Wednesday, 18 June 2008

When is it restoration and when is it gentrification?

I got a rather snippy email from a friend today who accused me of ‘gentrifying’ what he calls ‘my lovely old home’. This was in response to my telling him that I was busy having my barathrum ripped out and turned into a bathroom, and that I was thus living with a lot of dust and noise.

He hit a rather sore spot because I’ve already had one run-in with the local aesthetics committee over a new window I put in some years ago. I installed the window (a lovely large wooden-framed one, very much in keeping with the general feel of the building, which dates back to 1892) in place of a dreadful old garage door that was riddled with rot and hanging from its hinges, not only unattractively but also dangerously. (And I turned the garage, which was so poorly positioned and proportioned that I couldn’t even manoeuvre my CitiGolf into it without employing advanced driving techniques, into a little bedroom for my daughter.)

The aesthetics committee chairman came to have a look at the new window and was annoyed. ‘You’ll have to take it out,’ he said, and my heart sank.

‘Why?’ I asked.

‘It isn’t in keeping with the original house,’ he said, and sniffed.

This I found very interesting. ‘The original house’ actually started life as a barn and still has the huge upstairs storage loft with three outside doors with grapple hooks for hefting up feed. Although the original plans for the barn and subsequent renovations that turned it into a house were lost in a fire in 1969, it isn’t hard to work out what’s been changed – the clues are all there in filled-in doorframes, 1940s exterior architectural features (like the decorative pillars in the pic below) that now exist inside the house, differing thicknesses of interior walls, varying floor levels, and the like.

Some of the savagely unaesthetic changes that had been wrought by the time I bought the house included:

* A nasty little bathroom that had been added as a lean-to (this is what was until recently my barathrum, home of slugs and fungus, and is now being refurbished into something more suitable for human use).

* A ‘front room’ that had been created out of what was originally a makeshift verandah on the road side – strangely, however, no windows (none at all) were put into this room, so it was about as useful and inviting as the Black Hole of Calcutta.

* A ‘living room’ that had been created out of what was once a large back verandah. It had been furnished with two tiny steel-framed windows and a solid-steel exterior door. From this, a mean little flight of concrete steps led down into the back garden – this was the only access to a large, wild, lovely plot of land. This huge, chilly room was laid with thin grey ‘carpet tiles’ directly on raw concrete. A whiteboard ceiling had been installed but damp had got into it, and one side of it, depressingly discoloured, drooped threateningly; also, the ceiling cut straight across two beautiful casement windows (which had, like the pillars, at one stage been exterior).

* The tiny kitchen had last been refurbished (cheaply and nastily) in the 1970s, if the hideous cupboards and swirly brown linoleum (the same linoleum that was until recently in the barathrum) was anything to go by. It had one small window, set too low.

Because my budget was limited when I first moved in, I first did obvious things to make the house liveable – while at all times keeping in mind the historical worth of the building. I immediately knocked the walls out of the living room and turned it back into a verandah, complete with a wide staircase that gave directly onto the garden (and I put in a swimming pool); I ripped up the carpet tiles and replaced them with ceramic; and I tore down the whiteboard ceiling and replaced it with reeding.

I knocked out most of the wall separating the oddly windowless ‘front room’ and the galley-like kitchen; I installed a massive solid-wood counter between the two rooms, creating an open-plan kitchen/living area; I put an open fireplace in the living area (and kept the pillars - hideous as they are, I grew to love them); and I installed a large wooden-framed window in the kitchen at a more sensible height.

Some time later, when my bond could once again take the strain, I replaced large areas of linoleum and raw concrete with good-quality carpet and ceramic tile; I installed a second bathroom in what had been yet another mysterious windowless room (I think they used to call these ‘box rooms’ in the old days – they must have had a lot of boxes); and I turned the useless garage into a bedroom (leaving two of the walls in their original raw-brick state).

During these renovations, some of the original foundations of the house were exposed. Instead of throwing a slab and thus covering them, I opted to keep half the house at a different level and make a feature of the exposed foundations – which I mention because I really, really do appreciate the vintage of the house, and would never do anything to ride roughshod over the lovelier architectural features I’m lucky enough to have inherited. (I also saved the small sash window I replaced in the kitchen, and used it elsewhere in the house to replace a metal-framed window.)

And that was when the aesthetics committee chairman arrived to tell me I’d have to remove the picture window because it ‘wasn’t in keeping with the original house’. (And the steel windows I'd removed were? And the linoleum? And the raw concrete? And the rot-riddled garage door? And the windowless front room? And the … you get the idea.)

‘So what do you suggest I put in its place?’ I asked.

‘A sash window,’ he said. ‘That’s what would have been here originally.’

Well, no, actually. This house wasn’t always a house – originally, it was a barn. And barns don’t have sash windows.

I didn’t say that, though. I just allowed my eyes to fill with tears and stared at him in mute appeal.

He fiddled with his pen for a while, then said, ‘Well, alright then. But don’t do it again.’

‘I sure won’t,’ I said to him, then turned away and muttered under my breath, ‘dickhead.’ (I know it was childish but it made me feel better.)

Anyway, so now my friend is accusing me of ‘gentrifying’ my ‘lovely old house’ because I’m making my bathroom habitable by beings other than Fungus the Bogeyman. The irony is that this wasn’t a ‘lovely old house’ when I bought it. It was a hideous mishmash of architectural styles, badly planned and executed, cheaply and poorly finished, with several inexplicably unusable spaces. (Although in its defence it had and still has three gigantic bedrooms, fantastically thick walls and the most amazing solid-wood ceiling throughout – some of the features that, incidentally, initially sold me on the place.)

Still, my friend has sucked a little of the joy from my excitement over finally having a bathroom that isn’t a repository of mushrooms and slugs, and whose tiles don’t suddenly detach from the wall and come crashing down on you when you’re relaxing in a nice warm bath. I’d been so excited about going to fetch the new tiles today (gorgeous big slabs of swirly blue and grey – ooh, they’re just so pretty) but now I’m not so sure.

I thought I was restoring. Turns out I’m gentrifying.

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bigworrier said...

just who is this 'chairman' of your local aesthetics committee? and yes, that window is SOOOOOOOO out out character for the house . . .

Muriel said...

Oh dear. Sorry Mr Chairman. Please don't send your goons around to beat me up (or take out any of my windows).

This hasn't been a particularly successful post from a social point of view - I've already received five (FIVE!) increasingly irritated emails from the friend who accused me of gentrifying.

bigworrier said...

still curious to know who this chairman is . . . of what aesthetic committee? do we have one?

Juno said...

I am loathe to stick my beak into the affairs of the village, but, for Pete's sake, Mur, I don't see why you should not titivate your house to your heart's content, with or without the consent of the aesthetics police.

bigworrier said...

ah, the law, haw, that sad detriment to all our pleasures, that we can't titillate as we would so please . . .

Juno said...

big worrier, any chance you could put that comment in English?

meggie said...

Hell, don't let some curmudeon ruin your delight in your new bathroom! We are, after all, living in the 21st century!

meggie said...

Haha, don't let a Curmudgeon ruin it, either!