An Open and Shut Case: Lessons from an Old Latch



Illustration by Carolyn Vibbert

Doors in old houses are promiscuous. Over time, they move from room to room and sometimes from house to house. Aging makes them cranky. Old door hardware can be mischievous, stubborn and just plain stuck. Is there an old house that doesn’t have doors that don’t latch, or latches missing hardware, and all manner of strange, shotgun marriages of doorknobs—brass living one side, while porcelain or glass may be on the other side?   

Unless you’re that species of homeowner who emits the “update call”—as in, when entering an older kitchen or bathroom, you chirp, “This needs updating!”—you accept that some doors close and others don’t. (And some old windows open, and others, depending on the humidity, just refuse to be bothered.) This kind of acceptance is the peace that passeth remodeling.

Recently a faithful door latch gave out, as if the door had wearied of staying closed. It’s an old door, of course, maybe older than the 1880s origin of our house, with two “Bennington brown” porcelain doorknobs with a swirling pattern like an old marble. It’s smooth to the touch. In the nineteenth century, The Mineral Knob Company made these by the thousands.

 I was wary of making this repair. You never know when a screw will be stuck. You take out the first three, but the fourth is a struggle that may defeat you. Not this time. Everything came right out, and when I chiseled the old paint away, I was able to slide out the mortise lock—a thin, rectangular box in which the mechanism is easy to see and understand. Push on the latch bolt, the spring moves, the knob hub turns and it feels as if you have discovered an elf-sized factory hiding inside your door.

There was a broken spring inside, and oddly, that spring was short. The spring leading from the latch bolt to the doorknob hub sat in a channel, but about a fourth of that channel was filled with a small piece of wood. Cheap Yankee, I thought. Someone, forty to seventy-five years ago—or more—only had a short spring and put that wood in to make up the difference.

Off I went to our local hardware store, one of those old family-owned businesses with narrow, creaking aisles crammed with stuff from toe to ceiling. It’s like being inside a toolbox. Every inch is used, and your visit can turn into a Where’s Waldo? treasure hunt for a faucet washer.

I looked through the boxes of springs, at last settling on a #4 spring for 88 cents. It worked, but the springiness was weak. The spring moved like it was set in pudding. I put back the little piece of wood. (I had set it aside. I’ve done enough old house repairs to know that you never cut off your retreat route.) It was perfect. No other spring worked. Cheap Yankee? No. Clever Yankee. Once again, I was schooled by an old repair. It works just right with this piece of wood.

This is a small repair, but it follows the path I’ve learned from our old house. I set out with some idea of what needs fixing, and the house schools me. In our first years, I had tried to straighten and level things until I came to see they were crooked for a reason and were that way long before I came along.

Too many people bully old houses, knocking down walls, loading in granite counters and stainless steel, when a softer touch would be best. In an era when you can watch endless cable TV shows where they throw out the interiors of houses by the dumpster load, this small spring in an old latch is a homily on thrift. Old houses, even ones with promiscuous doors, can be patient teachers. 

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