appliances

Love hate relationship, right?  Love the convenience of them, but do they really have to be soooo big?  And soooo shiny?  And soooo noticeably incongruous?  They just aren’t making cooking spaces out of brick anymore – no one has time to stoke a fire and heat up a bake oven before dinner.  So we’re stuck with them.  And they are one of the biggest obstacles to incorporating 18th century atmosphere into the context of a colonial kitchen.  We either have to overwhelm them – or hide them.  Or, like any sensitive old house owner, we have to sacrifice.  Double ovens may be at the top of our wish list, but if there’s no room for them in the design, they’re out.  A double refrigerator may be second on the list, but again, no room, then down to the basement with a second one, or the freezer, or it’s out.  I’ve lived with a single 30” stove/oven combination for thirty years – ten without a broiler – and I’ve managed as many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners, and thousands of meals just fine.  (Did I say thousands?  We must eat out more.)

If you have a large kitchen, then there’s a good chance you can overwhelm them.  Small kitchen?  Sacrifice.  It’s worth it – for the other ninety percent of the time when you just want to enjoy the charms of the old house.  That’s why we bought it, after all – to escape from modernity!  To feel like we’re still an integral part of that peaceful, simpler time.

Bring as much of the fabric of the original house – materials and design – into your kitchen.  If your house is early with raised panel doors, beams in the ceiling, wainscoting on the walls – bring it in!  Use similar color finishes, plaster the walls, or add texture to the paint.  Use natural surfaces for counters – wood or soapstone.  Build in the fridge, and cover it.  Cover the dishwasher to match.  But whatever you do, don’t bring preconceived notions from the last house, especially if it was a condo or builder’s colonial, or from a magazine on “new” kitchens, to the antique house.  You don’t have to have double ovens, and please don’t put a microwave above the stove or cook top.  Finishes don’t have to be “sprayed” on, joints don’t have to be blended to oblivion – it should look hand made for heaven’s sake!  When production cabinetry adjoins a hand crafted antique room, the contrast is evident and the result is sterile.

I prefer hand made, hand rubbed, and hand damaged.  My wood counters have burn and water marks, and my door casings have tricycle damage.  It all sands out for the most part, and a new coat of oil or paint is a quick fix.  I like living in a real house.

Immerse yourself in the atmosphere of your old house.  Note all aspects of it from the moulding around a doorway to the size of a bead, from the depth of a raised panel to the size of the baseboard.  If you copy the originals, and incorporate them sensitively into the fabric of the “new” room, with an eye toward proportion and balance – you can’t go wrong.

And think outside the box.  If your old refrigerator sticks out too far, and the new shallow one isn’t in the budget, find a way to build it into the wall, or steal space from the room behind it.  Our own fridge was a typical two door with an ice maker in front.  We covered the whole darn thing with wood, screwed the panels right into those metal doors.  It was a cheap fridge, no big loss if it didn’t work. We put a ledge on top, painted the bottom grate to match, added wooden handles and, voila, it looks like a cupboard.

The microwave, if one must have one, can sit in a built-in on the counter, covered by a door. It can be built into the side of an island where it’s less conspicuous, or better yet, if you’re fortunate to have such a space – put in the pantry.

There is a stove that I think is a terrific fit for an old kitchen – the AGA cooker.  Its size shape and porcelain finishes of many colors can be blended into the cabinetry perfectly.  It’s a whole new way of cooking though.  Invented by a man whose wife burned everything she cooked, it’s supposed to be carefree and easy.  It has two to four cook plates (depending on the size you buy), one for boiling and one for simmering, and then there are two or three ovens – for roasting, baking and warming.  The cooker is always on so it warms the room – great for winter, not so great for summer.  They do offer a gas or electric insert for the cooktop to use if you decide to shut it down for the summer.  But that leaves you without an oven.  One of our customers considered buying an Advantium which is a small microwave/convection oven that could be put in the pantry for summer use.

I did find an alternative to the AGA, one I actually prefer, at least from the photo and love the color – the Esse.  There is one distributor in the USA and not many of these around.  I’m guessing AGA was here first, with better marketing, and since there’s not a whole lot of demand for these unconventional cookers, the one with the best marketing wins.  I do hope to replace my stove with this Esse – someday!

Happy cooking!

