Hearing me list the physical and financial hardship I undergo to restore my 1904 Foursquare, a doctor friend said: “It’s a money pit. Get rid of it.”
I stared, and he added, “Sometimes my job is to speak the unspeakable.”
What, did he think that that hadn’t occurred to me?
Some of us enjoy living in a house with drafty windows and creaking beams purely because it has been around for a hundred years. A house like that has “soul,” we say. Yet, other folks see a house that is a little wobbly on its foundation and want to knock it down and build something out of drywall, fiberglass and concrete.
Each spring, the Tacoma Historical Society sponsors a Tour of Historic Homes – it’s April 30 and May 1 this year – during which we can all explore homes in historic neighborhoods, such as the North Slope, the Seminary District and Prospect Hill. Visitors salivate, but not because they think living in such a house would be convenient.
Far from it. We are itching after Victorian towers and wide Arts and Crafts porches because these homes have character. Elusive and variable, “character” has many meanings. I don’t just mean that the house has a quirky personality, like Pap in “Huckleberry Finn,” though some houses do.
Last summer, I visited one near Ruston for an estate sale. It had been built by hand from logs cut by two men with a double saw, even though the rest of the neighborhood had settled on wood siding. Hand-bent willow railings and tin lanterns had been in place in that house since the 19th century, and the roughly-hewn knotty pine front porch seemed to call out for children to churn ice cream or lovers to huddle together during a rainstorm. Pap and Huck would have felt at home in that house.
But that’s not the only sort of character I mean. When history lovers walk inside a home from 1901 – such as North Slope’s Rhodes Mansion, which I toured one spring morning years ago – the refined high ceilings and many paned windows seem to speak of high ideas, high ideals and high aspirations.
“All Roads Lead to Rhodes,” freeway signs used to say, referring to the department stores owned by the Rhodes brothers. This grand and gracious old home, and many others in Tacoma, were built when hope in America was high, when there was no limit to how far we could go, could grow. Back then, American craftsmanship, hard work and industrial progress could conquer any foe.
These houses and neighborhoods retain that sort of confidence and optimism. To live in one is a dream we do not believe can come true, until we discover a town like Tacoma, where it can, in a range of price points. Do we step away from those dreams because the plumbing leaks a little? What sort of character would that demonstrate?
The best test of character, in a building or a person, is persistence. When a house or, almost unbelievably, a whole neighborhood has withstood the trials of a hundred years – the storms of rain and wind; the tears of children; the wrench of death, divorce or foreclosure; the sorrows of war – when a neighborhood of houses has stood stolidly through those experiences and come out the other side, it encourages a renewed persistence in its viewers and occupants.
When I feel lost or hopeless, I can walk through a neighborhood of Tacoma’s oldest homes – those near Proctor, McKinley Hill or on Yakima Avenue – and gain courage for the trials we have ahead of us.
The most important thing Tacoma can do, as the world shifts around us in 2016, is look up at the towers, eaves and attic windows of the old homes that shelter us still, and believe in them to continue to do so, as long as we also shelter them.
Barbara Parsons is a college English professor and writer who lives in Tacoma's North End. She is one of six reader columnists who write for this page. Contact her at email@example.com.
Tour of homes
The Tacoma Historical Society’s Tour of Historical Homes will be April 30 and May 1.