Monday, December 15, 2014

Know Your Home

Beth and I were lied to about the two homes we have owned, and I suspect that if you own an older house you were, too.

Oh, I'm not talking about dry rot, skeletons buried in the basement or a convoluted title showing that members of the Winter Hill Gang could swoop in here at any time and move into our basement. No, I'm talking about the dates of the homes.

I'm gonna work my way backwards. When we bought our current home, in Newton, Mass., in 2003 the sell sheet indicated the American Foursquare was built in 1915. We instantly fell in love with the original woodwork in much of the first floor, and other details including a plate rail in the dining room and built-in storage seats in the living room.

The house has a big porch and a finished attic, a great fireplace and a half-finished basement. Previous owners had completed renovations including closing off the door from the living room to the kitchen, adding a skylight in the attic and updating the kitchen. We've added a deck off the back, a mudroom off the kitchen and a master bathroom, and reconfigured the kids' bathroom.

For the most part, though, the house looks like it did when it was built. We take pride in knowing that our house is one of the older ones on the street. Most of the houses around us appear to date from the 1930's-1950's. Over the years we'd talked about throwing a party of some sort to celebrate the 100th anniversary of our home. With 2015 looming, I went to city hall and pulled the inspectional services file on our place. I wanted to find out who had built the house and the names of previous owners, and see if there were any useful bits of information that might help us personalize our celebration.

Maybe there will be pictures! I thought. Maybe we'll find out that there used to be a garage where the shed now stands. Or perhaps a map showing that the small lot next to ours used to be part of our land.

My big discovery? The house wasn't built in 1915. It was built in 1923. We need to wait eight more years to plan a 100th anniversary party. I'm not sure why the sell sheet said 1915. I don't believe there was anything here prior, but perhaps another party had applied for a permit to build in 1915 but never followed through.

The owner of the property, McKenzie MacLeod, filed for a building permit in January 1921, and then again in November 1922. I'm not sure why the house wasn't built after MacLeod filed for the permit initially. Perhaps he ran into financial troubles. The house was completed in the spring of '23, when the city issued a permit for plumbing.

When we added a master bathroom and tore apart the existing upstairs bathroom, the demo crew ripped out a LOT of cast iron pipes. The guys told me that a four-foot section weighed about 200 pounds, and they needed four guys to lift it up and out the second story window and into the dumpster below.

A few days later one of my neighbors asked me if we'd given permission for someone to remove the cast iron from the dumpster, because he'd seen somebody take it. I said no. So either thieves were eying the lode, or my builder allowed someone to come on the property and take it. Wonder how much they made off it.

The building was designed by Frederick Gowing, a Boston-based architect who wrote a book, Building Plans for Colonial Dwellings, Bungalows, Cottages, and Other Medium Cost Homes, in 1925. He also wrote a book called Building Plans for Modern Homes, copies of which are floating around on eBay. Maybe I'll buy one in the next eight years.

Our first home, in Boston's West Roxbury neighborhood, has a bit of a more interesting story behind it.

Located on St. Theresa Avenue, the house is just a short distance from West Roxbury's commercial mainline, Centre Street. Situated directly across from the prestigious Roxbury Latin School, the house is a Dutch Colonial with a nice porch, a narrow lot with plenty of shade and cool curving staircase up to the second floor. Beth and I put a lot of sweat equity into the place, because we didn't have kids. We tore up wall-to-wall carpets and the tack strips from the living room, dining room, stairs, and bedrooms; stripped wallpaper in every room; patched, primed and painted the whole place; and ripped a giant spice cabinet off the kitchen wall.

Eventually, after we completed that work and had someone come in and sand the floors, we called in an electrician to upgrade some things. He told us that in addition to old gas lines (some of which he capped for us), we had knob-and-tube wiring, because when the house was built, people weren't sure whether gas or electricity would be the future.

"What year was this house built?" he asked.

"The sell sheet said 1930."

"No, this house is older than that," he replied. "Pre-World War I, for sure."

He told me I could go to the Boston Building Department to pull the file for the house. "1010 Mass. Ave.," he said.

A few weeks later I made the trip to Roxbury, got the file and started poring over it. I went right to the bottom of the stack of documents, invoices and permits, and learned that, as the electrician told me, the house dated to before The War to Make the World Safe for Democracy.

