Claudia Myers column: Life in the old Queen Anne
I loved wallpapering. Instant gratification, I called it!
On Oct. 1, 1969, we piled the kids and the dog into the car and preceded the moving van to our new home, from Minneapolis to Duluth. The kids were excited and a little apprehensive. I was over the moon to be moving to a big old house, even if it did need a lot of work. Tom was probably wondering how this all happened and the dog, who was a rescue from the Minneapolis pound, was making sure he was going where we were going.
We drove up the driveway, everybody jumped out of the car and scattered to get their first look at the “half-a-castle,” as our oldest described it, and lay claim to their new bedrooms. That first house was a three-story-plus, bluestone basement, Queen Anne-style Victorian, built in 1895. The MLS listing said that it encompassed 4,450 square feet. In the 21 years we lived there, we got to know every square inch and it finally went from being the Wheeler/Espenson house to the Myers House.
We had been in the house for about three months when a very official letter came from the city engineer of the city of Duluth. It informed us, in no uncertain terms, that the city was very displeased with us. They said they had told us, a year ago, that we absolutely had to get hooked up to the city sewer system and get off the septic tank that was draining into Tischer Creek.
What! We were on a septic system? Tischer Creek? How can that be? Our house information never said that. Our Realtor never said that. But remember, this was 1969, the days before “disclosure” became the law in property transactions.
So, instead of the new furniture for the living room and the new dining room table, we spent our money on a system that would have made Rube Goldberg proud. Because the house and the creek were on solid granite, you couldn’t go underground to the closest sewer terminal, as that was on the other side of the creek. We had to install a holding tank with an electric pump that sent the contents up the hill to the next block, where there was actual dirt and another terminal.
Our tank had an alarm and a flashing blue light to let everyone know that the Myers sewer system was malfunctioning again, which usually happened on Thanksgiving morning or Christmas Eve. After we had moved to a different house, we had a plumber out who said he had installed that tank and he never drove by that corner without automatically glancing at the light to see if it was flashing.
We’d seen pictures of the house taken back in the early 1900s. It was a dark color with dark trim and ivy hanging all over it. When Tom interned in Duluth in 1962, we used to drive by it on our way out to the lakes. It was white, then. When we bought it, the nails that held on the shingles and shakes were rusting away and they were sloughing off like needles on a two-week-old Christmas tree. It was before “This Old House.” The “renovation frenzy” hadn’t hit yet.
Boxcars of cedar shakes were not to be had. So, yes, we went with the aluminum siding. No choice.
The fellow that came to give us an estimate obviously had been watching too many late-night TV commercials. Instead of the ubiquitous “$19.95,” everything was $5,000. Windows? $5,000. Roof? $5,000. Siding? $5,000. He must not have paid his crew $5,000, though, because he asked us not to tell “the guys” how much we were paying for the job. Ooo-key. If you say so.
I’ve talked about stripping the salmon-pink paint off the quarter-sawn oak woodwork throughout the downstairs, but I haven’t mentioned the walls that we took down to the calcimine paint, replacing the coverings with wild and 1970s-appropriate wallpaper. The library got the foil paper with the flocked trellis design; one of the kid’s bedrooms got one wall of huge, ferocious tigers; and the round foyer with the grand staircase got the almost lifesize people dressed in orange, brown and gold Renaissance clothing.
I loved wallpapering. Instant gratification, I called it! But when it came to the grand staircase and the 16-foot-high walls, I knew when to call in the experts. The man that came to the rescue took one look at the Oriental fountain mural on the salmon-pink background that he was there to replace, turned to me and said, “Huh! Y’know, I hung that paper there in 1947.”
As teenagers, the boys would go out the attic windows on safety harnesses and rappel up and down the side of the house, forgetting to close the windows when they were done, to the delight of the neighborhood bats. Often, I woke up in the middle of the night, wondering if the windows were open and if I could get up the nerve to go up there in the dark, with the bats.
“Pssst, Hey, Tom … are you awake?” Now, whenever I drive by our old house, I always check out the attic windows and the blue light. I have noticed the windows open once or twice, and thought about knocking on the door, but I’ve never seen anyone climbing up or down the outside walls. Not yet, anyway. But I’ll keep an eye out.
Next time: Shopping! The great American sport.
Claudia Myers is a former costume designer for The Baltimore Opera, Minnesota Ballet and has taught design and construction at the College of St. Scholastica. She is a national award-winning quilter, author and a local antique dealer, specializing in Persian rugs.