The house I grew up in was completed in 1965, and we were the first in our family to have a built-in dishwasher, a separate room just for laundry, and an island in the kitchen. I was too little to see over the countertops when we first moved in. When it was new, my brothers and I took delight in shuffling our feet across the wall-to-wall carpeting, then surprising each other with a shock from the static electricity. None of us had to share a room. My mother took great pride in it. To us it was just a house, like every other house in the neighborhood. In hindsight, it was pretty special, but maybe we'll get to that later.
My mother's dream house, to me, was just a house. We took for granted that she could just pop the dishes into the dishwasher after we ate and spend the rest of the night watching TV with us (at least until we went to bed and she had to unload it!) We took for granted that she could pop a load of clothes into the washer at night before she went to bed, and the noisy machines were far enough from the bedrooms that they didn't disturb our sleep. We took for granted that there were always other kids to play with... all we had to do was go outside and find them. It was a comfortable house for a family, and we were comfortable in it.
I knew I would not live there forever, and I looked forward to someday living in a house that was not part of a matched set in a cookie-cutter neighborhood. When I was a kid, and cable only had 20 channels, I would watch "This Old House" and dream of a cool, old, interesting house. A house with creaky wooden floors, and high ceilings, and a grand wooden staircase. An abandoned attic that could be converted to a 3rd floor aerie, after it was cleared of the hidden treasures it would surely contain! An unused basement that I could convert to a "rumpus room." I had no idea what goes on in a rumpus room, but it sounded like fun! Alas, there are no basements in southwest Louisiana. Maybe something with cubby holes, niches, and even a secret door to a hidden room?
My home town did have a few such houses- probably more than most towns of its size and age, I now realize. Lake Charles, Louisiana, was originally built on the lumber industry, bringing in truckloads and trainloads of timber from central Louisiana forests to mill it into lumber and broker it around the country. The men who ran the mills and lumber yards were small-town capitalists: wealthier than the average local citizen, but a far cry from the rich industrialists of the northeast. They provided jobs and controlled the labor force in those pre-union days, which gave them an upper hand in building houses for themselves. Not only could they cull the finest wood products from the supply chain- too rare and valuable to fetch their worth on the commodities market- but they could recruit the most highly skilled builders, carpenters, and woodworkers to build personal homes that would have been far more expensive in other parts of the country.
By the post-WWII era, the lumber industry in Lake Charles became less important as the Greatest Generation came home to begin having and raising their little boomers. Small-town lumber companies were conglomerated, little by little, into the the massive consumer product companies we know today, while more modern industries like petroleum refineries and chemical plants recognized the value of the town's central location on a valuable coastline. The formerly grand homes of the lumber barons were converted to boarding houses or apartments to accommodate the growing populations that were leaving agricultural jobs to work in the petrochemical plants. Throughout the 1950's and 60's, most of these houses continued in multifamily or commercial uses, as young families (like my father's) built homes in the newly developed suburb: Oak Park.
Then, something interesting happened in the mid-1970's. As the country anticipated celebrating its bicentennial birthday in 1976, pop culture and home decorating turned its collective eye to all things antique. Mid-century modern gave way to farmhouse chic, as angular sculptures and other atomic-styled accessories were replaced with butter churns and spinning wheels. Bold geometric wallpapers and bright colors gave way to ditsy florals and cabbage roses. It's like the entire country went Laura-Ashley mad, and decorators at the time looked for ways to make modern homes seem cozy and charming, if not a little bit kitschy.
The boldest of these designer took it a step farther- instead of trying to fit old stuff into new houses, why not make the entire house an antique? Across the nation, as suburbs were built out and inner cities and towns were abandoned, designers resurrected old homes from layers of updates, remodels, and neglect. The expansion of a fledgling new service- cable television- brought PBS into many homes for the first time, and "This Old House" inspired viewers to find run-down properties in older parts of town, and the gentrification of inner-city America began!
Even little Lake Charles was in on the action, declaring the oldest residential neighborhood in town to be known as "The Charpentier District", in an effort to encourage renovation, restoration, and revitalization of the city's historic homes. By the time I was in high school in the 1980's, The Charpentier District hosted annual home tours, allowing me to see some of these homes, inside and out. That's when my love for older homes was cemented, and I doubled down on my dream.
