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The Vanished Attics : Trials of Living With No Room at the Top

September 07, 1986|LOUIS HILL | Special to The Times and Hill is a Cypress free-lance writer. and

Each time I pass a garage sale, I am aware of our throwaway society and how much of our heritage is being discarded.

It is then I shout loudly for the return of the attic. Not just a crawl space or a termite refuge, but a real, genuine, musty, cobwebby, dusty, creaky attic.

Unfortunately, the attic in the West is as scarce as the front porch.

Single-Story Houses

And who gets the blame? Myopic architects and tight-fisted builders are the culprits.

For one thing, the single-story house accounts for the disappearance of the attic in Southern California. From the '30s to the '60s, single-story houses either had flat roofs or slightly gabled roofs which eliminated the attic.

A second cause is the weather. In snow country, gabled roofs are better suited to bear the weight of snow and to provide insulation against heat and cold. In California this is not a problem.

But the chief reason for the decline of the attic is expense. Attics require windows, flooring, and above all, backstairs. This requires extra space and higher building costs.

Great Storage Space

But an attic enhances the architectural design of a house by the use of gables and windows and angled roofs. Any homeowner with an attic could be counted as a man of substance.

An attic is a marvelous repository of family history in furniture, clothes, chinaware, steamer trunks, family albums, wedding dresses, childhood toys and games, and all items too valuable to give away or too dear to discard. Not only that, but the attic trove was a bonanza of miscellany to be passed on to new generations.

But look at the devolution of the attic. First it was sacrificed for the basement. Then the basement was removed because coal bins were replaced by gas furnaces. So the garage became the final solution to storage. But even that failed when Detroit insisted on building huge tanks instead of cars.

But the attic was still there. Now it was called a crawl space, useful for nothing. And any misstep in a crawl space plunged a foot through the ceiling or caused a concussion when a person tried to straighten his aching back.

Came Garage Sales

And what happened to the attic archives? First there was the warehouse storage facility. Not practical, not convenient but expensive. Then came public storage where a person rented attic space on the ground floor and stored his heritage until he forgot to make payments and the heritage was sold for charges.

Next came the garage sale which was a space-saving gesture but a heart-breaking experience when that Tiffany lamp was sold for $5, and worse, the unstuffed sofa was ignored.

And the final indignity arrived in the form of the charity truck which trundled off all those attic items.

In a large family, the attic was adapted to rooms for those extra children or that itinerant spinster aunt who came for a visit years ago. In wealthy families, the attic became a maid's quarters and a place to store last year's furs and sequins.

Domain of Ghost Stories

For children, the attic was a make-believe world with costumes, furniture, and privacy. And even ghosts and spirits found a sanctuary in the attic. What attic doesn't remember the creaking sounds of restless souls moving across an attic floor?

Soon the attic will be gone from literature and art, as well as architecture. Writers will set their ghost stories in campers and mobile homes, artists will no longer be found starving in attics and garrets, and even the feature writer will discover a crawl space is too small for big ideas.

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