Stewarding Historic Homes

 

I sell houses because of the stories that breathe through them--past and future.  Before becoming a real estate agent over a decade ago, I was a writer.  Trained in fiction at university writing programs, I graduated to short stories penned for small literary journals.  But when grim truth poked its head through my idealistic cloud, and I realized that the life of a literary writer would be a fiscal roller coaster at best...I found real estate.    More than just an accident, the practice of real estate for me is much like writing stories.  There are characters, settings, metaphors, tensions.  Homes are the centers of our lives--and through them pass everything from birth to death.

I live in a historic house on the East Side of Providence.  It has a Providence Preservation Society plaque that says Built by Joseph Tempest in 1887.  In most communities, you can get a historic marker on your home if it meets a minimum set of standards and you pay a small fee.  Though Providence has one of the most organized Historic Property Marker Programs in the state, other communities offer similar opportunities.  Some offer none at all.  You’d simply have to contact your local historic, preservation or heritage society for information and guidelines. In Providence, the fee goes toward the research of the home’s history, which can be found online at the PPS Gowdey Files Collection (http://gowdey.ppsri.org/), and the fabrication and installation of the marker.  

The program is for properties of historical and architectural significance.  To apply, you must be a member of the Providence Preservation Society ($50), and your property must be: at least 50 years old, well maintained and well-preserved.  Disqualifying criteria include: vinyl or aluminum siding, vinyl replacement windows and non-period architectural changes to the exterior of the property.  Applications are reviewed by a committee of local architects, architectural historians and preservation consultants.  If your property is awarded a plaque, there is an additional one-time $300 fee.

I easily found online the initial story of my house. Tempest, a master mechanic at Allen’s Print Works, bought my lot in 1884 for $10.  And on March 14, 1887, he filed his intention to have Machon & Beck build my house for $2000.  Other owners include several generations of the Angell family, the Van Der Vliet’s, the Rebello’s and the Millward’s.  Each added to the home their own sense of style and stewardship--some for the better and some for the worse.

Recently I took a tour of the John Brown House (1788) at 52 Power Street on the East Side, which is a museum owned and operated by the Rhode Island Historical Society.  One of the bathrooms, installed by prominent industrialist and banker Marsden Perry during his ownership starting in 1901, is an incredible high style example of a Victorian-era bathroom, complete with gilded tile-work depicting images from French paintings and shell motifs popular in furniture of the era and state-of-the-art amenities like a ribcage shower, sunken tub and toilet with hidden water box.  I was surprised to find a similar though smaller version of the same bathroom at the Eliza Ward House (1812), a private residence at 2 George Street, which clients of mine are in the process of purchasing.  Marsden Perry also lived here for 10 years prior to purchasing the John Brown House. 

These bathrooms have survived over a hundred years and have become a part of the physical and oral history of these two homes and Perry himself.  It reminds me that tasteful and timeless changes to a home can become not just a part of the property’s history, but your own personal journey through life. Me, I am planning a trip out to New England Demolition & Salvage (www.nedsalvage.com) in New Bedford to search for a 38x13 inch stained glass window for the transom above our front door.  Though there’s just cheap glass there now, I imagine that at one time there was something that better matched my home’s existing architectural elegance.  If chosen right, the stained glass window I find could be one of those things that survives long after our ownership--and perhaps as long as the Joseph Tempest House still stands.