Hidden Treasure!

You hear those stories—you know the ones, where people are renovating an old house and they open up a wall and find a bag full of cash or bonds or diamonds or human teeth or something else really cool that had been squirreled away decades before by a previous owner. So pervasive is the idea that when people hear that I’m renovating an old house, 9 times out of 10, they’ll crack a joke about something like that happening.

It could totally happen.

But it probably won’t happen.

I’m much more likely to open up a wall and find black mold or termite damage or live electrical wires threatening to start a fire. If every old house came with a glamorous time capsule, something tells me there’d be more of a market for them.

Sad faces.

Anyway.

banistertoday

Remember how I like to kvetch about the super-60s iron banisters that extend between the front columns and the front of the house? In case you don’t, I’ll do it again. They’re super 60s and totally wrong for the house, and I don’t like them.

I mean, sure, the base of the portico looks like a crumbly mess and the house is covered in vinyl siding and the columns themselves are covered in so many layers of paint that they basically look like alligator skins, so maybe these railings shouldn’t be something I think about a whole lot right now.

But I do think about them. A whole lot. Because that’s how I do. Zero in on something dumb and agonize over it forever.

entry

The picture from 1950 shows the portico (which, as several people pointed out, actually looks like has been entirely rebuilt since then!), and instead of these iron railings, there was a chunky wood handrail with chunky wood balusters. It looks way better.

I don’t know for certain if these balusters are original, either. Several commenters also pointed out that originally, the front porch and the portico may have been wide open, which admittedly would probably be pretty glamorous, at least aesthetically speaking.

If I could do anything I wanted, I’d probably go for it…but the problem is that I fear going handrail-less would present something of a safety/liability concern. I actually had a long, long battle with my homeowner’s insurance company about the fact that there weren’t handrails enclosing the front porch, which they saw as a big liability problem. I had to make the case that the porch likely didn’t have handrails originally, and that technically it doesn’t have to—both national and New York state building code doesn’t require handrails on porches that are lower than 30 inches off the ground. Even with this information, the documentation to prove it (you’d think they’d know that?), and my very adamant insistence that I had no intention of complying with their dumb nerdy request, it was still a huge hassle.

So anyway, removing the handrails that are already there? Probably pushing my luck. I don’t want to lose my insurance, because then getting new insurance is super hard, and it was hard enough to find an insurance company that would insure a house under renovation with a Pit Bull. Insurance companies are generally not fans of either of those things, which is totally unfair bullshit, but it is what it is.

On the other hand, I found out that the original builder of my house was in the insurance industry and his son was a lawyer, so maybe the railings were original after all. Or maybe they didn’t care about these things in the mid-19th century. WHO IS TO SAY.

garage

So this one day, I was attempting to clean and organize the long-suffering garage. There’s a lot of stuff that has been left behind across the ceiling joists over the years…garden stakes, sections of downspouts, a bunch of lumber…I’d never even really looked at it very closely, let alone climbed up on a ladder to try to sort through it a little bit. UNTIL THIS DAY.

balusters1

AHHHHH! Hidden up in the very back dark corner was a bundle of old balusters, tied together with what appears to be an old cable cord!

They’re so pretty. Yes, they have some rot and are covered in flaky old paint, but they seem to be in good enough shape that they could be repaired and put back in use at some point. There are 18 of them, which would obviously allocate 9 to each side. In the old picture, it looks like there are many more and they’re more tightly spaced, but I think it would look OK this way, too. And since the portico floor is below 30″ off the ground, I’m going to go ahead and say that means that I don’t have to worry about current building codes that mandate the railings, if you do need them, to be between 36″ and 42″—which would just look ridiculous on my house. Phew! Using these balusters would actually place the handrail a few inches below the existing one, which would look way better with the house. Then we will all pretend that they were there all along if anyone asks, cool? You’re the best.

closeup

If/when I ever get around to this, I’ll probably still try to build as much of the new handrails as I can in the garage and then install them, all clandestine-like, in the dead of night so as not to draw attention. Because I am a paranoid, nervous person, basically.


