Julia O'Malley: Solving an old house's secrets

Julia O'Malley
Julia O'Malley

I passed the house that would be ours a thousand times without noticing it, hidden in feral-looking trees on a Downtown avenue.

It came up for sale and we decided to have a look inside. It had been occupied by the same couple since 1967 and was being sold by their estate. It was a house-shaped time capsule. It had sculpted-shag carpets, rose-colored toilets, mirrored walls, and bulbous amber glass light fixtures that seemed, even in 1967, best suited for a bordello.

The house did not have a good vibe. It had been abused and neglected. One of the bathrooms was half-gone and the walls were striped with smoke stains. The dust made me cough. The back doors looked like someone had tried to break them down. There was a lock on the inside of one of the bedroom doors. In the backyard was a suspicious boarded-up concrete box I started calling "the crypt."

Downtown real estate being what it is, however, we made an offer. We liked the location and the price was right. Everything else, as the real estate people said, "was cosmetic." After months of negotiations, the house became ours on the condition that we'd improve it enough that it could be lived in. And so began The Project. We sold our old house and moved in with my parents, putting our life in what felt like a state of suspended animation as we waited to start over with a new backdrop.

The last occupant of the house, I knew from the real estate agent, wasn't well for a long time before she died. The house had been stacked full of her possessions when she passed. Thousands of dollars in small bills, tucked in unsent birthday cards, were discovered during the clean-out, the agent told me. In the cement at the base of a post on the back porch, someone had written the name "Charley," like an artist signing a painting. I guessed right that it was her husband. He built the house, I was told.

Because it was bothering me, Dad and I drove over with our shovels right before the deal closed. We opened the wooden cap on top of the crypt and dug until we got tired. We found nothing but soil and some buried plastic. It's probably fine, we said. (That phase, I've discovered, comes in handy often when renovating an old house.) But we weren't even close to the bottom. What was it doing there?

Taking apart an old house is a slow, archaeological kind of exercise. When you come across an artifact from the previous owner, no matter how mundane, it gives you a little buzz. You read into it, trying to piece together the story of what happened in the rooms before you got there. But so often there are more questions than answers.

Friends came to help tear out the kitchen and papers fluttered out from behind the cabinets. A recipe for homemade yogurt. A quote from scripture about miracles. A photograph of a short, plump woman and a tall, balding man in '70s outfits standing next to the Chugach National Forest sign on the Seward Highway. I stared at their faces. Were they happy? I don't know why the answer mattered to me but it did. I wanted my new house's story to be a happy one.

As we opened the walls, we found evidence of a kitchen fire and a note from a housing inspector in the 1960s that had been both ignored and sheet-rocked over. In the attic, there was a World War II-era container for gathering and purifying water and a vintage camp toilet, new, in the box. Emergency supplies stored away just after the '64 quake. Blue prints were rolled into a tube and tucked in the rafters. There was the crypt, drawn right into the plans. It appeared to be a flower bed. A carport was later built over it, blocking out all the sun and so it was boarded up. Old house mystery solved. In the most boring way possible. Still, a relief.

When I would get to the house early to meet the contractor, sometimes I'd open the door and a heavy old smell would waft out, a mix of perfume and medicine. It was like smelling a ghost. Mom came with a stick of sage and we walked through the rooms, trailing a curl of smoke. Clearing the air, she said.

I looked up the old couple's obituaries. Both of them were born in Alabama in the 1920s. They died when they were in their 80s, about a year apart. Their story was classic Alaska. He came up in the 1950s by steamship, it said, and then returned after he "found a bride." He worked as a carpenter in the Aleutians, and later became a carpentry teacher. He "retired in 1990 and remained in the home that he had designed and built in 1967 in downtown Anchorage," the obituary said.

Her obituary said that the couple met at a soda fountain in Auburn, Ala., and drove up the Al-Can together in a "two door Plymouth nicknamed 'Annabelle.'" She was "a tenacious learner with a colorful personality," it said. "She had a genuine spirit for hospitality" and attended church just up the street. She also died in the house.

Their connection to the South explained the out-of-place colonial details and pillars on the porch. Her "colorful personality" might have something to do with the fake flowers woven into the chain link and the collection of faded pinwheels in the yard. But then there were the cracks in the front door that I filled with wood putty and sanded. What were those about? And what about the lock inside the bedroom? Sometimes an old house doesn't give up all its secrets.

The Project rolled along. We gutted the pink bathrooms, pulled down the mirrored tile and Craigslisted the ancient range. A plumber re-plumbed and an electrician made sense of the switches, which were installed so "off" really meant "on." The old smells faded, eclipsed by the fumes of drywall mud and primer.

When I went by The Project on my lunch break last week, I ran into a painter taping off the windows. I pointed out the cracks in the door. Bad stuff probably happened there, I said. He shrugged. Bad stuff happens, he said. How do you change the vibe of a place? I asked him. Paint will help, he said. The vibe doesn't really matter once you start to make you own story there, he told me.

"You just have to get in there and start living it up."

Julia O'Malley writes a regular column. Reach her by phone at 257-4591, email her at jomalley@adn.com, follow her on Facebook or Twitter: @adn_jomalley.


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