Sunday, October 27, 2013

J'ai détruit mon parterre: a very brief history of European landscape architecture

Mon parterre - before I cut it down
Aerial view of my backyard from Google Maps
A parterre is a formal garden featuring plant beds in a symmetrical pattern with gravel paths in between. The beds are lined with short, clipped hedges, often boxwood.  They became popular during the French Renaissance and were common in Europe until the 1700s.  At that point, people started to favor a more naturalistic look inspired by paintings of ancient Greek ruins.  Yards were made to look wild and natural, and some people actually installed fake ruins and artificially tumble-down hermitages.  For some hilarious and informative discussions of English landscape architecture from that era (as well as discussions of thermodynamics, Lord Byron, Fermat's last theorem, and just about everything else), I refer you to Tom Stoppard's fantastic play Arcadia.

It appears that someone decided to plant a parterre in my backyard.  As you can see from the photos, the backyard contained a rectangular arrangement of low boxwood hedges with gravel paths in between.   Unfortunately, it also appears that someone neglected to water it, so by the time I bought the house, the hedge was largely dead.  The palo verde tree in the center of the parterre was also a pretty weird juxtaposition.  The small piece of California desert as the centerpiece of a Renaissance Europe formal garden was just...weird.

A knot garden is like a parterre, but the beds are specifically planted with herbs.  My parterre had two baby citrus trees and a sprig of sage in the beds around the edges.  Maybe this was a Californiafied knot garden?  Or perhaps the parterre was planted first, and someone later came in and planted the citrus and palo verde trees on top of it.  That seems more likely.

I thought at first that the parterre might have been original to the house.  It kind of seemed like something someone in the 1920s might have done.  A lot of Easterners migrated to California around that time period and brought their Eastern landscaping and construction practices here, despite the fact that the climate doesn't always lend itself well to those practices.  But, one of the hedges still had a plastic tag from the nursery inside it, and I found some receipts in the garage that I think were for boxwood hedges.  I believe the parterre dates from sometime around 2000.

If it had been original, I might have felt bad about tearing it out.  But, original or no, the parterre had to go.  Lawns and water-hungry hedges just don't make sense here in Southern California.  I plan to turn the backyard into a wonderland of drought-tolerant shrubbery, and, with the exception of my citrus trees, anything that requires regular watering is henceforth banned from the yard.  I want my wonderland to be wild and thick, I guess more like the 18th century style inspired by ancient Greek ruins rather than the earlier geometrical Renaissance style.  I might even put in some California "ruins" of my own.  I kind of have my eye on a windmill I saw at an antique store.

So, I had a bunch of friends over for a morning of social destruction (thanks, guys!), and we chopped down all the boxwood hedges and dug out all the roots.  We also trimmed up the rest of the yard, which was badly overgrown.  I kept the palo verde tree, the sage clump, and the baby citrus trees.  I'll redistribute the gravel into a new path through my wonderland of shrubbery.

Speaking of paths, note that hedge mazes evolved out of knot gardens.  If my parterre/knot garden had been a hedge maze, maybe I would have kept it.  Wouldn't you?  But, well, maybe my meandering shrubbery wonderland path can be a bit maze-like. Stay tuned for more gardening updates as this project evolves.
My backyard without the boxwood hedges

Friday, October 11, 2013

Why fridges stink (and the bottoms of cabinet doors are dirty)

My mom is here visiting me, and today we set to work cleaning the kitchen.  It wasn't too bad, but there was the usual slime and stickiness that comes with years of food preparation.

The underside of the cabinet doors were strangely dirty with yellowish goo.  Here's my theory: Liquidy stuff rolls off the edge of the countertop, lands on the top of the cabinet doors, drips down the inside of the cabinet door, and then sort of puddles up on the underside of the cabinet door.  No one ever thinks to clean the underside of the cabinet doors near the floor.  I tend to notice and get bothered by stuff like that.  Anyway, I scrubbed down all the kitchen cabinets while my mom cleaned the refrigerator.

The refrigerator smells.  It's empty, and I've been airing it out for a week, but it still smells gross.

