I found a photo from our wedding. A few years ago we scanned some old photos that we loved so we had digital copies and I had forgotten about it. I wore a blue dress that was hideous. My hair looked like a bowl haircut and the lady who was a witness wore a white dress with flowers in her hair.
What I found that was more important were photos of our houses. As I was going through the scanned photos of our life over the past 38 years, I came across a photo of the inside of a real house I built for us in 1986. My heart melted.
I bought our first house when I was 19. It was a strange house. The bathroom was the hall. We owned another house that only had running water when it rained. After living in those houses and a double wide trailer that came with our job, we lived for five years in a 450 square foot condominium on a ski resort. After being married 10 years, we dreamed of space and something in good repair.
Our first house where the bathroom was the hall.
Our second house had running water only when it rained.
We bought a lot for $10,000 in 1984. We still had no house. I had inherited a few building and home repair books from my dad. I poured over them hoping for a house. In 1985 I decided that if I could sew, I could build a house. We scraped together money to purchase a log-home shell. We did not get the package because we could not afford it. My spouse thought I was being strange but he supported my judgment. He said he trusted me and was sure he would like what I built for us.
I paid two guys to put in the foundation. I don’t remember how much but it was too much. The house was 20 feet deep and 22 feet wide. They build the foundation 22 feet deep and 20 feet wide. Finally we added a row of cinder blocks on the side to bring the 20 feet to 22 feet. Eventually the logs were placed on the foundation. I don’t remember the details but I do remember the cold mud we were working in.
After the walls were up I got out my book and set to work. I put in all the windows and doors. I framed the few walls we had and paid someone to put up the dry wall.
I bought a salvaged spiral stair case for a few dollars. The local school was replacing some of their cabinets and I got two sets of drawers for free. For the kitchen, I built a U shaped 2 x 4 wood frame with pine board shelves. It was flanked by the drawers and topped with a real Formica custom-cut counter top in bisque. On the cabinets, I used curtains instead of doors since I did not know how to build them. I bought an old range for $15. I don’t remember the refrigerator but I think I bought that new. I did have a stainless steel double sink. It was my prize possession. Not too many of them were around back then.
I bought two new, white toilets. I bought a plastic laundry sink. The laundry room had an old stacked washer and dryer scrounged up from somewhere. You could only wash a tee shirt and a pair of underwear at one time but the washer and dryer were ours so they were good. Together with the sink, there was a toilet in the room. That was our ½ bath. The toilet worked fine. When you washed your hands in the laundry sink it made a strange glunking sound.
There was no floor plan for the loft upstairs so I was making the floor plan up as I went. I figured out how to build a closet and I paid someone to build a dormer for a bathroom. There was a strange cubby hole between the bathroom and the closet. I used it for the toilet. It was such a tight fit that we used to joke that you did not want to sneeze or you would break your elbows.
Someone told me about a ball and claw bathtub that was coming out of an old place on the other side of the mountain. I asked if I cooked him a meal would he bring it to me. I don’t remember what I cooked but I do remember the tub. It was dated with a month and a year; it was the same month that I got it, just 60 years after it was born. The tub was in horrible shape. The outside was rusted and the porcelain in the interior was rough. I sanded forever to get the rust off the bottom and then painted it with blue enamel paint. My spouse fixed the porcelain. He said it was not a lot different than fixing canoes that had holes in them.
I built a nice bathroom cabinet and topped it with a lovely bit of Formica I found in the “miss-cut” bin at the local hardware store. I don’t remember where the sink came from but it was recycled too. I could not figure out how install a shower in the bath tub so we hooked a hose up on the sink and hung it over the shower curtain rail. Eventually we did get a shower working but it leaked now and again.
When I finished building the house, I set about sewing curtains and covering an old couch with muslin. I used pink grosgrain ribbon to cover my staple lines. I put decorative squares made from pre-printed pillow fabric on each cushion. I joked that I not only had to build my house when I was done I had to sew the curtains.
We had to take a construction loan out to finish the house. Interest rates back then were about 14% so we had to get that loan paid off. It was only good for 90 days and I had renewed it twice. I managed to find a mortgage that was only 12%. To get the mortgage we had to pass the bank’s new home inspection. A lady drove 100 miles round trip to inspect the house. I remember being surprised it was a lady. We passed, even though the house was not exactly finished. We were jubilant. I had built a home for us for $30,000. We had a real home. We had 440 square feet on the main floor and 220 square feet in a bedroom-loft. There was room in the basement to build a 2nd bedroom and bath. I loved that house. It was peaceful and gentle. When the evening came, we would drive up the mountain, pick up the mail and sit in a porch swing and just swing for a while.
Our first real house.
So we are faced with building a new house. Some things have not changed. Today my spouse told me that he trusted me and that he was sure he would like whatever I did. Building again has made me think about that house and how simple it was. The house we are building now will cost 10 times what that one did. The new house is more complicated. Our lives are more complicated. The world is more complicated. Whatever we build, I can build with confidence that my spouse will like it. And, I will seek simplicity in the house so that the space can be an antidote to the complexity of the world.