Sadly, dreams die quickly when one leaves home, and the next phase of my life was college dorms, starter apartments, and an occasional spattering of roommates. Struggling to establish myself in a difficult, low-paying career, I worked hard, played hard, and probably spent more than I earned as explored my newly-found lifestyle. Working, meeting people, and becoming an adult were my priorities, and housing was just a place to crash for a rest from the exhausting pace. Work, play, sleep, repeat.
Then, in the early 1990's, something happened that changed my life forever. My father took ill, and over a series of months and years, he and my mother spent more time here in Houston than they did at home, with multiple surgeries, frequent doctor visits, and lengthy hospital stays. Momma held herslef together beautifully, but she needed me. Here she was in an enormous, strange city, with her husband sick and dying. I could no longer work until the job was finished; I had to prioritize, balance, and defer. I could no longer do everything myself; I had to learn to delegate, trust, and follow up. I had to leave work on time every day to be with Momma, to be sure she got something to eat, and had a chance to rest and recover so she could be back by Daddy's side the next day. For the first time in my life, my priorities became crystal-clear, and I found strength, focus, and patience that I never thought I had!
Ultimately Daddy passed, but the life lessons I learned through his suffering gave my career a new lease on life. Having always been a bit of an "also-ran" among my peers at work, all of sudden my results improved drastically, and my team's metrics earned me a series of promotions. I bought my first new car- a convertible Volkswagen. I had learned to take my days off, and one beautiful spring day I hopped into the car with the top down and the CD player blaring (Real McCoy, as I recall.) I decided to explore the city. Driving through the Heights, I saw a sign that was another life-changing moment. Literally, a sign. It was in front of a little white house, that looked quite proud, if not more than a little run-down. There it was, on top of a Realtor's sign, what I now know is called a rider: "own me for as little as $1,400 a month." I pulled the car over and looked carefully to make sure I understood what I was looking at. $1,400 a month was just a couple hundred more than I was paying in rent. Is it really possible that I could buy a house for that amount? For the first time in my life, I began to think that perhaps I would not be renting for the rest of my life!
I wrote down the agent's number and called when I got home. She answered my questions about the house and referred me to a lender for financing. Yes, I could buy the house for as low as $1,400 a month. No, I don't need a large down payment, and as a first-time buyer may even qualify for no money down. As it turns out,at the time, I qualified as a "low-income family." (So much for my big baller promotion!) I scheduled the showing with the agent, and though the house was a far cry from the grand staircases of the lumber barons back home, it did have (very) creaky wood floors, and it did seem, in fact, old. Too old, I'm afraid. Maybe the vacant rooms and hallway weren't too old- just too decrepit. At this point, I was aware that my enthusiasm far outweighed my experience and skill level at doing things with power tools, and I feared the house needed way more work than I could accomplish. I admitted to the agent that I was out of my league, but she assured me that she could provide me a list of other properties in my price range that I could review, and let her know if I saw something I liked.
This was 1994, before HAR.com, or .com of any kind, but computers did exist, so I stopped by her office to pick up the tractor-fed, dot matrix-printed list of addresses and prices in the neighborhood. No photos, no descriptions- just drive around and look until you see something you like. They weren't sorted into any kind of route, and this was before GPS, so I crisscrossed and backtracked and made my way upwards through the Heights. Too run down. Too much traffic. Backs up to a school. One by one, I crossed them off the list, until I began to realize I had made it to the "scary" part of the Heights. Thinking I'll never find anything, I headed up E24th to make my way back to what I thought was Yale, but hit a zig-zag at Cortlandt. The neighborhood became less scary, the skies cleared, and then it came into sight on the corner of Harvard... my first house! It look old, but not dilapidated. It was brick- very unusual for the neighborhood. It certainly had some opportunities for me to improve it- but someone was living in it. Here it is- a livable house, in my price range, that I can buy and remodel to suit my fancy!
And that's just what I did! And so this journey begins!