Please excuse me if I’m a little overly excited in this post, but it’s only because I’m actually overly excited about some crazy stuff going on at my house. You might have noticed that it’s been a little while since I’ve posted about my own house, which is really just a reflection of nothing too exciting going on there. I finally primed the walls and ceiling in my hallway? I did some stuff in the backyard? I…got a dishwasher? My life has pretty much been Olivebridge Cottage 24/7 (slew of posts about that forthcoming), but after wrapping up restoring the back elevation of my house back in December, the renovation progress has more or less stalled.
WELL. I AM BACK IN ACTION AND IT FEELS SO RIGHT. Here’s what’s going down.
Here’s a picture of the side of my house in all its glory. My house is on a street corner, so arguably this is actually the most visible side, since the other side is more obscured by other houses and trees and stuff, and you don’t see the front unless you’re, well, in front of the house, give or take a hundred feet or so.
It’s pretty bad, right? Clearly I have what borders on an unhealthy affection for my house, but this side is a damn mess. What’s supposed to be all elegant neoclassical architecture is a vinyl-siding-clad imbalanced mishmash of weirdness that I have been scheming of a way to take care of for over three years. Things were improved quite a bit with the elimination of the “mudroom” addition on the back of the house, but that didn’t do anything to address the rest of what’s going on here.
Taking a trip back in time, here is the sole, prized photo I have of my house from 1950. As you can see, things were a little different back then. The house was about 85 years young, and looking a lot better than it does now. That part that sticks out on the side on the first floor is a long, narrow space that was almost entirely windows…I suppose sort of my house’s version of a solarium! I originally thought this was at one time an open-air porch and fleetingly thought I’d restore it as such, but I’m 99.9% positive that this is how it looked when it was originally built.
And that bump-out bay window on the second floor! It was pretty in its day, and I’m sure a fun feature to have inside the house. It had two big two-over-two double-hung windows on either side, and two smaller one-over-one windows facing the street.
Even back then I can’t say I think it looks particularly right, but it sure is more attractive than it is today! The windows on the sides were lost at some point, with the openings covered over with plywood and the whole thing wrapped in vinyl siding and…now it looks like a tumor. I feel similarly about the long former-solarium—with all that glass replaced by those three crappy vinyl windows at some point, it’s just a sad sagging thing tacked onto the side of an otherwise pretty good-looking house…if I do say so myself.
Inside, things are similarly awkward. This bay window is in my dining room, and I think it’s more or less without question that there was a third window where that door is when this thing was built. I actually think the bay window was itself an early addition, onto which the solarium was later added, and then the bump-out upstairs added at some point after that. The doorway appears to have been added in the 1930s, based on the framing and wall material (which is this wood composite garbage stuff called beaverboard).
The side-porch-solarium-thing has been a real concern of mine since buying the house. Unlike the robust bluestone foundation of the rest of the house, this thing sits on a few cinderblock piers that appear to have pushed themselves outwards over the years. If you return to the first photo in this post, you can see a pretty significant sag in the roofline of the solarium, which seems to be partially an effect of rot and partially an effect of the way those three shitty windows were framed and installed. The header that spans that length of this thing is very old, very rotted, and lacking almost any support…that’s not good! It seems to have sagged more since I bought the house, too, but that could just be my imagination.
The bump-out above, of course, is resting entirely on the top of this thing, which is also not good. Putting a really heavy part of a house on top of something with barely enough structural support already is probably not the safest thing. It’s all mildly horrifying.
You might see where I’m going with this. The dining room bay window is solid and old and beautiful, but the rest of it? Trying to fix this stuff would essentially mean rebuilding it, and then…what? That’s a lot of major expense to try to salvage some non-original features that I’m not hugely fond of to begin with, you know? Emphasis on the “non-original” part. That’s what I have to keep reminding myself, because the solarium-ish and the bump-out are old. Just not original to the house. I feel a lot of weird guilt about not being able to restore this stuff to how it looked when it was built, but then I remember that restoring the house is much more important to me and I feel a bit better.
Still, it’s a sticky subject! How do you decide how to handle stuff that’s really old but not original? I’m guessing a lot of owners of old homes have crossed this bridge a few times. For example, my house has beautiful fir hardwood flooring that was probably installed in the 1930s. Do I tear it all out to reveal the original wide-plank pine subfloor? I’d say no, but only because I prefer living with the smoother and tougher “upgraded” flooring. And sometimes I justify decisions like this with thinking that changes like that are also part of the history of the house in their own right, and perhaps that’s reason enough to maintain them. And, admittedly, these non-original additions do have their place in both the history of the house and the trajectory of local architecture. According to the Architectural History and Guide of Kingston:
August 7, 1874: The Daily Freeman describes “a new architectural fancy,” the “rage uptown” for bay windows. “No man of property can consider himself in style unless a bay window has been added to the house.” Upper-story bay windows were said to be especially fashionable as a sign of wealth, and looked well when “studded with flowers” or, even better, “an attractive lady.”
The only thing that makes sense to me is dealing with everything on a case-by-case basis. If this stuff were in better condition and more practical to salvage, or original to the house, I’d restore them. But that’s not the case, and the alternative of restoring this elevation of the house to a closer resemblance of its original architectural intent is hardly a bad thing, either.
So see if you can follow. This is the plan.
Look at those first two windows on the far left. That’s what things are supposed to look like. Slightly bigger window on the first floor, aligned center with a slightly smaller window on the second floor. The sizing is significant, since placing smaller windows on the second floor was meant to make the house look taller and bigger. Greek revival loves drama, and if my house looks enormous, that’s by design. It’s a little over 2,000 square feet, so nothing to shake a stick at, but it’s hardly the mansion it looks like!