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?

decisions, decisions…

It’s a good idea to dig deeply into the genealogy and history of an antique house before beginning restoration.  Besides what the architecture of the house tells you, the local historical society, the library, and especially the State Library, are wonderful resources for finding information about the age of your house and the families who lived there.  That will be the easy part.  If you find that your house was built in one century, then added onto and embellished in another – what will you do?  We know of a house nearby that, when found, was a lovely example of early 18th century architecture.  When the new homeowners found an extremely large fireplace in the front room and what they thought were remnants of casement windows in the walls, they decided to restore it to the more primitive 17th century.  The casements are beautiful, and the front door, reminiscent of the old Indian door at Deerfield, is very convincing, right down to the wrought iron ring door knocker.  Recently, the town historian’s research found evidence that the house was actually built in 1750.  What do you do with that?   Obviously, they set their time machine too far back, and it would be not only costly, but a shame, to undo.

We almost made a similar mistake.

When Alexander Pope said, “A little learning is a dangerous thing, ” he wasn’t just a kidding.  The three magnificent CT River Valley doorways that I mentioned are on our house – we actually considered removing.  We were young, had done some prior restoration and renovation, but nothing of the caliber of this 17th century treasure.  We knew it was built in 1698,  appreciated all of the original fabric of the house, both 17th and 18th, and would never have disposed of any of it.  We were simply deciding to which period we should return.  Toward that end, we sought advice.

I had met a couple who were considered experts on early houses.  They lived in a colonial they had personally restored to its original purity – and it had no electricity, plumbing, or other modern conveniences, at least in the main house.  They cooked over an open hearth, ate by candlelight, and even dressed in colonial garb.

In hopes of learning a few things from them directly on 18th century architecture, I signed up for one of the classes they offered, at the local college, on colonial living.  The husband and wife wore their 18th century attire, he, in the tri corner hat, and she, in the layered dress.  While Mister C lectured on the merits of simple living, the use of herbs for “meate or medicine,” and on early customs from sparking benches to bundling, Misses C was busy building some 18th century snacks, and a Christmas punch, with punch.  After Mister showed us how to grate some whole nutmeg into an ancient wassail with an odd tool, I introduced myself as a fellow 17th century home owner, and asked if I might ask him some restoration questions.  Seemed a man wearing a tri corner hat was surely an authority on the subject.

Over a drink of wassail, I told him of our dilemma.  We have a 17th century house, I said, in an 18th century skin.  The early casement windows have been removed, and replaced with 12/12’s and doorways added in the 18th century.  I described them.

Right then and there he should have replied – wayward child, you cannot remove those doorways!  But he didn’t.  He suggested there were merits to keeping certain architectural elements that document the evolution of a house.  Then he agreed that, yes, it was a dilemma, especially when one yearns for the primitive.  If the inside was to return to the 17th century, then would you leave the 18th on the outside?  Would that work?  He empathized.  That surprises now, only because we know more.  Because we’ve dug deeper.  Because we understand the evolution of the house, appreciate the history and craftsmanship, the “flowering” that occurred in the mid 18th century along the CT River Valley.  To have removed that original fabric, something so fine and so rare, so important a piece of American history and architecture, would have been a travesty.

We are not perfect; none of us are, in any field.  It is a goal never attained.  It is the striving toward it, though, that brings wisdom.  Patience and persistence, and endless learning, is key.   In restoration, as in life, we must move very slowly, dig deep and drink large the information needed to achieve the almost perfect.

Alexander Pope, 18th century poet:

“A little learning is a dangerous thing

Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain

And drinking largely sobers us again.”

restoration cont’d

Out with the new – in with the old!  Isn’t that every old house lover’s motto?  In our restoration, anything that post-dated 1800 was the first to go.  Then we’d work our way back selectively.  The front room of the house, the original kitchen, the one with the half demolished chimney in a previous post, had newer sheetrock on the walls, new square trim, base, door and window frames, and a later plaster ceiling.  But we knew what lurked behind.  We removed the ceiling to expose the beams, and ripped the sheetrock from the walls to expose the original feather edge boards that lined the three exterior walls.  Isn’t this gorgeous?

