Old houses the theme of Baker's talk at COA
April 29, 2004
When most of us wander through an old house, we consider its quaintness compared to our modern structures. Anne ("Pete") Baker looks for its soul. And she finds it using tools as rudimentary as a pry bar and a magnifying glass.
Speaking at the Council on Aging on April 22, she got right to the heart of the matter as she delivered a slide show and lecture entitled "Collecting Houses."
"Collecting Houses" is also the title of Ms. Baker's recently published book on her adventures saving old houses in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
When she was 12, she rummaged through her grandmother's attic and found photographs of three different looking houses all with the inscription Matunuk Brook Farm, her grandmother's Rhode Island home.
Finding old photographs was a tool she would use later in life to research earlier incarnations of an old house that had been added to and modified over the years.
Ms. Baker's obsession for these houses has amazed even her family. "My daughters are surprised I've lived so long," she said, only half in jest. Her daughters were referring to their mother's rubbernecking whenever she drives by an old house.
Whether staring from a moving car or inspecting on foot at close range, Ms. Baker notices everything. In slide after slide, she pointed out the telltale details, from peak to foundation, that help her to date an old structure.
A pry bar is another tool in her arsenal. In one series of slides, Baker showed how she removed layers of a house to find its original proportions. Hearths had been downsized, doorways and stairways had been walled over and additions had been built, bulging out the sides of a house or growing up from an existing roof. Chimneys were narrowed to become flues for heating systems that replaced firewood as heat sources.
"For old houses, the true story is in the frame," she said. Switching back from slide to draftsman's drawings, Ms. Baker showed how a house's frame determined its age. The "summer beam," a beam in the center of a ceiling that carries the joists for the floor above, is a tell-tale sign of a house with a couple of centuries under its roof.
It seems that, all too often, an old house is neglected, then bull-dozed by developers without much public debate or thought. But with Ms. Baker rubber-necking while she drives, Westporters can be assured that an historic house in these environs won't go down without a fight.
By Paul Tamburello