11 years ago, around the time I moved to Portland, there was a movement: Save the Good Old Houses. There were posters stating as much affixed to rotting Victorians in Northwest Portland. "Save the Good Old Houses," I thought. Nice idea. Romantic, conjuring up a mild-mannered Bob Vila, lathe and plaster, coved ceilings, turned columns, ornate trim. I got involved. Bought a good old house (in Southeast), with a carpenter friend and watched him scrape asbestos, lead, and seven decades of filth from the entrails of the Good Old House. I helped by steaming off layers of wallpaper, sanding down the less-encumbered patches of clear vertical fir. I painted a lot, and leafed through the 50-year-old Oregonians we found in the basement, marveling at ads for $13,000 bungalows.
It felt good to be on the side of the righteous. The anti-row house, anti-high-density, anti-gentrification. We bought more Good Old Houses. Fixed them up, refinanced, and rented them out. My little kids spent many nights balled up in sleeping bags on the floor of yet another project. The fixing-up always took at least six months more than we initially projected, and by the time we were done (always playing beat the clock with the appraiser--I remember painting a front porch in a downpour, finishing two minutes before the comp. picture, only to have the paint wash off an hour after the appraiser left), we hated the Good Old House as much as if it had been a bitchy mother-in-law come to spend the last year with us.
Rehabilitation. Renovation. Rejuvenation. Refurbish. There is a progressive implication in these words, so much so that they have been, in a couple of instances, turned into upscale retail concepts. The only people who can afford a Victorian fixer in Portland now have deep enough pockets to hire out all the less-appealing, cancer-inducing aspects of renovation. These people have the sense to live elsewhere while sawzalls and crowbars dismantle their dry-rotted foundations. All the fervor in the imperative "save" as applied to a relic from days gone by, has turned to careful assessment, a more genteel approach: "Consider Good Old Houses" perhaps, or "Get Estimates on the Refurbishment of Good Old Houses."
One thing is certain: It's a hell of a lot easier to just start over. Hire a bulldozer, cart away the debris of the Old House, and follow a blueprint upon which EVERYTHING is industry standard. Your Home Depot cabinets, your low-flush toilets, your, gulp, pop-out greenhouse window. They don't make boards with that perfect, clear, vertical grain anymore, so you'll have to make do with wood shavings pressed together with glue, but that's so much lighter. Have you ever been knocked on the head by a 100-year-old stud? I have. Or been pierced in the forehead by a hand-forged nail? I've watched that happen--very Monty Python, all that blood spurting forth.
The only problem is this stupid aesthetic. I can't even live in a '60s ranch house, which, if you ask my kids, is an antique. I crave the inconvenience of concrete steps between the street and my front door, the look of single-pane, wood windows, and the charm of a residence, which doesn't feature the garage as its main room. But, as in all things romantic, I've grown weary of the dreaded qualifier. I no longer believe "Good" needs to be attached to "Old" and "House." I'll keep "save" though. At least for now.