One of the cool things about living in an old house is the constant possibility that you might find something left behind—intentionally or not—by a previous occupant. Open up a wall and you might see century-old bank bonds or a pile of cash or gold bricks or a diamond ring or…ya know. We’ve seen the news stories. Some asshole goes a-renovatin’ and finds some shit worth more than the house itself.
Well, I’ve done a fair amount of renovating, and my house is a hidden-treasure-failure. I found a couple of plastic combs behind the wall in the downstairs bathroom. A matchbook in the attic. A business card for a hat shop in the entryway ceiling. Several mummified mice. Until recently, I think probably the coolest thing I found was half of a shutter hinge below the solarium. BFD.
You know how on the first floor of my house, there’s this amazing panel detail below all of the windows? The incredible moldings were one of the big reasons I fell so in love with my house. So beautiful! It makes me feel bad about putting furniture and stuff in any of my rooms because I always feel like nothing I own is prettier than the house itself and therefore I should just leave it empty.
One of the cool things about taking so much of the house apart and putting it back together again—which is really what the exterior restoration requires—is getting to see what’s behind my walls without tearing out the plaster and moldings on the interior. This is the backside of one of those below-the-window-panels, which I spent a while staring at and trying to figure out how to reconstruct for the new dining room window. This picture doesn’t really show much, but the craftsmanship here! The whole thing is mortise-and-tenon’d together at the corners and there are flathead screws holding things together from the inside and…I don’t know, it’s all very cool to me. In an age when strips of MDF held onto drywall with liquid nails qualifies as board-and-batten walls, I always like seeing this kind of thing.
SO ANYWAY, I was staring at this and looked down, and right there, tucked between the stud and the backside of the panel was a little piece of paper! It’s somewhere between the size of a business card and a postcard, beautifully preserved, and sitting right there waiting to be discovered!
How cool! Here’s the front of the card. Look at that building! I actually first assumed that this building stood in Kingston (we also have a Broadway and Cedar Street, and they intersect at a corner!) and immediately got sad about all the incredible buildings lost to urban renewal efforts and whatnot, but a quick google searched turned up that this was actually the Equitable Life Assurance Building in Manhattan, which I guess stood at a record-breaking height when it was finished in 1870 and was the first office building to feature passenger elevators. Like many other “fireproof” buildings built in lower Manhattan around that time, turns it out was not that fireproof and burned down in 1912. Look at that!
And on the back my eyes immediately settled on the text at the bottom, because that’s the name of the original owner of my house!* I knew from census records and stuff that he was an insurance salesman (among other things—it sounds like he was a real man-about-town and total badass), but there’s something kind of different about holding his 150 year old business card (is that what we call this?) in my hand. So fun. In case you’re curious, that $726,399.94 in 1870 translates to about $12,700,000 in 2016.
*this could be false. Almost every person who knows a lot about old houses tells me the construction of the original section at least of my house appears to be more circa 1830s, and looks like it got a couple of additions and maybe a big aesthetic overhaul in the 1860s or so. The 1905 obituary of the owner whose name appears on this card notes that he built the house “forty years ago,” which brings us to 1865, but maybe “built” refers more to a major renovation? It is, after all, an obituary in the local paper, not a real estate record. I need a time machine or somebody who’s really good at research.
SO THAT HAPPENED AND IT WAS EXCITING FOR ME BECAUSE THAT IS THE KIND OF THING I LIKE. NOW HERE IS ANOTHER THING I LIKE.
Remember this view? It’s the new window installed on the missing third side of the bay window on the first floor. Great, cool.
Remember this view? It’s the opposite end of the solarium, where under some wood paneling was clear evidence of another window down at this end. The sashes are long gone and the jamb is pretty hacked up, but it’s definitely a window jamb.
When I found that hidden window, I measured it…and it seemed like just the size of the one that would have been on the third side of the bay window, where I’ve now put a window back. Which lead me to wonder…was this window moved here from the bay window when the solarium was built? I think it’s totally possible. Why throw out a perfectly good window when you’re adding more windows? Huh.
Fast-forward to solarium demo of a few weeks ago, and after removing all the brick and mortar nogging…look there, below the window jamb! Doesn’t that kind of look like the backside of the panel detail I was talking about earlier? That’s neither siding nor sheathing, so I got all excited.
Because don’t forget, the bay window has that detail on the inside and the outside.
It didn’t take me long to head to the exterior and rip off the vinyl on this wall. I was expecting to see a big sheet of plywood where the window used to be, but I actually found…wood clapboard? Huh! I guess this window was removed longer ago than I thought.
Said it before and I’ll say it forever…check that mold out. THAT IS WHAT IS UNDER VINYL SIDING. Moisture and rot and yuck yuck yuck that is terrible for your house. Luckily the clapboard actually wasn’t rotted here, but I’m sure in a few years or so you’d start to see that. Which of course can then affect sheathing, and framing, and the backside of your walls, and vinyl siding ought to be illegal.
Anyway. Then I took the clapboard off board-by-board, like I do, and that’s when I found the plywood. OK. Starting to make some sense.
AND THEN UNDER THE PLYWOOD LOOK LOOK LOOK! That right there is the same panel detail found on the other two sides of the bay window that I’m restoring, in really pretty great condition from being covered up all these years. SO EXCITING. Hopefully I can just move the entire thing back to its rightful position under that new window, and that will be one big step closer to making that once-beautiful bay window whole again. That thing is trimmed out with a lot of fancy moldings, some of which will probably still need to be replicated, but having this one thing taken care of by the house is just so cool, at least to me. I love those super rare times when things might actually be easier than you imagined they’d be.