Archive | May, 2007

Up, Up, and Away

May 23, 2007


My house is a balloon-frame house. Balloon-frame houses became all the rage after the World’s Fair in Chicago, when visitors saw Augustine Taylor’s new building design in 1833.

Photo courtesy of Old House Web.

Balloon-framing was the alternative method of post-and-beam framing. PandB framing requires massive timbers with strong, skilled workers. The labor for this is extensive and demanding. The invention of balloon-framing sought to curb this expense and make home-building less tasking. Wikipedia sums this up nicely:

Although lumber was plentiful in 19th century America, skilled labor was not. The advent of cheap machine-made nails, along with water-powered sawmills, in the early 19th century made balloon framing highly attractive, because it did not require highly-skilled carpenters, as did the dovetail joints, mortises and tenons required by post-and-beam construction. For the first time, any farmer could build his own buildings without a time-consuming learning curve.

Balloon-frame houses are not being made anymore (not in quantities, anyway). American home-building shifted to the platform-frame (stick-frame), and is now coming full-circle back to post-and-beam framing. (I won’t delve into another new and exciting form of house-building– the modular home).

I am not too keen on balloon-frame. Let me tell you why.

  • Greater risk of fire. Since studs are like long toothpicks which go all the way up from foundation sill to roof rafters, there is a tremendous risk for fire. If a fire starts in a wall, the flames will race up the long studs. The air flow from sill to rafter feeds the fire, until the house is essentially consumed from top to bottom. Fire stops (blocks of wood nailed between the studs at intervals) were added later to reduce this risk. Many old houses do not have fire stops. Mine does, though (at least, what few walls I have seen inside).
  • Drafts, dust, vermin. My house is very, very drafty and dusty. I dust the house a lot, and still we cough and cough (the family has developed what I call “Morning House Syndrome”). The staggering amount of dust in this house is amazing. If I do not dust for a day or two, a thick powdery coat of gray dust settles on everything. The plus side of this is that there is plenty of air circulation here. The bad side is the air is dirty and we hack and cough all day. Smells are a problem, too. Odors from the moist basement and smells from bats in the attic circulate in the framing and come right into the house. The house stinks. Also, smells are not the only things that race up and down the studs! Mice love balloon-frame houses. So do bats. Because our exterior siding and eaves still have so many holes and pocks, we have a problem with bats. They are well able to scurry down the studs from their attic nests. I have to say that I hate bats. I am not afraid of mice (besides their uncleanness), but I cannot tolerate bats in my house. When I redid my front Entry Hall, I had left the top of the door framing open, to continue it later. Oops. So, any wall-removal that we do must be replaced very quickly, or the room must be completely sealed off and then scoured for lurking bats.
  • Sagging and twisting. This isn’t as much a problem for me. What old house is not sagging or twisting? But, because the long studs support the entire load of the house, we must take great care that studs do not twist or bend. It has not helped that previous owners have carelessly hacked and chipped at the studs in order to install an electric receptacle box here or furnace vent there (some fools even cut out large chunks of the foundation sill to install ducts). When we finally do open up the walls, I do wonder how much of the structural support of the studs has been compromised. In every area that I have opened up so far, I have found transgressions of this sort. Therefore, we must have a stash of “emergency” studs to sister to any compromised framing. Anything can happen once we remove three tons of lathe and plaster and flooring!

So…. balloon-framing, for all its hype at the time, has turned out to be problematic. It seems to be plagued with more problems than stick-framing, and is less-sturdy than post-and-beam. I hear that balloon-framing is the structure of choice for metal-stud homes, and that sounds like it works better than with wood.

I think it’s important to know what kind of structure your house is before you start tearing away at it. For one, I want my efforts to be long-lasting and sturdy. Two, I would have appreciated it if previous homeowners had been more careful, caring, and fore-sighted about the work they had done. After all, I am living with their successes and their errors. So, I am trying to keep future homeowners in mind as we do this.

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May 18, 2007

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I’d said in an earlier post that we’d suffered a few floods here last summer. We have had flooding occur regularly on my property since 1999, but last year’s torrential rains really wiped out a lot of my gardening work.

The July 2006 Flood was especially destructive. We had 2 feet of back-up water (from our sump well) into our basement, destroying our furnace. Up to a foot of runoff water (from uphill behind and beside us and from up the street beside us) raged over my land. I managed to get a short video of the beginning of the flooding, before it got too dark for me to film any more.

