Monday, August 25, 2014

House History: A Gift from the Past

Houses, I've always believed, are more than brick and lumber, shingles and windows. They are also spiritual. Now, if you don't believe in ghosts or presences or in places having souls, that's perfectly okay with me. And while I can't say I've ever seen a ghost, I do believe that places have....I don't know what to call it. Something that goes beyond the mere substance of its physical existence. 

I feel that way about this house, and have from the day I walked in the front door. It felt like home, immediately. It felt like it needed me. I felt like I needed it. And those feelings were beyond the financial considerations, the practicalities, and the smell of the funky old carpet. It was some intangible truth, and it grabbed me by the arm and dragged me into the rooms that I now occupy. My house even has a name: I call it Ruth. It always seemed to fit it, somehow. 

One of my goals this year was to delve more into the past of my house. I'd gotten some hints by reading the deed to the property when I first purchased it, but it was a lengthy document; I had a lot going on when we moved in (and still do), so I only skimmed: 

I also found this, most likely the lumber delivery label, at the bottom of a drawer in the upstairs linen closet: 

There were also some inadvertent clues from the man who inspected the house before purchase, who said after looking in the attic: "This house was framed by one person, perhaps with a helper or two. But it was clear the carpentry was planned and executed by one person, and he really knew what he was doing." 

It turns out he was right. Meet the builder of my house, Hans J. Hansen: 

This photo was taken in 1961, when he was almost 90 years old, and came to me courtesy of my local historical society. 

He was a master carpenter of barns and homes in the area, and was active in the community from about 1899. He was a Danish immigrant, at one time returning to his native country to attend a folks school to learn carpentry; then he returned. Between 1899 and 1940, he built over 50 barns and homes that have been attributed to him, perhaps more that are unknown. 

I found it astonishing that some of the homes he built in my hometown are ones that I have admired for a long time. When I was a teenager attending middle school, I often walked home past this Dutch Colonial and daydreamed about living in it. Mr. Hansen built it. 

He also built one of my favorite houses in my current neighborhood, just down the street and around the corner from my own. (These photos are courtesy of the county tax assessor). 

My house, the smaller and more modest Cape Cod, was built in 1939. It is possibly the last house he built. But it is also special for more reasons than just that.

He built my house for his daughter. Her name? It was Ruth.

Ruth Hansen Boast was married in 1936. Where she lived before she came to this crisp and tidy new little house in 1939 is unknown, but it is entirely possible that it was a wedding present from father to daughter and new son-in-law.

Of course, I already knew that there were children involved, and now I know more details, like their names: Richard, Charles, and Thomas. It seems no mistake that I, a mother of four boys, ended up with a house built by a grandfather to shelter his three grandsons.

It turns out that Ruth's name was always there, buried in the details of the lengthy deed (her husband's name was the only one on the purchase/transfer of property entry, and my eyes must have glossed over the rest). Did I internalize it somehow at the time I bought the house and read the deed, and that unconscious knowledge surfaced when I started calling the house Ruth? Entirely possible. Either way, I don't think it was an accident.

In the last three years, I've considered this house a gift in many ways. It was a place to find a future after my marriage failed. Room to create a home for myself and my sons. A challenge to meet. A part of my community's history for which to take responsibility. It's been the gift of a friend, in that intangible way that I spoke about houses having souls-- Ruth. Knowing that it may very well have been a gift from the very beginning makes it even more so. I only hope I'm able to live up to the grace it's shown me.


  1. Wow. That gave me goosebumps. :) What an interesting history!

  2. So interesting!! What a joy to know all this...:-)

  3. Superbly-written post! I feel the same way you do about houses, and you put it into words much better than I could. I don't think calling the house Ruth was an accident, either! How wonderful that you know all this history about your house. I'd say you're doing right by her so far. Keep on keeping on!