Moving toward the back: in the 1950 photo, the house had two false windows next to these windows at the front corner, which I LOVE! It just tickles me! They look like regular windows that are shuttered closed, but they’re purely decorative and there is nothing behind those shutters. This is actually pretty common around here, but somewhat rare to see intact. I want to restore that, but I might actually make the second floor one into a real window and just do the shutter trick downstairs.
The bay window on the first floor stays, and has its third side restored with another window. Trying to match and replicate all of that woodwork is going to be a big task (inside and out!), but I’m kind of excited for the challenge!
Remember, to the right of the bay window on the first floor, there’s that other dining room window that faces out to the solarium thing. The solarium thing is demolished, and that window is an exterior window again. My dining room will get so much more light!
Aligned center above that window where the bump-out currently is goes a new 6-over-6 double hung, matched in size to the adjacent windows on the second floor. The cornice gets patched back in (hopefully just reusing everything I can from the parts that are coming down), the vinyl is removed, the siding (hopefully all salvaged) gets re-installed, this house gets painted…BOOM. If I have any money remaining, which is unlikely, I’d dieeeeeeeeeeee to outfit all my windows with shutters, but that part might have to wait. Doing shutters the right way is a pretty spendy endeavor.
On the far right, on the first floor under the dormer, I’d like to add two windows in my kitchen. Which means my kitchen is about to get kind of destroyed. Oops! But I kind of feel like…let’s just tear the bandaid off and get it done. My kitchen was never meant to last forever, and I really don’t feel all that precious about it.
I don’t like that second floor dormer above the kitchen, but I don’t really know what to do about it. I’d still like windows in that room, but potentially the dormer could be reconfigured. I just feel like the scale/location/shed roof on it is all wrong. Anyone have any ideas?
ANYWAY. Cool. Let’s do this thing!
When I bought the house, that door in the bay window led to a very small triangular closet, which was separated from the rest of the space with a slim wall (just some lengths of beadboard tacked to a couple horizontal supports on the floor and ceiling), which you see below. The beadboard was then covered in wood paneling—that cheap 70s kind, nothing nice.
The rest of the space was accessible from the kitchen and looked like this! I started tearing layers out of this space so long ago that I actually forgot what it looked like until I was editing photos for this post. There was a drop ceiling, wood paneling, linoleum floor, some very moldy drywall on the window wall due to the very leaky roof…blech!
BUT! Notice how there’s a window back there, on the right side? That’s the other window in my dining room, which was very clearly at one point a window that looked outside. The thing that was remarkable about this window, though, is that its trim was never covered with the vinyl/aluminum combo that’s on the rest of the house, so I have a well-preserved example of the original sill size and casings and stuff to model everything else after.
At some point I got pry-bar happy and took down the wood paneling, and was delighted to find the original clapboard below in excellent condition. If only the whole house was like that!
I had the realllllly long baseboard radiator removed during the great radiator shuffle. Shortly thereafter, I removed the layers of flooring. This linoleum was stuck to plywood, which was attached to a bunch of shims to level out the floor. Below that was the original tongue-and-groove, which rakes downward toward the street.
Check it out! At the other end of the solarium, there was another window! I actually think it’s possible that this window was moved here from the side of the bay window and re-installed here. The sashes and parts of the frame are long gone, but you can see how it looked at one time.
Notice the brick-filled wall cavities, too—my whole house is basically like that! Broken, defective, and weak bricks and mortar were used as an early form of insulation and pest-proofing, called nogging. It has an R-value of less than 1 and is not structural, so I’m removing it piecemeal as I work my way around the house and replacing it with modern insulation that will hopefully help increase my energy efficiency. Removing nogging is an extremely dusty and heavy pain in the ass, but I think it’s the right thing to do.
I also removed the drywall on the street-facing window wall, which was moldy and yucky, and this is pretty much how things sat for a couple years! UNTIL NOW!
The other night, I started tackling more of the demo again! I always try to demo slowly and deliberately, saving anything I can—especially stuff like moldings that are much easier to reuse than try to replicate!
By the next morning, I had this!
I took up the old floor board-by-board (to reuse for what, I have no idea!), and underneath was surprised to discover…a 4″ thick or so layer of mortar! OOF. This is when my main squeeze Edwin started working with me, and we shoveled it out and hauled it out of the house bucket by bucket. Super fun, as you can imagine.
Underneath the layer of mortar were these really wide boards attached to the joists. It’s interesting that the joists run from side to side instead of back-to-front…those are some REALLY long joists! We had to cut them in half just to get them out, but the old wood is so pretty that I’m determined to do something with them.
Here you can kind of see the foundation below. Told ya, just a couple of cinderblocks! I wonder if they have footings or anything. We’ll soon find out!
Demo, demo, and more demo! It’s so crazy how much material went into these houses. This is part of why demolishing old houses is such a tragedy—the sheer volume of stuff that ends up in a landfill is almost unimaginable, which is another reason I try to salvage as much as possible. Renovations always generate enough waste as it is!
With the floor, the mortar, the subfloor, and the joists removed, we have….the original exterior wall of my house, looking pretty damn good! The rim joist is enormous and in excellent condition, and the foundation is in amazing shape from being protected all these years! And look at the basement window! Light comes in through it now!
Oh, and what’s that back there? A window? A NEW WINDOW? I have so much to share about window shopping that it’s gonna have to be another post, but I can happily report that I think I’ve found a very good solution for matching 150 year old original windows with new, if you’re in a similar predicament. I’m totally opposed to replacing my original windows for a number of reasons, but trying to find a decent match was no easy feat!
SO ANYWAY! This week, my house feels like it is getting torn to shreds, and the copious amounts of dust and disorder that I haven’t experienced since demo’ing a couple plaster ceilings a few years ago is back with a vengeance.
I couldn’t be happier about it. Progress once again. Feels good.