The Things that Haunt Houses
As a home inspector I have been a nosey guest in thousands of houses. Most have been in New England where for some years I supervised up to six home inspector colleagues. Even though some of those houses were specifically disclosed by the seller to be haunted, in only one house (yes, it was a gothic old house) did I personally experience what might have been a paranormal event. You will have to read this to the end to get to that if that’s what you are really interested in. For me, it was just an odd anomaly compared to what really haunts old houses.
I am not a psychic. I look for ghosts of a different kind in old American houses. To me, “ghosts “are simply the discernable details or clues that reveal the history of an old house.
Many or most of the very old houses here, say over 200 years old, have been re-muddled to such an extent over the years that it can be hard to figure out what happened when. That’s what I love to do: analyze old houses. To me, all houses are “haunted” with things or concepts that moved in over time.
This blog is not the venue for a long account of the various and sundry ghosts of history in old houses but here’s one important point: the 1840’s were seminal. That’s when the advent of cast iron appliances and radial saws drastically revolutionized the way houses were built or subsequently modified.
Original New England antique houses, typically of massive post-and-beam log construction, did not have kitchens. Instead, they featured a rather imposing fireplace in what was called a “keeping room”. That fireplace, often central to the house, was for both home heating and cooking. When the cast-iron wood or coal stove imposed itself, the logical way to take advantage of this technology was to build a new addition at the rear of the house. This was the advent of the now ubiquitous kitchen as well as the saltbox style of architecture so common to New England. Essentially, the saltbox style is a colonial with a bump-out kitchen in the rear. That’s where kitchens came from. The ghost of those kitchens past now haunts virtually all houses, even new ones.
I think the next most important haunting, one which definitely spooks our newer houses to this day, came in about the 1950’s. That was the advent of modern electronics starting with the television.
Antique houses typically featured rather small windows for at least a couple of reasons. First, smaller windows translated to less heat loss. Secondly, the architectural effect of a small window is to draw one to it from within thereby imparting a dynamic sense of more spatial dimension to the room.
The television has exactly the opposite effect of a small window in that it doesn’t look right unless you obey the imposing focal distance of the thing. Instead of drawing you to it, it pushes you back to a couch located well away from it. If you put a television into the formal parlor of an antique house, you get an immediate contradiction between the television and the original design of the room. You are both pulled and pushed around in the same room. The result is spatial tension.
The obvious solution was the theretofore-unknown “family room” addition all of which, even in old houses, seem to feature larger (even picture) windows that often contradict the original architecture of the older building to which it is attached.
No wonder that living rooms and formal parlors have lost ground to family rooms in remodeled old houses and new construction alike. A ghost from the 1950’s is stalking most of our homes. Further, with the advent of computers, more and more people want an office space in the house.
Okay, I mentioned the possible paranormal experience at the start of this thing. Here is my account of it.
The house was a gingerbread Victorian built in the 1880’s or so. The grounds were over-grown and the peeling green paint on it reminded me of a bumper-sticker slogan: Imagine Whirled Peas. The house was on the market as an estate sale. That translates as the owner had passed away recently. I was inspecting the place on behalf of absentee out-of-state clients. It was a warm October afternoon. The leaves had mostly fallen from the old trees in the yard and Halloween was near which led me to the thought that even the most stalwart of trick-or-treaters would have been loath to approach the place. Gothic enough for you?
The real estate broker was one with whom I had worked with many, many times in the past. She trusted me to be alone in the place and given that my clients did not plan on attending the inspection, she opened up the house and left me alone with the understanding that I would secure the place when I finished my inspection.
I came in through the rear kitchen entrance leaving the door wide open while I made a couple of trips back and forth to my vehicle as I brought my various equipment into the house. I set up my laptop computer and printer on the kitchen table and began my data-entry preparations for the inspection.
Although there was no noticeable breeze outside, the kitchen door suddenly and loudly slammed shut as I sat at the nearby kitchen table facing the door. That got my attention but when two separate dead bolts on the door clicked into closed positions about a second later, I was totally focused. I was left with the distinct impression that the door had been slammed and then locked with a palpable sense of anger.
Surprisingly or maybe predictably, I simply became very calm. That is probably my natural response to an emotional outburst by any second party. After a few moments, I got up and unlocked and then re-opened the door. I sat back down and waited awhile. The door remained open. I then unlocked two other exterior doors in other rooms. Nothing untoward happened while I was there during my subsequent two or three hours in the building. Nonetheless, my emotional impression of what happened in that kitchen remains to this day.
Attendant to my inspection, I placed a continuous radon monitor machine on a small table in the first floor hallway. It was a Radonics brand machine of proprietary design by U.S. Inspect, my parent company. These machines have fairly sophisticated anti-tamper features built into them. If you move or otherwise tamper with the machine, it will record it as well as the time of the tamper. The machine was left there for three days and nights during which time the machine registered tamper activity at about 2:00 AM each night it was there. The real estate broker told me nobody had been in the property during the entire time between my visits.
Could the radon machine tampers be explained away? Maybe. Perhaps the old steam boiler fired up at about that time every night causing the floor to vibrate. Old houses can be that way. I don’t know.