Peeling back the onion of time

Recording standing structures not only involves architectural drawings and photography, but can also be quite destructive. In an attempt to modernise an old house owners will often cover “old fashioned” features with new materials, plasterboard being the chief culprit. So, during building recording part of our job often involves removing these modern linings (by any means necessary) to reveal the fabrics beneath, going back in time to see what the building was like originally. And, as you can imagine, taking to a wall with a hammer and crowbar is also good for stress relief.

Through extensive use of the notorious hardboard previous owners of this house had gone to great lengths to cover nearly every inch of original decoration inside the house in order to cut down on the weekly chore of dusting.

Through extensive use of the notorious hardboard previous owners of this house had gone to great lengths to cover nearly every inch of original decoration in the house. Every moulded shirting board, architrave and door panel was covered.

Every moulded skirting board, architrave and door panel in the house was covered with hardboard. Photo: K. Webb.

  Hardboard was used on the exterior of the house too. To cover up weatherboards and this decorative cast iron frieze along the top of the veranda.

Hardboard was used on the exterior of the house too. To cover up weatherboards and this decorative cast iron frieze along the top of the veranda. Photo: K. Webb.

Extensive investigation of the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example found so far of this product in Christchurch.

Extensive investigation in the kitchen uncovered this finely moulded paper mache dado. This is the only example of this product found so far in Christchurch. Photo: K. Webb.

Plasterboard and other modern wall linings sometimes have their merits though. They often have the unintended function of doing a really good job of preserving what is beneath it, particularly wallpaper.

wallpaper-layers

Wallpaper is usually found in multiple layers with a backing of scrim. It is sometimes possible to separate the layers right back to the original wallpaper, as long as no one has painted over it of course. Photo: L. Tremlett.

newspaper-wall-lining

We may even get a pleasant surprise when we get to the bottom layer. If there was not much money available for decorating, or for extra draft protection, people would often line their walls with newspaper. Photo: L. Tremlett.

This hand written note was found adhered to the tongue and groove match lining of a cottage in Lyttelton.

This hand written note was found adhered to the tongue and groove match lining of a cottage in Lyttelton. It was well preserved beneath a layer of scrim and plasterboard. It gives details of the sailing of the S. S. Grafton from Hokitika in (we think) 1880. What it was doing stuck in the middle of the front room wall of a cottage is a mystery. Photo: J. Garland

Digging deeper into the fabric of a building one may come across some interesting and sometimes, perhaps, elusive objects inside the walls and under the floors.

This book published by the Scottish Temperance movement in 1877 was found behind the tongue and groove lining in a house in Ashburton.

This book entitled Three Years in a Man-Trap published by the Scottish Temperance League in 1877 was found behind the tongue and groove lining in a house in Ashburton. In this case the books were used as a filler, instead of strips of wood, to even up the gap between the match lining and wall. Photo: J. Garland, H. Williams.

Quite often shoes are found concealed beneath the floors of houses.

Shoes are often found concealed beneath the floors of houses in Christchurch. During the 19th century in Britain and some European countries it was a common custom to conceal shoes within the fabric of the building as magical charms to protect the occupants of the building agains evil influences such as witches and ghosts. We can’t say for sure if this was always the case in Christchurch. Photo: K. Webb

We quite often find other items under the floors of houses, such as animal bones, bottles and other domestic rubbish, as well as the odd mummified cat. These items were most likely not deposited under the house for superstitious reasons, we hope. The cats are later given a proper burial.

This cane riding crop was found beneath the floor of the house of John Cracroft Wilson.

This cane riding crop was found beneath the floor of the house of John Cracroft Wilson. Image: I. Hill.

Beyond the superficial appearance of a structure there is a lot we can learn by quite literally peeling back the layers of a building, or excavating it, if you will. Buildings like these can be more than just houses once lived in. There’s history written in the walls, from the changing tastes in interior decoration to things intentionally hidden, covered up or accidentally lost. Whatever the reasons for these hidden bits and pieces, be they mundane, superstitious or inexplicable, they show us that it’s always worth looking beyond the surface of a building to find the treasures within.

Kirsa Webb

One thought on “Peeling back the onion of time

  1. My first house was a voyage of discovery. Your post bought back lovely memories for me. The walls and doors were covered with hardboard too. Underneath the walls was the most beautiful rimu tongue and groove, and the doors held beautiful coloured glass.

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