Smell is caused by something giving off molecules and by those molecules ending up in your nose.  Molecules from that object actually float through the air and end up in your nose.  How gross is that!?  Yummy, I'm inhaling somebody else's old rotten food particles!!  Smelly molecules are generally light, volatile chemicals that easily get blown off their material of origin.  Items made of non-volatile materials (like a hunk of metal) don't smell because they don't give off any gases.

Fridges stink because food gives off a lot of volatile chemicals.  Moisture comes out of food and floats around the fridge, which is a pretty air-tight area.  It's especially bad when the food stays in there long enough to rot or spoil.  It builds up and in there and sticks to the walls and the racks.  When you open the door, all the air rushes out and slams into you.  You inhale it.  Yay.

The back of your nasal cavity has millions of olfactory receptor neurons that each have little cilia on them with receptor proteins which bind with the smelly molecules in the air.  The neurons transmit a signal to the brain.  Different receptors are sensitive to different types of molecules, and the combination of firing neurons is distinct for different types of smells.  Personally, I think smelly fridges all tend to smell similarly gross.  Maybe the diet of most people I'm around is similar enough that their fridges are full of pretty much the same stuff.

When a smell is present for a long time, the brain experiences habituation.  It ignores the constant stimulation and only alerts you to new changes.  I guess if I lived in the fridge (or my whole house smelled like fridge), it wouldn't bother me.  But when you first open the fridge and get doused with it, your brain just goes "Eeeew, gross!"

My mom thoroughly scrubbed down all the surfaces inside the fridge.  Tomorrow, we're going to check underneath it.  There should be a drip pan somewhere designed to catch condensation which might be full of dirty, smelly water.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Encryption - a post about door locks
My house has three doors - a front door and two back doors (because there are two separate additions on the back of the house, each of which has its own door to the outside).  When my realtor gave me the keys for my house, I discovered that none of the keys opened either of the back doors.  I complained to my realtor, and she complained to the seller's realtor, and this resulted in a handyman being sent over to change out the locks on the back door.

Well, being a somewhat anal retentive person, I decided I really wanted all the doors to have the same key, and I had wanted to change all the locks anyway, for the sake of security.  Also, one of the back doors didn't have a deadbolt on it, so I wanted one put on.  The handyman said he could do all that, and by the end of the afternoon, all the locks had been changed to have the same key, and there was a new deadbolt on the back door.

The standard pin tumbler lock like my doors have is a piece of 6000-year-old technology.  The Ancient Egyptians used it.  Inside, it has a set of plugs and a rotating cylinder.  When the correct key is inserted, the plugs are raised to the correct levels so that the cylinder is no longer blocked from rotating, and you can open the door.  To re-key a door lock, you don't have to replace the entire deadbolt or door handle.  You just have to remove the hardware from the door and replace the little cylinder with one designed to work with a different key.

Actually, I wonder how many unique keys there can possibly be with this design.  I suppose the correct height of the pins can be changed in infinitesimal increments, but in reality, the increments is probably limited by the manufacturing tools, so there must be a finite number of possible keys.

The locks on my doors aren't particularly old-fashioned or charming.  In fact, the doors themselves are all new, which is explains the new hardware.  It would have been more fun if they looked something like this one from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London:

A few years ago, when I was traveling in London, I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum.  Officially a "museum of decorative arts and design", it really comes across as a museum of random old stuff.  It has collections of old clothing, musical instruments, furniture, jewelery, art, etc.  It's like, "Here's a bunch of junk we collected when we were colonizing the world!"  Anyway, The V&A has a large collection of locks and keys from throughout the ages.  The day I was there, there was a large music and architecture festival going on called Explore Sights and Sounds.  There was BBC-sponsored children's group performing a composition of their own making called "Encryption", inspired by the lock and key exhibit.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Time Axis - A dorky post about spacetime coordinates

"Melinda's house blog" was a boring placeholder name for this blog while I tried to come up with something creative.  I've renamed it to "Time Axis", which I think conveys my house project in a suitably abstract and dorky manner.

My house is a historic house.  Several generations of owners have dwelled in it since it was build in 1920, each customizing it to their own needs.  Now it's my turn.  I don't know who these people were, but as I explore the house and make my own modifications, I'll be discovering small things about them because they left clues about themselves in the house.  We share something - our spatial coordinates.  We just landed on different places on the time axis.