60 Comments

  1. I love the treasure hunter in you. My dad is looking down upon you with great pride.

  2. Night time is the right time.

  3. What a find! So, is this the next thing on the list now?

  4. Those balusters are lovely!

    I bet if you were able to strip the paint completely off of one of them, you could have a mould made to cast as many balusters as you need to take it back to how it looks in the old photo! Then they would be made out of a more durable material, too.

    ps. I love following along with your renovation process.

  5. Very cool. I love that they aren’t just plain, but have those beautiful turnings.
    They look like they would scale down well, too, if you have need of a railing anywhere else on the property.

  6. Nice find! If the rot’s too bad, at least you have a shape. With your router, you could probably copy them in impregnated timber.

    Your liability worries reminded me of a recent story from Malmö, where a woman was served a cup of coffee laced with chemicals so strong, they ate away the paper cup (http://goo.gl/T9iTgH). As compensation McDonald’s offered a refund of the price of a cup of coffee. ’cause that’s how we do things on the continent :-)

    Don’t know if it’s better or worse, but we don’t have to worry that much about insurance. As long as it’s within the code, it’s covered.

  7. Score!!

  8. AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I could not be more excited for you.

    AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!

  9. What a find! It’s incredible that you’ve been obsessing over that part of the house and lo and behold these beautiful balusters appear. The wonder of buying an old house.

  10. Awesome find! I’m one who thinks your portico has been reconstructed. The old column bases used to come flush to the front edge of floor, whereas today they’re inset. It does seem there were more balusters than 9 per side. BUT– your present iron rail has 9 uprights per side, so I think that you will be able to make it look just right with the ones you have found. I hear good things about abatron wood consolidant to renew old wooden architectural elements, also minwax has an epoxy consolidant which can be used alone or with the gardener you used on your front door if you need to repair or reconstruct parts of the balusters

  11. I love following along with your blog- we’re doing a big renovation too. Don’t worry – you will most definitely find things in your walls! Maybe not glamourous things, but interesting things! We’ve already found a barbershop sign, a 1940’s newspaper, and a Pre-Prohibition beer bottle — and our 1919 house isn’t nearly as old as yours.

  12. Wow! I actually gasped! That is an amazing find and I so look forward to how you creatively make use of them. Totally tickled for you!

  13. This reminds me of a crawlspace/storage space that remains painted shut in our Cape Cod. I’m too nervous about taking the time and mess to open it only to be disappointed when it only has mouse poop and spiders in it. For now, I’ll just pretend that the owners who painted it shut forgot they left their gold bars and diamonds in there before they did so.

    I love how things are coming along. Keep up the awesome work, and thanks so much for meticulously documenting it. You do a wonderful job.

  14. Oh definitely in good enough shape to strip, restore, and re-install. The rot shouldn’t be too terrible to fix with a hardener/epoxy combo, and the chunky rails can likely be found stock at a local lumberyard (but not a big box). You might even be able to find it at a salvage yard for cheap since it’s not a terribly long run on either side. That’s so cool. All we’ve found in the attic is that damned mummified squirrel with no face.

  15. Nice score Daniel….I also gasped at your reveal. Let’s face it ..anything would look better than those twirly 60’s iron things…remember when people actually had them in their houses too..only in fancy gold or bronze…uggg
    Honestly I think the whole porch would look better without anything…I understand the insurance thing and it’s too bad…but I’d love it without having to go thru a passage of timber to get to the front door…but if you gotta do it..the wood will look much much better.

    how cool that they saved them?

    • A solution to the insurance while not having anything would be to do steps to all three sides. That’s quite common in the classical porticoes, the neoclassical is tried to mimic. Eg. the hexastyle (six columns) in the ruins of the Temple of Concordia in Sicily (http://goo.gl/bVw7xK), copied for the Municipal Courthouse in Copenhagen (http://goo.gl/YI5j7q).

      In English your portico is “distyle”, with its two columns. Though I find better results searching for “distylos”. Then tristyle (3), tetrastyle (4), pentastyle (5), hexastyle and so on.

  16. What a cool find! Obviously what has to happen now is that you carry one around with you at all times like a crazy person, just in case you end up near an architectural salvage place that might have matching balusters.

