Domestic regression


“The urge to destroy is also a creative urge,” said Bakunin. Taking a crowbar to the walls of a living room where I’ve spent over half my life feels less like destruction than some kind of past life regression therapy. Each layer of wallpaper represents a different occupant, probably, and I can track changing aesthetic tastes over the course of a century. I can also now hazard a guess about when the windows were put in, based on how many layers their moulding overlaps. And under the repeated prying of the crow, the blank page of the plaster crumbles to reveal the regular ruling of a schoolboy’s notebook.


The lath is attached to thin spacer boards tacked to the original plank shell, which itself retains a layer of thick, 19th-century wallpaper. I can see daylight through the cracks between board and batten. The contracter was imagining two-by-fours, I guess — a regular internal skeleton — and plenty of space between the bones for insulation. But this house was built like an insect, with an exoskelton to hold it all together. It’s nice to imagine that the oak and chestnut planks were milled from trees cut right here on the mountain, but in all likelihood they came from farther to the west or north, beyond the reach of the charcoal cutters for the iron furnaces and forges of the upper Juniata. With a forge right at the bottom of the mountain remaining active until 1850, the hollow probably would’ve had nothing but pole timber in 1865 when the house was built. They called this “Brush Mountain” for a reason.


How the wind must’ve howled through the cracks those first winters after the Civil War! Did they heat with charcoal, I wonder? As a retired forgeman, the first occupant would’ve been most familiar with it. But possibly by then real coal was cheaper, shipped on the new railroad down the Allegheny Front from the newly opened mines to the west.

And now for the ceiling…

UPDATE: Whitewash! We found whitewash on the original ceiling beams! Just like a barn.

17 Replies to “Domestic regression”

  1. That wallpaper photo is sheer poetry. This reminds me of the house where I spent my girlhood in central Pa. You could see light and feel the wind through the corners.

  2. Hi, Rose – welcome! Yes, this is an example of true vernacular architecture, so it wouldn’t surprise me if there are quite a few others like it in central PA. Most of them probably acquired a clapboard shell at some point, but mine did not, and I prefer it that way.

    Dick – Thanks. I’m pleased that that Hopperesque quality came through. I saw it with the second one in particular, but was a little disappointed that the camera didn’t quite capture what I saw.

  3. Dave – I’ve spent so many nights staying up late getting drunk and talking nonsense in that room that you might expect me to be sentimental about it being stripped down so callously. But my visits there over the last five years or so have felt like entering a timewarp – stepping back into angst-filled days of youth when life made more sense but was not necessarily a happy thing. Truth is I’d be glad to leave those days behind. Honestly, I have long thought you needed to get that dump updated!

    You should bury something in the wall.


  4. Chris – Yeah, you’re right. It’s time. Good idea about doing a time capsule type of thing. It could be a print-out of this blog post, even…

  5. Wow. I’m sure I would have enjoyed this post & pictures without having seen your “pad” before you wrecked it, but having seen the “before” in person adds that much to this. What sort of decor do you have planned, or will you leave the walls bare?

  6. Hi, Anne! Haven’t really thought about a scrapbook. With the kind of heat/humidity in the forecast for the duration of our project, I’ll be lucky to get off a few more decent snapshots.

    Lorianne – I think decor will be as basic as possible, featuring built-in bookcases, plainly pained walls and ceiling, a celing fan, probably a couple framed pictures – no crazy-ass collage like I had before.

    maja-leena – Well, archaelogy is always exciting, I think. The actual renovation part is less exciting to me but the results should be satisfying – and I should have a lot more room for books.

  7. What will happen to your TV? You can NOT give that up. It has the best shows available.

    I think you should turn every wall into book cases like your parents living room, floor to ceiling

  8. Interesting… I remember as a kid, after knocking a hefty divot out of my bedroom wall (with my head ;-) ) being fascinated with the layers of varicolored paint revealed over the plaster. At least 6-7 layers, and at the time, the house was at most 30 years old. The time capsule is a cool idea, you could start it with a little photo-history of the house itself, just using photos you’ve got already. Naturally, you should put in some of your poetry! Remember, paper lasts, ink can at least be reconstructed, but magnetic media just fade away….

    I’m now suffering through the same heat-wave, but now I’m south of you, in central Virginia (Charlottesville). The move’s now complete, but I’m still unpacking and adjusting. I thought about going shopping yesterday, but by the time I got to the mailbox, I’d decided it could wait! Well, plenty to do around here….

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