There’s Lead in Them Thar Sills

Here in California, 100-year-old houses are historic, worthy of plaques and special protection. They also come with special renovation challenges that require compromise—and patience.

Oh, California. I’m sorry for all the nasty things I said about you when I was growing up in Portland. Forgive me, for I was a damp and snarky teenager huddled on a rainy school bus, and I thought I spoke Valley Girl and I thought Milli Vanilli* sang their own songs. 

My teenage self didn’t plan to live in California, much less settle and raise a family here. The nearest I got was a road trip every other year to West Covina to visit the ancestral homeland of my dad, and Disneyland, and the inside of my grandma’s white-carpeted condo. We had some good times visiting the tan contingent of the family and body surfing in the Pacific, but as a state, I didn’t see what was so golden about it. 

Now I am thirty-some years older and fully devoted to this beautiful part of the country—it doesn’t matter why—and for as long as I live I will never take a palm tree for granted again. I’ve found a lot to love, not least the house we get to raise our family in.

The House

We entered the market in the early 2010s, just after the housing crisis had driven prices down so far that many people lost not only their equity, but also their homes. Had we been able to afford a mortgage earlier, we would have been among them. Timing wasn’t our problem, but we had that magical mix of youthful enthusiasm and ignorance, so we were able to find plenty of other problems all on our own. 

How old is the house we chose? Slightly older than the atom bomb, slightly younger than the Titanic. This year it will turn 105.  

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By world standards, 100 years is nothing, mere babyhood, but in the American West it made our new home plaque-worthy, with a legal designation as a protected historic site. We signed contracts promising never to change it without permission from the historical society. Those charmingly fragile, single-paned windows that shudder in their ancient casings when we walk by? We could forget about any energy-efficient upgrades. 

Still, I accepted the notary’s pen and legally acknowledged the fragility of life, the tenuous hold we have on planet Earth, and the total efficiency with which nature could expel us, adding my signature to documents warning that our house was made of LATH, PLASTER, AND POISONOUS LEAD and located in an EARTHQUAKE ZONE, so we could be PULVERIZED TO DUST or SMOKED OUT by WILDFIRE before being SWEPT TO SEA by TSUNAMI and FLOOD. And I didn’t give it a second thought. 

The Problem

If you counted the layers of paint on those sills like the rings of a tree, you might correctly date the house to 1919. Meaning, our house got its first coat of paint the same year Congress agreed to try Prohibition, and that other experiment: allowing women to vote. I didn’t need a test to tell me there was lead in that paint, but I tested it anyway, just for the agony of it.

– Krista Halverson

Until we moved in, that is, and the intangible became tangible. Instead of the beautiful windows, all I could see was the peeling paint on the window frames. I took a closer look and saw that in some places the paint was cracked all the way down to the original wood. 

If you counted the layers of paint on those sills like the rings of a tree, you might correctly date the house to 1919. Meaning, our house got its first coat of paint the same year Congress agreed to try Prohibition, and that other experiment: allowing women to vote. I didn’t need a test to tell me there was lead in that paint, but I tested it anyway, just for the agony of it.

My husband was traveling for work during the first weeks in our new home; simultaneously I realized I had just moved our children, who were then two and four years old, into a Poison-House-Full-of-Brain-Damage. My husband listened to my worries over the phone and we spit-balled solutions. Normally a practical person, I wasn’t bothered by the prospect of renovation and repair, but what little I knew about lead abatement from my late-night panic searches had convinced me we needed to turn on our heels and move.

An overreaction to be sure, but not wholly irrational. The lead once used in building materials and paints is still present in many older buildings today, and removing it is not a simple job. Lead abatement requires specialized training that residential contractors don’t typically have. Affected areas have to be sealed off while hazardous contaminants must be carried out in body bags (as I imagine it) and properly disposed of, whatever that means. While doing this, you must dodge the invisible, airborne lead dust particulates by not walking on the ground or breathing. 

Moving seemed easier. 

Faced with this alternative, we decided the right course of action was limited action, e.g., keeping the original moldings, leaving the original paint, but adding and maintaining layers of safe paint over the old lead stuff. Out of sight, out of mind, out of landfill.

It was neither the perfect solution nor the impossible task it might have been, which leads me to the good news: We didn’t have to move, our hair didn’t fall out, most of us still have most of our teeth. Those two little kids? They’re in high school now, where they appear to be thriving, and the biggest threat to our family’s mental health was my temporary loss of sleep. 

The Takeaway

Sometimes renovating just isn’t the right call. We probably won’t ever have the beautiful hardwood moldings of a 100 year-old craftsman home, but on the other hand, we get to try a new color every time the paint needs a touch-up.

I offer this advice to my younger self: You are not so much an owner as a custodian, part of a longer chain of life; as such, be wary of renovation that favors change over sustainability. Safe soil, safe water, safe air, these are the trends to follow. And also, why not give California a chance? *Girl, you know it’s true.

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Krista Halverson
Krista Halverson
Krista Halverson is a tree-loving transplant to California, who came to the Golden State the long way. After earning an MFA from University of Washington, she sampled life in several corners of the United States, beginning in Portland and rounding her way through New York City and Miami before settling happily in Long Beach. A freelance writer for many years, she lives with her husband, three children, two dogs, and a cat.
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