Well, not always invisible. I invited readers to share secrets they discovered in their houses.
In 2004, Tom Metcalf set about painting the interior of the District house his family had just purchased. The kitchen, it turned out, had wallpaper under the existing paint.
“We decided to rip the wallpaper down, and underneath we found a note written on the wall in pencil,” wrote Tom. It read:
8’2” Papered by
Jun — 1942
Age — 39
Good old Bob Boswell, speaking from the past.
Mike Foley, a remodeler in Northern Virginia, said it’s routine practice for those who build or modify a house to “own” their work with a brief note to the future.
“As a rule, we at least date our work with a current penny nailed to a stud somewhere in the project,” wrote Mike, of Lovettsville, Va.
He’s been on the receiving end of these messages, too. While replacing the front door on a 50-year-old home in McLean, he found a note inside the knob with the name and phone number of the man who installed it.
“In the old days, entries and built-ins were left to the lead carpenter and this man obviously took great pride in his work,” Mike wrote.
Even after all that time, the door was still in perfect alignment. Mike decided to call the number. An elderly woman answered and listened to Mike’s explanation.
“I was met with several seconds of silence, after which she told me that the man was her husband and had just recently passed,” Mike wrote. “Although a painful reminder of her loss, she appreciated my respect for the workmanship of the man she loved.”
A different sort of worker must have toiled on the house Dave Sommers built in 2003 in Frisco, N.C., on Hatteras Island. Dave was in the attic one day when he noticed this message penciled onto one of the studs: “October 9th, 2003. 74 degrees and full sun. Not a cloud in the sky. Why am I here?”
And on another board: “I don’t know. Why are you?”
Wrote Dave: “Obviously one of the framers was not into the job.”
Karen Buglass came upon all sorts of interesting messages salted throughout the small Cape Cod in Winchester, Mass., that was her family’s first home.
“The heaviest snowfalls, detailed by date and inches, were noted on the handle of a beat-up old shovel left behind,” wrote Karen, who lives in Rockville, Md., now. “More unusual were the labels torn from the front of meat packages — tenderloins, rump roasts, for example — and pasted to the inside of one kitchen cabinet.”
Each label had been annotated with a handwritten culinary assessment. “Tough but tasty,” was one.
Wrote Karen: “Perhaps a helpful reminder for an aging old man before going shopping the next time?”
Arnold Berke is still scratching his head over a note penciled on some knotty pine paneling in the basement of his former house in Tenleytown. It read “Pizza,” followed by an address in the 4300 block of Barker Street in Southeast Washington.
“We puzzled over that reference for decades, never totally figuring it out,” wrote Arnold, who lives in Chevy Chase, Md. “If this was early in the house’s history, say 1940s or 1950s, was that a rare place to get pizza in those days? Or the address of a friend?”
Marty Kutza’s father was a carpenter in the Poconos. He helped erect many of the buildings in his small Pennsylvania town.
“He passed away in 1970,” wrote Marty, who lives in Germantown, Md. “About 10 years ago, the local school was being renovated. When they took down the blackboard, my Dad had signed his name along with the date — April 4, 1962 — on the back of it.”
The school reached out to the family with news of the discovery.
“The photo of his signature and date I will treasure forever,” Marty wrote.
Not all messages are a purposeful bulletin to the future. But they can be accidental time capsules nonetheless.
In 1983, Michael Miller and Jane Catherine Miller bought a 20-year-old house in West Springfield, Va. That winter they set about wallpapering the main hallway and family room. Jane was the leader of the project; Michael the assistant and muscle.
In 2018, Jane died after a 15-month battle with bile duct cancer.
Last April, plumbing problems led to the discovery that there was asbestos in the Millers’s West Springfield home. Michael said that cleaning up the asbestos involved hiring a company that erected large plastic screens throughout the house.
“When they took the screens down, they tore the wallpaper,” Michael wrote. “When I took down the remaining wallpaper in preparation for new wallpaper, I came across all her notes, measurements and marks for plumb lines. It brought back so many memories.”
Tomorrow: More house memories.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.