Here we go again…

Now that we’ve saved it from the wrecking ball, we’re going to have to fix this old house.  Where to begin?  Just begin, from the ground up.  Pick a room and start stripping everything that doesn’t belong.  We started in the Beverly jog.  What a delightful fireplace, what a great space, just off the keeping room.  Breakfast nook?  Anytime nook.  I am daydreaming ahead!  First we have to pull up the rug, the linoleum under that, debris, etc to get to the floor boards.  The good news – they are all there!  The bad?  They’ll have to come up to see why they’re sagging (extremely) in the middle.  Broken joists?  Disengaged joists?  Rotted sills?  We expect all of it.  No worries as to falling through, the dirt floor is probably just a foot below.  (Now there’s a selling point!)  Doesn’t bother us, we live with that now in three quarters of our house.  But most buyers are not looking for that.  What to do?  We have a plan.

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Beverly Jog, first floor

Oops – we didn’t find that leg under the debris – carpenter’s still working : ) which is why the room now looks like this, floor uncovered and fireplace open:

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Beverly Jog has its brownstone hearth! And work to do at the back wall…

Some before pictures…

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front room wall was firred out all around, and can you believe – a fake beam was added!  they modernized, then tried to make it look like an old house???

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propane heater installed and exhausted right at the front wall of the house!

Oh my.  This room felt small when we first walked in, the windows were deep and newly framed.  Turned out the whole room had been firred out almost a foot to add insulation.  Even the ceiling and floors were firred up and down.  The good news, under the rug, firring strips, linoleum, tongue and groove flooring, more linoleum, etc. we found the original intact wide board flooring!  They even framed over the coffin door area, with door in place.  Terrible door, guess it was better to incorporate it than dispose of it.  Now here’s what it looks like in there stripped.

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Crooked chairrail of course, lower section of wall is canted out – hmmm, rotted sills and posts, you think?  Of course.  But still can’t get over finding the original flooring in tact.  And – the chairrail has grooves on top and the framing has traces of guides for interior window shutters.  How cool is that?  And, we actually have one of them!  And there’s an original cupboard to the right of the fireplace.  Doors are missing of course, and trim, but the dark original color of the wood lining it is preserved under the neon wallpaper.

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Much to do here.  Can’t wait to see the “after” pictures myself!

Some must be thinking we’re a little crazy.  At this point in our lives, I should to – but instead I find that the discovery and possibilities still excite!  Can’t wait to transform this little gem.

Stay tuned…

 

german engineering – circa 1778

My dad was a prisoner of war in WW II.  From his camp, he and fellow American soldiers watched as the Germans tested a new “jet engine” plane.  They laughed that a plane without a prop  would never get off the ground.

Had they seen the engineering in this chest, built circa 1778, with only hand tools and imagination, they might have thought otherwise.

Enjoy.

Roentgens' Berlin Secretary

https://www.youtube.com/embed/MKikHxKeodA?rel=0

old house fancy

Antiques and old house lovers like me always have their eye out for interesting architecture.  Going for a drive somewhere is elevated to a journey of discovery.  Whether it is the excitement of finding something unique in old house design or the satisfaction of coming across one that is well preserved and loved, there’s bound to be something interesting or new.

On a recent visit to Newport, driving around some of its tight streets where houses are knitted together within an inch of each other, I noted how clever the early colonists had to be in expanding their homes for growing families.  The juxtaposition of styles could be quite peculiar.  Considering the bit of land they had to work with, it’s no surprise that some expansions might look a bit odd – like this one:

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Whether old or new, odd as it is, it works for me.  There’s still a charm and fancy to it.  That collision of gable roof into gambrel, old materials and primitive odd chimney, the mix of clapboard and shingle, proud and sturdy window frames, crooked old door – this quirky little corner house, for me, just feels right.  It’s not just the materials – which are certainly key – but the proportion, balance, the weight of it.

Unlike some thoughtless additions done to old houses today, this one was thought out, each detail considered.  Down the street from me there is a late 19th century home that for the past year or so has undergone renovation (I use the term ‘undergone’ as in a patient who’s undergone a terrible surgery).  In original form, it was a simple, graceful, symmetrical little thing, but the new owner needed double the size.  Thankfully most of it went off the back.   All things considered, it could have been worse.  But then, out of the blue, out of necessity to house many vehicles, a garage the size of Mount Vernon arose.  Smack in line with the front of the house and dwarfing it, the three large bays face the road.  Really?  Wouldn’t you want to hide that?  Attach it behind the house if you must, or site it in the back forty, but don’t compete with the house.

There’s so much we can do to wreck the ambiance of a lovely home, to wake you from that dream glimpse into the past – but a major one that is hard to change is to build a garage (a giant one) with many bays of overhead doors and plop it right up front and next to your house.

How quickly this “acceptable” renovation went awry.  The builder/homeowner made a decision for convenience rather than aesthetic.  When a lovely old home lies outside of historic districts, there’s not much we can do.  There are no architectural police.  The old house doesn’t come with directions.

