I live in an old house, the kind with squeaky floorboards, not-quite-square walls, and windows set on permanent stuck. I call it the “urban farmhouse.” It looks like something from a black and white western right downtown. There is nothing else like it for blocks in any direction.
I bought this house because it is unique, the neighborhood is eclectic, and there is a small, slightly crazy part of me that enjoys the challenge of making an old structure function with modern conveniences.
When I bought the house, it needed a significant interior renovation. As contractors tore down existing walls, each layer told a story, like the rings of a tree. There was dark wood paneling from the 1970s, layers of paint on plaster from the 1940s, even the wood frame structure told the age of the house. The city had outlawed wood as a building material in 1900 because of the fire hazard. That makes the house at least 100 years old.
Newspapers were stuffed into drafty corners, advertising denim jeans for men and women on sale at the department store that hadn’t been downtown since the 1980s. Other newspapers had ads and articles from a time when the city was far less welcoming of people of other cultures, creeds and religions. Each crumpled, dried up wad of newspaper offered an extraordinary snapshot of an ordinary day long ago.
The most delightful discovery in my house was handwriting on the plaster wall in the kitchen. It was right next to a hole that had been a telephone jack. There were no dark secrets, cryptic spy codes or anything particularly juicy. There were just phone numbers, dates and practice schedules penciled on the wall. It seems a previous resident was active with the Catholic Youth Organization basketball league in the neighborhood. These were notes hurriedly made by someone standing by a phone that no longer exists.
That might seem of little consequence, but to me it was everything. My house sits in the shadow of the towering Saint Patrick Cathedral dome. We just celebrated its 100th anniversary. The people who lived in my house no doubt worshiped and prayed in that same church. I wonder which pew was their favorite.
The former CYO building is now my office, a half a block away. Before that, it was the city’s first Catholic high school. The people who lived in my house walked the same 125 steps to get to the building.
When I kneel to say my prayers, I think about the generations that were in my home before me. They lived and loved, prayed and worried, celebrated and dreamed. Living in the space they labored to build, I am deeply drawn to them.
In preserving our shared history, we have become a special group within the Communion of Saints, forever connected. It’s not just through a mutual address we share, but a mutual spirit. We are a small group of slightly crazy souls willing to call an “urban farmhouse” home.