The patina of an old house

January 23, 2009

Here’s another interesting house history find: I found these words scrawled on the inside of our built-in entryway bench. You pretty much have to stick your head in there to see them clearly, but the big one says “Raymond Wai” and there’s a crayoned message next to it that says “Judy Wang, 235 Frisbie.”

Names in the bench

Names in the bench

The Wais owned our home in the 1960s, when a number of Asian (and especially Chinese) families lived in this neighborhood. (Down the street, our oldest neighbors are one of the few families from that generation who still live here.) Frisbie’s a few streets up, so Judy must have been a neighborhood friend. I hadn’t known whether or not the Wai family had children—or even if they actually lived here—so this was an exciting find! A little digging turned up records of Raymond Wai, who was eight years old when his parents bought the house in 1957. (Sadly, he died in 1991.) He had four sisters: Ada, who was a year younger but died at age two; Janice; Marian; and Grace. Haven’t gotten to the library yet to find out if they were also children here, though.The bench also has what I think are Chinese characters written in it—maybe just “Raymond Wai” in Chinese, who knows. Anyone have any idea what this says?

Chinese characters in the bench

Chinese characters in the bench

One of the fun things about old houses is the many secrets of the past that are buried in them. It took me months to discover this one, but we also have little memories of other past residents here and there: the Souza family’s names in the garden path; the previous owner’s initials in the garage cement floor; notes on the bottoms of the cabinetry; old news clippings behind cabinets in the basement. Just the other day I opened a cabinet in our bathroom built-in that I’ve probably opened every day we’ve lived here—and discovered that there’s a strip of decorative woodwork on the back of it, tucked at the far edge and coated in generations of paint. It must have been salvaged, either from another project or from the built-in that came before. (In the 1930s, a lot of our cabinets were rebuilt, and on several, the doors were reversed to show plain “modern” fronts instead of the decorative panels that were original to the house. The California cooler still has its original door—just inside out.)

In an odd way, I like knowing about the generations of families who lived here before we arrived. The little changes each family made and the signs they left behind give the place its character. It makes me wonder who will be walking in our footsteps 50 years from now, thinking about who we might have been and pondering the circles of scratches on the oak floor that look a whole lot like a dog once danced there.


  1. Cool post, and timely for me. I just blogged about a name I found on the back of some drywall in my house.

  2. I’d love to see a pic of the interior panel on your California cooler…

  3. Patrick, do you mean the panel on the door itself, or the interior of the cooler box?

    You can get a glimpse of the door here: California cooler pic. It’s got a bead running between the panel and frame. I’ll try to get a straight-on shot one of these days—the current front looks as though someone has glued on a panel of wood to give it a plain front like the cabinets. I imagine it might have originally been constructed like our hallway built-in—beaded on one side, shaker-style on the other—presumably to be “reversible.”

  4. It’s funny – I would be so excited about finding this sort of thing in our house EXCEPT if my daughter did it RECENTLY. Somehow, the passage of time makes children writing on your woodwork OK! 🙂

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