Projects: The Perfume of Plaster Dust

Part of The Roving Home’s ongoing chronicle of one of our projects: the rehab of an old building in Mutual, Ohio in preparation for turning the site into the Madden Road Music Hall.

The future of the building, spelled out in plaster dust.

There’s nothing like inhaling 150-year-old plaster dust and a fine film of dried bird droppings to wake you up to the realities of rehabbing an old building. The American vogue for tearing structures down to erect new ones lined with brand-new drywall and vinyl siding seems briefly appealing. And then you remember why you’re doing this: old buildings such as this one are truly irreplaceable. Entering the 19th century structure we’re working on, a two story brick Georgian-style with enormous windows, gives a sense of history not contained in any book. You recall another time, a time when the crossroads of Mutual, Ohio was vibrant enough to warrant a building like this as its own Town Hall and community center, where people came in from their farms to watch basketball games and whatever else took place at this spot. Watching the building come to life again is a privilege of local proportions, shared in the most modern, universal way possible — online — the community of Mutual expanding to include anyone in the world who stumbles on this site to see a small relic of our rural American past, emerging from under a thick layer of neglect and plaster dust. (Postscript: To read about the Music Festival, click here.)

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Weekly Wrap-up: Festivals & Found Objects

Off to Make Some Music

This week’s wrap-up is going to be simple, as I have been a little crazed getting ready to leave my New England home for several weeks to go here:

If you have to ask what this is, then you ain't no Buckeye. Admittedly, the "I" is a little shaky.(photo from

I’m leaving home, family in tow, to work on an event in Ohio – a “micro-music festival” — overseeing the heavy labor involved in getting The Building (as we call it) renovated for use as a music hall. I might pick up a paint brush or two but my overall strategy involves a lot of directives issued over a cell phone (see: Reality TV renovation shows) — usually at an intensity level guaranteed to make everyone else involved in the project hate my guts (see: Reality TV). If only cameras were rolling to capture all this drama. Hmmm…maybe I’ll make my own show to post on The Roving Home. Lots of editing will be called for and no doubt I’ll come out of this thing looking like a hero.

The Building - an early 20th century brick structure with amazing plaster walls and Paladian windows. Hopefully it will come back to life in the 21st century, newly remade (but not too remade) as a Music Hall.


Found Objects

You must, MUST read this post by writer Heather Atwood, who usually addresses the endless and endlessly fascinating topic of food and the people who grow, cook and eat it. She occasionally departs from this subject matter if something equally compelling captures her interest (Lady Gaga for instance) and last week she treated her readers to a great post on Wells Gustafson, a compelling subject if there ever was one.

Click HERE to head over to Heather’s post.

Wells Gustafson's artfully rendered card game scorecard (photo courtesy of Wells' son via Food for Thought)

That’s all, folks. Thanks for reading and I’ll keep you posted on The Roving Home’s whereabouts. And I hope you all are having a happy summer, sweating out these July days in style!

Decay Never Looked So Good

When I was in Ohio over the holidays I stopped by The Building, as my family calls the place, in order to take some photos of its current, perfectly terrible condition.  Years and years ago my parents bought this two-story brick building, a former town hall, gathering space, and basketball court (the blackboard for scorekeeping is still on the wall), a few miles from the farm where I grew up.  The Building sits at the crossroads of one of those tiny little rural communities which pretty much consists only of a crossroads.   My mom sells antiques on the first floor, and uses the second floor for storage.  It’s an amazing space, a little study in Greek Revival symmetry, with classical lines and beautiful windows randomly juxtaposed against miles of cornfields.  This summer we’re going to clean out the second floor – if my parents give us their blessing – to prepare it for use as a music hall for my brother and his band.  The walls are perfect, the plaster showing its age in a way that only the dignity of years can give.  We’ll give the floors and the ceiling a facelift, update the electricity, and bring on the banjos just in time for an end-of-summer show.   If the ghosts are still keeping score, let’s chalk one up for The Building.   It will be the first time in a hundred years the place has been given its due.

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My Old Ohio Home

I just got back from the visiting the family at My Ohio Home, where I grew up in the same house that my grandfather lived in with his grandparents.   These days it’s not at all typical to have grown up in a house occupied by previous generations of your family, and even in rural areas where such a thing is more common, the locals don’t get overly sentimental about hanging on to a drafty old farmhouse just because it’s been in the family for awhile.  Practical people prefer new windows and central heating, and in Ohio you see farm after farm where a brick ranch house was built next to the road sometime in the last several years, leaving behind – both literally and metaphorically – the old white frame two-story farmhouse, usually set further back among the fields and looking worse for the wear.

