In 1979 the world tilted in our favor–Mork & Mindy came on the air, and Suzanne, a new customer, asked for an aged house. Not just a hint of age, but old. “Show all the bumps and wrinkles, I love them! And dirt is good!” Until this time we had added a few drips under the window ledges and down the chimney, broken out some lattice under the porch for where the dog found shade in summer, but it was all pretty subtle. We knew it was there, and our customers thought what they saw was charming, but no one actually asked for age. And, being dependent on our customers and reputation, we didn’t dare push the envelope too far. Wow! What a thrill it was to go ahead with what we’d been dying to do all along!
The Cathlamet is named after a small town up the Columbia, where Victorians perch on a hillside above the river. Right off, this gave us license to design a house built into the side of a hill, then pull it away to show all the dirt, along with giving us room for a sizable basement garage. And we could include a full, dusty attic, like the one in the 200-yr.-old Massachusetts farmhouse I grew up in, and the one we played in at my grandparents. It was hard to know where to start, or stop, but Noel managed to launch a house with nearly every latent desire our grungy little hearts had been harboring. I was especially thrilled to know we would finally use some of the termite wood stored in the garage.
The termite wood came from one of our foraging (aka “midnight dollhouse supply”) expeditions. Cruising down the back road one day, Noel and his partner-in-crime, Rocky, “noticed” what looked like a pile of de-laminating plywood in a field. When I got home from work Noel poured me a glass of wine, gave me about 10 minutes, then said, “Let’s go, I’ve got something to show you. Oh, and you might want to change into something old, and wear your clam-digging boots. And gloves.”
The pile was a ways off the road and so old, rotten and overgrown with blackberries I can’t imagine they really “noticed” this without some serious exploration. It took some doing to pry up the top sheet, which was more a crumbling mass of rot than anything identifiable as wood. The next few sheets came off in strips. And then the bugs began to scatter. Not just bugs, but termites. And the smell was like the breath of Godzilla—beyond putrid. No way was this coming back to our house. “It’s gonna be great!” Noel insisted, “You’ll see!”
It’s no spoiler to say I was overruled, and helped pack sheet after sheet of rotting 4′ X 8′ veneer into the van, much to the delight of Sunshine, our yellow Lab. While everyone else was enjoying an evening of the new game Trivial Pursuit, we were on the lawn scrubbing termite nests out of rotten wood. I hosed while Noel went to work with a heavy wire brush. Each morning we would turn it, hose and brush some more. I tried not to think about where the termites were seeking shelter. Eventually the fine-grained wood dried enough (and, I had to admit, silvered quite nicely), to be stored in jury-rigged racks Noel built into the garage ceiling, and waited for its time. With the help of Suzanne, and a few “Nanu-Nanu’s” spoken by our favorite Orkian, Robin Williams, we were able to put the termite wood to work.
I had a chance to visit this house a number of years ago after it had gone to a second owner near Los Angeles.
It was a very interesting project with that hillside cut away from the house.