The Way It Was

Posted by on Sep 12, 2011 in Featured, Heating, History | 39 comments

Peeling away the layers of finish from the house is like peeling away the time that separates us from those who built and modified it.  We find little notes written on the framing, mostly simple math equations, but occasionally cryptic messages.  Someone in late 1971 read a newspaper, then discarded it in the attic.  One day in 1935, a stair riser was wetted and cut with machine-like precision by a carpenter, then curved to fit the wall it rose next to.  As we see these signs of the people who lived and worked in our house before, we can’t help but think about the world they lived in, and their recent past.

Lake Amelia

Lake Amelia - not much swimming happened here

We live next to Lake Nokomis, one of the larger lakes in Minneapolis and one of the reasons we like living here so much.  It’s an incredible public resource, and buffers our property values a bit from market turbulence.  But in 1935, Lake Nokomis was new.  Originally a wetland called Lake Amelia, it was dredged to create a recreational space in 1910.  Just thirty years prior to that, the north shore of Lake Amelia was home to an American Indian encampment.  The landscape, both culturally and physically, had radically changed in just a single generation.

In the 1930’s, when our house was built, the United States was in its worst housing market of the century.  Even as bad as thing are now, new house construction had essentially bottomed out after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and ensuing depression.  It’s difficult to imagine under what conditions our house was built.  Unemployment was near its Depression-era peak at 20% and World War II was still years away.  Who builds houses in circumstances like this?  I mean, other than us 😉

Shoveling Coal

Ah, the good old days

Our house was built with a coal burning boiler.  Coal was a relative newcomer to residential heating, as wood was the fuel source of choice in the early 1900s.  Coal had a short lifespan in homes, as it was dirty, expensive during times of war, and labor intensive.  Eventually our system was upgrade to fuel oil, something we didn’t know until we excavated a fuel oil line from underneath the slab.  Then, probably in the 1970’s, the boiler was switched to natural gas.  NOTE: if you think you know what the future of fuels is, read this paragraph again a few times.  Also, if you have time, listen to American RadioWorks’ recent documentary on coal – it’s an excellent in-depth look at America’s love/hate relationship with the fuel.  It reveals just how much – and how little! – has changed.

On the subject of heat, the automated central heating of a house was just coming to residences when our house was built.  Up until that point, it was up to you to keep feeding the fireplace or boiler when it got cold out.  One of the advertising points for coal was how long the fuel would burn in a single load.  On a cold day, I’m willing to bet every chimney on our block was belching out smoke from fires constantly maintained by the homeowners.

Our house’s exterior walls are insulated, something that was nearly unheard of just a couple of decades earlier.  Many houses of the era were completely uninsulated.  I’m not sure I understand why, exactly, other than the fact that insulation up to this point was probably detrimental to the health of the house in some way, or was too expensive?  In any case, houses were drafty energy hogs at the time, and no one knew different.

Cars were becoming more common, and although their production was severely hampered by the Great Depression, by 1935 the industry was recovering.  We suspect our house had a garage added on after it was built; it was in the old addition, and probably could barely squeeze in a car.  With lots so close to one another in the city, they probably built as closely as they could to the neighbors.  The large two car garage we now have in the alley was likely built decades later.

I’ve been mulling these facts over for a while, and have wondered why I care so much.  I think it has to do with the idea that we’re rebuilding the house specifically to last through the rest of this century.  That means a lot, including taking into account things that have unknowable impacts, like climate change, peak energy and economic turmoil.  I think everyone agrees, regardless of ideology, that the world will be undergoing tremendous change in even the next 20 years.  But everyone can also agree, there’s no way to predict those changes with real certainty.  I doubt the people of 1935 thought too much about the next 100 years when they were building our house.  Even if they had tried, how could they have predicted what was to come?

These are reasonable thoughts, but I can’t help but think: so what?  Does that mean we shouldn’t try?  Houses are one of the few artifacts we build that outlive humans, and one of the few things we pass on to our great-great-grandchildren.  We can’t see the future with any clarity, but if we must bet – and we do every time we build something that will last a century! – shouldn’t we err on the side of caution?  I would hope that the things we’re betting on, like efficiency, durability, comfort and environmental sensitivity are all things that people 75 years from now will thank us for, not wonder what the heck we were thinking.

We’re building a time capsule, and some day, hopefully in the distant future, someone will once again peel away the layers.  They will find a really old newspaper (I’m burying one in the attic :)), some bad math on the 2x4s, and some serious craftsmanship.  But more than that, I hope they find a lot of decisions embedded in the structure that still make sense for their time.


  1. You are an amazing writer Paul. I have a great idea. Master saleswoman Desiree can work on selling your articles and then you guys can buy some towels and sheets when you move into the house. There must be some energy magazines, or what about this old house?

  2. Agreed, well written. I came across some interesting items when I tore my garage down, various bits of produce crates and such. They were simply used to hold things together but they were interesting and I have them hanging as decoration now. I don’t know how long my garage will last but I do believe we did a better job building it than the last one. I can’t really fault the original builders, I suppose construction methods have to evolve over time.

  3. *claps* Bravo! Poignant, Informative, Emotive and a great echo of the times. Love the piece!

  4. Thanks all. Having lived exclusively in older homes, I come from a mindset of old == better. That has made tearing apart our house an emotionally taxing endeavor. A big part of writing this was to exorcise the doubts about changing things so radically. The fact is, the world changes, and we must change with it. ‘Refreshing’ a house every century is not unreasonable, and in the end I think we’ll be very happy with what we’ve done.

  5. Paul, we are very enthralled with your postings and look forward to the next installment you are a very talented writer, I truly think you should write a book
    Love you Jackie

  6. Thank you for this wonderful portrait! The way our work affects people and the community is often overlooked, and really never shared. You are a great writer. I really appreciate how you capture and express your sentiments and perspectives.

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