In the old days, their hands were tied, designs were few and fairly typical.  Carpenters tools were limited, their knowledge came from a few books, and there were rules.  They did their best to observe them, and when they stretched them the results were still “quaint.”

Now we have new tools, books and ideas – but no rules.  For old houses, that can only work in the right hands – the hands of those who have studied those old rules and are passionate about them.  Thankfully there are many.  There are experts to consult – for free!  Historians, historic district commissions and preservation groups – local, statewide, nationwide – all want to help.  Even museums to visit.  For any area outside of our own bailiwick, we need to put egos aside, and just ask.  Go on a journey of discovery – and may you find many surprises, fashioned by the “right hands.”

 

 

Whitehall

While it’s the architecture that lures us to these houses in the first place, it’s discovering the unique  stories of the original builders that enliven the experience.  From heiress to sea captain, revolutionary soldier to merchant, post rider to pig farmer, all who had a hand in the birth and direction of this experiment, make every visit an adventure.  While the home of George Berkeley, 18th century theologian and philosopher, was not  open when we were there, it was still a treat to view the unique architecture outside, and impetus to discover the fascinating history of the man responsible for it.  A man after my own heart, in his love for art, philosophy and architecture.   One of the books in his vast library was by a British architect named Inigo Jones, who had studied the architecture of Palladio in Italy, a style that obviously struck a chord with everyone as it began to be reproduced in England and here in America in the 18th century.  George Berkeley thought it the perfect addition to his little cottage as well.   Only thing is, to achieve this double doorway on his center chimney house with tiny front hall, one door would have to be false.

I love knowing that someone of his substance was willing to sacrifice convenience for the sake of good design.  Good design is everything.  And he was willing to live with the minor annoyance that he would never be able to open the door on the left.   But it was worth it.  I imagine that every time he walked up that pathway his new doorway reminded him of his travels through Europe and the magnificent architecture he had witnessed there.  He must have been excited to bring it here to this new land.  Thank goodness he did.

Whitehall,  what once sat on a hundred acres, now sits on one.   That it exists at all is a miracle.  Divine intervention, perhaps, since its owner was a famous clergyman.  Dean George Berkeley was a minister, teacher, philosopher, one of the leading thinkers of his time, who counted among his friends Alexander Pope and  Jonathan Swift.  He was considered one of the big three 18th century philosophers with Locke and Hume.  His philosophical work Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge made him famous at home and abroad, he entered Newport in 1729 a celebrity.   He was attracted to Newport for its forward thinking and religious freedom.  Here he planned to establish a plantation, a home base, from which he could furnish crops and supplies for the college he planned to establish in Bermuda where the sons of the colonists would be trained to become clergymen.   The promised funds never materialized, and he would soon return to London, then to his native Ireland where he was appointed Bishop of Cloyne.

His influence in just three short years here, from 1729 to 1731, was grand.  Before he left he donated most of the thousand books he brought with him to Yale, the rest to Harvard.  The divinity school at Yale was named after him.  University of California Berkeley was also named after him, inspired by a line from one of his writings – “Westward the course of empire takes its way…”  He influenced King’s College (Columbia) and Brown University.  He helped found Newport’s Redwood Library and the Literary and Philosophical Society.  He donated his house and land to Yale, the proceeds were to fund scholarships for students studying Greek and Latin.  Now a scholar in residence spends a few weeks a year in the apartment upstairs – amidst the books and spirit of the great mind that once inhabited it – how glorious!

and good will to men

This is one time of year that we take that old adage to heart – to light a candle rather than curse the darkness.  Homes everywhere this time of year are ablaze with them.  Candlelight shimmers from every window – small paned and large – homes are aglow.  It’s a beautiful sight.  One that not only evokes memories of a special season and holiday, but one that celebrates hope.  Hope, a light that is never quenched. A light that, no matter how weak the embers,  someone will always come along to stoke it back to life.  That is the message of the season, whether you are religious or not.  Christmas was not celebrated in colonial times, but their homes were brightly lit with candles, at all times.  What was once a necessity is now a charm, and a reminder  from the struggles of their past that with  perseverance, kindness and compassion, good will prevail.

During the recession of the 1930’s FDR provided hope for the unemployed with his New Deal.  Through the Works Progress Administration, millions were put to work.  Artists painted murals, engineers built bridges and roadways, architects and draftsmen documented American architecture.

I was looking for a book recently on Georgian architecture and pulled one off my shelf called Great Georgian Houses of America.  Usually I just flip through the pages looking for specific design elements and details, but this day I happened to notice the cover text above the title which read – “Architects’ Emergency Committee.”  What on earth was that?  The Preface explained all, and it was inspiring.  Thank goodness that these men were given this task, to give them a sense of dignity and hope during difficult times, and in return, they rekindled the hope that our most important American architecture would be preserved for the future.

I want to share with you the words that Mr. William Lawrence Bottomley, Editorial Committee Chairman, wrote in his Preface to Volume II of this Dover Publication.

