Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On Building a House (unfinished)

By Reverend Jesse Halsey

Mr. Hoover says that building a house, under modern conditions in America, is as difficult as negotiating a foreign treaty. Having gone into Russia and Poland on diplomatic errands during the way for the State Department, I agree.

I had been having miserable headaches. “No cure;” “Vacuum;” “Inherited;” “Grin and bear it;” said a procession of doctors. But from one, “Exercise and serum.”

The inoculations each morning at the hospital made me more miserable than ever, and work in the study became impossible. I don’t like golf, so I bought some backlots at the topnotch prices of three years ago and, after the morning visit to the hospital, would get into overalls and go to gardening in these lots five miles from where I live.

Summer was coming on. I have two boys in their late teens with some practical ability. They wanted exercise, but don’t like gardening.

I neglected to say that I am a preacher, in a church in the quarter of our city considered fashionable. But, having been a missionary with some responsibilities for business and building enterprises, I am not altogether ignorant of construction, and the problems connected with building. Having grown up on a farm, the use of a saw, axe, shovel, pipe threading tools, and a soldering iron has for a long time been in my equipment, though seldom useful in the sort of parish that I now serve.

I needed more violent exercise to combat the ‘misery’ induced by the serum, and a job for the boys, so we set out to build a house on one of our vacant lots. My more or less crude sketches an architect friend put into drawings that would be intelligible at the City Hall; and then we started.

First, a road had to be built. Just where our lots began the street ended abruptly, in a great gully. At the City Hall I found that a level had never been established and, though a sewer ran down through the property (later I found it wasn’t paid for), no street grade had been set and, in fact, there was question whether the road had ever been dedicated. A village had been annexed by the city and no record remained of the village ever having accepted our part of the road! So I went to a lawyer friend, whose first judgment indicated action by City Council. Having served on the Mayor’s campaign committee (non-partisan ticket), I felt free to take minutes of his official time, I was directed to the councilman who had the major responsibility for roads and sewers. After two appointments, broken by him, I caught him and ‘he would see what could be done.’

Water must be introduced so I started that process. The City Manager, a member of my congregation, said he had no jurisdiction. To the superintendent of the water works I went. He turned me over to a deputy, an old Scotchman, who, when he found I had studied theology in Edinburgh, was my sworn friend and guide.

And I needed one, for we found that there wasn’t a main pipe line within five hundred feet of our property, and that each of the houses on that main portion of our road had a separate small pipe line five or six hundred feet in length.

The ruling is that no new small lines should be put in, but there was no way to make the houses that now had water from their small privately owned lines pay for putting in a main line that would lead to the beginning of our lots. This also entailed village annexation. It meant that the entire cost of an eight inch main from the nearest street, six hundred feet away, must be paid by us and that, when it was in the houses on the upper part of the street, must be connected to this main at my expense. It seemed hopeless; the cost was twice the price of the lots!

The Mayor, the Manager, the Councilman, the lawyer—several calls on each—but at length my Scottish friend found a way for the superintendent to order the line carried to the beginning of our new street (if we had one).

In the City Surveyor’s office, while I studied the maps of the erstwhile village, I found a middle-aged engineer, who told me that his first job as a cub was surveying my road. He would set the grades. This was a real help, for his chief, the City Engineer, had failed to keep an appointment on the site (it wasn’t on the map and he couldn’t find the place).

So, one night after hours the ex-surveyor ran the grades across our gully, set the curb line and got his chief’s approval and O.K. When I offered to pay him, he said he wanted nothing but, if I was willing to trade work, he would ask me to do something for him. I was willing. He wanted me to marry him to another; which I did some weeks later! And, so far as I know, they have lived happily ever since.

But my house was not so easily negotiated. With the water in and the grade set, we began to fill. School was out, my boys spent most of their days at the job, and I gave the mornings to the hospital shot and the garden, the City Hall and the road.

Load after load of filler was required. A friend who wrecks old buildings gave me, for the hauling, many loads of old brickbats and, with these, we started to fill the almost bottomless pit.

The dust was terrible and one of the neighbors threatened to sue. We got a hose and the older boy finally got a barrel of crude oil and sprinkled over the debris before it was shifted and leveled to grade. Even then the dust and lime went up like a cloud of smoke.

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