Can you learn from a building? What secrets can a pile of wood and bricks tell you? I will give you a hint: you have to be actively looking and thinking about what you see, and not afraid to question and to do research to make educated guesses.
The following is an excerpt from a post I did on our kitchen renovation. The post in it’s entirety is under “Renovations” in the menu you found this on. Here I am am discussing what I saw and “reading” the floor of my house.
The coolest part of the demo was seeing the imprint of the house’s ORIGINAL 1907 kitchen! See these two lighter boards? They are fill-ins. There used to be a wall here with a doorway. This was the original butler’s pantry to the house. Also see the dark/blackish marks on the floor flowing through the doorway? That is extra glue, probably put there to keep linoleum down in this high-traffic area. It’s cool to see where people walked 100 years ago.
My favorite thing to do is to “read” old houses. It’s like clues in a treasure hunt.
There is a big chimney stack behind the current fridge. See the lighter square on the floor under the fridge? That is where the original range stood!
On the left side of the missing wall are three holes. That is a classic clue that a sink was here.
Some of the floor patches we were clueless about, like this green one. It might have been old termite damage. See the tiny hole under the missing wall on the right side of this pic? It was for a gas line. You can also see the lighter spot where the range originally stood. So that tells us that this kitchen was not changed when they stopped using a wood-burning stove. (The hole above is part of the holes for the sink.) Again you can see the walking pattern and where they put more adhesive on the floor.
It’s very hard to see here, but right by the cabinet is another set of holes that tells us there was a sink here. Which set was original? I really don’t know!
These two big holes were probably for a radiator. There was also a weird old electric line close by these. It turned out to be for the servant’s bells.
We found old termite damage in the pantry. Using what I know about how houses ran at the turn of the century, and this big clue I am guessing that the icebox was in this pantry. It has an outside door so ice deliveries could be made without bothering the servants. Iceboxes had drip pans. Drip pans overflow. Water is essential for termites. Viola!
Here is another example. This coved ceiling was like this because there was a back staircase here.
Here is the empty space where the stairs were. They were removed to make a larger, handicapped accessible bathroom on the first floor.
My test of reading buildings really came when our fake asphlat shingle siding was removed and the original clapboards were uncovered. The new boards are a drip edge that was torn away for the fake siding. My husband and I had to study the house and look at other houses like it to figure this out. We didn’t know why there was a big hole all around our house! Also, see the dark space above the end boards that looks like a pillar? The caps were also removed here for the siding. That was a little easier to figure out.
Here is one re-created!
How can you get good at reading buildings? Never assume! But always guess and bounce ideas off of others. Read as much as you can about the time period your favorite buildings/houses are from. Look at pictures of similar buildings/houses. Watch walk-through videos of original interiors of houses (mostly found in abandoned house videos!). Don’t be afraid to Google, ask, e-mail your state historic preservation officer, ask a carpenter, a house museum historian, etc. You will learn so much!
There is one last story though. The first house my husband and I had together as a newlywed couple was a very large Bungalow. It had some secrets. One was iron burns in all the bedrooms on the beautiful golden oak floors. I never knew why, but never really wanted to know the truth, because it probably wasn’t good. We made that home a happy one though and did our best not to let anyone else hurt her, or be hurt there. I like to think she appreciated that.
Good luck to you on reading your house!