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We know change is all around us every day shaping our world, often at a tectonic and invisible pace. An exception this week here in Alameda was the rare, raw and rapid change associated with demolition of the William and Susan Illidge home at 3810 NE 28th Ave.

We knew it was going away, this graceful Frederic E. Bowman Mediterranean-style home built in 1922. Last summer we wrote about the plans to raze this vacant beauty and subdivide the big lot in two. We even shared a news story from 1922 noting its recent construction.

Still, there is a raw shock and sadness that accompanies demolition. Splayed out on the ground here at NE 28th and Hamblet—and in piles awaiting a truck—are bits and pieces from 90 years of construction and adaptation. Mom’s favorite tiles here and there. A door to the kids’ room. Tons of lath from the era of plaster.

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Gone now are the favorite places and spaces known by four generations of families. Which—as we stand on the sidewalk surveying the mess and trying to imagine two brand new buildings on this spot—makes us appreciate the time-honored aspects of our own home. And the complicated economics of change.

 

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Sorry to see you go, old time traveler.

In some ways, our old houses are like unintentional time capsules. The guys who built them long ago — and who have patched them together over the years — were resourceful, using materials at hand to get the job done. When we opened up a bathroom wall recently, we found handfuls of heavy wrapping paper used to prop up an electrical junction box (gulp). Packing materials from the original porcelain fixtures were used for shims or to frame out the medicine cabinet. Old newspapers were used all the time for insulation. These little treasures give us a moment’s glimpse into the past: people here in this room were trying to solve a problem and they used what they could get their hands on.

One of my favorite time treasures is a series of sketches found on the rough shiplap sheathing underneath the clapboard exterior of the house.

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Our builder, William B. Donahue (or his mason), used some unusual brick patterns on his chimney exteriors (I’ve found four other Donahue houses in the neighborhood…more on that in a future post). On the outside face of the firebox he used brick to create crosses, patterns and other symbols. When we were replacing some cracked siding a few years back,  I found a series of sketches on the sheathing right next to the chimney that showed he was thinking about a cross.

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Strangely, he didn’t put a pattern in our brick, but the sketches show he was thinking about it. Elsewhere — pretty much everywhere when we take something apart — are quickly scrawled measurements in pencil, signs of a carpenter at work almost 100 years ago.

Over the years, past homeowners and their families have surrendered all kinds of items, lost to the crack at the edge of the floor, the space behind the plate rail trim, or that hole where the radiator pipe goes downstairs. We’ve found an ivory diaper pin, a buffalo-head nickel and a lovely heart-shaped locket that escaped from a necklace. On the back is the inscription “From grandpa.” How long did someone look for that? Did grandpa replace it with another keepsake when no one could find the precious lost locket?

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Who knows what else is here in the walls, under the floors, lost in the garden bed, or scribbled in some long covered-up corner. Whenever we’re working on the house, I’m always on the lookout.

What have you found?

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