two story outhouse?

Can you imagine?   Whoever first suggested it had to have been laughed at.  But as houses grew and trips to the loo got longer, someone did, and got away with it.  Someone actually constructed it, and attached it to the back of this house.

It certainly surprised me, when I walked across the attic floor to a brightly shining little room on the other side, to find a small bare space with three lids – just like the one I had seen on the floor below.

Another three-holer – and they were sized small, medium and large!  It took a few minutes to realize how they pulled this off.  I was curious enough to actually stick my camera down into the dark hole to find out.  The flash lit up the answer beautifully, (however gritty the deed, the photo of which I’ll spare you), but with that I discovered how they did it.

(note the added “step” for the child’s seat)

Long vertical wooden planks (and painted by the way) created a shaft that ran just behind the “facilities” below.  Certainly not as sanitary as second floor toilets today, but just as convenient and better than heading outdoors at two in the morning.

We’ve come a long way since these, but sometimes I wonder – with all the plumbing and water and septic and pollution problems.   There have been some modern “simple” solutions, like the “Clivus Multrum” (I always wanted one – but family said no!).  They are definitely stuck on modern plumbing and our more civilized porcelain potties.

So the closest I can come to emulate the old is to install a lot of wood in the room and a half moon on the door :)

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.

I could live like this

Rough Point

Have you visited Rough Point?  The home of Doris Duke, heiress to a fortune and colonial Newport’s most famous benefactor, sits at the end of that millionaire’s mile, Bellevue Avenue, overlooking the majesty of the Atlantic.  Rock cliffs, glistening waters, blue skies and gentle breezes are the backdrop for Frederick Law Olmstead’s landscape and the manorial home built for a Vanderbuilt.  Doris’ father purchased the home in 1922, renovated it, and died shortly after, leaving his estate and millions to his 12 year old daughter.  Since her mother, wealthy in her own right, would probably remarry, Doris’ father made sure his daughter was personally provided for, for life. Was she ever.  Despite having never attended college, she proved quite capable of managing her affairs, properties and fortune.

Her life story is the stuff of movies – from a failed first marriage to a failed but glamorous second –   she was a world traveler, collector, philanthropist.  Her summer home, Rough Point, was donated to the Newport Restoration Foundation in 1999, an organization she founded, and is open for tours in summer.  The tour is a walk through her story and history.  Her collections of art and antiques are placed artfully, and comfortably, throughout the home, the perfect background as the guide weaves you through the many rooms and stories of her life. From the drawing room to the solarium where Doris entertained locals like Jackie Kennedy, and enjoyed the company of her pets,  from a dozen rescued dogs to a few camels (yes camels!), every room in the house is both a surprise and a delight.

At first arrival, as you drive into the driveway to the parking area, you are greeted by two topiary camels.  They represent the real ones that once roamed the grounds, gifts from a Saudi billionaire.  As we parked, a couple was returning to their car next to us, both insisting adamantly that this was the best of all the mansions they’d visited.  We were excited to hear that.  While waiting for the tour to begin, we roamed the grounds.  Breathtaking.  The only negative for these mansion-owners is the Cliff Walk.  While great for the rest of us to be able to walk the entire point and share their grand views, it has always been an intrusion for the residents.  Somehow, they manage.

While other mansions can feel palatial and ostentatious, this one, despite its size, feels homey.  Perhaps because Ms. Duke actually used it regularly, up until her death in 1993.

Meanwhile, nearby Newport was crumbling.  The neighborhood around the working wharves had become a place that the well heeled would avoid.  Dickensian streets with crooked buildings and broken brick chimneys, stood in contrast to the  Gilded Age palaces.  Settled by Baptists, Portuguese Jews and Quakers – now there’s an exciting and unique history to explore – Newport was the first capitol of Rhode Island.  Its history is fascinating, from whaling port to pirates, marble mansions to Jack and Jackie, from decline to restoration, from colonial to palatial, this city’s diverse history can be read at every corner.   One could spend years discovering it – and it would be worth it.  And it is all thanks to Doris Duke’s vision to restore that city, house by crumbling house.  You can find all the info on Newport’s restoration at the Newport Restoration Foundation’s site, and in their book – Extraordinary Vision: Doris Duke and the Newport Restoration Foundation.

Put Rough Point on your list of places to visit next spring, and Hunter House, and have chowder at the Black Pearl on Bannister’s wharf, enjoy a harbor cruise in the afternoon, and dinner at the White Horse Tavern.   And if there’s room,  the Viking Hotel – it’ll be one terrific weekend!

