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Old buildings


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I am a sucker for old buildings. I have love affairs, infatuations, with handsome old empty buildings. They have potential. Homestead shacks, abandoned houses with the wind whistling through the cracks, dusty warehouses or lovely brick commercial buildings, long ago boarded up. I am an incurable romantic. The phrase "fixer-upper" makes my breath go shallow, my knees weak and my heart pound. Lovelorn lass that I am, I ache to restore their old bones to their former glory. But the word "potential" sets off alarm bells and whistles. I have trained my mind to alert me to this danger. I hang onto my heart, compute the hundreds of thousands of dollars that each project would undoubtedly cost, then force myself to drive on down the road. When I decided to return to Montana, after my long exile in the Seattle area, I remembered the first time I visited an artist friend's loft in the city. What a romantic place to live, I thought. I searched high and low, east and west, for something similar here, a non-conventional living space. I checked out two store fronts in Big Sandy. I spent hours mentally reconstructing a convenience store in Chinook. I drooled over a two-story brick in Chester. Finally, I bought my Dad's old house in Harlem, a simple rambler, and renovated it to suit my needs. It was not the project I dreamed over. It lacked romance. But it is wellbuilt and I did not have to fool with expensive rewiring, heating or plumbing. But a building in Chinook still tugs at my heartstrings. Like a love-sick puppy, I often drive into town, park in front of it and mourn. I envision my expansive apartment up on the top floor, an open space large enough for a ball room, which I would turn into an art studio, a gallery. The floor to ceiling windows would trap all the light of the big sky. I would line the room with bookshelves, throw old Kilim rugs onto the scuffed hardwood floors which I would sand only enough to take down the rough spots but would leave their aged character. I would hold a salon with my favorite recovered couches and chairs grouped to create conversation islands. To support the building, the main floor could be renovated into apartments or business spaces. I could see it clearly. I walked through that building four times, trying to make it work for me. I could have bought the building but I did not have the thousands of dollars to bring it up to code plus the thousands of dollars to bring out its true potential. So I had to let it go. Recently I had an affair with another historical brick building, this one in Harlem, the old New England Hotel. It is truly a grand structure, complete with a curved staircase up to the second floor. The staircase is not quite up to Scarlett O'Hara standards, but I could see a bride slowly descending to the music of the grand piano and the hushed admiration of the wedding guests. One trip through the hotel and I had mentally knocked out walls and created a rustic bed and breakfast. Each spacious room would paint a homespun picture, complete with iron bedsteads, maple dressers, rag rugs, patch quilts, muslin curtains at the long tall windows and claw-foot tubs behind tri-fold screens. This time I would place my personal apartment on the ground floor, right in the middle of all the action. But it was the same story, same unhappy ending. No way did I have enough money for code and cosmetics to make over the grand old dame. Last week a local businessman told me that the old derelict should be torn down. "You could put up a nice new steel building in that spot for a hundred- fifty thou," he said. I cringed at the thought. My heart dropped into my stomach. He's right, of course. But our town would lose half a block of architecture and a major portion of its history. I think too much with my heart and not enough with my wallet. I can see the shadows of the craftsmen who built with pride and then added the touches that made the New England Hotel unique. I can see the ghosts of former occupants roaming the halls. A man shuffles into one room and sits down at an oak desk piled high with business papers. He removes a flask from his vest pocket and swigs a hearty slug of rye whiskey to ease the pain of a deal gone bad. In another room, I watch a worried mother rock a fretful baby, feverish with colic. This venerable building has weathered storms, meteorological and monetary, political and personal. I soak up its stories as though I lived them. I sigh, turn my head, and then see the finished project as I would re-design it, a place to welcome new people with new stories of their own. I have other loves; one in Big Sandy, a handsome beauty in Ritzville, Wash., and a sweetie in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. They all have real potential, honest they do, and I know if I could just love them enough, they would be wonderful. (Sondra Ashton graduated from Harlem High in 1963 and left for good. She finds, after recently returning, things now look a bit different. Join her in a discussion of her column at http://montanatumbleweed. Blogspot.com.)


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