Legends from our own lunchtimes

Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Good Old Days

Often when one hears about the good old days, it’s hand in hand with phrases like “they don’t build things like they used to”, and accompanied by knowing nods from all directions.

Well of course they don’t. Technology has improved, tools have improved, and we’ve all learned that there are better things to do in life than dust around intricate carving or cornices carved to look like some ancient Egyptian flower.

Nothing sparks a more irrational misty-eyed dose of hankering for the good old days than a visit to a lovely old house built in the vernacular style of Queensland around the turn of the twentieth century. For reasons unfathomable, these brilliantly portable structures constructed almost entirely of single thickness tongue and grooved boarding have reached dizzying heights on the scale of romantic desire and almost equal heights in crediting tradesmen with the skills of artisans, that they really by and large did not possess.

While legend has it that they are superbly suited for our sub tropical climate, the reality of life within is that they aren’t at all insulated, have poor cross ventilation, and seem to produce dust through every crack in every board.

I would hate anyone to get the impression that I don’t like them, I do, but I also have a far more pragmatic approach to assessing what is and what is not a desirable feature in a house!

What they do represent superbly is a skillful and efficient use of structural materials which was particularly innovative at the time that could not be emulated in today’s legislation ridden world. Built entirely of lightweight materials that could be easily transported, they were the epitome of transportable building. So adaptable are they to this that more than a hundred years later it’s not uncommon to see them cut in half and carried by truck and trailer to a new location, sometimes many hundreds of kilometres from their original siting. They were however, built to a simple formula, requiring little in the way of specialised skills apart from rudimentary carpentry.

While some were comprised entirely of tongue and grooved boarding, others like the one our friends Chris and Kaz have, had ceilings of pressed zinc in ornate patterns which emulated the fancy plasterwork in houses built in a more substantial style. These mass produced panels heighten the illusion that a “master craftsman” had been present all those years ago.

Of course in those days, ceilings were a long way above the floor and the lighting wasn’t particularly adequate, rending it quite difficult to make other than a quite arbitary assessment of the real level of craftsmanship, which is how the ceiling bloke got away with it in our friends Chris and Kaz’s house for so long.

In the pressed panel ceiling model, typically a decorative cornice and frieze, also constructed of pressed zinc would be used to join the ceiling and wall in a visually suitable manner. To ensure the illusion of plasterwork is complete, a decorative cover strip is usually employed on the corner mitre with the odd flower and leaf arrangement designed to distract the eye from any crack in the join.

In the living room in question, there was clearly an error made in two of the mitres, leaving a larger gap than that which could be accommodated by the standard fitting.

The builder, obviously tired of the job, and wanting to get home and onto the next job found a novel way of overcoming the problem.

Clicking on the photo above will render a larger copy of it, in which the plain corner mould can be clearly seen. With no decoration, no flowers, no vines, it looks like something that doesn’t quite belong.

And then the form begins to look vaguely familiar and it dawns. The master craftsman has decided that the simplest way of overcoming the problem is to manufacture a wider strip, but the only material he had to had was the inner soles from his boots.

A few tacks later and a quick coat of paint, and no one will find it for a hundred years! Try doing that with your triple gel, anti shock, no smell, g-force orthotic liner from one of your joggers.

The really don't make things like they used to!

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