36: Our Own Downton Abbey

36: Our Own Downton Abbey

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Home Sweet Home

Our Own Downton Abbey

The past is never dead, it is not even past.

~William Faulkner

She was like an old lady when we first saw her. She had been grand and attractive at one time but now needed a major facelift. She was built in an era when life was different in a certain social circle, when people had servants and dined in dining rooms, and when the mistress of the house might not even enter the kitchen.

When we bought this California version of a grand European house we started an amazing journey on the road to restoration. We didn’t want to remodel her and make her modern; we wanted to restore her to her original grandeur and keep her in the style in which she was built.

She had such amazing potential. She was built in 1907 and had big rooms and lots of bathrooms. She didn’t have any showers, only claw-foot bathtubs, which was not very convenient when you have three young sons. She had lots of closet space, which was unusual for a house her age. She had ample windows in every room, so the house was sunny and bright. And she had lots of rooms; enough so that each of my sons had his own room, my husband and I had our room and an office, and there were rooms left over that served as guest rooms when our big family and wonderful friends came to stay.

Every room had a fireplace, including the kitchen, because that was the original source of heat. When she was built, there had been no central heating… actually no gas or electric heat at all. Sometime in the 1930s six gravity furnaces were added, and right now in the entry hall there is a master panel that can control all of them from that central location.

In 1907 when she was built there weren’t very many cars on the road. The usual mode of transportation was by horse and carriage, so there is a place in front of our house, right at the street, to tie up your horse should you arrive on one! And we have had people on horseback or people in horse-driven carriages actually tie up to the rail and have their pictures taken.

There is a wonderful dining room with a fireplace. We have had many fun times in that room sharing meals with friends and family. We used to have fires in the fireplace there, but one Thanksgiving, with a house full of people ready to sit down and eat, we lit the fire and… smoke poured back into the room. Soot and ashes were everywhere. What a disaster! That had never happened before. After we discovered the bird’s nest we never used that fireplace again.

When we moved in, there was a big room where the kitchen should have been but there was no functioning kitchen left. There was only one cupboard, a small counter space and a sink. For the first few years, until we remodeled the kitchen, I cooked for five people, including three hungry boys, on a twenty-four inch stove. That was pretty tricky and not a lot of fun. There is a big butler’s pantry with lots of storage space. Too bad the butler can’t be found. I keep looking for him but the old owners must have taken him with them. And then there was the servants’ dining room — right next to the kitchen, just like in Downtown Abbey. We opened that up and made it part of our new, big kitchen.

Our house has a bell system for calling the help — sort of like an old-fashioned intercom system. Each room has what looks like a doorbell on the wall. It rings a bell at a central box in the kitchen. No matter how many times I ring those bells the butler still doesn’t show up.

Our restoration project took us a long time to complete. We did a lot of research and tried to keep everything as it would have been back when the house was built. We were lucky because all of the light fixtures, light switches, bathroom fixtures, including the claw foot tubs, and many other things were all original and in wonderful condition. The former owners did paint though before they put the house up for sale. The outside. The inside. Everything. There must have been a sale on this paint — a color nobody was buying. It was like the color of tobacco… drab, dark, dull and not at all attractive. The entire house was that color. Every inch of her. All of the woodwork, the inside of every closet, the bathrooms, the kitchen, the bedrooms, the halls — everything was the color of tobacco. Ugly! Needless to say we repainted every inch of her… inside and out.

We love living in our house. We love having people come and stay with us. We love having family celebrations and fun parties for absolutely no reason. Living in our house is like living in a period drama/comedy. The year she turned 100 years old we had a party for her. Everyone came dressed in the style of the early 1900s. Except the butler. He didn’t show even though he already had the outfit.

Even though we have owned and lived in this house for many years, we have always felt like her caretakers, keeping her strong for her next owners — whether the owners be our kids and grandkids who might move in after we move out, or another family who buys her if we decide to sell. She is historic. She is an important part of the past and we have had the honor of living in her and enjoying her and maintaining her. We know that she will be around a lot longer than we will and that many more generations will have the privilege of getting to know her. Now… if only someone would answer that bell!

~Barbara LoMonaco

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