Right now is my time on the time axis of this house.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Chickens, lizards, and spiders, oh my!

My house has a detached garage.  When the termite inspectors looked over the house before I purchased it, they found a small active termite infestation in the garage (luckily nothing in the main house), so I need to get that taken care of soon.  However, at some point in the past, somebody tacked up a bunch of mismatched pieces of thin paneling on the interior garage walls.  Behind the paneling was a bunch of Styrofoam, meticulously cut to fit between the support beams.  I guess this was supposed to be insulation, but it was a nasty mess, full of bee nests, spider egg sacks, and who knows what else.  The person I bought the house from told me that someone in the past used to keep chickens in the garage, so maybe the attempt at insulation was for the chickens.  I decided I should pull all of this out, since I'm not storing chickens in the garage, and since it might be covering up more patches of termite infestation.

Styrofoam "insulation"
Ugly, brittle paneling with Styrofoam behind it.
My parents have an old house in Mississippi, and I had commented to my dad earlier in the day that I might find all sorts of weird things in the garage, but, unlike Mississippi, at least I probably wouldn't find any snakes in there.  But, of course, what was the first thing I found?

... ?! ...

Actually, thankfully, it wasn't a snake.  It was a large and rather mangy-looking lizard, but I definitely did a double-take when I first saw it.  When wild animals feel threatened, they go through a few phases of response.  First is Plan A.  Plan A involves sitting very still and pretending that you're not there, hopefully convincing that predator that you actually aren't there.  If that fails, the animal resorts to Plan B.  Plan B involves remaining where you are but showing your teeth, hopefully convincing the predator that you are dangerous.  Failing that, the animal resorts to Plan C, which is to run away.  My garage lizard tried Plan A for a while, but I stopped staring at it, and it never had to get to Plan B or Plan C.  It eventually lurked away into the shadows when it thought I wasn't looking anymore.

Someone had nailed a bottle cap to the wall that said "I've often thought of becoming a lizard."  Maybe they finally did it!

The mish-mash of paneling came down easily.  I was going to remove the nails, but the paneling just sort of ripped off over the nails with very little cajoling.  I will have to figure out how to dispose of it.  I pulled out all the Styrofoam and filled up 6 large garbage bags with it.  The whole process was very dirty.  My decision to cover up in long pants, long sleeves, safety glasses, work gloves, and a dust mask was a good one.

Elsewhere in the garage, I removed a random wooden rod that was dangling from the ceiling and some disintegrating newspapers that were lining some of the shelves.  They were Redlands Daily Facts papers from January 23, 1970, and featured updates from Vietnam and an explanation of azalea blooming habits.  It also included this large ad from Southern California Edison for all-electric houses featuring a cavewoman.  I guess electric stoves and climate control are a large improvement over the, um, fire pits and caves that most people in Redlands were using in 1970.

 My forays into the deep dark recesses also rewarded me with two cardboard boxes full of papers belonging to a previous owner (not the one I bought it from), including school transcripts and medical bills.  I haven't quite figured out what I should do with those yet.

Through the Looking Glass

Hi!  I'm Melinda.  I just bought a historic house in Redlands, California, and since this is my first foray into home ownership, I decided to keep a public diary of my adventures.
Melinda's new house in Redlands

I love old houses.  I grew up in an old house.  I love the craftsmanship and care that went into designing and building them, and I love to uncover the old mysteries you're bound to find in them.  I love the sense of history, of living in the same place where other people have carried out their lives in the past, each adapting it to his own needs.

My new old house was built in 1920.  The original owners were the Starkweathers, who ran one of the local telephone companies.  It's around 1000 square feet, 2 bedrooms, 1 bath, a fantastic screened-in porch on the back, a detached garage, and a large backyard.

The house is in great shape for its age, but, as is true of any old house, it needs some work.  And it needs some love and care to really make it mine.  In this blog, I will share my house-related projects and adventures with you.

Below are some photos of the interior, which I snagged from the Zillow ad.  The furnishings aren't mine.  The house is completely empty now.