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What Old Houses Have Taught Me

Thursday, January 3rd, 2013

By: Kris Motyka

I was in the back of the line when patience was handed out.  So, I’m not sure if this is an ‘acquired skill’ or if it was always there, waiting to be coaxed out of me.  What I do know is that, if we had to reconstruct that  line today, I would now be in the middle.  Some other person who lives in a brand new house would be in the back.

As incurable ‘old house lovers’, we now have two home restoration projects going on at the same time.  One has been in the making for 12 years and is in southern France.  It is an 800 year old stone farmhouse that was abandoned for over 20 years before we bought it.  The second house, now our home in Santa Clara, had seen its golden years as a single family Queen Anne between 1895 and 1935 before being cut up into two apartments.   We’ve been working on the Victorian for the last seven years.

The accumulated hours of both have finally caught up to us.  We are officially beyond tired.

We spent two weeks in France this September working ‘like crazy people’ friends over there said.   It felt impossible and scarily hopeless.  Hopeless because we couldn’t see the light at the end of the twelve year tunnel.    After the first week we said ‘never again’ will we work this hard in so short a time.  At the end of the trip, we collapsed.  And yet, just as we were on our last legs, the house gave us some much-needed incentive.  Once again, it shared more of its secrets with us and as tired as we were, made us feel a renewed enthusiasm for all the possibilities the future held.  The house charmed us once again.

The farmhouse did this by revealing several of these ‘secrets’ in the middle of our stay, when we began to really drag.  With only four days to go, we realized that in order to put the heating/cooling equipment in the ‘cave’ or cellar, I’d have to empty it of the 18 inches of old straw and ancient rabbit ‘pellets.’  This also meant I had to haul out hundreds of years of farm equipment, doors, etc. that had been stored there for years.  It was an unventilated room and difficult work.  To my surprise, in the middle of this room under all that straw I found a huge round stone with the center hollowed out.  It looked exactly like the ‘mortar’ stones you see on the river banks up in gold country that Native Americans used to crush grain.  I carefully brought it outside and cleaned it off.  The next day, still excited about the stone, I had renewed energy.  On our last day, also in the cellar, I looked for the first time at two large wooden crates with writing stamped in black.  They were filled with old iron farm tools and stuck in the back.  To my surprise, they appeared to be special weapons supply boxes from WWII.  I asked a friend to come and have a look and my suspicion was confirmed – our area of the Languedoc was a well-known French Resistance stronghold.  Our house had helped, in its small way, to fight off the Nazis!

“Restoration Fatigue” is not new.  We’ve all been stricken with it over the years.  What I found myself thinking is that with both of these houses, at critical times of (despair, depleted funds, fatigue) each house has given us something of itself to keep us going – an enticement to continue and not give up.  When we were in this state  a few years ago, our Queen Anne gave up something that we had lost all hope of ever finding – the only picture we have of the woman who built this house.  We found it behind the mantle.   About four or five years ago, the farmhouse did the same thing.  We thought we had gone through everything in the house.  That there was nothing left to learn.  And then, one day, with the sun shining just so on this beam spanning the ceiling, there it was…a hand-carved date of 1769 with the worker’s initials.  In five years we had never noticed it.

Now, when I start to feel the weight and enormity of our projects, I stop and look around.  I breathe.  And then I get back to work, knowing that an old house will be generous with you as long as you are giving and kind in return.  Old houses have taught me something I never thought I’d have… patience.

Getting Rid of Mold on Books

Wednesday, June 27th, 2012

The best way of getting rid of mold is to put the book into a heavy plastic bag and seal it securely so no air or moisture can get in. Then put it in the freezer for a couple of days to a week or two, considering how far gone the infestation is.

When you take the book out, the ‘moldy stuff’ will still be on the book, but it will be dead. Now take a new paintbrush (a cheap one is fine) and just brush off the mold. Sometimes mold will have stained the binding, and the color won’t brush off, but it’s just color.

It takes a while, but it does work – kills the mold but doesn’t harm your book. I’ve done it a number of times.

I’ve been told that if your book still has a smell, put it in another (very dry) bag with a couple of handsful of cornstarch. Seal it up and put it somewhere cool – though not the refrigerator or freezer! – and leave it for as long as it takes for the mold smell to go away. You’ll have to open the bag every few days, remove the book and smell. When it’s clean, get out your paintbrush and brush the cornstarch away. Sometimes, if there’s been just a slight odor, you can get two or three uses from the same cornstarch. If it has an odor, toss it. You don’t want to infect the next book!

Kansas and Kentucky pages updated

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

The historic house museum pages for Kansas and Kentucky have now been moved into the database. Lots of new links were found.

Utah and Oklahoma updated, Ratings reset

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

The historic home museum pages for Utah and Oklahoma have been updated.

Looking at some of the other pages I was noticing that most of the rating were averaging out to 3. I was surprised that houses like Hearst Castle were only rating as a 3, and were receiving the same ratings as some houses which I won’t name, that certainly aren’t on par with such masterpieces as Hearst Castle.

So I looked at the database the rating script uses and it’s apparent that the spiders that the search engines use are now smart enough to follow Javascript links and were voting. Even worse, although the script prevents a user from voting multiple times, it wasn’t preventing spiders from voting multiple times, and they were in fact voting five times, which accounted for the average of 3.

I’ve modified the scrip to include “nofollow” instructions which hopefully will keep the spiders from voting. I’ll keep and eye on it and see. If it doesn’t end up working, I’ll look for a different solution.

Delaware and Georgia Updated

Friday, March 25th, 2011

Just finished updating the house museum pages for Delaware and Georgia. I’ll be adding photos to these pages later, but I figured at this point I’d concentrate on getting the rest of the state pages updated to the new database format.

Updates to museum index

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

I’ve recently added the new pages for Alabama, Alaska and California to the house museum database. I’m still working on loading photos for the California page.

It took a full day to load the data for California. So if anyone wants to help reduce the burden, please contact me at and I’ll let you know how you can help.

House Museum Database

Friday, April 16th, 2010

In addition to installing the blog software, I’ve also been busy working on a long overdue update to the Historic House Museum section. For a long time I’ve wanted to get the museum information into a database to make it easier to maintain. I’ve started working on the programming of it.

The biggest chore is going to be entering the existing data into the database. I’ve done two states so far, Alaska and Arkansas. You can take a look at those pages to see the new layout.

In addition to providing more complete address information, major new features include the ability to rank museums you’ve visited, and a small thumbnail of the museum.

Once all 50 states are done, there will be a search page added that will allow you to search by style or year built as well.

If you would like to pick a state and help with the conversion process, please contact Matt at the email address below.

The Blog is up

Friday, April 16th, 2010

Our webmaster Matt Knowles has installed a WordPress blog for the VPA web site. Members are invited to write articles, post photos or other content that would be of interest to our group.

In order to post content in the blog, you will need to be a current VPA member and then contact Matt and he will set up a user id for you.


Victorian Preservation Association - P.O. Box 586 - San Jose, CA 95106-0586 -