Old Places & the Stories They (and we) Tell
There is something almost sacred about standing in a long-vacant old space. The quiet and stillness are loud in their own right, and there are usually no electricity or wireless signals silently buzzing through the air to disrupt your thoughts. Is that why we love old places so much? Or is there another reason?
I’ve Spent a lot of Time in Old Buildings
I don’t intentionally risk my life or health for my job, but I have exposed myself to danger more often than I might have realized while documenting old places that have been abandoned to the processes of time and Texas weather. Fungus, bacteria, rotten floors and broken glass have frequently been my companions as I carefully step through the places that were once active hosts to communities of humans and are now passive hosts to rodents and reptiles. When I’m documenting it usually means someone is interesting in bringing the building back to life, but sometimes it means the building is about to come down. Either decision involves a complex weighing of options based on ownership, the condition of the building, the costs of rehabilitation, the applicable building codes, the role of the building in the community and the potential for future inhabitants. My job is to find out what is there - dimensions, materials, conditions and pitfalls - and in doing my job I often hear what is not there. People love to tell me things.
I can’t tell you how often people make up stories about places that interest them or that they have known for a long time. Not every story has a record or a document to support it, certainly, but I have heard a lot of stories that are inconsistent with or that directly contradict the evidence under my boots. The things I’m told are not intentional lies, they’re the ever-shifting landscape of how we remember the past and our associations with it - and the choices we make with those memories.
I Don’t Document Nostalgia, but there is Plenty of it
I recently finished a documentation project in which I had compiled extensive deed research. I traced the ownership of the property back to the 1850s, well before the house in question had been built, and had transcribed all of the handwritten deeds so that they would be easier for others to read. I was relating the story the deeds told to someone who had taken an interest in the project, and he told me that he knew it to be the house of a certain family, and asked if I had included that in my report?
No, because that family never owned the property in its entire history, and there were no associated persons with that name. Could it have been a female relative that lived there for a time? His answer was in the negative, and he seemed confused that I couldn’t confirm his recollections about the house, which he had been sure of a few minutes earlier. His memory, or maybe more accurately his nostalgia, was telling a story different from the story I had put together from my research. It was an experience I’ve had many times before. My noted fellow Texan, researcher and storyteller has this to say about it:
“Nostalgia is also a dangerous form of comparison. Think about how often we compare our lives to a memory that nostalgia has so completely edited that it never really existed.”
I Like an Old Building as much as the Next Person, and Maybe More
I count it a privilege that I have so often been granted access to buildings that have passed the century mark. We aren’t allowed to build like that anymore thanks to modern building codes (which is the real tragedy), and there is a lot to appreciate about the places our communities used to inhabit. We don’t need to make up stories about our past, the truth is thrilling (and sometimes difficult) enough. I was once told a long-vacant hotel had a swimming pool in the basement, and that traveling sales men in the 1920s used the basement wash room before traversing the tunnel under the street to a former boarding house that was known for prostitution. None of those assumptions were correct - not that the person who told me the story had ever been in the building to investigate, they were repeating what they had heard. I don’t blame them, scandals are fun to repeat and in a way it made sense if you had never been in the basement to look around.
What was true is that the original floor plans designated segregated bus station waiting rooms and restrooms for “colored” persons, and those had been in the basement. The basement restroom floor had been white hexagonal tile, and three white porcelain sinks had once been mounted to the wall. The hotel lobby once radiated luxury, and they had not skimped on basement finishes either. The segregated stairs had been removed at some point and the doorways and floor opening for them filled in, and post-segregation there was only one stairwell into the basement, which was a continuation of the formal main stair with its white marble steps and wainscot. I doubt the removed staircase was marble, but I know the walls of the stairwell were painted, and that the same stairwell had extended up to the second floor and maybe higher as a stair for the bellhops and hotel staff. The basement walls were gone except for the remains of the boiler room, and the concrete columns that supported the seven floors above ground left no room for a swimming pool, although the empty elevator pit usually held a few feet of water, as did the boiler room. You couldn’t have paid me enough to swim in it.
Our memories tell powerful and compelling stories.
WE document the stories that the places themselves tell.