Here’s a video of the backyard and vegetable garden. The tomato plants and green beans hung in there, but most of my lettuce, spinach, squash, and all of my onions were washed away.

Needless to say, all this water across my property was discouraging. Like I’d said, cultivating this land has been one very difficult job!

I am praying we have a relatively dry summer and fall. I don’t care if I have to water my garden with the hose– anything is better than flooding. Yuk.

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Close to Home

May 18, 2007

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External Remodeling

May 10, 2007


After we bought the house, we replaced only a few things: the roof, a front door, some windows, a new oven, and remodeled the Entry Hall. I have also been through the entire house and re-painted all walls and trim. But that is really all we have done. I am in the process of parging the basement walls, and I painted the concrete floor in the basement last autumn. But raising the kids, busy schedules, and etc have kept us from really doing what we’d like to do with the place all at once.

So, in the meantime, I gardened.

As with the house, the large yard was left untended for a long period of time. It has been a constant battle to reclaim and domesticate the flora and fauna here. Everything we try to do has seemed like such a struggle, from the wild deer that chew up all my shrubs to the neighbor’s grandkids playing “lumberjack” with my new young spruce trees to the massive run-off flooding we have here. It has been a huge fight just to cultivate the land.

Below are few pictures of some things we have done.

Early on, we built a fence to hedge in the front yard. Apparently, our property was a favorite place for snowmobilers and motorcyclers to rip up the lawn by driving in circles around the trees.

Here is our youngest, working on his PHD (post-hole digger).

This is my vegetable garden. I am very proud of it. The deer and rabbits love it, too.

Last July’s big flood wiped out half of my vegetables. I am glad I got a shot of them before they were swept away.

Gardens are beautiful. I never thought I’d be a gardening “nut,” but there is something so satisfying about sowing a plant and watching it grow to become something beautiful and beneficial. Below is a picture of my sunflowers that grew to be 10 feet tall.

I have planted flowers beds (mostly low-care perennials) in small areas around the yard. Because new beds require so much weeding at first, they are still in the process of looking good. I built this arbor and my husband and I secured it to the ground. I also laid a stone pathway with the numerous rocks I have around the yard. Eventually I will redo the walkway with Quikrete’s concrete mold.

Gardening has been a terrific, if exhausting, outlet for me. For the kids, too.


One has so many backyard garden options these days. There are backyard playsets that can turn your back yard into an excellent play area for the children. Getting a pergola can turn it into an admirable piece of architecture. One can also get decks if his nature is more adventure loving. There are a lot of garden variety designs out there, a different one for everyone.

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Quic Pics

May 7, 2007


To aid my sometimes obtuse descriptions, I’m posting a few pictures of the house. These pictures were all taken years ago.

This is that 70s Kitchen. Wowee, talk about ugly. That greenish yellowish range hood (shown in the picture) was only a recirculating fan with a filter full of grease. Below the range hood was a small “drop in” range of the same color (we replaced it with the stove you see below).

Desperate for light, I painted everything white. It is now lighter, but not less ugly. I have been very eager for a kitchen remodel.

Below is a picture showing the condition of the front exterior of the house. The front porch (a miserable little speck of a porch) was rotted. We found severe dry rot along the exterior wall when we removed the porch. There were two huge nests of carpenter ants that I sprayed like no tomorrow.

Here are a few pics of the front porch, remodeled.

The siding is incomplete, as is the porch ceiling. Sigh. We’ll get to that.

The interior one room I did gut was the Entry Hall from the front porch. You can see in the older photos above and below that there are bricks in the exterior walls of the house. All local contractors have been baffled by it; we thought perhaps the bricks were for firestops (the house is balloon-frame, more on that later). But a knowledgable old-timer (R.A. Dudrak, the Window King) told me recently that his mother’s home had them, too. He believes they were used for insulation. The house is very cool in the summer.

Back to the Entry Hall: the layout of the home is very nice. The front entrance has a spacious Entry Hall, with one doorway opening to the Dining Room, and another opening to the Living Room. Originally, both openings had doors, but they had been removed.

I ripped out the front door and had a nice fiberglass model inserted. I installed wainscoting, wallpaper, and two French doors for each of the doorways.

When I removed the walls, we found good, bad, and ugly. Good: the original builder, Henry Rogers, has written 1855 on one of the studs in pencil, then signed his name with beautiful flourish. Bad: Loads of wiring squashed into corners and left there. Ugly: a complete mouse skeleton between the walls.

