Thursday, March 31, 2011


Another one of my past pieces for Old House Interiors...

I had been staring at the squiggle for a good half-hour, trying to figure out just What On Earth it represented. The abstract, jigsaw-puzzle shape the size of an outstretched hand had been cut from curly maple and then inlaid into the center of a mahogany banquet table. The piece had belonged to a famous southern senator who had served in the latter part of the 19th century, and was now prominently displayed in his homestead,

I was in central Georgia on a historic carpet consultation, as I help provide Wilton, Brussels and Axminster carpets to house museums and state capitols. Over the years, my job has taken me across the country many times, and I gleefully carom between Very Important Houses and remote hamlets that barely merited a dot on the map. On today’s journey, the irony of the fact that I was a New Englander bearing Civil War-era carpets whilst traveling from Atlanta to Savannah was not lost on anyone in the room.

Obviously, these folks thought that this was a mighty important squiggle, as it was the focal point of a massive piece of furniture. Was it…a shark? The upper part looked like a dorsal fin, but then, it also had a front leg…

This was hardly my first journey to the South, but typically, I was in cities that while they proudly proclaimed their Southern heritage, didn’t seem all that different from their cousins north of the Mason-Dixon Line. Yes, the populace’s various accents were distinctive, with some more lilting than others, and a few of the restaurant chains were new to me, but the most noticeable customs I encountered were that “tea” was served cold unless otherwise specified, and that it was easy to get a restaurant table on a Wednesday evening, as most everyone else was in church.

Nodding and smiling at my host, I continued to study the squiggle out of the corner of my eye. Maybe it was upside down…was it a Scottie? Why a Scottie? Were they the state dog of Georgia? And it looked like it was vaulting over an invisible fence for some reason…

On a previous call, 75 miles west of here, a client and her contractor were discussing an itinerant tradesman’s work and had referred to him as a “Yankee”; suddenly realizing that I would be included in this geographic Venn diagram, she looked at me and said apologetically, “no offense meant…”

I had replied, “None taken; my grandparents all fled Eastern Europe around 1900; none of us were here in 1861, so it wasn’t our war.”

Even as a native Bostonian, I’ve never considered myself a Yankee; that was someone whose family had lived there for at least 300 years and could speak without moving their jaw. The only other kind of Yankee was that infamous baseball team from New York, and no sane person would ever confuse Us with Them.

What WAS this thing? Had someone immortalized a Rohrshach test? Was Rohrshach from Georgia? There was something vaguely familiar about the shape, or at least sections of it, but I just wasn’t getting it…

We finished our discussion about reproducing the carpet for the room; it had been a pleasant call, as they usually were. I’m a preservationist at heart, and the chance to visit another old building was always exciting. I was often distracted by the stained glass, fancy mantels and furnishings that were unique to my prospective client’s building and carpet sales became secondary.

I stood to leave, and gathering my samples, clasped my host’s hand. As I stepped from the room, I turned, and as innocently as possible chirped “Oh, by the way, I couldn’t help noticing the unique inlay in your table-top, but for the life of me, I just can’t figure out what it is.”

She grinned and said “Since you’re from up North, I wouldn’t expect you to; it’s a map of the Confederacy.” Walking over to the table, she began to trace it with a perfectly manicured fingertip “See, here’s Texas, and over there is Florida…”

I smiled sheepishly, thanked her, and continued on to Savannah.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Mea Culpa

As many of you know, I write for a slew of magazines, as Dan Cooper and under a half dozen pen names. My area of expertise is old houses, antiques and architecture, along with historic interiors and floorcoverings. I was just reminded of this piece that was published in Old House Interiors a while back. An architecture firm in Colorado liked it so much, they used it as their annual Holiday Card.

Hard Lessons Learned.

They say that doctors bury their mistakes, while we in the old house field just paint them over. After countless restorations, I have learned the following truths the hard way. Please, do as I say, and not as I have done…

  1. Never wallpaper with someone whom you share a bed. It will bring out the aspects of both of your personalities that the other finds most loathsome. And if you must undertake this task together, agree beforehand that one of you will shut the hell up the entire time. I once sold wallpaper to a married couple who were both police officers and who intended to hang it together; I refused to ship the order until they promised that they would lock all of their firearms, unloaded, in a car trunk.
  1. Assume nothing: That 1870s gas nipple protruding from the ceiling medallion is probably no longer pressurized, but if you’re on top of an 8 foot ladder with a pipe wrench on a Sunday afternoon, you can be damned sure it’s live. And the nearest tube of pipe dope is a good 15 minutes away, if the hardware store hasn’t closed.
  1. Never buy cheap paint, or you will be repeating this to yourself as you apply the fourth coat of white that still isn’t quite covering the old white. Never trust a paint chip; they magically transform into the wrong color while you’re at the paint store. Spend the $10, buy a quart, and apply liberally. You can always box the remainder into a gallon to ensure that you don’t run out.
  1. Beware the wheels of the Shop-Vac, especially at the head of a flight of stairs. I was sucking up joint compound dust from a bedroom that I had just taped and sanded, tugged on the hose, and the entire appliance just rolled on down, popping open at the seventh riser. The ensuing cloud of dust rapidly blanketed the entire first floor as if volcanic activity had occurred in the parlor. Even the once-black cat looked like a powdered-sugar doughnut.
  1. A four-foot level offers a quartet of potentially different interpretations of plumb; and just like a Middle School choir, they’re all a little bit off. Split the difference between the readings, and then average that with how it appears to your naked eye. If it still looks weird, have a beer and try again. Repeat as necessary.
  1. You can’t transport Sheetrock on top of a Jetta. The flapping starts around 10 miles per hour, no matter how many bungee cords you’ve used. It’s also very embarrassing having to retrace your route on foot to pick up all of the snapped-off corners.
  1. Avoid power tools after 9pm. Every horror story starts with “It was late, and I was trying to finish a job…” As of this writing, I still have all ten digits, although I did have an 1880s corner block snag in a table saw, kick back, and slam me square in the sternum…the lights went out for a bit, and I was forced to wear the Scarlet Badge of Shame for weeks. Its impact was so forceful that others could actually discern the molding profile on my skin.
  1. Auction previews are there for a reason. Suddenly noticing that wonderful Aesthetic Movement footstool as you return from the snack bar and thrusting your paddle into the air will win you what looked to be an amazing steal. Too bad you didn’t notice that it was actually the top section of a fern stand onto which someone had stapled a little pillow.
  1. Never leave a hammer or tape measure on top of a step-ladder that is taller than you, i.e. out of sight. Not only will you forget its presence, you will then move the ladder, and said object will immediately plummet, at full velocity, towards something fragile like a set of stacked glass cabinet doors or a stroller-bound infant.
  1. Nailguns are not toys. This advice pertains exclusively to men; human females typically possess the common sense that prevents them from, say, overriding the safety mechanism with a screwdriver and pointing the tool horizontally at the neighbor’s birdfeeder. Not that I would ever do this. Someone must have hit it with a baseball.

Copyright 2011 Dan Cooper