House and Home
My favorite houses to buy are the old ones.
Sure, they’re simpler to renovate, I won’t lie, but that’s not what I mean. Old homes contain more than wood, sheetrock and economic potential. Remember: There are two words we use for that box of sticks with a door: House, and Home. A house is just an assembly of bricks, morter, wood and metal meant to keep out the natural and criminal elements. A home is something much more human.
Everyone can agree on what a house looks like, but we all define ‘home’ differently. A ‘house’ is an undifferentiated series of numbers and letters typed into Google maps. A ‘home’ is a major destination on the map of the heart, hugely important to those who lived there and known only to them. We all define ‘home’ somewhat differently, drawing on memories and experiences within familiar walls, with familiar smells, familiar furniture and familiar people united by the powerful ties of emotion.
White or black, hispanic or asian, we all grew up in a home, even if it wasn’t an actual house. My wife and her family have left their houses in Venezuela, but have transplanted their home in our four-sided brick ranch in Doraville.
One of the most moving experiences in the real estate world occurs when you get a glimpse into what made a particular house a home. It’s moving to imagine the years of memories made in that space; of children growing up and moving on into their lives, of gatherings with friends and family, good days and hard ones, times of joy and times of mourning. These are the building blocks of the home; and though I may tear down the walls and re-build the house to suit contemporary tastes, the home that was will endure in the hearts of those who lived and loved there.
In just about all the properties we buy, no one ever bothers to clean everything out. They take what is most valuable and leave the rest to us to deal with, most of which carries no sentimental value: Old furniture and bags of random garbage, piles of moldy clothes, worn-our appliances, old cars (even a half-destroyed upright piano). A dumpster and a day’s labor, really. But some houses, such the ones we buy from heirs of their deceased owners, are often littered with amazing glimpses into that family’s past, mementos from their years building that home, and Lena came across just such an artifact the other day: A handful of time-curled photographic prints.
As a former photojournalist, I’m sort of drawn to old photographs. It’s fun to remember a time 18 years ago when I once developed b&w film. Exposure, type of film & paper used; all these things fascinate me, but it’s within the moments recorded in silver halide that the mind dwells. They’re simple moments. A trio of friends hamming it up for the camera. A middle-aged woman sitting on a chair. A baby sitting on a 1970s plaid couch. A bright young woman with her arm propped on a counter, and a little girl staring off into space.
Why the photographer chose one moment or another we will never know. His reasons were a part of his relationships, but they happened in his home, and it’s touching to think of it. The particular house from which we found these photos was from the late fifties. It’s amazing to consider that the people within lived through some of the most incredible times in our nation’s history: Vietnam & the Civil Rights movement, the desegregation of the South, the Cold War and the invention of the internet. And through good times and troubling times, this family obviously found the sweetness in life, enough so to want to document it.
The photographs connect me to the sweetness within my own life. They cause me to celebrate all of the experiences I make in my own home with my own family, and to value the work that I do because of what it means to restore an old house: It is the promise of new life and a monument to the previous one. Those who once lived there can still drive by and remember their years in the home, while the new owners begin their journey through life together unaware of what passed between those same walls.
Though we find many things in houses, there was something special about these photographs. They couldn’t have just been garbage. I reached out to one of the owner’s surviving children, sending texts of the images from my desk. She wrote back:
“It’s amazing to me. You have no idea how many memories we have there…Many prayers were prayed and answered in that home. God has delivered our family from many things and this piece of history you guys preserved is a true reminder of that.”
She had missed the photos when they cleaned out the house in the days leading up to closing, and she was ecstatic to see them. We mailed them to her immediately.
I couldn’t help but think back to the young couple who bought the house from us this past Spring. He wanted to live close to the Beltline so he could bike to work; she loved how we renovated the house. They were so young and wonderfully sunny people; happy seeds ready to grow a new home within the walls of that old house.