08/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

The Reno: My House Is Now An Archaeological Site

Danielle Crittenden's 1905 house in Washington, D.C. has been undergoing a major renovation for the past year (and off and on for over a decade). In this weekly summer series, which appears Fridays on HuffPost, Danielle records what it has been like for her and her family to live through the construction with their builders, Virginia-natives Brent and John. To read previous installments, click here.


Brent and Bea examine original tiles found inside the uncovered dining room fireplace.

SO WE RETURNED home from vacation last summer to...

"Oh my God."

"It's Baghdad."

"It's kind of cool actually. It looks like a set for one of those pseudo-intellectual German talk shows. 'Sprockets.'"

The rest of us stared at my husband. "Sprockets?"

All we could see before us was an annhilated first floor. Skeletal timbers, exposed bricks and rubble where there were once walls and floors. We set our bags down by the front door and cautiously entered.

"Yes, 'Sprockets,'" my husband continued with his absurd analogy, rather cheerfully I thought. "You remember the Mike Myers sketch? Can't you see a host and guest in black turtlenecks, sitting right here, discussing monkeys and nothingness?"

"Right here" referred to an area in which our kitchen had been reassembled by Brent and John. Eerily, in the blown up space, there were the old cabinets, sink, refrigerator--and for goodness' sake!--my busted oven all neatly organized around the island, complete with stools. Was this what it had been like when Londoners returned to their homes after the Blitz?

Our teenage son, Nathaniel, agreed with his father. "It's great! It's like a New York loft." Our then 5-year-old daughter, Beatrice, began racing around excitedly.

"Be careful, "I said pointlessly, as I sat down on one of the stools. My husband opened the refrigerator. "It's working! Look, we left some wine in it." He opened one of the cupboards and found the stash of glasses I had not packed away.

"Where's the corkscrew?"

"Try the drawer where it always is." He searched among the new configuration of cabinets and found it.

"Here, have this." He passed me a glass of wine. "It will make you feel better."

I took a large sip, confronting the magnitude of the project upon which we'd embarked. There definitely was no going back now. The relentless flight of money from our pockets, the wake-up calls by builders, the plaster dust in my coffee--and come to think of it, in my wine glass--all now inevitable. We'd launched the nuclear codes and... I took another big sip. And another.

The wine burbled happily through my senses. Then I thought... hey, look at this space! My kitchen was now three times it's original size! And suddenly there was light pouring in from everywhere! And--was that the original kitchen's fireplace, unearthed from behind a wall?
I went over and examined a rectangular pile of bricks. A hole above it indicated previous owners had eventually installed some sort of coal or wood-burning oven in front of it. Renovating. Just like us.

"This is amazing. So the first kitchen was where our breakfast room was..."

Excitedly, we began touring the wreckage like two archeologists at a newly discovered ancient site.

"Look--in the dining room!" There was another fireplace unearthed from behind a wall. We knew, from old photographs, that there had been one there but we'd thought it had been destroyed. Here it was, perfectly intact, at least from an operational standpoint. The surround and mantle were long gone.

Brent led me on a more extensive tour the next day. Despite a decade of living in the century-old house, we'd only been able to figure out a small amount of its renovation history. We treasured a small book of photos that had been passed along with the house for 70-plus years--the ones which showed the last major reno, as documented by the family who lived there in the early 1930s. They were the ones who ripped off the wrap-around front porch to gain an extra 9-feet of living room (which, in the era before standardized building, must have cost a fortune). Not much else had been tampered with since: the windows, moldings and configurations of the dining and living rooms were mostly the same as they had been in 1905; ditto for a small front room we used as a study.

The exception was the back corner of the house, where the kitchen lived. So far as we could tell it had gone through numerous alterations. Its original bones were lost.

Until now. Brent pointed out the old frames of windows and openings on a wall above my sink counter.

"This was clearly a tool shed. John found the plumbing of the first bathroom, which was here," he said, pointing to the back hall. "And we found these under the back porch." He held up a pair of rusted horse shoes.

But they were not the best of the buried treasure. John presented me with two glass bottles they'd found inside the walls. Both were shaped like hip flasks--except one was clearly handblown, and the other was embossed with "Machine Age" font. He'd found the latter one in the walls of the 1930s extension; the first inside the guts of the original structure.

"John, do you realize what these are?"

He shot me a look as if I were making fun of him.

"Uh, yeah."

"No but you see--these aren't just whiskey bottles. They belonged to the workmen ! They left them inside the walls--and we have one from each major renovation! This is fantastic!"

I fondled them lovingly. "You know what this means, right?"

"They drank harder stuff than we do?"

"No! Well, yes, but no. Maybe. It means contractors have drunk on the job throughout history. It's the oil of the machine! I bet inside Roman walls we'd find amphorae... And inside the walls of the pyramids we'd find..."

I was losing him.

I stopped myself. "You know what you have to do, right?"

He smiled. Now he knew where I was going with all this. He wandered away, and a few moments later I heard a sprriiisht!

Thus some day, a hundred years from now, the Jetson-version of John will find a rusty can of Bud inside the walls of our renovated kitchen.


Bottles found inside the walls--including a vintage 1960s Budweiser can. Tab top!

This series originates in the National Post.