Old house research finds childhood memories from the 1920s.

December 26, 2012

My house when it was new in 1907 and photographed for a marketing booklet. Below, Maxine Harding Comley, who lived there from 1924-43. Below, a recent photo of the house. Photos by Tom Eblen and Thomas Knight (above).

 

I called Maxine Harding Comley with many questions. But before I could ask, she had one for me: “Have you found my secret hiding place?”

Every old house has a story. I was told that this 90-year-old lady in Frankfort could tell me a lot about mine.

A year ago, my wife and I bought one of the five original houses on Mentelle Park, a street whose developers promoted it in 1907 as Kentucky’s prettiest and most modern subdivision.

Early on, my house had a series of occupants: a road contractor, a cabinet maker, a traveling salesman, a doctor and an insurance executive.

Then, in 1924, the house was bought by Bob Harding, a locomotive engineer with Louisville & Nashville Railroad. He was a widower with two daughters when he married his second wife, Jewel. They had a daughter, Maxine. The family moved to Mentelle Park when she was 2.

After our phone conversation, I visited Comley and brought her recent photographs of the house. After a few tears, she shared fond memories of her childhood home and neighborhood.

She recalled that the manager of the old Lafayette Hotel (now city hall) lived in a big house on the corner. The people next door owned Congleton Lumber Co. The Congletons had several children who were among her many playmates.

“We had 20 or 25 children in the neighborhood, and we had a lot of fun,” she said, recalling kickball games by the stone pillars at the end of the street and hide-and-seek games in the bushes along the grassy, tree-shaded median.

“Kick the can was a good game to play out in the middle of that street,” she said with a wry smile. “The neighbors didn’t care much for it at night.”

Because Comley’s father was often away, driving coal and lumber trains through the Eastern Kentucky mountains, her mother converted three downstairs rooms into a rental apartment. The front window of what is now my study was turned into the apartment’s outside door.

“We had some nice tenants,” she said. “But we all shared one bathroom. That wasn’t fun.”

As we thumbed through my photos, Comley described how each room used to look. “You can still see the old house in these pictures,” she said, noting the fancy mantels and woodwork, the leaded-glass window in the living room and the bathroom’s claw-foot tub.

The Hardings installed gas heaters in the coal-burning fireplaces. Still, the house’s cottage-style roof kept the upstairs bedrooms cold in winter and hot in summer. Comley recalled sleeping summer nights on the floor of a small upstairs room, putting her pillow on the floor-level window sill to try to catch a breeze.

Her stories made me thankful that the couple we bought the house from installed central heat and air conditioning, plus an upstairs bathroom. Comley said walking down that steep staircase to the bathroom in the middle of the night wasn’t easy.

Finally, I showed Comley photos of an upstairs bedroom with solid pine wainscoting around the walls. “This was my room!” she said. “It was so nice and big.”

Then she told me about her hiding place. Between the dormer and another front window, she said, one of the wooden panels could be removed, creating a child-size entrance to a “secret” room behind the wall.

“My friends and I would hide in there,” Comley said, her eyes twinkling. “No telling what’s back in there.”

Comley lived in our house for nearly 20 years, until she married Bob Comley in December 1943. The next spring, she graduated from Transylvania University with a degree in music and economics.

While her husband ran restaurants in Frankfort, Comley taught first grade at the old Bridgeport School for 25 years and played the organ at Highland Christian Church for 50 years. The Comleys recently celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary. They have seven children and so many grandchildren and great-grandchildren that she has lost count.

Bob Harding died in 1952, eight months after retiring from 45 years of railroad service. Two of the Comleys’ children lived with her mother while they were students at Transylvania. Jewel Harding died in 1971.

The house was rented for a couple of years before the Rev. John and Margaret Therkelsen bought and renovated it. He died in 2011, a few months before we bought the house and began our own renovation.

Last week, I found time for a closer inspection of Comley’s childhood bedroom. I had noticed one panel of wainscot that didn’t fit quite right. I chipped away some paint, removed a screw, and the panel popped out.

Behind it was a space about six feet long and two feet wide, undisturbed for decades. On the floor were a few once-colorful pages from a 1920s carpet catalog and an empty antique Ball Mason jar, all covered with a thick layer of dust.

I called Comley to tell her I had found her hiding place. “It’s not a secret anymore!” she said with a laugh, then apologized for not leaving more valuable treasure.

“It’s a wonderful house,” she said. “You take good care of it for me.”


Move to an old house teaches many lessons

February 5, 2012

My new house when it really was new, 1907. Photo by Thomas A. Knight

By the time you read this, Becky and I have either moved to our renovated, century-old house near downtown or died trying.

Our move this weekend completed an exciting and exhausting five-month odyssey that began when we offered to buy this house from a nice lady who had lived there for nearly 40 years.

I was curious about the house’s history, and the Lexington Public Library’s Kentucky Room turned out to be a valuable resource. My best find was a promotional booklet for the then-new neighborhood, published in 1907 by Thomas A. Knight, a well-known photographer.

The booklet included several photographs of the street, including a portrait of our then-new house. The picture cleared up several mysteries: a missing front chimney, a strange door that used to be a window and a low spot in the front yard that was then a giant tree stump.

Old city directories in the Kentucky Room showed that the house had been owned by a road contractor, a cabinet maker, a traveling salesman, a physician and an insurance executive. But we were only the third owners since 1928, when a Louisville & Nashville Railroad engineer bought the house. He died in 1952, but his widow lived there until about 1970.

