Pleasure and pain all part of older-home ownership
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When you buy a piece of Winnipeg history — or, at least, when you buy one of the most conspicuous houses on one of the city’s showiest streets — your personal renovation decisions become very public.
So is the case for Gilchrist House, which, until last week, has stood at 1015 Wellington Cres. for 90 years. Now, it’s coming down.
I walk by this house — former home of grain merchant James M. Gilchrist, T. Eaton & Co. director Gilbert and Marjorie Eaton, disgraced fashion mogul Peter Nygard and lawyer and businessman David Asper — every day. On Tuesday morning, I stood and watched for a bit as an excavator bit huge chunks out of its Tudor-style frame, revealing patches of blue sky. I thought about how much labour — how much history — was being reduced to a dusty pile of rubble.
I caught the eye of an approaching woman, who slowed and yanked out an earbud. “I think they should have given us all a tour before they tore it down, considering I’ve been walking by since I was a year old,” she said. “That’s 46 years.”
I mentioned I always feel like that when an old character home is unceremoniously bulldozed for a new one that fills the entire lot and does a number on the tree canopy — another feature of our city that takes years to build and minutes to destroy. She agreed.
“Well,” she said, replacing her earbud, “thanks for not tearing down your historic house this week.”
My house was built in 1924, though I don’t know that it’s so much historic as it is just old. Older than Gilchrist House, even. (It’s a bit wild to think that opulent mansion was built during the Great Depression.)
Aug. 1 is my house-iversary. My husband and I moved into it exactly 10 years ago this week. I was 27 when I made the biggest purchase of my lifetime, which now seems very young to me. But I wanted my own yard. I was tired of my Osborne Village apartment — which I actually do miss sometimes — and the constant sirens of Stradbrook Avenue. I wanted to get a dog.
I wanted to move on to the next phase of my life and, thanks to some aggressive savings (and, let’s be very clear, some familial help), we were able to make Millennial home-ownership happen. (It doesn’t hurt that you could still, at that time, buy a very small bungalow in Winnipeg for under $275,000.) I think I had also internalized the idea that home ownership signified not just success but adulthood. I don’t believe that anymore.
I remember picking up the keys and wandering though the blank canvas that is an empty house, thinking of how I would fill it — not just with things, but with memories.
No one would care if I ripped down my 98-year-old bungalow. In fact, I know houses just like mine, in my neighbourhood, are purchased specifically to be torn down. I know its fate if we ever sell it.
Sometimes, if I’m being honest, I also want to rip down my 98-year-old bungalow. The thing about owning an older house is that you are agreeing to a constant, never-ending project requiring time, resources, skill and money. We’ve done a lot of work to make this house a home. I’m not a period-purist; the entire inside of my house was renovated a few years ago, with some design elements nodding to its 1920s construction. But I also never took down the glow-in-the dark stars that decorate the ceiling of Gym Halpert — my office/gym hybrid, named after The Office’s Jim Halpert — put there by the little girl who lived here before us. It’s amazing what “flaws” you either stop noticing or come to appreciate in a new way.
But the work is never done. I have a roving list of things to do, and some things have been on that list since we moved in (we really gotta check that chimney). We play rousing games of “has that crack always been there?” The stucco is crumbling. We’re going to need new windows soon. We completed a basement renovation this year — including replacing the flooring in what was a fully carpeted bathroom — only to have it flood when all that rain came in the spring. While the backyard is a cute lil’ postage-stamp oasis, the front yard’s aesthetic is best described as “pollinator chic” or “vacant?” Own a home, they said.
All this to say: I can’t imagine the work involved in owning a geriatric house with a bazillion (I’m ballparking) times the square footage of mine — even if it is a piece of civic history. Still. It’s sad when they come down.
I’m grateful for my old house and all its quirks — especially during the pandemic, when I spent a lot of time within those walls. I also agree with Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects, who famously said, “the greenest building is the one that is already built,” which is why I bristle when little houses like mine come down for gargantuan homes with gargantuan price tags.
But, people can do what they want with their homes. So this is what I’m doing with mine: taking care of it as best I can for as long as I have it, and remembering how lucky I am to have it at all. Maybe I’ll throw the ol’ girl a 100th birthday party in 2024. My house may not be a significant piece of Winnipeg’s history, but it’s a significant piece of mine.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.