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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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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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