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The Corset Maker’s Cottage

We bought the house of our dreams on the island of Alameda about nine years ago. The house was built in 1880 and owned by a San Francisco gentleman who made corsets. Alameda is home to a great number of wonderful old Victorian houses, many Queen Anne, Colonial Revival, Italianate, and the more modest Stick Houses, sometimes called a “high basement cottages,” or even an “Eastlake Cottage.” Our home is a Stick House, an architectural style that was made popular in the 1880’s.

We have a lovely front porch, bay windows, and a gable roof. The attic in our home has been built out into living space and this is where we spend a lot of our time. While the main portion of the house is fairly formal, but the attic is just a really “cool” space, with the children’s room (complete with toys galore, video games, and a white iron day bed for visiting children), the “family room” with overstuffed chairs, couches, and the big screen television, the small bedroom turned into my closet (the envy of all my girlfriends), and our bedroom (a long slanted ceiling room with Dormer windows, reminiscent of sleeping in a tree house).

Although we were vaguely aware that having an old house would involve constant efforts at restoration to maintain it, we charged ahead under our “stupidly mantle” and bought this wonderful house. Unfortunately, neither my husband nor I have any carpentry-type talents. (We don’t have any plumbing, wiring, electrical, mechanical, or painting skills either.) In fact, if there was ever a couple with two left thumbs, it’s us. Together, we can barely change a light bulb.

This unfortunate lack of skill sets means that we always need to pay for the expertise to do the work needed and money is always a consideration. Therefore, jobs are prioritized and done as we can afford them. Also, for some reason, these necessary jobs are never the ones that are a pleasure to spend your money on. Selecting new wallpaper might be fun! Getting the exterior painted in five colors, with gold leaf trim would be a treat! Replacing the bathtub with a claw foot tub would be wonderful. These are not the areas that are high on the “priority” list.

Replace the pipes throughout with copper pipes? (I just can’t get joy out of spending that large amount of money on pipes that you can’t even see!) Doing something about a sewer lateral? (I know we need it and I know it’s expensive, and I know that I don’t know what it really is.) Replace dry rotted boards? (How glam!) The list goes on and on, and it’s not the fun stuff! Damn! It’s kind of like paying to have your appendix removed, necessary perhaps, but not nearly as much fun as a trip to Paris using the same amount of money!

Still, the house is everything I’ve always wanted. It’s not the biggest, nor the most expensive, nor even the most attractive house I’ve ever seen, but it feels right. In fact, it feels perfect. Maybe it’s the way the sun comes through the windows, or the garden with the ponds full of goldfish. Or maybe it’s the nostalgic “smell” that hit me the first time I walked in.

Sometimes, I wonder about the lives of the corset maker and his wife who made this place home back in the 1880’s. I have moments sitting in the parlor when I really feel that wonderful presence of yesteryear. I am pretty sure the corset maker and his wife were happy here. I know we have been.

We’ve learned over the last nine years that having an old house assumes you are will to live in “a work in progress” from now on. We’ve come to peace with that dictate, and are learning to enjoy the journey.