Like everything else in contemporary America, the landscape in the Midwest has seen some radical changes over the last few decades.  It is now a sort of rural version of suburban sprawl, with randomly placed homes lining every road and the farm fields surrounding every town covered by the massive stretch of Wal-mart and all those plaza-based businesses that come along with Wal-mart, clinging to either side of it like barnacles to a whale.  Rural life still has the veneer of what it must have been like for our agricultural ancestors, but it is a very, very thin veneer.  Life in the country now consists of signing your life away to keep your farm afloat and planting and harvesting corn, soybeans, corn, soybeans, in an endless cycle that relates far more to producing subsidies than food.  Also, going to church and/or Farm Bureau meetings (a combination of union and church for farmers), and of course, Wal-mart.

Grandpa's woods

My family gave up farming a few generations ago, though we hung onto our farm, leasing our fields to a neighboring farmer so we can still watch the cycle take place, the latest in high-tech seed gadgetry being planted right outside the farmhouse’s picture window.  We have a farm pond, and a back field planted in new-ish trees (one of the last projects of my grandfather before he passed away), a few old outbuildings and a pole building that substitutes for a picturesque barn.  Which was torn down in a fit of practicality.  Such practicality is almost a disease among Ohians.  (I should start marking trips home by the number of old buildings that get torn down between visits.)

My brother has in the last few years mowed several paths among the crop of trees that are now growing into a real woods.  The plan is – and it is only a plan at this point – to build a sort of structure among those trees, that will house my family during our more seasonable visits home, as by structure I mean a yurt or canvas tent on a platform.  The farmhouse and  the little guesthouse my parents also have are both bursting at the seams, as I have many brothers and sisters and they have many, many children.  So having a version, even if a primitive one, of our own bunkhouse for visits home is looking like a good idea.

Maybe my next trip to Ohio will be spent among the fields and trees, under the stars in our family tent, and – may it be so! – completely free of a trip to Wal-mart.

Gus the dog along the back path

Playing hockey on the farm pond.

Dressed for success on the way to go ice skating

Classical Architecture & Corn Country

One of a few entries I posted elsewhere pre-October 2010, before I (officially) started The Roving Home blog.

The following excerpt is from a not-so-recent article in the New York Times about the resurgence of classical architecture.  I deviate from the focus of the article to rejoice in the fact that the writer pointed out that:

In upscale subdivisions across the country, for example, the Palladian window has become a prominent architectural feature, letting plenty of light into double-height living rooms, while still summoning up echoes, however murky, of early-19th-century gentility.  But paired with an eyebrow window, an off-kilter gable or two and a rambling ranch floor plan, the traditional look becomes something very different: what might be called neo-hodgepodge.

Ah, yes.  The neo-hodgepodge look.  I know it well.

Were my mother in possession of a digital camera, the knowledge to upload a photo, and a DSL connection instead of a dial-up one, I would ask her to race down the lane of the house I grew up in, cross the road, and take a picture of the house in the field opposite so I could post it here.  This photo, of a relatively new house, would reveal all one needs to know about the trend toward the hodgepodge mentioned in the article.  Except for the “upscale subdivisions” part.

The house is first house to be built on our road among the corn and soybean fields in approximately 130 years.  It wears its newness like a cheap dress – no, not the cool second-hand cheap dress you got at Goodwill – it’s more like the cheap dress you picked up from the floor under the sale rack at Wal-mart, where it had fallen in a heap after slipping off its disposable plastic hanger.

I don’t really consider the depressing inappropriateness of the house in the field across from my parents’ farmhouse to be the fault of its new owners.  I blame it on the cabal of building companies and the architects who work for them, squirreled away, far from sunlight and fresh air, scratching out plans for kit houses with neo-hodgepodge as their guiding principle.  And seemingly in the center of all these new houses is the apple of these architects’ design eye: the Palladian window.  The vaunted Palladian window, reduced to presiding over cornfields, when a plain old double-hung would do the trick nicely.  Even moreso if this window was set squarely over a front porch.

This is one of the sorrows of my midwestern heart, to see the fields of my youth blossoming with homes strangely inappropriate to actually living in a field.   I don’t think homes need to be custom built – bring on the pre-fabs! – but there should be a prevailing common sense to these designs and their customer base.  This doesn’t seem like too much to ask of designers.

So as classical design principles resurge, I hope that everyday architects and builders will discover a way to bring the Palladian window back home to the piazzas and villas, and leave the farmhouses of the midwest to a more modest version of upward mobility.