Saturday, December 17, 2011

S'long Cowboy: vintage wallpaper that can't be saved

It was along about the same time that all the plumbing systems in my house seemed to implode (along with my general mental health) in late June, I was faced with a pretty tough decision. It seemed to fly by at the time but looking back, it was a painful one for a person like me-- history junky, vintage aficionado, lover of all things old.

How do you decide NOT to salvage vintage wallpaper?

I did. And it wasn't easy. After my most excellent, hard working 16-year-old son Grant patiently pried off all that weird and disgusting plywood paneling in the first of the two upstairs bedrooms, readers will recall from a previous post we found this:

A Victorian romance novel exploded in here.

I can't describe how big and beautiful and full blown those roses, asters, forget-me-nots, arabesque scrolls and soft greys and peaches were. Just listing all those words sounded like poetry, yes? The wallpaper had been printed on heavy-weight paper, and the stamping process left thick amounts of color on the surface, giving it this sort of substantial, embossed look you never see anymore. Compared to this, new vinyl wallpaper is a sad, flat, and distant second.

Over in the other bedroom, we had to take out an entire wall and all of the carpet because of a bathroom faucet leak that had gone undetected for weeks and possibly months while the house was unoccupied for a year and a half. Since we had already demolished one side of the room, and the room was badly covered in cheap vinyl paneling that was already falling off the walls, Grant decided to take it all the way with his crowbar. I was attending to plumbing disasters in the nether regions of the house when he shouted, "Ma, c'mere!"

What he found hidden behind vinyl paneling were cowboys:

A cowboy with a red shirt and fringe chaps. Yi-pi-ti-yi-yay!
I hope the photo shows some of the detail, including the mountain range and ranch house in the background. The cowboys are about 8 inches tall, and they are interspersed with even larger cacti. My immediate thought was: little boys lived in this room. I considered it good Karma that this house had known and loved little boys before. Bless this mess, past and present!

My second thought was: who entombed this rider of the purple sage? Who put up that crappy paneling in the most crappy way possible, and covered up this awesomeness with faux walnut vinyl? Gah.

Tastes change. That's why. Little boys grow up (and I think this often as I shovel endless plates of food down my 16-year-old) and people get tired of cowboy wallpaper and busy roses. I think home design elements that are ten years old just seem tired and dated and ugly. It takes a solid 25 or 30 years for people to be able to step back and look at something critically and say, "that was good design," or "that was a beautiful color scheme," or even better that it's "fun" or "groovy" or "awesome." Looking at it that way, I can completely see someone, looking at 1940-50s wallpaper in say, 1965, and saying, "Sheesh. This place looks my grandmother lived here. Let's tear that out!" They were probably thinking about that wallpaper how I feel now about 1980s jade green carpet and yellow brass light fixtures. Get. it. out of here. 

Even with some sympathy (Some. Not much. I'm telling you, you should have seen that vinyl paneling) for the 1960s era owners of the house, the fact they covered it up rather than stripping it off presented me with a dilemma. What should I do? Now that I'm the homeowner looking at these wonderful glimpses of the home's past?

I had intended the bedroom with the rose wallpaper to be for my twin boys Ben and Joe. I'd intended the bedroom with the cowboys to be for me. While I could totally decorate around cowboy wallpaper for myself (think Patsy Cline meets Gunsmoke meets 1950s camping kitsch), I doubted two little boys would put up with pink flowered wallpaper. I had a fevered moment or two where I was thinking I'd switch up bedroom assignments just to preserve these awesome wallpapers.

The realization was far more heartbreaking. In one bedroom, we had this:

Too much shabby. Not enough chic.

As you can see in the photo above, water staining from a leaking window and in other places throughout the room was extensive, and the white patches are from places where removing the paneling left divots in the plaster and nail-holes in the walls that had to be repaired.

In the room with the cowboys, we didn't even have them roaming the range on all four walls. Instead we had this:

This is no fit sunset for a cowboy to ride into.
Some of the walls had already been painted sloppily with this sort of institutional hospital blue, and what else remained was covered in lines of black construction adhesive used to glue the paneling to the wall. In fact it was difficult to find a large enough undamaged spot to take the previous detail photo.

There simply wasn't any way to salvage them, and I regret it now still. But living with them as is was impossible, and salvaging them was also impossible. With pipes leaking and vinyl paneling falling all around me in those hectic, stressful first few weeks in the house, I had to come to terms with the fact that not all the glorious-ness of my little house was going to be saved. Heaviest of sighs.

The roses were painted over, and I winced with every stroke of the roller. It is to the wallpaper manufacturer's credit, and to the person who hung the paper, that that stuff was on there like white on rice; there was no problem painting over it.

The cowboys were covered with another layer of fresh drywall. I ended up covering them up just like the vinyl paneling person had done. I felt like a guilty partner in crime. But the walls were too badly damaged for any other solution than a total gut job, which I didn't have the time or money for, and would have been the end of the cowboys as well. Writing this blog post makes me feel like I just confessed to the location of buried bodies.

I documented the wallpaper through photographs. The house's history and memory of those wallpapers will survive that way. There are vintage wallpapers available out there still in rolls and ready to hang, and I know that's a great and viable option to add the vintage charm back to the home. But I'll always feel a little wistful about the cowboys and cabbage roses that didn't survive.

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