I’m talking about the featherboarding!  As to the youthful, energetic woman in the foreground, well, she’s still the same – on the inside! And still loving those overalls.   Don’t you just hate wearing anything you have to worry about getting paint on?  Or cobwebs or sawdust, or chocolate frosting – I digress…

Since I’ve been taking you all down a dusty path, I thought it time for some before and after photos.  At least a sampling to show there was a reward down the road for the years of work.  Here are a few:

kitchen wall - before

kitchen wall after

kitchen fireplace wall - before

new kitchen fireplace wall - after

front room, early kitchen - before

to be continued….

restoration

Be careful what you wish for, right?  Sometimes we run headlong toward a dream only to crash into reality.  Fortunately, we were young, energized, and eager to tackle the job when it happened.  I couldn’t wait to rip everything out of that house that didn’t belong.  Beaverboard covered beamed ceilings and featherboard walls.  Newer, shallower fireplaces covered deeper ancient ones, wallpaper covered paneling – and black soot covered everything.  There was a huge coal fired cooking stove in almost every room, with the familiar hole cut out of original paneling to vent it.   Floors were bowed, and original boards lost at the first floor – that awful narrow tongue and groove replaced them.  Even those were painted and rotted.  In every room the floors leaned toward their sills, which were obviously termite ridden.  There were three magnificent doorways on the house, but their original doors were missing.  All of the windows were replaced with six over six’s.  They were made larger, which cut into the interior woodwork.

There was no heat or plumbing or electric.  But that wouldn’t deter us.  There were treasures to uncover.  And besides, we had just come from a project where, for a year and a half, we had lived with an outhouse in the woodshed and a pump outside for water.  We could handle this.

With a ten dollar table saw from a neighbor, a few tools and a lot of gumption, the journey began.

Here are some photos I’ve found.  Wish I’d taken more back then – especially with those monster cook stoves – which a local flea market merchant was so kind to take off our hands.  No easy task, moving those behemoths.

One of the first things we had to put in was, of course, a bathroom.  Since our budget didn’t allow for much more than purchasing the house, we would have to do everything.  By hand.  Here is a shot of the back of the house after taking down the later woodshed.  Yes, we’d be going out to the woodshed again, to use the bathroom.  But at least this one would be attached and have running water.  The big hole in the ground was dug by hand, by Edward, with a little help from a friend.  Then he constructed the cinder block foundation, block by mortared block.  No matter how much progress you think you’re making with an old house, sometimes, it seems there are as many steps in reverse.  The more you uncover, the more work you see ahead of you.  Another sill, or rotted post, and everything being connected – another stud to replace, or joist rotted at the end, or girt whose rafters no longer reach…and on it goes.

Thank God for the treasures!  And the youth.  This photo shows the hole covered and deck on, and the exterior wall of the original 1720 two story ell.   A picture’s worth a thousand words – but I’ll probably say them anyway.

The stair at the back of the house was for one of the many “renters” who lived here over the years.  Through the wall sheathing you can see the the back of the original chimney and a bit of the construction of the interior back stair.  My favorite part of the whole house – a narrow two panel door in the paneling leads to this primitive back stair with exposed and whitewashed studs and joists.  As as you wind up the stair, there’s a landing with a built in bookcase which has aged a deep chestnut color.  And on the featherboard wall beside it, there is faded writing, some of which says “war of 1776.” This entire stairwell area is lit by a casement window, boarded up in the photo. Years later, this stair is how our little one would get to her room at night.  Instead of candles as in the 18th century, she used a flashlight.

As I said, one thing leads to another.  Not until you uncover it all, do you see the extent of the work.  Here is the back wall of the lean-to section of the house.  By the way, the original two story section of the house was built in 1698, the two story ell was erected in 1720 (we found writing on the joists) and discovered the timbers were re-used, they came from an earlier house.  And the lean-to, that makes it a saltbox on one side, was put on around 1760.  Meanwhile, we had to remove the entire back wall, replace the girt, re-engage the joists into the new one, replace the sill, and re-stud.

One scary event – this wall was open, with plastic covering it overnight.  We were away – and a tornado came through our neck of the woods that day.  We thought there’d be nothing left – but fortunately it missed us.  I know – it looks like it hit us!

The hole where our future kitchen will be.

Another hole for – guess what?  We would add a small kitchen fireplace here, and a paneled wall.

More interior shots.  We have our work cut out for us.

1720 addition

Original paneling, with a hole where that darn stove was vented.  To the right of this fireplace is the door to the “secret” stair.

A section of the room that was the original kitchen.  We’ve removed that old beaver board (forerunner to sheetrock) to expose original horizontal featherboards.