  17. I love the railings you found, but if you decide not to use them, what if instead of railings you put some beautiful planters. Restoration Hardware has some that would fit: http://www.restorationhardware.com/catalog/category/collections.jsp?categoryId=cat3870175 With ones that are as little as 20 1/2 wide.

    The planters would prevent anyone from slipping off the porch, which is what the insurance company is usually concerned about.

    • I’m for the planter idea….no railings.

    • I’ll think about it! I think you could also put planters on either side of the portico base, in the yard, to make it seem closer to the ground than it really is.

  18. That is amaaaazing! I don’t know what the national/NY code is like, but it’s worth noting that here in Ontario, guard rails and such need balusters that are less than 100mm (4″) apart. This is in case a baby’s head gets stuck. Even if you don’t have a baby or hang out with people who let their babies put their heads in wack places. SO STUPID.

    • Actually it’s not stupid. There is a story in my husband’s family, which says, maybe his great-grandfather or someone built a summer house and they couldn’t get permission to use it before they made all of it, including the handrails safe for children. They thought it’s totally stupid, there wasn’t a child anywhere in the family, and they had another house. Then later, during and after WWII there lived everyone, including 7 children from the family! You just can’t predict what will happen in the life of a house… (Ok, it’s not Canada, it happenned in Hungary, but the rules sometimes have solid reasons behind them.)

      • I think Sarah is just making a joke! Obviously building codes exist for a reason, but they make owning an old house tricky, since current codes (especially those pertaining to railing heights/spacing) dictate things that are very different than the way these houses were built originally. It’s hard (and sometimes impossible!) to preserve the original proportions and appearance of the architecture when, say, you’re required to change out a 22″ high porch railing for one that’s 36″!

    • Yep, same here! Canada is stricter about height, though—we’re allowed 30 inches from the ground before you need railings. I think Canada is only 24! You nervous nellies…:)

  19. Time capsules are cool. My friends made one and hid it inside a wall of their remodel.

    • Daniel,

      You may want to think about doing something like this. It is a really neat idea, put togther what you know about the history of the house, a general overview of your reno and a bit about your family. Just think about someone loving this house as much as you do 100 years from now. Close it up in a wall (maybe in the entry way, office or living room?) and mark it with a small sign that marks the year it was built and the year it was brought back to life.

      • I think Daniel, you should basically write all of this in a book – and all of us can enjoy it!!

  20. There are some blogs I go to and I just scroll down to the pictures, but yours is not one of them. I read every single word and laugh every single time. You’re amazing.

    Megan

  21. Gold bullion is the next discovery, I’m sure of it!

    PS — found a website where one can post photos of upping stones, hitching posts, and horse troughs and will soon be posting photos of the TWO, count ’em TWO, upping stones on one street in my neighborhood. So glad to have learned what they are — thanks!

    (here’s the site: http://www.waymarking.com/cat/details.aspx?f=1&guid=1d1db1dc-9e84-41ba-beba-bfbda85ece5b)

  22. Love your blog. I look forward to it. Also love finding things in old houses. My daughter and son in law found a small box full of money in their old house attic! Really! I found a diamond ring in a secret drawer of a desk I inherited. You will find more great stuff.

  23. I’m utterly convinced the portico never had any railings, just like the porch doesn’t — what Greek temple would? — and those balusters are from the staircase that was removed, but that doesn’t mean you can’t repurpose them for the porch.

    • You could be right about the portico never having railings! The balusters definitely aren’t from the indoors, though—they’re much more chunky and elaborate than even the ones on the main stairwell, and the back stairwell was enclosed by walls and either had a simple railing or nothing at all.

      I forgot to mention in the post (and didn’t take a picture, ARGH), but when I went to the assessor’s office to check out the old photo IRL, there was also a photo taken in 2005 from a different angle. The house looks pretty much the same now as it did then, except the front porch HAD RAILINGS!! With these balusters. So my guess is that perhaps all of the railings were an early addition, since no—they don’t look quite original to me, either, but they are old.

  24. I keep wondering, if they bundled up and saved 18 of them, maybe the rest are somewhere in the house.

    • I suppose it’s possible, but I don’t know where they’d be! The house isn’t that big and I’ve pretty much walked every square inch of it, so unless they’re somewhere really crazy, I think they’re just gone!

