Walking the Plank
Apparently, in an old house there is a lot of settling. And I don’t mean settling for inefficient electricity and heat, non-existent closet space, or chimney labyrinths that evade safety lining. The house itself has clearly shifted around over its many centuries of existence. One of my many fantasies involving the purchase of this house (it is not for sale) is often rudely interrupted by the presence of an imaginary home inspector and her analysis of its foundation. There is a lot of foot shifting, head shaking, and deep sighing during the presentation. If I had to guess I would say that the part of the home inspector is played by reason, as in “there are many reasons you wouldn’t want to buy this house and the foundation is just the beginning.” The inspector gets even more animated as we move on to plumbing and grading.
The floors were first brought to my attention on move in day as one of the movers yelled, “Hey! You could hava great time racin mahbles on dis flah!” It took me a minute to both realize what he was saying and that he was talking about the angle of the living room floor – the way it seemed to distinctly dip to the front. I had been focusing on the fact that most of the floorboards on the ground floor, as opposed to upstairs, were relatively new and didn’t either feel spongy under my feet or cause me to trip because of their varying levels of level and hadn’t noticed the entire floor clearly shifted one way or the other depending on where you were standing. Now that we’ve lived here for a little over a month the house settling is as glaringly obvious as it is frustratingly charming.
As you stand in the back of the living room you can see the room is clearly lower at its front. Siting on the couch while watching TV gives a false sense of stadium seating. Walking toward the TV becomes a challenge not to walk into the TV. Returning to the couch, or simply trying to leave the room, lets my thigh muscles get a brief workout as they feel the change in elevation. The second floor is more obvious in its wonkiness. For the first week we lived here I got a distinct sense of vertigo whenever I climbed the stairs because you can feel the shifting of the entire house as well as shifting within each room.
The new section of the house sits lower than the main house so everything leans left as it is also dipping forward. It is possible to work up a great deal of momentum when walking down the hall and find yourself in the guest room/office simply because you don’t have the wherewithal to stop moving as you reach the bathroom door. I’m sure this is an analogy for something. In the master bedroom, getting out of bed while half asleep can lead to you either stumbling into the closet or falling out of the bedroom door into the hall. The kids’ bedroom is the most challenging and should keep them on their toes in a way modern homes cannot. The flooring is original to the house (c. 1720 or 1754 depending on who you ask) so the individual floorboards lie at different heights in their natural state, but then also compress under weight and shift down or up depending on where one steps. The floor is also clearly higher up where it meets the walls than in the center of the room while the entire room, in keeping with the rest of the house, dips to the front. This is proving to be a nightmare of shimming proportions.
Each piece of furniture, as it is placed along a wall, then needs to be jacked up to various heights and at various points. The bureau drawers would fly to the center of the room if not for IKEA safety pegs in the back of each drawer and the four different widths of cardboard jammed under each leg. Toy strollers and doll carriages effortlessly glide across the room when unattended. The fragile trinkets that the girls like to collect need to be pushed back against the wall while the front table legs are propped up to exaggerated proportions lest they ever start to lean forward.
Bookcases present the biggest safety challenge so we can ensure our children go uncrushed as they become well read. Using cardboard as shims seemed like a good idea as we moved in – we had a lot of cardboard to get rid of – but humidity and the weight from furniture has not been kind to them and they are compressing. We are in need of an upgrade before someone gets hurt. Some interesting foam pieces came as packing material in a piece of furniture we bought at Target and those are now being used as new shimming opportunities present themselves, but I would expect their shelf life is also limited. Clearly we need the permanence of wood.
I could deal with all of this, but for the fact that the floor in the house also bounces. If you are sitting while someone walks by you feel the floor start to roll under your feet. The kids have rediscovered their inflatable Rody and have been bouncing through the house on it. Carefully placed picture frames start to vibrate toward the lip of whatever they rest upon. The sounds of stretching metal can be heard underfoot – most likely the stressing of duct work in the basement. Some days it feels like the house could just tip over, but I keep reminding myself people have lived here for hundreds of years. And then I remember that they were a lot smaller and didn’t own so much compressed particle board.
Have I mentioned I’m a sucker for imperfection?