Walking down our street yesterday I noticed a hole in the ground where there should have been a house. It took a moment to register it was the site of a “tear down,” a concept unfamiliar to the English. We love nothing more than to renovate but rarely from the ground up. We like to have something to work with, we strive for what the French call “benign neglect.”
I’ve always fallen in love with the potential of a place rather than the reality of it. I would gaze fondly at a derelict cottage, mentally transforming it into four pages of Homes and Gardens. We always ran out of money halfway through a project, usually at the point where we’d put on a new roof, replaced all the plumbing, rewired the electricity, and were about to embark on the fun stuff. Pictures of our kids are set against open plaster and exposed brickwork. There are very few baby photographs where they aren’t covered in a layer of dust.
We were purists. We’d spend entire weekends bringing an original Victorian fireplace back to its former glory, stripping paint from banister rails, and lovingly restoring old moldings and original features with reclaimed genuine artifacts. The paintwork was all Farrow and Ball mixed to the exact original shade of the oldest part of the building. The new window frames were individually carved to the same design. The kitchen with its flagstone floor and open fireplace was a work of art. By the time we sold our nineteenth century country house in Stratford it was worthy of a profile in Architectural Digest. It took us exactly thirteen years to finish it and exactly two weeks for the new owners to rip it apart, close up all the fireplaces, and tear out the original features. By then I was past caring, ensconced in California where people just build their dream homes.
On our street there are medieval castles, Spanish Haciendas, bungalows, “English” cottages, Tudor and traditional houses, all sitting happily side by side without an authentic brick between them. Hey, it’s California. It’s out with the old and in with the new.