And upstairs:

I love this shot.  This is the upstairs front bedroom.  It had been divided into two rooms by this wall which was constructed across it from the fireplace to the window.  They had to slant the wall, as though they’d built it across and then said “oops!”  The original plaster still barely clings to the walls and the whitewashed beams are exposed.  Awesome!

On the left you see the backside of that wall that divided up the room – and the bit of fireplace mantel showing!  Imagine building a wall right into the decorative mantel?!  Note the featherboarding covered with wallpaper – and the gunstock post to the right.  Through the hallway you can see the “apartment” they created in the other front room.  This room also was divided, painted six different colors, and a crude kitchen added.  Here’s an old polaroid I found.

Another room, another stove, another hole.  The room may be pink and green and yellow – but it’s all wood.  Original featherboard doors are still in their places, opening to tiny closet spaces.  The original flooring at the second floor is big and beautiful and wide, and serves as the ceiling of the first floor below.

And all of this, the heaviest, dirtiest work, Edward did alone.  I was working during the day to help buy materials, and food for the project.  Then nights and weekends were my turn.  He was still an aspiring musician/songwriter, and that future hit song was going to pay for the rest of this restoration!  Those were the days.  One of the many travels in pursuit of a music career took us to London – right after we bought the house.  We (and the band) came back with a record deal several months later, well, it was the promise of a deal – with just some fine print to work out.  Two weeks after our return, they called to say they could sign only one act right now – and decided to go with an obscure band from Texas – by the name of ZZ Top.

After two more years, spent in Los Angeles, and some interesting times, we came back with our infant daughter, and resumed the restoration – without the help of that million-dollar hit single.  Instead, LA handed us another “almost.”  While there, the manager spent the advance money, which was to record that single, on a house for himself.  It’s a long story.

Needless to say, this old house business was looking like a worthwhile career.   We began to do this work for others as well.  The rhythm and balance of art and music would serve us well over the years, incorporated into the design and restoration of 18th century architecture.   After all, like Goethe said –  “Architecture is frozen music.”

antique floors

The most extensive amount of woodwork in an original 18th century house lies directly underfoot.  These time worn boards set the tone of every room.  Their mellowed color, ancient widths and rich patina hold history in their very grain.  At first glance we have an intuitive response, and immediate respect, for the hands that shaped them, the years that mellowed them and the history that gave them character.

Original rosehead nails, embedded at the very edges, hold fast to the joists below with a strength forged by a long forgotten blacksmith.  Giant oaks, pitch pines, hemlock and poplar that once stood mighty in the surrounding hills, now lay across miles of New England floors, testaments to the pride and skill of a hardy generation that risked everything to help shape a new world.

Recently, we visited an 18th century home replete with some of the most coveted architectural trim and woodwork of the period.  The tiered brownstone steps led to a main entrance surrounded by a magnificent pedimented doorway.  The four foot wide paneled Dutch door still had its original brass knocker.  The arched fan light above shimmered with wavy glass.  Four fluted columns framed the sidelights between them, and an ornately carved Palladian window towered above it all.

It was hard to get past the front door, with so much to take in.  The outside adornment is usually a pretty good indicator of what lies within.  I could just imagine the trim – paneled staircase, wainscot, moulded cornices and mantels – in their earthen colors, and the flooring, I was certain, would be a glorious pumpkin pine.

The homeowners were excited to share their home.  It was a new acquisition, and they were eager to learn more about the treasures they had.   They wanted to do the right thing – music to our ears.  If only more people would inquire, delve deeper into understanding their old house before taking liberties with it, before changing woodwork, fireplaces, flooring – and even floor plans – on a whim.  Why would anyone buy an old house to gut it?  To change it?  To remove from it all that gave it character and meaning?  That’s a rant for another day.  We were there to consult about several tasks, but most importantly, flooring.

Over the years the boards had shrunk.  In some areas the gaps were as wide as an inch.  In some rooms the boards had been painted, but in most they had just been varnished or covered with shellac.  They wanted to know how to go about refinishing them and what did we think it would cost.  This is the part that is so hard for so many to fathom.   The grunt work, the elbow grease involved in reviving an antique floor.  You cannot bring in the refinishers from your local flooring showroom.  Armed with industrial sanders they can, in one day, or an hour, undo what took three hundred years of time and history to create.