About the doors of the house– this house had a TON of doors. There are doorways everywhere– every opening had a door. I’d say about 7 doors had been removed. The doors that remain are all original. They are all in very poor shape, but they are solid wood, paneled doors. They must have been attractive in 1855… or for the first couple of decades…. or the first century, maybe… and before all that paint was slobbered over them… anyway, some the bedroom doors and some closet doors have the original cast iron door handles, too. I had stripped the paint from them, and put them back on. I don’t think I will reuse them again though– not for the bedroom doors, anyway. I did already put a few on my finished Entry Hall French doors, and they look classy.

More to come…

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History 201

May 7, 2007


I last left off detailing the history of the home we own. Most owners of old homes also happen to love history. The thrill of the history helps to soothe the agony of owning an old (rickety) house. Believe me, my love for history is hanging on a thread here.

The last private owner of our 1855 Greek Revival house (until we bought it in 1997) was John and Elizabeth Jones. They were an older couple. John Jones was a bit of a handyman. I know he did lots of projects, because his old home improvement debris burps up from the yard every spring, after the frost heave of the winter. We never know what we are going to find when we start digging a new flowerbed. Haven’t found a golden dubloon yet, though…

Anyway, Mrs. Jones died first. John continued to live in the house. He sold a small portion of the 1 and 1/2 acre to the neighboring United Methodist Church, so that the church might enlarge their parking lot. I won’t delve into all the water run-off problems that has caused since….

In the 1950s, Jones sold the rest of the property to the church, to use as a parsonage. The house has seen a number of transient ministers. The Methodists poured concrete into the basement floor, installed a sump well, and rebuilt the exterior end of the chimney with cinderblocks. In 1972 or so, the house went through a 70’s remodeling (also known as “remuddling.”) I HATE the 70s. I hate the drab colors, the tiny dark windows, the Carter malaise, the cardigan sweaters, the paisley scarves, the avocado appliances, everything. What a lousy decade. People should have LEFT EVERYTHING ALONE during this time– NO remodeling until the 80s, okay?

The parson who lived here must have really liked the 70s. They went all out. Yellow linoleum (to cover the pine flooring) in all the bedrooms, gray indoor/outdoor carpeting in the Dining Room, dark brown Kitchen cabinets with yellow and brown tile vinyl flooring, yellow and brown wallpaper, a drop ceiling of fiberglass panels, fake brown paneling on the walls… you “get my drift, daddy-o.”

The church removed two of the home’s three fireplaces…. and buried most of the bricks in the yard. My husband and I joke how we can only dig 1 or 2 inches down before hitting rocks and bricks (well, he doesn’t joke about it anymore).

They also laid a huge concrete slab in the center of the side yard. It is a misshapen glob of thick concrete. Here’s the view from the second storey of the house.

Something lies under it. We have no idea what it is. I have forbidden my kids to stand on it, God forbid it should give way. No one seems to know what is under there.

(By the way, that pile of rocks are the things we pulled out of our latest dig– which was a small hole to plug in that 8″ arbor vitae plant).

Well, my husband and I bought the house from the Methodist church. The church had seen a dramatic drop in attendance, and keeping a tiny church and white elephant parsonage was too costly. I think they tried to sell the church and house as a package deal at first. No one wanted the house. A new congregation purchased the church, and we bought the house. “As is,” like I stated before.

So, homeowners of old houses must really love history to keep these money pits standing. My history lessons here have been rather expensive… but when we finally restore vitality and honor to this old Greek Revival, I think it will be for the better: for us, for the house, and for the neighborhood.

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History 101

May 5, 2007

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We bought this house in Upstate New York, built in 1855. We bought the house “as is” and for a phenomenal price. As young, fresh-faced new homeowners, we had no idea what lurked behind the “as is” stipulation. Learning more about fixing a home has opened our eyes: the electric, the plumbing, and some of the “newer” structural repairs were never brought up to code, and some things were outright dangerous. For example, when we had the electrician replace the old four-fuse fusebox with an updated 150amp circuit breaker, the electrician showed us the old blackened fuses and box. He was stunned that the house–which had a heavy-duty electric dryer installed– had not burned to a crisp before this. Another example is that we suffered for years with a sewer-like stench in our Laundry Room whenever someone took a shower. After reading about plumbing, we discovered that the washing machine drain line–installed by the previous owners– had no u-trap nor vent line. A plumber has since inspected the house and told us that the only fixture connected to a vent line is the upstairs toilet. So no wonder the downstairs toilet burps up bubbles when the upstairs toilet is flushed.

