you’ve probably never heard of would profile us. We’d be trend setters and early adopters, much like we fancied ourselves to be in every other aspect of our lives.
On a summer afternoon we made the three-hour drive out of Oakville, Ont., to visit a vacant lot where we would build. We spoke with our avant-garde architect on the way, who was already inspiring us with visions of where the house would be constructed on the property, and the slim unassuming shape it would take.
We passed through the nearest town. On a quiet street lined with century homes, a for sale sign stood out front of an ornate house with a big porch, shutters and red brick.
“Slow down,” Sarah said. “That one’s pretty.”
I defiantly hit the gas, racing to get to the lot we were there to see, to ultimately build our modern dream home. “We don’t have time for this,” I remarked. “We’re going to be late.”
Sarah insisted. Something caught her eye about the Victorian house we were now parked outside of. Instead of clean lines, I saw gingerbread. Instead of all-black everything, I saw red brick and tired shutters. Instead of new panoramic windows, I saw drafty decorative ones. This was so not the house for us.
By the time I had laid out my rationale for continuing to our destination, Sarah laid out her perfectly irrational reason for staying. “There’s just something magical about it.”
As she is with most things in life, Sarah was right. She had already texted our realtor and a half-hour later, we were headed inside. Ten minutes in, I saw the look in Sarah’s eyes that led me to – approximately one minute after that – realize we were about to buy this house. Two hours later, it was ours. Goodbye, modern Scandinavian barn of my dreams. Hello Victorian?
I had just recently left my job. It was the third gig in a row that came with the frenzied pace and pressure of management consulting and executive leadership. I was tired. Like so many during COVID, I was due for a checkup with myself about where I was headed in my career and what I wanted to spend my time doing.
I prepared to spend my days in our new old house reading, writing, ideating and starting something new as the next chapter in my career. If only I could hear the 140-year-old walls of the house laughing at me as I made those plans.
As winter approached, the overwhelming reality of taking on an old house set in. Sarah began waking up to me already up with a caulking gun in hand, as I raced around the house sealing up drafty windows. The colder it got, the more outdoor “friends” made their way inside, leading to a constant game of whack-a-mole trying to close up openings. Thirty-eight original shutters needed refinishing. The whole house, inside and out, needed to be painted – something I naively pegged as taking just a few days. And if the gas bills had anything to say, we needed insulation soon.
Every few days, I’d return to my laptop swearing that would be the day I’d get back to “work” and figure out my next steps. I had several freelance clients at the time, and to this day, most don’t realize that on many a Zoom meeting, I was business up top and paint jeans down below – keeping my new-found old-house-fixer-upper identity just out of sight.
After every Zoom call, I would feel exhausted from the quick but intense plunge back into the corporate world. I noticed something funny, though. I’d look up from my desk, and spot 20 more things on the house that needed repair, maintenance, paint, or love. Instead of putting those chores off, I relished the work. It gave me energy.
I found myself waking up early to get a jump on things. Twelve hours later, Sarah would drag me out of the attic, or a crawl space, or the garage reminding me I needed to eat. I slept deeper and more intensely after each night of gruelling fixer-upper work than I had known was possible.
And I was learning so much in real time: how to insulate, paint, restore, recycle. I learned how to access historical archives online and in the library, piecing together a 30-page booklet chronicling the history of the house. I learned about making a house energy-efficient. And I learned to pay attention to what gives me energy, on my schedule, for maybe the first time since being a kid.
A few months in, I stopped for just long enough to look around the house. Sure, my hands were cramping, my hair full of paint, and my jeans stiff with plaster, but the house looked incredible. A former owner of 50+ years drove by and remarked that “The old gal was looking like herself again.” A design magazine asked if they could feature our restoration. And my data was showing a 50-per-cent reduction in the home’s energy consumption.
Six months into our old house adventure, I saw my two sisters for the first time in a while after a COVID lockdown. “How do you have so much energy?” they asked, “You’re always doing something.”
After only a year of living in the house, a series of personal events presented Sarah and I with the unfathomable reality that our time there would be cut short. We found ourselves driving back to the city frequently – a six-hour round trip that was starting to feel long and gruelling. We cried for days before the words finally came out of our mouths: “We need to move.” We were devastated about the house and, more so, what felt like giving up on all the dreams we had for our lives there.
I personally felt an indescribable sense of loss. How silly to be heartbroken over a house, which in and of itself was a privilege to call ours. As I processed those feelings, it became clear that I wasn’t just mourning a house, but a new identity – and passion – that I felt so lucky to have stumbled upon, yet was at risk of being stripped away. Eighteen months earlier, we had no idea we would become “old house people.” Yet here I was in the basement of the town library scanning microfilms to piece together one last tidbit of house history.
When it came time to find a new house, then, there was no debate: old house or bust. The following spring we moved back to the Greater Toronto Area. Our new old house, built in 1904, needs significant work.
This time around, instead of being caught off-guard by my passion, I’m embracing it. You can only ignore what you love for so long. Over the winter, I even completed studies in historic preservation and sustainability – a funny pivot for someone with a master’s degree in strategic foresight. What I’ve learned, though, is that for a person, house, community or planet facing an uncertain future, sometimes digging into the past is what’s needed to propel us forward.
When I explain this to old friends while catching up, I get a funny look.
“Something’s different,” they remark. “What happened to you?”
“An old house,” I reply.
Kevin Reid-Morris lives in Georgetown, Ont.