“….The object in publishing these volumes was to give work to draughtsmen thrown out of employment in the recent difficult years and in so doing improving their morale, giving them training in an exact and serious technique and rendering financial aid.  It has been a great pleasure to this committee to see that many of these men joining in this work did so with great enthusiasm and to find that from being in a state of discouragement, with all its attendant ills, new courage, energy and happiness were the result.

This committee has made it a policy to give employment to all men making application irrespective of their experience in this type of drawing.  Many were well qualified and experienced while others needed much coaching.  While this training was valuable to all from the educational and technical points of view it was particularly useful to those whose training had been more on commercial and less on artistic lines.

In brief we wish to report that one hundred and ten different men have been given employment in the period from 1932 to 1937 and that this represents nineteen thousand, two hundred and one work hours during this time.  The first edition of two thousand volumes is almost exhausted and all the funds from these two volumes have been expended on this object without paying any profit or overhead outside of the actual costs of publishing and mailing….”

May we remember these old fashioned values during our own difficult times, and find ways to light candles, instill hope, and help others during this season, and beyond.   May hope, health and good will be with you over the Christmas holiday and throughout the new year.

gone fishin’

Well, gone fishin’ for fun historic adventures.  It’s summer!  Great time to visit all the houses listed in Historic New England’s “passport” – especially the ones in shore towns.  I’m anxious to visit Nina Fletcher Little’s in Essex, MA next.  A quick trip to the Massachusetts shore always brings surprises.  The trick is to go with a general destination in mind, and then let yourself be wowed by the great architecture along the way.  The scenery and the people are pretty good too.

It’s been a hot one so far this year, so the sea is a perfect escape.  On a recent trip to check out a sailboat in Gloucester, MA, we visited one of the most interesting houses, I think, ever created – Beauport.  This house sits on a cliff overlooking Gloucester harbor, with views that rival the Mediterranean.  It’s worth a three hour drive just to sit on the grounds!  Even if you don’t get inside – the outside has a story to tell, if not, there’s enough texture, detail and carvings to make one up.  Go, find out the story of how Henry Sleeper created this masterpiece, from its humble family cottage beginnings and turned it into a fun and eclectic trip through interior design history.  I guarantee an adventure!

Here are some photos to whet your appetite, or to just enjoy if you can’t get there yourself – but I urge you to try!

a beautiful day for – sash repair?

Weekends in New England lately have been heaven.  Seventy degrees in springtime draws out man, beast and foliage, and instills in us an urge to burst out of the pall of winter to rejoice, regroup, renew.  For those of us with old homes, it’s the perfect time to address, and renew, whatever havoc Jack Frost and Father Winter have wrought.

On a recent weekend I decided to tackle some of that havoc.  It was a sunny 72 degrees, birds were chirping, bees buzzing – a delightful backdrop to re-nail a clapboard, oil a rusty latch, and get to that kitchen window repair.  The day before, I had tapped a little too heavily on a pane of glass and quickly found myself tapping on air.  The little 6 by 8 inch glass plunked to the ground.  Obviously, it was time for some maintenance.

Old wood windows, with true divided lights and wavy glass, are aesthetically pleasing, but they take a terrific beating in all seasons.   The thin bead of putty that holds the glass in and the weather out, goes in pliable but over time will harden and crack.  If the paint finish is kept up, it will stay in good shape for years. But left untended, like anything made of wood, it will deteriorate, crack and fail.

It was a warm and perfect day to remove a window.  First, all of the impediments had to go – the clutter, the interior storm, the jamb – to get to the 12/8 sash.  The original plan was to replace one pane, repair the putty in the rest, lightly sand and repaint.  What’s that they say about the best laid plans?  Before the robins had chirped thirty three times, I had denied twenty panes of glass, their window glazing.

With just a putty knife and an occasional coaxing with a utility blade, the old putty was scraped out and into a pile beneath my sawhorses.  I cleaned the glass, installed new points where needed, oiled the beds with a mix of linseed and turp, and began to re-glaze.

Now, for some folks, this is where heaven ends (no matter how beautiful the day) and hell begins.  I remember those frustrating days years ago.  Never thought I’d get the knack.  I could roll the worms alright, and press them into the bed just fine.  But running the knife down along the pane to get that perfectly smooth and angled shape, well, it pulled and cracked and frustrated the hell out of me.  Thirty thousand glazed panes later, (we used to make a lot of windows) I had the knack.  And although now many years removed, it all came back, just like riding a bike. The exercise can be relaxing and satisfying to see all those tight little panes framed in soft white, refreshed and ready for paint.

Something that could have been an annoying chore was actually a delight.  Coaxed by the birds and sunshine, it is rewarding to create a little order out of chaos now and then – if only in eight square feet of house.  But it’s a start.  With over twenty more sash to go, I figure it’ll take at least twenty more nice weekends.  Then again, maybe forty, since I won’t want to use them all up on window repair.  Then again, what’s a few more years, and a missing pane of glass now and then?