The house was built before electrical wiring and plumbing became standardized. Because our house has had many owners (one ten-year period saw 6 consecutive owners), a lot has been done to it, and none of it well done. We are essentially starting from scratch.

The photograph of the house, above, was taken in 1910. I own the old abstracts to the property, and so I’ve been able trace the history of the house.

The house was built by Henry Rogers, a very prominent businessman of New Hartford, NY, and member of one of the founding fathers of the Sauquoit Valley (the Rogers family emigrated to NY from Rhode Island). He built this spacious house on a 9-acre lot for his wife; they no doubt intended to fill it with children, judging by the size of the four bedrooms upstairs. Unfortunately, the Rogerses remained childless, and the wife died of pneumonia at an early age. A housekeeper took over the responsibilities of the household while Henry doted on a multitude of nephews and nieces who lived in the area. Toward the end of his life, suffering miserably from kidney disease, Henry moved back to Rhode Island while his housekeeper maintained the property. He died in 1898.

Henry’s will (of which I have a copy) divided his liquid assets between his favorite nephews and nieces, and all his household goods were deeded to his housekeeper. Henry had, for some odd reason, neglected to bequeath his property to anyone. A battle for the nine acres ensued, and a year later, a judge determined that the property be sold at an auction to the highest bidder. The housekeeper won the bid at $1,500. She promptly sold most of the acreage, leaving the house on a lot of two and a half acres. In 1910, she sold the property to a William Dewhurst. He immediately donated an acre to the United Methodist Church, to build a church. The old church still stands, and in it is a stained glass window in memory of “Mr. and Mrs. Henry S. Rogers.”

Dewhurst sold the house (now down to one and a half acres) to a Peter Decker. Decker died a year later, and bequeathed the house to his only child, Mary (who lived in Chicago). She sold the house to a couple named Ellinwood (for you in New Hartford, this is the same Ellinwood family for whom Ellinwood Court is named). The Ellinwoods did not stay long, and the house was passed on to owner after owner. It is probable that the house became run-down at this time.

Finally owners came along who settled in the house for many years- a Mr. and Mrs. John Jones. Some of the elderly neighbors say they remember the Jones’, especially that they had a big black dog who they named “N*gger.” Back then that name was a bit racy and elicited giggles and awe from children obsessed with strong words.

I think Jones updated the house the most. Electric wiring had been installed in the 20’s (the porcelain knobs are still wired up in the attic); Jones rewired with “modern wiring.” I am not so sure about the plumbing– the house has a hybrid mixture of every kind of plumbing used– copper, galvanized, cast iron, and pvc. Sometimes all four kinds in one line of piping.

Jones also, I believe, installed central heating. A big circular footprint is impressed into the basement floor– obvious signs of the old octopus gravity-furnace. Before then, families had used the three coal fireplaces to heat the house. Currently, we have a high-efficiency furnace and still we freeze every winter. Some of the furnace ducts are wood, and others are leftovers from the octopus system.

In my next post, I’ll continue the story of the house, and more changes that ensued. Stay tuned!

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Words to the Wise

May 5, 2007

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More “Words to Wise” will be added as I acquire more wisdom…