This has to be one of the most heart wrenching scenes – the aftermath of a day of sanding machines gouging across the floors of an antique house.  Three hundred years of original character and patina – lost.

Some people are truly sensitive to preservation.  They appreciate the past and the reasons to preserve it.  Even when they understand that value is maintained by preserving character, integrity, color and finish of original details, sometimes that devil, called convenience and economy, wins in the end.

And that is what would happen here.  We advised, they ignored, and that phenomenal antique house now has a lousy new floor.  The rosehead nails were sunk – a half inch below the surface! – which makes the floor look like it has holes gouged in it everywhere, and instead of a rich antique color to ground and tone the rooms, a light blond finish screams from below.

Henry Francis Dupont, in decorating Winterthur cautioned that, in good design no one thing in a room should stand out.  Newly finished floors stand out.  They overwhelm.  They scream of their loss.  And invariably, the homeowner who has been talked into taking these “convenient” and “economical” measures, regrets it later.

So I urge you, please, to love your old floors, even if they’re covered in stubborn paint or shellac.  Strip them carefully,  by hand, reveal their color, and enjoy their rich history.

creating atmosphere – 18th century style

Our eternal goal, the creative essence of all of our work, our reason for getting up every morning – to recreate the atmosphere of 18th century living.  Insane, I know.  But we all have our quirks!  For some it’s the behavior of red ants, or others the nature of black holes.  Like the needle drawn to magnetic north, we are forever drawn to the domestic architecture of early New England, its history, craftsmanship, in all of its glorious detail.

Room by room, the excitement to fulfill that goal – to add all that it takes to create historic ambiance – has never diminished.  Achieving the proportion and balance – from the correct size bead on a door jamb to the right size bevel of a panel, from the hand planed surface to the marks left by the plane, knowing what to leave and what to leave out, make the difference in achieving the atmosphere of a room.  It’s a life lived in and around 18th century architecture, and having a passion for it, that instills this passion and knowledge.

Right now, we are cleaning, prepping and selecting just the right antique boards with just the right marks to put in all the right places to recreate a room we’ll be calling the Buttery.  Old boards skillfully placed horizontally (or vertically) along four walls, shelving milled and fashioned to fit, cabinetry and doors crafted to emulate two hundred year old cupboards, their knobs turned and installed at just the right height.  All will be carefully touched up here and there to cover new milling.  The design on paper is, perhaps, tweaked in the field according to the “feel” of the room, beams across the ceiling, casings at the edges, plaster in the white spaces, antique floors below.  The Buttery will become a space with its own identity, a small cozy nook you won’t want to leave.  Shelves filled with the garden’s bounty, a stone sink to wash the harvest, a window that overlooks the garden, a Dutch door that opens to it, this small space will provide as much for the soul as it will for the table.

Decisions – hundreds of them – go into creating even this tiny space.  From selecting the boards to cleaning and prepping them, deciding their arrangement and use – not all will be usable as they have to match.  You cannot sand them or you’ll lose the patina and the marks.  Yet they have to be milled for use – it must be done carefully with aesthetic decisions made all the way.  Do you keep the knot, which ones?  From species of wood to condition to thickness, some must be planed to match – watch out for nails!  What for counters, what for walls?  Which for the cabinet doors?  Drawers?  Shall we bead the drawer fronts or leave square?  What’s the style of the rest of the room?  What height the counters?  Same all the way around?  Lower under the window?  Can the room hold beams or is the ceiling too tall, or too low?  Oh – there are those awful cans in the ceiling – they have to go!  Shelves at the top?  Or cupboards – how deep?  Oh no – they want space for a microwave?!

Not just anyone can pull all of this together, make it work, or even wants to be bothered.  It’s a laborious task – finding the old wood, selecting, cleaning, prepping, then selecting again for re-use.  Whether working with old or new, it takes an intuitive sense of design, an intimate knowledge of the architecture, and a love for the craftsmanship and detail, to successfully recreate an 18th century space.

So, friends, if you’re wondering why we’re looking a little haggard after all these years – now you know.  Yet, while we may not be granted the years, we certainly harbor the passion, to continue for forty more.  So many homes, so many rooms, so little time!

It’s a welcome challenge, though, capturing time.  Can’t think of a better way to spend it – capturing and recreating for others the atmosphere they long to live in, the incomparable comfort, style and grace of the 18th century.