Saving The Past

My neighbor’s house is an old queen. She sits back from the street atop a small slope, surveying the passage of time with her steady eye – a grand dame who has seen it all but will never relinquish her crown.

I love her wide hallways and old floors. I love her porch because it is overly generous and is everything a good porch should be.

And one of the stories I love most about that house is the man who came to paint it one day. Like any good wooden thing that sits near a lake it came to need a fresh coat, and luckily for the house the man who came to paint it first tried to understand it.

It takes a man who’s seen something of the world to appreciate the intangible quality of something old and worn. I bet he stood there scratching his chin at the bottom of the hill.

“We can’t paint over the old paint,” he said.

This painter was an old man and he’d been around houses twice his age before.

“We’ll have to sand it down to the wood.”

And so he did.

He climbed up tall ladders that younger men would have shied from, and he sanded that old queen down to her skivvies. I’m sure she shrugged off the embarrassment because that’s what old women do.

When he found clapboards that were old and rotted, he called a carpenter and had them replaced.

And only then did he start his painting.

He spent days suspended above the treetops carefully painting each side. It took him months to finish; it was a long labor.

In this era of McMansions and futility, there is a certain sanctity in preservation.

Is this something we’ve forgotten?

In order to preserve things, we have to claim them first: Wood is only wood until someone claims it as their own, graces it with feet or brass knobs or a coat of paint.

We Americans are often poor stewards.

Beautiful things are torn down to make way for bigger things. There’s the horrific story of the Frank Lloyd Wright building in Buffalo that was torn down to make way for a parking lot. It still stands as one of the most cringe-worthy preservation stories of our modern time.

There is an old but beautiful church here in Lakewood that has stood crumbling for many years. In my optimism, I picture it as a vibrant community center hosting classes, meetings, weddings and parties.

My husband’s company once restored an old mansion in Falmouth, Mass., in which members of the community held fundraisers to purchase and refurbish it. It is now a busy place that holds interesting classes, rents offices, sports weddings and is always decked to the nines at Christmas. It had been days away from the wrecking ball and is now a beloved landmark – a vibrant community center helping to preserve the past and provide an anchor for collective memory.

Best of all, it earns its own keep and turns a profit.

It is a place of the people, with no government oversight or funding.

The old train station in Jamestown is a perfect example of how rich possibilities can occur when a new vision is blended with old, worthy structures.

What makes our region special are those venues that give us character – like Midway or the Lenhart Hotel.

But the only way to save the things we love is to claim them first.

It takes people like my neighbor’s painter to stand at the bottom of the hill and scratch their chins.

How do we preserve the past?

That is what they’re wondering.