A Christmas decoration for all year round

It’s the culmination scene at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” After seeing how the world falls to pieces without him, the angel restores George Bailey’s life. Zuzu’s petals are in his pocket, to his relief; his daughter exists. He runs through the snowy streets of Bedford Falls, greeting all the buildings by name. He bursts through the front door of his house to find the bank examiner and local sheriff, whom he greets with a smile and a “Isn’t it wonderful—I’m going to jail!” He happily leaps up the stairs, accidentally yanking out, kissing and carefully replacing the railing post ball on the stair post—for the third time. And he chuckles before he’s reunited with his beatific children and his wife, who’s summoned the whole town to turn out to help address his financial woes.

He really had a wonderful life, that George Bailey.

And a nice railing post ball. Kissable!

Now we have a nice post ball, too.

spiral ball

leaves-on-spiral-ball.jpgWhen the stairway was installed, the hollow center poll just had a cover. If someone removed the cover, they could drop something down the post, never to retrieve it 12 feet down. But now, we have a distinctive ball made of overlapping iron leaves.

The proprietress of the spiral stair manufacturer found the one-of-a-kind feature for us online (she’s as big a fan of eBay as Tyler). A deal at $45. Described as “antique, architectural salvage newell fence post finial,” it’s 10 inches wide and dates to the early 1900s. We won the auction and handed it off to the spiral team to paint it, which was a bit of a trick given the spaces between the leaves. They managed to paint both the inside and the outside to match our spiral and railings.

Ta, da! The ball on top really sets off the spiral. So pretty, I could kiss it.

spiral ball far off
Bonus: You get to see some of my Christmas decorations, too.

Between air conditioning and the pope, I’ll take air conditioning

Our story so far: As reality has caught up with this blog about converting a 126-year-old Methodist church into our home, I’ve run across a few odds and ends that occurred after I wrote about the subject initially. That’s how it goes with a real-time memoir. Sometimes stuff happens after publication. So for the next week or so, I’ll be sharing a few little stories that will ultimately be integrated into the relevant location in the memoir. Think of this as the time in the novel—especially a mystery novel—when you page back to reread a few passages to remind yourself about what’s going on. Today, a tidbit for Chapter 9.

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Don’t miss how unique this is. All-caps unique.

Amusing things one finds in a 126-year-old Methodist church: Along with an assortment of pots of pans, a wooden box labeled TNT and a 1969 map of Palestine, Tyler found the owner’s manual for The Excelsior UNIQUE Oil Burning Air Conditioner in the furnace room.

An oil-burning air conditioner?

A careful reading of the manual from the Exelsior Steel Furnace Company revealed the air being conditioned was probably for heat, not cooling. There is no date on the manual, but I guessed it was at least sixty years old. Excelsior Steel Furnace was founded in 1886 and, based on the existence of an operational website, National Excelsior Company was apparently still in operation as an HVAC supplier. The oil furnace in the church had been replaced at some point by gas forced air.

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Today’s headline comes from Woody Allen’s character Harry Block in “Deconstructing Harry.”

Tomorrow: What happened to the French doors we found. Read about it here.

How old—really—is this old church?

Our story so far: Our old Methodist church we purchased to turn into a home came with a long history and many memories.

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Author’s note: As one might expect in a real-time memoir, facts don’t always come to light in perfect chronology, and today I’m correcting one of those facts.

During one of the early showings of the church, Tyler and I learned from the caretaker that the church had been built in 1899, so when I began this blog, we believed the church was 119 years old.

Well, that’s close. But not quite. I learned later that the sanctuary for the church was constructed in late 1891, making the church 126 years old. So I’ve attempted to correct every reference to the church’s age in this blog (and boy, were there a lot!). Today, I’m sharing that story of discovery.

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In early January, I joined the historical society meeting of the nearby congregation with whom the parishioners of our church had merged a year and half before. Tyler and I were curious about the history of the church, and I figured these ladies might have answers.

Three women had gathered in one of the rooms of the parish hall, and they were already hard at work when I arrived. One efficient woman was filing bulletins. Another was writing thank you notes for donations to the church. The third, a long-time member of the congregation of our church whom Tyler and I had met when we attended the worship service a few weeks prior, greeted me warmly.

“Oh, I brought some things you might be interested in,” she said. “I didn’t know if you would make it here today.”

As we chatted, the woman writing thank-you notes realized I was the person who’d purchased the former church. “Are you the woman who bought the church? The one writing about it?”

She looked at me like I was a celebrity, and I was flattered.

“Yup, that’s me.” I’m sure I wasn’t blushing.

Bludeprint of main floor
Original blueprint of the old Methodist church.

This friendly group welcomed me, and directed me to a number of interesting newspaper articles about the church and the original blueprints (which were actually blue). Meanwhile, they continued their work. I learned that day that the best history keeping occurs in the present, not the past. Their work to document what was going on in their congregation in the here and now—the pastors, the weddings and funerals, baptisms and confirmations—might be best appreciated in a hundred years, just as I was appreciating the work of nameless women and men in the past who saved blueprints and cut out newspaper articles.

Poring through the newspaper stories, I learned the Methodist congregation in my little village formed in 1859 at a time when total membership in Methodist societies in America was growing rapidly and the U.S. Civil War was still the subject of speculation; Wisconsin had become a state only eleven years before. Services were conducted in the schoolhouse and in a building also used by Congregational and Baptist congregations.

The building Tyler and I had taken ownership of on Nov. 28, 2017, had been built in late 1800s by a Rev. Smith who had collected donations in order to purchase the lot for $300 on Sept. 29, 1891, not long after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Sherlock Holmes mystery and Benjamin Harrison was in the middle of his single term as president of the United States. The Sunday school and preaching hall (the modern-day sanctuary portion of the building) were dedicated two months later on Nov. 29, 1891, according to a history of the church recounted in a local newspaper.

So our church was almost exactly 126 years old.

(The motion picture “Hostiles” playing in theaters right now makes mention of a direct order from President Harrison and dramatizes the struggle of Native Americans and pioneers in that era; it’s difficult to imagine women wearing bonnets and men carrying shotguns and driving a team of horses to our church, but surely, that’s what was happening at the time.)

By 1894 (a year after inventor Whitcomb Judson debuted his “clasp locker,” more popularly known as a zipper, at the Chicago World’s Fair), the church membership had increased to twenty-five. Since women didn’t earn the right to vote in national elections until 1920, I’m guessing the figure of twenty-five was of men. An addition—what I have been calling the overflow area—was built. The addition also must have included the belfry though that isn’t specifically mentioned in the historical papers.

mauve wallpaper
Could this be original mauve wallpaper?

The 1890s became known as the Gay Nineties (history books today are quick to clarify the meaning of the word gay back then—an age of merriment and decadence). The era is also sometimes referred to as the Mauve Decade because chemist William Henry Perkin’s aniline dye—a synthetic alternative to the expensive natural dyes in use at the time—introduced the widespread use of that color in fashion. Interestingly, what appears to be the original wall covering in the sanctuary of our church is mauve-colored paper over the plaster.

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Tomorrow: We find more old photos of the church. See them here.

Little things matter

Our story so far: As we demo the interior, we found a multitude of items in our old church to toss or give away.

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Two and a half weeks after we closed on the church, Tyler’s hired man St. Johnny tackled the closet I had once told Tyler I would clean out first. So many other priorities had pushed their way to the front of the line.

The closet was a single door along the eave on the second floor. When we’d first toured the church, a hand-lettered sign was posted on the closet door warning: “Do not open!” Of course, I opened it. Inside I found a couple of paint cans and a whole lot of dirty insulation.

“Oh, I think I read somewhere they had a wild animal in here. Maybe it was in there,” the real estate agent said.

But Stan the squirrel found a final resting place elsewhere.

Now, St. Johnny was demolishing the whole wall; my procrastination had become his opportunity. We hoped to create storage there, maybe enclosed by short, sliding barn doors.

St. Johnny found a whole lot more than old paint (but no live animals). The single closet door led to a long space along the eave, filled with Christmas decorations. Ah, so the church had already been using it as storage. Unfortunately, all of it was covered in a thick layer of dust and insulation.

As usual, St. Johnny moved boxes to my sorting station, and I sorted through them to determine what was garbage, what was worth donating and what was worth keeping.

All of the tinsel, the Easter basket stuffing and a box of Christmas manger costumes some Sunday School class in 1970 wore went into the dumpster. Some talented mom (or a moms) had turned a passel of second graders into proud shepherds watching a flock of kindergarteners by night. But the costumes had seen better days. At least three hundred dollars worth of multi-colored Christmas lights went to the basement; at some later date we would determine if these lights could be used to decorate the exterior of the church.

I found two manger scenes. One included a lighted plastic three-foot tall Holy Family. I couldn’t bear to relegate the miniature family to the dumpster, so I situated them on the curb. It was an unseasonably warm day in the middle of December, and only an hour went by before a passing van determined they had room at the inn.

“Hey, are you giving these away?”

“Yup,” I called out from inside the church, “they’re all yours.”

At the other manger-scene extreme was a cardboard stable filled with little figurines. The disintegrating barn went into the dumpster. But like their bigger relatives, I couldn’t bear to toss the figurines. So I brought them home, intent on at least washing them before giving them away.

three marys
Three Marys, one baby.

As I scrubbed their faces gently in the soapy dishwater (the “gently” part came after I erased a Wise Man’s face—ugh), I determined the figurines came from at least three different crèche scenes. I had three Marys but only one baby Jesus; this evoked a memory of my little brother who repeatedly stole Baby Sweets from my Mattel Sunshine Family back in the late 1970s—babies can be so compelling. Still, maybe someone was missing a Mary. So on the last day of the year I used my final opportunity to claim a tax deduction for a charitable donation, and I transported my motley manger family to Goodwill. Maybe someone would find a treasure in an expressionless Wise Man, or maybe not. But at least I tried.

defaced wise man
Tell me I’m not the only one reminded of the man whose face melted when he looked at the contents of the Ark in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

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Tomorrow: Some things are even more sacred than figurines of the Holy Family. Click here to read it.

A remodeling mantra only a Tom Hanks fan could love

Our story so far: The owners of the church struggle to come up with the paperwork to sell it.

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When our offer was about to expire on Halloween, the seller ominously requested two more weeks. All Hallows’ Eve, or the evening before All Saints’ Day known popularly as Halloween is the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (“hallows”), martyrs and all the faithful departed. Though frustrated, we didn’t want our deal to die. We were faithful. But the “two more weeks” sounded like a warning.

Home remodeling fans surely recall the infamous line from Tom Hanks in the movie “The Money Pit.” Everything was going to take two weeks. Construction. Reconstruction. Repairs. Finishing. Everything was “two weeks.” In the beginning, the unfortunate home owner played by Hanks asks a contractor, “When I do get the permits, how long will the job take?”

“Two weeks,” the contractor says.

“Two weeks? Two weeks?”

“You sound like a parakeet there. ‘Two weeks! Two weeks!’” the contractor mocks.

“Well, two weeks. It—it’s amazing,” says Tom Hanks’ character, shaking his head.

“’It’s amazing’ nothing,” the contractor says under his breath as he drives away in a pickup truck. “It’ll be a regular miracle.”

At this point in the game, we were depending on that miracle. Because without it, our water lines in the camper were going to freeze and we’d be two shivering homeless grandparents-to-be.

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Tomorrow: Chapter 2 opens with a meditation on the meaning of crazy. Click here to read.