  1. In older homes, 2 x 4 studs are sometimes turned sideways (the 4″ side faces you instead of the normal 2″ side). This makes wiring difficult, because the electrical boxes won’t fit in such a small depth. It also makes drilling holes through studs for the cables impossible. Consider building out the studs by adding another layer of new ones on top of the old, to add width for the boxes. When you have drilled holes through the studs for the cables, you’ll need to use metal nail plates to protect the wires. I couldn’t find any nail plates wide enough to fully go across studs turned sideways. So instead, I nailed junction box covers to the studs. These are wide enough to fit across the 4″ sides of the studs.
  2. When wiring in new electrical wires, use Number 12 (12 AWG) wire for everything. It has been typical to use No. 14 for lighting and No. 12 for outlet receptacles, but more and more local codes are requiring minimum No. 12 for the entire electrical system. Besides, electronics are only getting beefier, and future devices may need No. 12. No. 12 costs a few bucks more than No. 14, but it is worth it in the long run. If you do decide on No. 14, though, never use for anything except lighting runs.
  3. It is sooo true to do as much as you can when you have the walls open. I always balked at this recommendation in the home improvement books, but have come realize that it is true. So, despite your tiny budget, do everything you possibly can while the walls are open! Don’t think you can “do it later”! It will be more expensive and a lot more frustrating then.
  4. If you are motivated (and short on funds), remember that a lot of home improvement repair is basic and simple. You truly can “do it yourself” easily enough. However, be willing to spend some evenings studying about the systems that you will be doing yourself. For example, learn about the basics of air flow and furnace BTUs before you start chopping through floors and throwing in heater ducts. The local library and the Internet are filled with helpful resources, all for free.
  5. Recycle water when you can. We have a sump pump that runs day and night, year ’round, and empties into a catch basin nearby. During summer’s dry season, we remove the sump pipes from our catch basin and divert the water to irrigate our thirsty gardens. (My husband added an extra plastic pipe to the end of the line and drilled small holes into it). Other folks collect roof runoff water in rain barrels. The rain barrels have a spigot at the bottom that can attach to a hose. This water can be used to water plants or clean off dirty tools.
  6. Think “natural.” If you have a garden, compost all your organic waste. I use two large plastic containers with lids to store waste. I drilled holes all over the containers for airlow and to allow water (keep your compost pile moist). Also, when you are digging around the yard and discover worms, add them to your compost pile. Worms love organic waste and will speed up the composting process.
  7. Recycle materials as much as you can. For example, we removed some old, decrepit wire fencing and old chicken wire from around the property. Rather than place it in the dump, we are going to use it as underlayment for the concrete walkways we plan to build around the yard. This way, we can buy the less expensive “regular” sidewalk concrete instead of the pricey fiber-reinforced sidewalk concrete.
  8. Never use “Drain-O” or other drain-declogging chemicals in old plumbing. Unless, of course, you love replacing old plumbing. Use a toilet plunger to loosen hair and debris, instead. Then clean your fixture with bleach.
  9. Never install a high-efficiency furnace or water heater into an old chimney flue. Either install a liner (all the way down from top to bottom) or buy direct-vent appliances.
  10. It is best, even when you are cash-strapped, to completely demolish a rotting old porch and start from scratch rather than rebuild around it. Otherwise, even your best efforts at repair will sag miserably with the rest of the porch over time.
  11. Try to place the debris dumpster as close to a window as possible. That way, you can hang a board from the window to the dumpster, and dump your buckets of plaster “down the chute.” This is much better than the back-breaking work of hauling heavy buckets of debris through the house to the dumpster.
  12. Before you undertake remodeling anything in your home, do some research. Determine if your home is balloon-frame, stick-frame, or post-and-beam, for example. Don’t just start tearing your house apart and sawing through joists and studs; you may wind up sacrificing the structural integrity of your home.
  13. When at all possible, go clean and natural with home-building products. For example, think of how short-sighted our home-building forefathers were when they got the bright idea to use asbestos, lead, and fiberglass in and around everything. Idiots.
  14. Rodents are enemies. Rodents are not cute. Squirrels nest in the attic joists, and hoard their winter forage. Mice and shrews are attracted to this forage (as well as just about everything else). Chipmunks nibble away at the limestone mortar between your foundation stones. Because old houses have so many holes, leaks, and open spaces, rodents easily make your home their home. Rodents also are hosts of parasites like fleas, ticks, and lice. Get rid of rodents at the first sign of them.
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Why Are We Doing This?

May 4, 2007


In the Northeast, there is this saying:

“Use it up, wear it out. Make it do, or do without.”

It is the epitome of Yankee frugality. It is my own motto!

We bought this house a decade ago. It was a broken-down bag of roof leaks, plumbing woes, and ancient electrical wiring. It is livable, in a batten-down-the-hatches-winter-is-coming kind of way. We freeze every winter, and like most old-house homeowners, we freeze in the summer. The house has 100-year old windows, 70-year old electric wiring, 50-year old flooring and furnace ducting, and a disturbing 40-year old kitchen remodel from which Norm Abrams might flee. The house was beautiful in its day. It was no squire’s mansion or gem of the county, but it was attractive with typical middle-class style. Most of the interior woodwork is hemlock, but the Living Room is beautiful walnut (but has been painted over ten or eleven times). The house is now past the flower of its youth. We intend to restore it to its usefulness, and hope to bestow on it the mature grace that comes from a well-worn home.

Certainly I’d love a brand-new house. New walls, new windows, new cabinets! But a new house is not always the best option: 1) they are expensive, 2) what will become of the old but graceful ladies of the 1800s, and 3) new homes are so big and bloated that they are inefficient and wasteful for thrifty living. Plus, new homeowners tell me that new houses are not necessarily better built or longer-lasting. This is our adventure to bring new life to an old lady. Ourselves.

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