[authored by Robert Sands] July 1, 2017
The age of a house is not like the age of human. It doesn’t really have comparable equivalency to another species (like dog years) either. In fact, houses can outlive their occupants. Old houses still standing were built expressly to do that, to last as generations of a family were born, lived and died in that building. Unlike a human, a house can undergo rehabilitation, and even restoration, to make it young again, or at least the way it once was at one point along its life journey.
Some of us try to forestall the eventuality of aging as much as possible, but the end comes at least to our physical shell. A human’s age includes the experiences of being mobile, traveling and encountering new places and people who depending on how far one roams, could be similar or vastly different, or somewhere in between.
A house ages, gracefully or not, in the same spot on the planet throughout its lifetime. Because of this unique vantage point, if a house could talk it could offer to anyone who would care to listen, a bird’s eye view of the pace of life that moved through and swirled around its location.
But a house through its lifetime is not just a passive lens to these experiences, a house as a home, also plays an active role in how that life unfolds. If a house could talk, Rose Haven would have much to say. And houses don’t stand singularly, even if in the country; they are part of larger collection of houses that form neighborhoods, and larger still villages, towns, and cities. Houses together offer a greater visibility to the actions of the occupants and tellingly, when those occupants pass on, each house as well as each neighborhood stands as a repository of the actions and experiences of those occupants.
Houses form neighborhoods while humans form communities. Or, perhaps more succinctly, houses represent the ribs and bones of our communities.
Last week, John Wood of the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) visited us and Rose Haven, the future site of our reintegration home for female Veterans. We had invited him to help us uncover the history of 219 E. 3rd Street. John came armed with information of past owners and their dates of occupation, whether they were owners or renters, and even in some cases their occupation (which later became apparent as we explored the house that afternoon). John and his intern, along with Emily Rebert, the historical preservation planner from the city of Washington, explored our house. We in turn followed him on this exploration, learning much about how the house was made, the different stages of the house’s life, modifications to the structure, where the original hardwood floor was visible in the little cubby underneath the stairs, and so much more.
John’s investigation continued as we followed him to our barn and he told us about the barn being originally built in the 1930s to house a blacksmith business. It was constructed with simplicity and function in mind, not much different from the aims of the original builders of Rose Haven.
In 1916, John told us an African-American woman and her daughter ran a laundry out of Rose Haven. And at the turn of the century, Rose Haven was part of a predominantly vibrant African-American neighborhood.
We had done our own research into the deeds of Rose Haven and taken the trail as far back as 1919, but John provided us a trail that extended back to 1892, and possibly earlier. I admit to a fixation of numbers and age; 1892 sounded so much better than 1919. 1892 provides a uniqueness to our Rose Haven, but as we find out more about her (yes her), her age becomes just an indicator, or maybe a compass point in time, giving us access to at least 125 years of history and experiences that lay locked up inside her walls and floors. Beyond that, as we rehab our house into a home, we are adding just one more chapter to 219’s existence. We look forward to reading all of the earlier chapters as well.