Hunter House, Newport RI

who will be the caretakers?

One chilly New England morning in our drafty 17th century house, our daughter was hurrying around in nylon stocking feet across our splintery wide pine floorboards in search of shoes.  Needless to say, she was not in a good mood when her stockings caught on some protruding rose head nails  “completely ruining her day.”  More than thirty years of living  in this house, maneuvering through the worst of its restoration days, and she still thinks she can walk barefoot across the floors unscathed?  She swore that if we left her the house, the first thing to be replaced would be those ornery floorboards.

And I thought I knew this child?  I actually thought she would be the one who would care the most.  I thanked heaven for that revelation, and now know what to do with our house when we’re done with it.  There will be interviews!  There will be a protective covenant!  There will be photos and pleading and overseers.  I will pay someone to maintain “no trespassing signs” for perpetuity.  I’d rather nature took it back than have some ignorant soul replace the floors with smooth sanded tongue and groove, the windows with insulated ones with snap in grills, vinyl siding, asphalt roofs and aluminum doors.  Our biggest nightmare is to have a future owner disgrace it.  But unless you can leave it to a preservation society with a huge endowment, there are no guarantees.  Ignorance, naiveté, insensitivity, abound.  The only guarantee is that, if possible, future owner be forewarned – I will come back to haunt you.

This brings me to a question that many of us antiques lovers are asking these days – is there enough interest from today’s youth to sustain these old homes for tomorrow?  Everyone under 40 seems to be glued to their blackberries, computer screens, GPS’s and cable TV.  In between they’re fitting in everything from Yoga to Zumba, carting kids to a dozen activities, and trying to earn a living in a recession.  Who has time to care about old houses?  They’re expensive to fix, drafty to heat, and difficult to maintain.  In an age of quick fixes and cheap solutions, ambiance, character and history take a back seat.

It’s a cycle.  These homes have lived through this before.   Many were lost, but this time I think the indignities previously mentioned, like vinyl siding and asphalt, will actually sustain them until that next generation of sensitive, caring folk – enjoying a recurring prosperity – can rediscover and restore them.

Recently I wrote a letter to an editor of an antiques journal, commiserating with his laments on the digital age and lack of youthful interest in all things old.  Here are excerpts:

Hello Mr. Fiske,

…..I was just reading your article about the digital age.  Well done, as usual, and a bit distressing.  Yes, we are surely seeing a great change in technology and culture as we’ve previously known it, and we, as old dogs, will have to learn new tricks.  It’s disconcerting at this stage in our lives, but we were not promised an end to the challenges, just a little help with medicare and living expenses :)

But our hearts still warm at the sight of a banister back chair, or the warm patina of an old dresser.  And yes, there’s nothing like seeing it in person.  Of course, I have to touch it.  I have to reach into the past and connect with its maker.  (Which is why I’m dangerous in museums!)  ….. I have hope that the younger generation will eventually come around, and slow down enough to notice these treasures.  While they’re busy right now trying to carve a life out of a dense job market, and scramble through this awful recession, I believe they will turn their attentions backward again, when they realize that everything of substance is behind them.  The virtual world may be good for certain technical, medical and scientific progress, and a bit of entertainment, but we are still human.  We still long to touch something of quality, something hand crafted with style and grace.  We need to connect with our ancestry, and learn something of our past.

I think, for this new generation, it is not the product, but the packaging.  I believe they would love the product once they were introduced to it.  Their heads are in the stars right now, but their feet are still on the ground.  They live in houses that need furniture for comfort and art for the soul.  With patience, wisdom, and a little savvy, we can engage them in their world…..

….Toward that end I am presently fashioning a program to introduce students to 18th century architecture.  I think they’ll be inspired to see the early house frame and how they can take it down and put it up again with pegs, and how the early craftsmen fashioned their doors, their paneling, their cupboards, and how “green” is not a new concept, but it’s been right here in their own back yard for over two hundred years.  If even only a few are inspired, then we can gain satisfaction in knowing that the job of preservation and the work of caring for our treasures, large and small, will continue to flourish with them….”

We must be active and alert in our struggle to maintain enthusiasm for the treasures of our heritage.  It is not just the work of preservation groups.  We must be personally diligent, patient and persevere.

Now I have to go hug my house, and have a talk with my daughter.

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?

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.”