Historical Restoration: The Devil is in the details
I wrote about turning a barn into an artist’s loft in a blog entry called Artist’s Loft in Barn Restoration.
As I described previously, my clients bought a wonderful pre-civil war Colonial farmhouse and barn in Westchester County, New York. It was a true bargain due to the overall condition of the buildings but the potential was obvious. It sat well on the land, high and dry, just far enough back from the road, unique and proud in its history and stature.
A house that has been both poorly maintained and never renovated is both a blessing and a curse.
Over the years I have restored many historic buildings. Often the renovations lay a patina of inappropriate finishes over the underlying classic details. This house had a Victorian wing added to the south wall to contain a larger kitchen and separate sitting room. Not only was the wing completely outdated and dark, but also the wiring and plumbing were almost inaccessible in the crawl space below. No attempt had ever been made to give adequate access through the original house foundation. The wiring below the floor was a dangerous tangle of uncovered junction boxes and the plumbing was completely corroded. We actually found a leader drain from the main house running through, connected to the house septic. A definite no-no!
We completely gutted the area, ran new mechanicals, mounted new Marvin windows, insulated, sheet rocked, and installed a new kitchen.
The owners purchased antique French terracotta salvaged tiles. Whoa! Each piece was varying in thickness and color. This required what we call a “mud job”, i.e., floating the floor in wet cement to level the final surface. Anticipating this, we shimmed up the cabinets by 2” and set a line level to begin setting the tiles. Normally we would have set the entire floor first then placed the cabinets on top of the tiles. But the floor of the Victorian addition was off level by 1” over 12’ which presented a definite challenge to the tile setters.
Because the artist/owner’s color perception was so acute, we laid out the bulk of tiles to sort out the “bad” ones and get a sense of the overall color variation and pattern. Luckily the setters were among the best in the business. All’s well that ends well!
The Main House exterior
My aim in old house restoration is to leave the building in such a way that it is difficult to tell what has been done to it – to blend the old and new seamlessly. In keeping with the historical signature of this home, we kept the original sash with glass intact in the existing windows and trim, restoring the sash to good operating condition.
The shingles and roof were in such bad shape that full replacement was the only option. Before removing the original worn shingles we marked the existing courses to repeat the feel of the original house. I specified a primed cedar perfection beveled shingle that had not been fully butted and squared – to replicate the loose look of the previous siding. We laid the shingles on a snapped line and allowed a little up and down variation.
When we stripped the house we found that the original sheathing was actually slabs of chestnut and oak, 1” thick, laid over the true 2”x4” framing. How cool! Because no one had ever insulated the original structure, the house had been able to breathe. We found no rot at all, an amazing condition on a house of this age. We covered the sheathing with a breathable house wrap and began shingling.
As a rule I do not favor over insulation of older structures so we did not blow in fiberglass or cellulose. I think the trapping of moisture from moving from inside out eventually creates a condition that expedites decay.
We stripped three layers of old roofing – two layers of asphalt and one layer of wood and installed a new plywood roof deck. Due to budget constraints (everyone has a limit), we installed architectural grade asphalt shingles on the main house roof. The color was critical – we chose a muted earth tone to not draw attention to the fact that it wasn’t wood.
On the Victorian mansard roof we re-trimmed the dormers, copper flashed all the valleys, chimneys and sills and wood shingled the mansard pitches.
A ton of work, but all worthwhile. I drive by this house almost every day, and from a distance I can’t tell where we started and where we ended. The devil is in the details!