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Monday, July 30, 2007

The silence of the lambs basement

I use a running joke with customers about the "Michigan basements" that many of our old houses in the Village have (I have one, too). It's that we're about to go to the "silence of the lambs basement" when we start down to the basement under an old, historic house. I actually picked that up from a customer a few years back. We got down into the basement of a historic house and she commented that it was spooky, like in the movie "Silence of the Lambs". And so it is. Many of these old basements still have dirt floors or at least dirt crawl spaces in addition to whatever concrete flooring has been put in over time. Some (mine included) still have cisterns - large holding tanks (think of the deep pit in the movie where the lady was kept) in the floor or built above the floor, where run-off water from the roof could be stored. I have a large square holding tank in the middle of my Michigan basement.

Many, if not most, of these old basements are largely unused, except for storage. Some have the laundry down there, but most just house the mechanical for the house - the water softener, the water heater and the heating and cooling systems. Except for the occasional trip to refill the water softener tank, there is little reason to go down into most of these "dungeons". So, spider webs build up and when you do go down there you end up walking through them - always a "special" experience, especially for women. Of course, they do have great value as disciplinary tools with grandchildren. One trip to the dungeon and a few stories about little children sent to the basement who never returned and you have a rather effective deterrent (not that I would ever do that, of course) for little Billy or Amy.

One fascinating aspect of many of the basements of the older historic homes in Milford - homes in the 1830 through the 1860's range - is the number that have complete tree trunks holding them up and acting as the main cross-members under the floors. People are surprised to see actual tree trunks, bark and all, in the basement. These were often not cut or hewn in any way, other than to be notched for better fit; so, they are readily recognizable as tree trunks. That surprises and fascinates most Americans. But, if you take an Englishman or most Europeans, through they find it relatively normal. One has to remember that a house built in the 1800's is relatively new, compared to homes in Europe and in England.

You can also get a good feel for the progress of the house over time, as the home was expanded and changed. You can usually see the original foundation (rocks, sometimes just stacked and sometimes filled with mortar, for the original foundation)and any newer additions (progressing through concrete block walls and on to poured concrete walls). Since some of these older homes have been added onto many times, the basements are like a timeline for the house. In a few, rare cases, some owner, sometime has paid to have the whole house jacked up and a modern basement put underneath. The house looses some of its character, but at least it gets a useful basement.

So, the next time that you visit a Michigan basement in a historic house, remember the Silence of the Lambs and see if you get a bit spooked, too.

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