Abandoned, vacant or otherwise unlived-in historic homes and farmhouses dot the landscape, but have you ever wondered why? Spend a little time perusing magazines like Home & Garden, Country Living and Architectural Digest and you could easily get the impression there is nothing but love for these rambling wrecks. Article after article extols their virtues, inviting would-be gentry to take on the challenge of a faithful restoration in exchange for “centuries’-old beadboard trim,” “handforged wrought iron fixtures,” and a “gracious clawfoot tub.” The allure may be real, but the sad fact remains there are countless old houses that will never receive the royal renovation treatment. Many are on their last legs despite having abundant charm and country chic.
We love these old places and wish each, much like puppies at the pound, can find a new owner who will adore and respect it and restore it to what they were meant to be – a place where families gathered, food was cooked and shared, and people lived and died in something resembling harmony with nature. That, after all, is the draw. Not the house itself, but what the house represents. There must be something hardwired in us that makes us want to live on Little House on the Prairie.
With that said, it’s a bit of a mystery as to why so many historic old houses are abandoned (or merely vacant). We can surmise that some owners left in a hurry, maybe the bank foreclosed, maybe there was illness or death. Sometimes, a peak in the window tells the story of a hasty departure, or a flood or fire. Sometimes there are public records, auctions or “for sale” signs that lead to information online. But many times, there is nothing. No hints or evidence at all as to what came before.
Ask an old timer in Kinderhook or Wingdale or Valatie, and you might get a story. You might learn who lived in the 1840s farmhouse and what became of them. You might learn that the old 1770s house down the road had several incarnations before becoming a residence. In the case of an old house on Route 9 in Tivoli, a real estate listing stated that the house had previously been a “toll gate house, inn and tavern.” So much history just waiting to be reclaimed.
Modern houses certainly make life easy. But there is nothing like an old house to make life rich. Next time you’re driving around, look for the old houses, and if you have a camera, stop and take a picture. You’ll be preserving an important – and fading – part of the American landscape. And you might just give an old house a chance to come alive one more time.