I replaced the back door today. The job’s not quite done, I did the rough work. Took out the old one, and fitted and shimmed the new one. Have to finish it off tomorrow. It’s profoundly satisfying. A clean, glass, mullioned window, where there was cracked and hazy plexiglass. The new door closes without any need to slam. You just gently pull it to, and “click” it’s closed. It’s new, and I find that a bit disturbing. The old door was original to the house. Our house, built in 1907, has never had its back door replaced. The doorknob on the old door matched those throughout the house. The old door was made of chestnut. It was rickety; the panels were split and filled with caulk to uphold some pretense of keeping out the winter chill. The new door is fiberglass and filled with foam insulation, solid, secure, energy-conserving, new.
The new makes me anxious. Specifically new things, even more specifically–physically big new things. I do not trust the new as I do the old. Intellectually I’m extremely progressive, but in the physical realm I generally find wisdom in the way things have been done, not in the ways that some ad agency would have me do them. Our kitchen stove is a 1928 Barstow that I bought disassembled at a yard sale and put back together. It’s made of enameled steel and cast iron; it’s on legs. As seductive as new things can be, I’ve found that I regret it every time I forget my conservative judgment and buy junk, or what is later revealed to be junk. I want things that last; that I can fix myself, things that are worth fixing–a high bar for “new” in this country.
My fiberglass door meets the bar. Part of me wonders what I should do with the old door. Chestnut is like oak-lite; though it looks like oak, it lacks oak’s strength. Chestnut is splintery, and weak–at least 103 year old chestnut is. I cannot recycle the wood in the door to any useful purpose. It does not carve well, nor is it structurally useful. So I could burn it in the fire pit in the back yard–hopefully there is not much or any lead in the paint. Seems like an undignified end for a centennial fixture.
All of the doors and all of the baseboards and trim in this house are made of chestnut. In 1907 chestnut trees were cheap because they were all dying:
“Infection of Asian chestnut trees with the chestnut blight fungus was discovered on Long Island in 1904. The blight appears to have been introduced from either China or Japan. Japanese and some Chinese chestnut trees show some resistance to infection by C. parasitica: they may be infected, but the fungus does not usually kill them. Within 40 years the near-4 billion-strong American chestnut population in Northern America was devastated ” –Wikipedia “Chestnut Blight”
My mother recently gave me the dining room set that had belonged to my great grandparents, purchased in the first decade of the 20th Century. I had thought they were oak, but no, they are chestnut too. Chestnut looks a lot like oak but it is lighter weight and has broad cross-grain inclusions that show up in quarter-sawn pieces. My wife’s sideboard, given to her by her mother–chestnut as well. My favorite chair, nicknamed “The Electric Chair,” is also chestnut. I love these venerable objects, for their own beauty, for their connection to history, for their service in my life. I will mourn the door a little.
So the chestnut door goes to the dump. That rickety, noisy, old door is replaced by the new, by the solid, by the quiet, by the superior. It is a door that I can imagine lasting for the next hundred years. One that I can fix if need be.