Mostly our house is designed to feel old and comfortable like a house that has been around for a few hundred years. The wood is not slick and the walls are a bit heavy on the texture as if someone had mixed some plaster with some mud from the pond over the hill. Our house is designed to presuppose a relationship with the otherwise new house.
The baseboard are square, they are tall and straight. They are made from fir and pine. Much of the wood has a rough texture due to having been cut by hand as it would have been for a common house in the late 18th century. The log stair rail that follows the log stairs shows where the bark was pealed by hand held tools. The natural ridges and character of the log is still there but some of the wood is open and white. It does not yet have the satiny feel that comes from years of hands leading upwards the person on the stairs polishing the wood smooth. The handrail at our house that burned in a wildfire in 2012 was like that. It was smooth from fifteen years of our journeys up and down the stairs.
While we have built our new house to be a new-old house keeping the stylistic elements of the 18th century in places like the trim work, it does not yet have its own history woven into it. Each individual piece brings its history. Each stroke of a draw knife to peel back bark, the fall of an ax on our 8 x 8 posts or the roar of the chain saws used to scribe our stairs brings history to the house. Each cut and miter and each nail and screw tell the story of the skill and commitment of the people building our house and giving it life. Each part brings history. Each is distinct now, each part of the whole but a whole that is not wholly there yet.
The house is teaching us its story.
For the past several weeks I spend hours each day in our library loft putting finishes on wood. I have finished three types of cabinets and from that command point will stage the work that leads to finishing our wood floors and the window and door trim. While I work I look out the tall front windows at the northern evergreen forest with the tall peaks behind. I am building a history with those trees and the mountains I can see through the window as I work. I stop multiple times a day to look at them to learn them to see how they present themselves in different light and different weather and at different times of day. After watching them now and again for months as the house began to take form and intently for the past several weeks I am beginning to take their measure.
We have a special view from this house but the view out of our old house was spectacular. It was a once in a lifetime view. After 15 years watching it from predawn to the night-dark, we knew its every mood. The mountains were over-thrust during the formation of the Rockies. We developed a history with them taking the same same photograph across years. Comparing the photos from the late 1990s to the photos of the 2110s you can see the built environment change across the years reminding you what you see now was not what was then, even if what you see now looks the same. Trees grow taller, burns appear, old burned areas reseed and the burn ceases to show. There are roads that wither and disappear. Other roads are cut and houses spring up at the end of them.
At one glance, at one time, the changes do not register. The changes are clearer through the history of the camera lens than through the lens of the mind. Yet the lens of the mind brings the history that the camera can never record. It brings the memory of when the now tall tree was planted. It brings the story of being the first one to alert the fire department that lightening had struck the mountain across from us. My spouse saw the strike and made the call. He sat and watched as the wildfire teams responded completely containing the fire in a few hours. Before our fire that was not contained for days, that spot where the lightening strike had burn was visable only if you stood on our deck recounting the tale, pointing to the rocks that were burned black in the now reseeded area.
At this new house we have weeks, not years of the intimacy between a house and those who live in the house. We are learning the history of our house as we are making its history. The history of the house will emerge as it does. If we wish to develop the relationship between the trees and mountains we must pay attention for their pace is different from ours. Like the Ents, the Tree People of Tolkien, their perception of time is very slow. Day before yesterday I took a piece of very find, 1200 grit sandpaper and polished the log handrail from bottom to top. It has the velvety smoothness of polished wood but it also has the rough places where there were knots and uneven bark on the tree. Like the mountains, I notice it as I glide my hand up the rail when I traverse up to or down from the library turned cabinet shop.
Amid the stylistically plain trim from the latter 1700s found in the majority of the house, three of our rooms are of the same era but echo the very formal architectural patterns of the Neoclassical style of the second half of the 18th century.
The guest bedroom and bathroom are yellow with white formal crown and base molding. Our power room is a deep blue-violet color called Madonna Blue by the paint company. The ceiling paint is called Thistle Down and it is a slightly yellow/brown white. Against the Madonna Blue it appears as an aged stark white. We have in the power room egg and dart molding style that rises from classical Greek and neoclassical architecture where it is typically seen at the top of an ionic capital. The pattern consists of bas-relief egg-shaped figures that alternate with the dart or anchor shaped figures.One architectural interpretation of the pattern is that it represents birth (egg) and death (dart).
The powder room base molding is a simple three ridged dome with a straight bottom. Both the crown and base moldings are in Thistle Down white. We have a double candle electric brass sconce and I am making a Georgian style mirror with left over egg and dart molding that I will gild and then work black glaze into the bas-relief of the molding to give it an aged look. The white, vaguely translucent vitreous china oval pedestal sink that will join the molding has a fluted edge putting one in the mind of a shell. The tiny toilet is modest and white leaving the glory to the walls, the molding and the sink.
In a nod to history, I call the powder room the della Robbia room. The evoke the polychrome enamel finish on terracotta wreathes created by Luca di Simone di Marco della Robbia (born 1399/1400, Florence [Italy]—died Feb. 10, 1482). I don’t think that the Virgin Mary will appear in my powder room but she will be thought of when one takes in the rich colors of the paint and the brass and the flowy edges of the pedestal sink. I may add a della Robbia icon to enhance the historical memory perceived in the room.
So we have three histories only one of which we know. We know the architectural and design motifs of the second half of the 18th century that influence the trim in our home. The history of the mountains and the land around us is as new to us as it is old to the land. We must learn it as Ents. We must not rush. The history of the house emerges daily. The story of the Cruise Ship basement apartment where we live now has a strong history for us as well as those who work here passing many times a day by our door with their hammers and saws. The history of the kitchen emerges as the cabinets do. The history of the whole is knitting together as the house knits together.
This house is designed to presuppose a relationship with the otherwise new house. The history of our move from downstairs in our little apartment upstairs to the main house will be one told for years. We don’t know how it will unfold only that it will and that it is a transition. We are forging a relationship with the rooms upstairs as we work in them. My paper and design relationships are giving way to a relationship with the tangible aspect of this house. My newly forged relationship with the library and the mountains out its windows leads us home.