Real estate


What’s an old house without a spirit?

One house. Two recollections. Spouses share their stories without showing each other what they wrote.

Pierre Mornet for The Boston Globe


It was the summer of 1977, and I’d been out of the Coast Guard for six months. My wife, our 2-year-old son, and I were living on the first floor of a three-decker in Dorchester. After months of searching, we bought a pre-1700 saltbox on Adams Street in East Milton, the only house in our price range. It had a center entrance, a half bath, and living and dining rooms on the first floor and two large bedrooms above. The dining room had been used as a beauty parlor. In the back was a long keeping room flanked by a borning room on the left and a small kitchen on the right. It had a center chimney with five — nonworking — fireplaces. The back of the second floor had a sloping roof with a dormer cut in the bathroom. Heat was provided by oil-fired steam radiators in the living room, dining room, and two bedrooms. The only heat in the back on the first floor came from a wood stove converted to burn fuel oil from a tank in the basement. A stockade fence surrounded a nice backyard.

Calling it a “Handyman’s Special” is being kind, but we were young. Wind blew through the north wall; the horsehair-plaster walls were layered with alternating coats of paint and wallpaper; and the wide-plank dining room floor had been painted several times, the layers on the very old clapboards thick and peeling. And, because we didn’t insist on a walk-through before we signed the papers, we found the place loaded with furniture, old beauty parlor chairs, and junk when we moved in.

Our first winter included the Blizzard of ’78. Wind blew through the north wall while the oil-fired stove struggled to keep the keeping room warm. That first summer we re-sided the north side, and I stripped and repainted the exterior. My marvelous wife stripped and repapered all the rooms. We had insulation blown in, insulated the basement ceiling and attic, and bought interior storm windows.


It was a wonderful place to live. We had good neighbors, the town pool was close by, a movie theater sat down the street, grocery stores were a walk away, public transportation was handy, and an old-time hardware store with everything I needed was three blocks away. Our son started at St. Agatha’s school.

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We shared the house with the spirit residing in the furnace room in the basement. One time it shut off our water. Other times you got the feeling it didn’t want company, but what’s an old house without a spirit?

The house was a never-ending series of projects. The second winter I stripped the dining room floor using a putty knife and several gallons of stripper. The keeping room ceiling collapsed after the bathroom pipes sprung a leak, and the master bedroom ceiling gave way just days before our daughter was born. We installed baseboard radiators throughout, finally solving the heating problem.

After seven years, jobs took us to the northwest and a 20-year-old Garrison Colonial in Hudson. Over the years my wife and son revisited our Milton house. They’re nostalgic for it, but I’m not. Although it was a great first home, I’ll never buy another old one. I’m not young anymore.


We were approaching 30 years of age; we had a 2-year-old, two good jobs, and a down payment for a house. After looking at a few places, we saw a Globe ad for a saltbox in East Milton, circa 1729. I don’t remember anything about our visit other than falling in love at first sight. Gunstock corner posts, wrought-iron hinges, uneven floors, thick walls — I loved it all. The house had seen only five owners in its 250 years, and, aside from the addition of electricity, plumbing, and central heat, it was virtually unchanged.


We made an offer, and the owners countered. We settled at $35,900, a bit over our budget, and I remember sitting on the floor of our Dorchester three-decker, counting the coins in our change bank, wondering whether we could make it happen. We were young and inexperienced but smart enough to have our own lawyer. When he said we really didn’t need a walk-through before the closing, we blindly agreed. Big mistake.

The closing went smoothly, and, excited, we drove to our first house. We got the shock of our lives when we opened the front door. The owners had departed, literally in the dead of night, and left the house full — furniture, rugs, three broken console televisions, moth-eaten fur coats, little jars of liquid mercury, tins of hairpins. Every room.

We accumulated everything usable in the dining room for Goodwill; the piles extended wall to wall and to the ceiling. We took an equal amount to the dump. We moved our furniture and ourselves in and discovered that the stove did not work. After having depleted most of our savings, we had to buy a new one.

The best advice we received was to work on one room at a time. We bought Colonial-reproduction wallpaper in the Berkshires and covered the living room’s horsehair-plaster walls. We opened the bricked-over fireplaces in the dining room and keeping room (revealing two Dutch ovens and a clay pipe), stripped and refinished the pumpkin-pine dining room floor, and papered the other rooms. We discovered there was no insulation in the house, so we had cellulose blown into the walls and Fiberglas laid in the attic (which had tree limbs with bark as part of the framing). We were the first customer for an innovative company that made inside storm windows, which maintained the original look outside while adding insulation. We replaced the siding on the north side of the house and stripped and repainted the rest. We eventually updated the electric and heating systems.

We weathered the Blizzard of ’78 in that house, snug as bugs. It felt right with no cars on the road out front. We had a resident “spirit” who occasionally startled our son or played tricks with the utilities.


I spent vacations poring over records of the house at the county seat. I wished that the walls would talk to me. When my job moved north, we had to sell. I cried my eyes out as I did the “clean sweep” of the empty house.

It had been a lot of work when we were young enough to tackle it.

Mike Walling, a military historian and author, and Mary Walling, a retired biologist, live in Hudson. Send comments to and a 550-word essay on your first home to Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue.