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Sunday, May 23, 2021

Day Ten: Basements Part II: A (Perfectly not Horrifying) History

My research on today's topic, undertaken because of interest and from a sense that I perhaps maligned our beloved basements just a bit and need to be forgiven, took me across the world and under a million homes, palaces, cathedrals and towns. Grumpiness can lead to rash writing, perhaps I owed Hades, the Styx and the owners of home cinemas another shot.

Basements, root cellars or, as they are known in French, 'underground stories', are most often tied to spooky, haunted, homicidal or creepy themes throughout literature. The story that comes immediately to mind, naturally, is Poe's The Cask of Amontillado, burned forever into my twelve-year-old brain many and many a year ago. I once owned a house that had a lower level below the first lower level that was this place. Neither were technically underground, as the house was built into the ramparts of the ancient village. They were just-lower and the same as Montresor's; vaults, crypts, archway following archway, built of splendidly aligned bricks and entirely free of skeletons, from what we could tell by torchlight, and a great place to keep wine if you enjoyed descending and going back up a ladder into the deepest dark each time you wanted a bottle.

As for North America, the very best information I found to justify basements was that in northern climates, the frost depth is 3 feet. If you want to build a home that is not at risk of its foundations being cracked by water expansion (it expands by approximately 9% underground, according to [1],) the hole needs to be dug to a depth greater than 3 feet. Yes, put that way, it sounds like a bright idea. Adding a greater depth, while you're at it, "does not cost much more," according to sources, but it does permit storage of important northern needs like boilers and furnaces, as well as a spot to store fruits and vegetables, and later to put the washer and dryer.

Roman constructions, even the grandest, were not built upon basements, with a rare exception or rather exactly two: two houses from Pompei were the oddballs, and the ones that probably lead us to think this was a general truth across the empire. On the other hand, the simple Celtic cabin had an underground room, with a proper set of stairs, and not a rope or a ladder in the Gallic style, for storage of food and a place to shelter from the cold. Some cities, famously Paris, had an entire underground hollowed out by mining; limestone mining for that city. And yet, most people would be quick to tell you that houses are not built with a basement in France. If the house happens to have a cellar, it was dug with one purpose only in mind; for a cave à vin, or to store wine at a proper temperature, or maybe for cheese-making if you are Roquefort. No room to roller skate to the Beatles.

As I dug a bit more, I discovered another truth; there were many other uses for these spaces; Paris, again figures in the list of blood-curdling and methodical utilitarian concepts. In the late 1700's, over twelve years, the tunnels were filled with the bones of six to seven million former citizens that had overpopulated the cemeteries of the City of Light. Oui, it was decided, best bury all that, but in a tidy fashion, and then open it up as a tourist attraction. And you wondered where the idea of a haunted house might have begun? 

If you pay an additional entry fee, you can explore the cryptic levels of many a cathedral or basilica in Europe, where relics of saints, including body parts, dead bishops and the occasional thorn from Christ's Crown of Thorns are kept. Not creepy in the least.



1-This Old House: Basements

Paris Catacombs

 

Friday, May 14, 2021

Of the Ordinary: Day 8: Basements

It is one of the great delusions of first-time homeowners all across America: this hole that was dug as a foundation for the house is going to be a fantastic bonus space. Hey; we can have a rec room for the kids (1970's), a home cinema (1980's), a home gym (1990's), a guest bedroom and bathroom (2000's): why not TWO bedrooms???! No, I know, a CRAFT room; the sewing machine can go there and the hundred thousand bins of ribbons and buttons and yarn can go right over there. Now we're talking. 

I have fond memories of our first basement sprucing up project. It was to be the year of the teen space in the basement. We debated over color schemes, where to move toys to make room for an old sofa, how to place the tv that would now live downstairs. There was a lot of excitement, hours of communal painting with music blasting (Les Miserables, bien entendu). Small children were given blocks, older ones paintbrushes. We even bought a large, navy blue rug to complement the champagne-colored walls and orange sorbet swirled trim. 

We had a fine year or two down there. Movie nights, sewing lessons, and cozy tornado warning sheltering; with snacks, and the emergency weather radio station droning in the background while we played cards and bounced toddlers on our laps. We began to buy into the idea that we actually had another real room.

And then comes spring or maybe the moment waits for summer. You walk down one morning to toss a load of laundry into the washing machine; (which is the only thing that actually belongs in a basement), and your fuzzy bunny slipper goes "SPLUTCH" in a puddle...again. Curse words and a long morning (if you're lucky, it is morning and not 9 p.m.) of clean-up usually follow.

Mop, wring, mop some more, pick up all the things that might rot or rust, break out the fans, turn up the dehumidifier, and, if this is your first rodeo, remove the soggy carpet. 

If this is your second or beyond and you are still putting carpeting in your basement; then you were handed a big hint by the universe that you chose to greet with a blind fold over your eyes in a dark closet...and then ignore. Water follows gravity. It will find a way to move to the lowest level. It will seep, leak and gurgle its way in.

All this aside, I completely understand the impulse to make use of a basement and I do love this underground bit of our house. I really appreciate the storage room that is shelved, high-up like, where things can be stored and kept dry, the table for my sewing machine, and the pale orange floor...painted cement and easy-care. Even our rugs have been replaced with a foam gym mat. Yes, the television is still down there too, and there are two (lightweight) sofas but with waterproof feet. We are too are stuck in the fantasy realm of useful basements, but taken with a grain of salt and a shop-vac close at hand.