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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

 

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