How I solved the mystery of the rickety home

When we bought our house in 1978, there was nothing particularly distinguished about it, except that it was on a rare double lot. It had a big kitchen, but the other rooms were cramped and had no flow to them.

Anywhere you set down a marble, it would roll toward the center of the house, where someone had cut in a set of basement stairs without supporting the joists afterward. Those were just hanging out, open-ended, with two stories of house on top of them. My husband, Dave, immediately set to work shoring up the place. His daily horrified exclamations were audible from the street. Wall studs were put in randomly or not at all. Windows were hung, literally, with no bracing below them.

So when a tiny old lady showed up out front, snapping photos with an Instamatic, and told us her father had built the house in 1906, we invited her in. She snapped a bony grip on the kitchen counter and peered up at Dave. The old grapevine was planted in 1915, Mrs. Kraxberger said. The kitchen was the original house, and until her father added another three rooms, the kids lived in a tent in the front yard.