The house spent a couple of years as rental apartments before she sold it to the lady we bought it from and her husband, who died last spring. She remembers the neighbors thanking them for rescuing the house from hippies, who were growing marijuana in the dining room. The house was such a wreck, she said, that the first time her sister saw it, she cried.

Over the next few years, the lady’s late husband and his contractors did major restoration. They jacked up the downstairs floor and installed a new roof, wiring, plumbing, heating and air conditioning.

Still, there was much work to be done after we bought the house. For more than two months, I choreographed a parade of contractors. They refinished old wood floors and installed new ones. They removed acres of wallpaper, repaired plaster, painted, plumbed, wired and tiled.

We hired professionals for jobs that I didn’t have the skills for — or would never have finished in my lifetime. I did a lot of small stuff: light carpentry, some painting and a lot of caulking and fix-it chores.

Moving is hell, but some of the renovation work was fun. And I am pleased with the results. Like any major experience, it was educational. Here are some of the things I learned:

• Home renovation always takes longer and costs more than you think it will.

• My house’s former owners were newspaper subscribers. An electrician found a 1938 Courier-Journal in the crawl space. I know that the living room’s pocket doors were last opened on or about Dec. 6, 1979, because that day’s Lexington Herald was used to seal them shut.

• Old wallpaper can hide a multitude of sins. So can new caulk and paint.

• Old carpet can hide beautiful heart-pine floors. Or a big mess. You never know until you pull it up.

• A leaky valve beneath a kitchen sink will fail at the worst possible time, such as early on Thanksgiving morning, after you have had $700 worth of unfinished hardwood flooring installed.

• I could buy a new BMW for what it would cost to line and cap my three unlined masonry chimneys. I can’t afford either.

• I now know most of the clerks at Ace Hardware, Home Depot and Lowe’s by sight, if not by name.

• I don’t need a gym to get a good workout. The most challenging moves of my stretching regimen involved straddling a clawfoot bathtub — one foot on a window sill, the other on a step ladder — screwing a shower curtain rack into a 10-foot ceiling.

• Be good to good contractors and they will be good to you.

• Caulk, paint and Advil are my friends.


Hello, city life! Old home means lots of chores

November 23, 2011

You won’t see as many of my columns in the paper as you usually do for a few weeks. I’m taking some time off to move. Not out of town; into town.

Like many empty-nesters, Becky and I want a smaller house and yard. We want to live closer to our older daughter and her husband. And I want to be within a walk or bike ride of all the interesting things happening in downtown Lexington.

I have been watching downtown For Sale signs for years, but it was still tempting to leave well enough alone. After all, we had a great house in a beautiful suburb.

But here’s the thing: I have always wanted an old house in the city — a place with style, charm and a sense of history. Call me crazy; you wouldn’t be alone.

“What’s the matter: get tired of plumbing that works?” a colleague quipped. A college professor I know, who writes about Kentucky history but lives in a 1960s suburban home, said I am either braver than him or more foolhardy.

Still, I have many friends who are happy old-home dwellers. The ones I admire most are either braver or more foolhardy than me: they have invested a lot of hard work and money in restoring buildings that might otherwise have been lost to history. They have added immeasurably to Lexington’s unique character.

I can’t logically explain my attraction to old houses. Maybe it is because, before my family moved to a new home in rural Fayette County when I was 7, we lived in a turn-of-the-century house on what is now Wildcat Lodge’s back parking lot. I remember the high ceilings, handsome woodwork and the big front porch with a swing. My parents remember the creaky floors and drafty windows.

For many perfectly sensible reasons, the five homes Becky and I have had until now were in the suburbs of Nashville, Knoxville, Atlanta and Lexington. All were built between 1954 and 1985.

When we moved here from Atlanta in 1998, I looked at several downtown houses, most built in the early 1800s. High ceilings. Handsome woodwork. Big windows. Lots of fireplaces.

Becky understood my attraction to Antebellum homes; she had always been a fan of Gone With The Wind. Trouble was, all of the places in our price range looked more like Tara after the Yankees came through than before.

I liked a circa 1837 house on Short Street. I thought it was in good shape. Except that it needed a new kitchen. And a new bathroom — or two. One floor sloped suspiciously. Gutters and plaster needed work. Perhaps, we decided, that was not the best time in our lives to take on a house built 10 years before Atlanta existed.

Goodbye Short Street, hello Hartland. The four-bedroom home we bought in that lovely suburb turned out to be a great place to live and raise our daughters. Now, though, it seems too big and a little lonely.

We are leaving Hartland for a 105-year-old Queen Anne-style cottage near downtown. It has those high ceilings, handsome woodwork, five fireplaces and a big front porch with a swing.

The only thing I know I will miss about my Hartland home is the garage. My new house doesn’t have one. Few people in that neighborhood owned cars in 1907. Who needed one? The trolley track ran right past the end of the street.

This house was restored in the 1970s by a couple who have taken good care of it. The plumbing, wiring and windows were brought up to modern standards. The roof, kitchen and most mechanical systems are almost new.

Based on a report from the toughest home inspector I could find, I don’t think we are in danger of starring in a remake of the Tom Hanks/Shelley Long movie, The Money Pit. Still, I know projects lurk in every room; that just comes with a century-old home.

I have lined up contractors to refinish floors, refresh paint and wallpaper and replace some old wiring. Then, once we move and sell our Hartland house, we can enjoy city living in an old home with style, charm and a sense of history.