  25. I read numerous paragraphs of this post out loud to my husband. To the opening paras, he said, “Way to dash my hopes! I found a quarter.” Gonna need a few more quarters to finish this reno. But back to your story. I cannot believe you found the balusters. That’s so amazing. BTW, your insurance company is ridiculous. They care about the breed of your pet dog? BTW #2, I love that you say you’re paranoid and nervous and then post all of the details on your blog. :)

    • Oh, yes! The VAST majority of insurance companies will not insure homes with Pit Bulls and a handful of other breeds. It has nothing to do with bite history or the temperament of the dog, either—it’s just a strict, arbitrary policy. It’s AWFUL—they’re basically institutionalizing a stigma that we KNOW based on actual research is just that—a stigma. AND it’s just another reason to deter people from adopting the most-euthanized breed of dog in the country. It’s absolutely disgusting and should be illegal, in my opinion. Luckily there are a handful of insurance companies who don’t discriminate based on breed, so we have our insurance through one of those. They’re too expensive (and there’s nothing we can do to bring our premium down), so I’m trying to switch to another one, but the Pit Bull thing limits our options a ton. The one I’d like to switch to wouldn’t issue me a policy until the house is more complete, so hopefully within the next year or so I’ll be able to convince them that I’m no longer under construction and they should issue me a policy.

      Sigh. Insurance fucking sucks.

  26. The balusters are fabulous–it is delightful that you found them. But, remember how you decreased the thickness of the boards in those wall shelves in your apartment and didn’t put them all the way across the wall and from top to bottom, and it wound up looking wonky? You run a strong risk of the railings looking wonky if you only put nine up on each side. Given the fact that this are really short, I think that massing them is really important to achieve the look in the historical photo.

    If I had this problem, I would take one, have a mold cast and reproduce them in a sturdy product or have them reproduced in proper wood (this isn’t a hard design–even my amateur carpenter husband could do it) and save the originals to put elsewhere on the property (perhaps in the garden–a gazebo or other sitting area–or in the upstairs area or even on a wall as architectural decoration?). In fact, if I had this problem, I’d probably redesign them to be a bit taller (I think the short ones in the historical photo look wonky–but, then, I don’t know if this is authentic to the architecture). But, I’d probably do a Photoshop, removing every other baluster in the historical photo–just to see what it would look like with nine per side.

    I think it will look wonky–but, then, it isn’t my house. Maybe you will like it? Oh, and I agree that the door and surround should all be black, though I’d probably use a variety of finishes (matte on surround / satin on door; satin on surround / semigloss on door?) to keep the area from looking too flat. But, that’s just me.

    • You make a valid point! I guess I’ll have to actually untie them (ha!), lay them out, and see what the spacing would be like. I totally agree that spacing them too far apart won’t look good, but I haven’t actually done the math to figure out what the spacing would be like! If I need more, I’ll figure it out…some of these comments make me believe I can turn my own! HOW CRAZY WOULD THAT BE?

      (for what it’s worth, in general, older buildings were built with very low railings. The general rule is that the top of the handrail should never be higher than the bottom of the window sash. I think the lower railings would also accentuate the height of the columns…Greek Revival architecture is pretty much all about creating various illusions of size/height/balance)

  27. Hey Daniel, you totally found a treasure! :)

  28. I laughed at my old self when my first thought when you said “old cable cord” was, That’s more likely an old clothesline.

  29. While tearing down a “room” in my basement that someone had built out of 3 layers of wood planks covered with random sheets of metal and at least 120,348 nails and screws, an old butcher’s meat hook fell out of the ceiling and landed on my shoulder. The 2 people helping me took one look and decided they weren’t ready to find out if there was more behind the hook. They were outta there.
    (there wasn’t. And after hanging around in the office space the room became, it was donated to a local theater production for a play. Sweeney Todd, perhaps?)

