Still peeling away

Here are some pictures of what we have uncovered so far.  We have removed walls that covered original paneling in the keeping room, and removed the layer of bricks that were applied over the surface of the original fireplace.  Of course, the original keeping room fireplace and walls now look like a big mess!  But rest assured, we do know what we are doing.  Cleaned up and restored, all will be well again!

This look had to go!

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before

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after- original brownstone lintel – but hearth is gone :(

It is obvious that this chimney was rebuilt, fooled with, and then some – old bricks were re-used to rebuild the stack.

We peeled away newly framed 2 x 4 and sheetrock walls in the keeping room to reveal original boards beneath – even the door was still in place!

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Keeping room wall, behind it is a staircase to the second floor; to the left is the back of the house.  The door and wall was hidden behind a 2×4 wall with sheetrock over it.  You can see by the green paint that the last time these walls were exposed, they had a kitchen sink and a cupboard applied right over the door!

The wall with the horizontal beaded boards have that awful kitchen window in it – but you can see where two twelve over twelves once sat.  We may remove this wall altogether (between the two posts) and continue the lean-to across the back of the house for a kitchen.  Then this whole space would be ample for a kitchen/dining area or kitchen/family room.

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Horizontal beaded boards are across this exterior wall of the keeping room – you can see the green paint, top right where that cupboard hung over the wall and door. 

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This is the wall to the left of the keeping room fireplace.  The horizontal beaded boards continue into the pantry/borning room.  Can’t wait to clean the paint off!  Where paint has peeled away from the boards you can see the original oxblood red color.

One of the amazing finds in this house is that it has almost all of its original wide pine flooring.  We have peeled away layers (x 10!) to uncover them, but they are mostly in tact.  Some, unfortunately, have been sanded and varnished, but some are untouched and dry as a bone.  How about the colors in this room?!

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white dust – it’s powdery, mildew or something from the underlayment?

and then there’s this amazing paneled wall in here…

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never saw a wall that juts in like this for the fireplace before; and that’s a closet to the left, with featherboarding inside, and some scribbling I can’t quite make out – yet. And, we have the original closet door, and passage door – this one’s a modern replacement

There’s more – but will save for the next post.  I’ll leave you with this – under the front stair (there was a suspicious opening) I found a name written on the stringer – it looks like “Grant” to me – can’t make out the first name (Asa?).  Could be one of the Grants noted for their wonderful CT Valley Doorways.  Have some research to do…

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this is the underside of the front hall stair, going to the 2F; I’ve turned the picture to get a better view of the name on the stringer – if anyone recognizes it – please let me know!

 

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…

 

Old House Dilemma

It’s been a while – but I wanted to write about a dilemma that my neighborhood is facing now and that many neighborhoods will be facing in the coming years regarding the preservation of our old homes.

An 18th century house that was in the same family for years and not properly maintained, is in danger of being demolished.   We used to find these houses somewhere in the countryside, some half standing, some collapsed into their cellar holes.  But this one stands proudly in a neighborhood of other historic houses and is a prominent member of a National Historic Register District.

We work hard to maintain our own homes.  How do you politely ask your neighbor to please maintain the integrity of his?   Can you ask – when was the last time you checked your sills?  Can you say – your brownstone foundation is lovely, but it’s caving in a bit here, can you fix it???

No one ever does that.  Then the house goes on the market for a song and someone buys it because they just want to live on Main Street because it has all the charm and character they want.  But then it turns out they don’t want the house after all because it will cost too much to fix to their liking and lifestyle, so they decide to knock it down.  Next thing you know, another plastic spanking new maintenance free, history free, house is in its place.

If everyone did that with the 18th century houses that need work, well, goodbye history, goodbye charm.

And so here we are.  The dilemma.  How do we reach the soul of the new owners, teach them to be sensitive, to feel the wonder and awe that we  have for the character and charm of the old house whose every hand planed board we cherish?  Whose paneling and plaster walls and crooked floors mean more to us than a neighborhood of Toll Brothers homes????  Those homes are FINE for people who want to live in new and shiny, and only want to visit ours!

But our neighborhood is a part of American history.  It is packed with the stories of farmers and furniture makers, merchants and theologians, governors and silversmiths, stories that are kept alive and proudly displayed in the architecture they created, the houses they lived in!   For every house we lose, we lose another essential piece of the history of who we are and how we got here.

So I pose our dilemma to anyone who may read this.  The new owner of the Olcott House, circa 1750 – 1781 – a center chimney colonial with wide pine floors, fireplaces, raised paneling, and a Beverly jog that has a beautifully paneled corner fireplace – has decided that the cost to fix it will be more than the cost to knock it down and build a new one.  They decided it must go.  The brownstone foundation in one corner in the basement is “caving in”, the sills are rotted, interior alterations too many.   Sounds like a typical restoration to me.  If I had examined the house before buying it, I would have weighed these issues before handing over a check.  I would have known what I was in for.  Or I would have walked away and left it for the next guy who wanted this old house, wanted to be a part of its history more than anything.