The house was built in 1911. I was confused why the sell sheet indicated the house was built in 1930. How could there be such a disparity? Flipping through a few more documents, I found one that gave me the answer. In 1930, the city of Boston reconfigured what was then known as Cottage Avenue. The street was moved west a bit, curving away from our house, giving it a much longer front yard than houses that were built later. The street was renamed St. Theresa Avenue, after the Catholic parish at the foot of street.

With the answer to my question in hand, I continued to look through the file to see if there was anything else of interest.

That's when I noticed the name of the owner of the property when it was built: Earl Sloan. I don't recall all these years later whether the documents in the folder included information about Sloan, or whether I did an Internet search when I got home. What I found out is that Sloan was the "doctor" behind Sloan's Liniment, a pain relief product developed in the 19th century. The liniment is available online to this day.

In the early part of the 20th century, Sloan lived on an estate in West Roxbury known as Pine Lodge. Previous owners of the estate included bank presidents and Boston's fire commissioner. Our house was evidently one of several on the property; I assume a caretaker or some other employee of Sloan's lived in the house. There is a Pine Lodge road in the nearby vicinity, but alas no traces of the estate.

So if you own an older home, or are at least the second owner of your house, and you're at all curious about the place you live, it's worth asking your town or city clerk about accessing the building file. Every house has a story. I'd love to hear yours.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Lightnin' Strikes

Lightnin' Hopkins was the man. Gold teeth, slicked-back hair piled high (or corralled under a cowboy hat), ever-present black sunglasses, killer guitar skills, a quick wit and a singing voice that's tangy and sweet like a plate of ribs, but can bite you like a Texas rattlesnake. He became my favorite bluesman a few decades ago, in what seemed like an accident at the time, but turned out to be just great fortune.

My older brother, Steve, was into blues music when he was in college. For Christmas one year around that time I bought him Lightnin' Hopkins: At His Natural Best, an album with just seven songs that came out in 1981. I probably bought it at Caldor.

I don't believe Steve asked for this album; I just bought it because I loved the name Lightnin' Hopkins. Born Sam Hopkins in Centerville, Texas, in 1912, Lightnin' learned to play guitar by the age of 10, according to the album's liner notes. As a boy, he met the legendary Blind Lemon Jefferson. Here's Jefferson:

Lightnin' became an accompanist for Jefferson's cousin, Texas Alexander, according to the liner notes. Hopkins acquired his nickname during an L.A. recording session in 1946 with pianist Thunder Smith, the notes indicate. He released dozens of albums during his career.

Details about the route Lightnin' Hopkins: At His Natural Best traveled from my hand to my brother's, and back to mine (it's in my attic as I write this) are fuzzy at best. My recollection is that my brother didn't particularly enjoy the album -- it's comprised of unedited tapes from an August 6, 1969, recording session, and includes dialogue and tune-ups. I believe he left it behind when he went back to college, along with other records from over the years. He has less recall than I do.

As a music lover, I figured at some point that it was my duty to take over ownership. I recall playing the albm when I went to college a few years later and entertaining my friends with it.

I own just one other Lightnin' album, I'm embarrassed to say. The Very Best of Lightnin' Hopkins features 16 songs and is a great listen. I need to buy more.

I've checked out several of Hopkins's videos on YouTube over the years and I just love the way he sings, plays, dresses and banters with the crowd in his live videos. So I was excited to learn recently about "The Blues Accordin' to Lightnin' Hopkins," a 30-minute documentary directed by Les Blank.

Shot in 1968, the film features Hopkins playing lots of music, some of it by himself, some with a woman who bickers with him and some with friends and family, including a great harp player who sings with deep emotion in his voice. The film is also a great time capsule of small-town Southern life in the late '60s, with scenes of kids playing, sharp-dressed dudes and hot ladies dancing, older folks hanging out, and cool cars driving by.

Here's the film in its entirety.

If you watch only part of this documentary, tune in at the 23:12 mark. That's all I'm gonna say.

If you want to pay money for the movie, you should do that. If you want to check out more of Blank's films (none of which I've seen), you can buy the newly released "Les Blank: Always for Pleasure" DVD collection of 14 of his films, which range from the Hopkins piece to one about hippies in 1967 to a film about Mardi Gras festivities to a short feature on blues guitarist Mance Lipscomb, who appears with Hopkins in his documentary.