  30. Reminds me of my porch, I spent months looking for something to match my balusters with no luck. I think Mad River Woodworks can duplicate anything, but it is around $20 each, so I bought a lathe and learned to do it myself with good results. When I tore up the floor to get to work I found the original balusters all thrown underneath along with a little handrail as well. I also did some clandestine handrail work, the building inspector said if I replaced it I would have to build it up to code height, that wouldn’t work with my plans so I pretty much rebuild everything around the handrails without ‘technically’ replacing them, here’s the whole saga if you’re interested – http://imgur.com/a/lKwab

    • Holy crap, Mike—that’s amazing!! Wow wow wow. Makes me want to learn how to turn wood like RIGHT NOW. Those spindles are gorgeous! Hat’s off.

      • See I had plans for this morning: lots of things to do. What did I do instead? Decided to click on mike’s link and HAD to read the whole thing including all the time lapse shots! It screwes up my morning plans but I am humbled by this beautiful work. (i would have foregone the painted details but it’s not my porch right?)

  31. Amazing find and it will such a fun project when you get to it! But yeah, I can see how there’s a thousand other things in line first. Ceilings! And I thought about you this week when my husbands construction company was looking for a place to get rid of loads of dirt (sorry we’re not in your area). Accidently, one of the Project Engineers got lost looking for something out from the City and saw a church with a big sign in the front asking for fill. To get dirt for your yard, you really just need to put out the word, there’s people looking for you too!

    In a previous house, we once went to change out the builtin dishwasher (after about 6-7 years in the house) and we found taped to the wall behind the dishwasher a pic of a woman and a man (didn’t look like what we remembered the owners to look like)… naked! Tastefully photographed, but …uh yeah. True Story! We made up stories about how that might have happened for years!

  32. OMG, how exciting!! I read the whole big giant long post when you first found the old photos and was too lazy to comment that day, but want to let you know I really enjoyed reading that and can totally relate to your excitement! I just bought my first house, and it’s not as old or as grand as your’s and it’s been pretty updated, but there are still discoveries to be made. Just this weekend I was ripping out the carpet on the stairs with the plan to paint the risers white and leave the treads as stained wood, and what do you know, but that’s exactly what I found! Of course it needs to be repainted, etc, but still… someone once had the same idea as me and that’s exciting!!

    I look forward to following your reno!

  33. I reallllly appreciate the frequency at which the last 3 updates were posted. Keep ’em coming! I can’t get enough!

  34. Uh oh! I think this is the first time I disagree with you on anything. I think the current setup is beautiful and elegant, and the old wooden thingies are too big and chunky for the house. Sorry :(

  35. You can’t be too paranoid these days.

  36. Wood rot is totally fixable and those balusters are worth restoring. I highly recommend Abatron products for wood restoration of any type, have used their 2 part wood epoxy for the restoration of all of my 1928 original wood windows, with great results. Great find, good luck !

  37. Seriously – those balusters are completely fine under those 5 dozen layers of paint. There are competent woodshops that can make you a few reproductions that will match the others perfectly. No one will be able to tell when they are painted.

    I stripped paint off some salvaged gingerbread trim that was in as bad condition as your balusters. I used a heatgun, and lots of patience, and small tools for the picky stuff. If you are really fussy you could follow that up with a chemical stripper. My gingerbread trim is correct to what was originally there and people are astonished that it isn’t originalORIGINAL. Meanwhile my neighbors across the street have a house with the original trim that is choked under many, many layers of paint that make the fine details look like blobs. So they painted over it again.

    Good for you with your fine eye for detail and design, and sympathy to the original.

  38. you found the house’s teeth!

    good for you.

  39. Daniel, this is kind of off topic, but my heart bleeds for your precious Mekko being so damn discriminated against! The plight of the breed is heartbreaking. There was an interesting article in Esquire about pits that I think you might like, I really enjoyed it: http://www.esquire.com/features/american-dog-0814

    Recently my pup got a new walking companion, a pit mix, through our dog walking service. When the two dogs met, the pit immediately covered my bulldog’s face in kisses – honest to goodness, licked his whole face, wagging his tail all the while. I’ve never seen anything sweeter, and I was instantly enamored.

    • I read the article, it made me want to get a pit and I don’t even plan on owning a dog right now! Thanks Zoe for that link.

  40. Some boy just found a 10,000 year old arrowhead on Long Beach Island!
    I think your find is a little bit cooler…

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