What do you think?  It is a tough decision, that many neighborhoods will have to tackle.  At some point, is an old house just a total loss and we have to let it go?  Yes, sometimes.  But this one is restorable.   So, if the cost to restore is more than the cost to knock it down and build new – do you think we need let it go?  Feel free to weigh in.  Here’s a link to a Facebook page called Historic Hartford – a wonderful resource – for info, tours, workshops, history – in the Hartford area and all of New England.   Just scroll down to Olcott House – and let us know what you think!

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just when I thought I’d had enough of winter, it takes my breath away.

out of sight

Micro-switches to turn on lighting can be embedded in the edge of a door casing. Can you see it?  The main thing is there is no ugly light switch on the wall!

Micro-switches to turn on lighting can be embedded in the edge of a door casing. Can you see it?

Ambiance – one of the main reasons we choose to live in an old house.  The wood, the plaster, the history, the feeling that when we walk into a room, we’ve just stepped back in time.  To immerse ourselves in that and forget all that’s happening in the modern world outside our doors and small paned windows, we have to make sure that there are few, or no, traces of that world within.

In restoring or reconstructing an old house, one has to allow as little intrusion or change as possible.  If you let the harbingers of progress, aka the electricians, hvac folks and plumbers, have their way, each competing to have their craft stand prouder than the others, goodbye old house.   It’ll still be there, in the basement, in the attic, behind the walls. But the intimate spaces that you treasure will be marred.

I realize that some change is required, but there are ways to subdue it.  However, the homeowner will have to be pro-active.  They will have to walk softly and carry a big stick with the trades.  Inquire as to the least obtrusive areas to place outlets, switches, heat registers.  Think like a sleuth.  Plan like it matters.  You can’t just let the trades have a go with your rooms!  A plumber, who once arrived ahead of us, went right along and cut a hole in a wide plank floor board to run a pipe.  After our shock and subsequent repair we found another, hidden way.   We once let an electrician, who had been with us a long time, place the electric meter on an old house without our being there.  Turns out he let his apprentice do it without his direction.  We were shocked to find the meter on the front corner of the house!  Who does that?  Someone who cares only to get the job done and move on.  To them, I guess, an electric meter is a beautiful thing?  Of course, we moved it around to a less conspicuous spot on the side of the house.

Plan, persuade, rant and rave if you have to!  To maintain the integrity of these old structures, to witness them as they once were, you always have to take the path of most resistance!  And then you get to enjoy that ambiance, forever.

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tiny micro-switch

gingerbread

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Okay, I admit it, I like gingerbread, but gingerbread houses, in their many architectural forms from the Victorian type to the cookie and candy type, have never been my cup of tea.  This year, I came around to giving it a try to help contribute to making our local gingerbread festival become the largest in New England.   My first effort ever, so much to learn, thank you internet!  So much figuring, from the best recipe to use for the gingerbread, how much, how thick, how strong, the best royal icing – raw whites vs powdered whites vs meringue powder, what candy to use or make your own, create small paned windows? yikes! pedimented doorways? yikes; roof shingles – wheat thins, necco wafers, cereal – most won’t do for this simple house; what materials for  landscape, animals, snow…..Oh my goodness, really, it’s a full time job – if you wait until the last minute, which I did.  But if you start way before Thanksgiving, so you can take your time and be thoughtful with it, enjoy the process, I’m sure it can be fun.

It’s amazing how quickly the grocery store transforms from a food source into an architectural source for a miniature version of your home.  Your dry goods cupboards become filled with warning signs for the family – do not eat – this is not cereal, these are roof parts; these are not snacks, they are wagon wheels; this is not frosting – it is glue!  Someone did eat half the roof shingles for breakfast and I had to buy more.

Putting the whole thing together is as tiring as building a real house!  Melting candy for windows, measuring your house to scale so the proportions are correct, drawing & cutting it out for a pattern;  mixing the dough, or house walls, roof, chimneys, doors & doorways, etc. then building it, using only edible items, quite a challenge.  Then there’s the landscaping, and story to add.  Something needs to be going on to make it come alive.  But by the time you get to that part – especially when you’re in a hurry – you’re not feeling so alive!

I appreciate all the candy additions to other whimsical houses – hats off to you folks with your amazingly clever buildings & embellishments – but for this simple 17th- 18th century gingerbread house, those just won’t work.   More appropriate accoutrements had to be figured out.  Maybe it’s just me, spending so much time figuring out how to make snowmen without ready made products like marshmallows in a bag, or making a tree with chocolate from scratch, the birds, and a cat – with whiskers!  (that was a fun accidental discovery).

Besides the festive greenery, nothing looks and smells of Christmas more than a gingerbread house – so I just had to share this one – to prove that old houses without all that fancy gingerbread/candy – can still add to the spirit of the season, and look lovely.  Figuring all this stuff out was enormously challenging –  good for the brain.  Soon to be good for the stomach : )

Happy Holidays Everyone!

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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 :)