Buy a battered old house, and these are your choices: Live in it as it is, which is likely to be inconvenient and uncomfortable. Tear it down and build a new one, which is usually impractical, wasteful and forbiddingly expensive. Renovate and/or remodel it, which often amounts to putting a modern house inside an antique exterior while making do with the structure's quirks and shortcomings. Restore it insofar as possible to its original condition, which involves a firm commitment to hard, slow work (much of it stripping in one form or another) and a willingness to pay the price for costly craftsmanship.
Charles and Katherine Chrisman chose the restoration route after buying a large, century-old Queen Anne house overlooking one of the many lovely lakes in Minneapolis. Restoration was not their original plan; they had thought they would "let some things slide," steering the middle course between doing nothing and doing everything. But an old house doesn't always let its owners stick to their initial plans. Move into one and start poking around, and it won't let you alone:
"Once we take possession of the house in January and have the freedom to roam through the rooms, we begin to discover hidden treasures: Victorian details and forms hidden behind layers of paint and years of remuddling, details we had not noticed before when we were making the decision to buy the house and could see only the grand scheme . . . One of the three large bedrooms contains a white-painted fireplace. Scratching at it, we find colored glazed tile under the paint. We begin to think about stripping the woodwork. Neighbors have told us about a mystery window, visible from the outside of the house, but nowhere to be found inside. We discover it hidden behind a wall in the dining room . . ."
The temptation is irresistible: "It is beginning to seem to us that we truly have found a treasure, and that it must be set right, put back the way it was . . ." Against not merely their intentions but their better judgment, the Chrismans find that "we have fallen into restoration in much the way that two people who have been friends can suddenly discover that they have fallen in love." They hire a general contractor -- a woman whose feeling for the house seems both genuine and deep -- and plunge in.
What it means to plunge in is what "Dreaming in the Dust" is about. It is a charming book and, for those contemplating restoration, an instructive one -- not so much about specific details as about the degree to which restoration can take over and complicate a family's life. In only one respect is it deficient: There is absolutely no discussion of how much the project cost. It is clear from what was done that the cost was considerable, but the reader is not given even the vaguest sense of how much that was. This may be modesty on Katherine Chrisman's part, but it is no help to the reader to be so unforthcoming on a matter of, to put it mildly, such importance.
Otherwise, she tells her story thoughtfully and thoroughly. Though her husband is an accomplished handyman, they decided to have the larger part of the work done by professionals, so much of the narrative involves dealings with carpenters, bricklayers, stonemasons, electricians -- dealings that begin as business transactions but inevitably take on personal overtones as such a project drags on. And drag it did, for eight frantic and disruptive months. A sandblasting project that was supposed to take three days, for example, roared on at excruciating volume for almost three weeks, finally leaving the whole family wondering if the project hadn't been a terrible mistake.
It is a sentiment familiar to anyone who has restored, remodeled or otherwise renovated an old house. Equally familiar is the incredulity that Chrisman repeatedly felt upon encountering the folly of previous owners. A beautiful stained-glass window had been boarded over; hardwood floors had been covered with cabbage-rose carpet and allowed to deteriorate; another stained-glass window had disappeared behind a huge mirror. Over and again, she found herself wondering how on earth people could have deprived the house of its intrinsic character and dignity.
Those are the qualities that the Chrismans restored to their house, along with the stripped molding and the fish-scale shingles. They understood from the outset that restoration is not merely a physical process, but one in which a building regains its true nature, in which a debt to history is in some measure paid. The handsome house in which they now reside is testimony to how well and faithfully they completed the task.