Monday, November 29, 2010

The French Doors - Oui Oui!

We have had a number of pleasant surprises in this house as we undo the work of previous owners in an effort to return the house to its former configuration.  Since the house had been turned into 3 apartments in the 1940s, some odd things happened - like the closing off of the foyer so that a bathroom could be placed there!  Access to the living room was probably closed off to the front door as well, since the front door probably accessed the upstairs apartment.  The exterior door in the living room accessed the apartment on the right side of the house and the exterior door into the former doctor's office accessed the third apartment on the left side of the house.

For those of you familiar with houses from the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was often a set of French doors separating what most of us use as a living room now from the main foyer.  The previous owners of our house had re-opened the doorway from the foyer to the living room, but only to the width of a single door.  It was obvious to us that there had been a wider doorway there.  There was a square indentation in the floor for the French door to lock one of the doors closed and the framing was new.  When we were at the stage of removing walls that didn't belong, we found that - yes, indeed! - the original opening was wide enough for French doors!

Unfortunately, though some of the trim and doors that had been removed had been stored in the basement by some forward thinking person (or pack rat!), we did not still have the French doors.  Fortunately, Black Dog Salvage is nearby.  Now, if you enjoy looking at treasures from old buildings, check out your nearest architectural salvage store.  It's great fun and you can find details you didn't even know you needed.  Fortunately for us, we found a great set of oak French doors that are stained the color of the rest of our woodwork.  My husband swears they might be our original doors.

Because we needed to build the oak door frame and had far more important tasks on our plate, these doors have been languishing in our doctor's office waiting room/library/dining room/office for far too long.  As part of The Great Rearrangement, it is finally time to install the doors.  As of Sunday afternoon, we have the stationary French door installed.  The little matters of some missing hinge pins and a need to rearrange the living room so that the other door has room to swing kept us from completing this task, but those are quick fixes that should happen this week.  The door looks great and really adds some class to our foyer!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Great Rearrangement

One sometimes huge disadvantage of living in the house that you are rehabilitating is the constant shuffle of furniture, etc. to work on rooms.  We have also inherited a lot of furniture since we moved into this house and, not having the proper place to set it up, we've got several rooms that look more like storage units than rooms of the house.   Complicating matters is the fact that we've changed the purpose of several rooms multiple times.  Fortunately, we had never actually finished these rooms so changing our minds hasn't had major consequences except for how to refer to the room that was to be the library, then the dining room, and now the office.

We have a lot of books, so having a library was a given.  We envisioned a darkish room with lots of wooden shelves built in and a cozy seating nook.  The former doctor's office  waiting room at the front of the house seemed perfect.  The leaded glass window added some elegance for the room.  We had it all planned, right down to the dark wood ceiling.  

We used the front half of the living room as a dining room.   This wasn't a perfect solution because it is a long ways from the kitchen, but the table fit there.  Then, we inherited a dining room suite and we realized that though we might not use it as such, the house really should have a formal dining room.  At this point, it isn't obvious which room was the original dining room in the house.  The rooms have been repurposed over the years so it is not immediately clear if our kitchen was the original kitchen.  If it was, there isn't a candidate for the dining room immediately contiguous.  Possibly, the room that will become the downstairs guest bedroom was the dining room, but by the time we got the house which had, by then, had 3 apartments carved out of it, that large room contained just a toilet and evidence of a tub and sink.  

We decided that the former doctor's office waiting room/library should be the dining room.  This wasn't a perfect solution and would still require carrying food down the hallway, but it would fit the inherited dining room suite.   We still have lots of books, so we still had a need for a library.  We also have an odd area with 5 doorways as you enter the house from the back porch.  There are too many travel lanes here to place much furniture, but we could fill the walls with bookshelves.  So that room has become our library and is mostly completed and filled with books.

Throughout this period, our working office with desks and computers has remained just off of the kitchen.  The more we thought about it and what in the world we were going to do with all that furniture, we realized that the office should become the dining room.   The kitchen is right there and the room is big enough and bright enough to withstand the heaviness of the furniture.  That means that the doctor's office waiting room/library/dining room would become the office.  

Now this, finally makes perfect sense!  The old doctor's office has its own exterior door and can be shut off from the rest of the house so as we move towards our goal of self-employment we could actually see clients here.  The room is large enough for our drawing tables, desks, and other office stuff with nice natural light and the leaded glass window for inspiration.  We spent Sunday working on this great rearrangement.  From a room packed to the gills with furniture and "stuff", there's now room to roll out a rug in the middle of the doctor's office waiting room/library/dining room/office floor.  Of course now we've got to paint so the room is office color instead of library color, but we're getting there!   

Monday, November 15, 2010

Check One Task Off the (Long) List!

Not to dwell on (or in!) the attic, but we finished the insulation!!  We'd like to think we did such a great job that the gas company will be paying us this year, but that's probably just a bit optimistic.  It is good to have a clean attic with clean and fluffy insulation to keep our heat in the house.  We've got our plywood laid out up there to store Christmas decorations and such, so we're already using the vast storage space that it is for now.

While we were up there, not only did we have the chance to remove the insulation, but also the old knob and tube wiring and other unused fixtures.  One of our first tasks before we ever moved into the house was to rewire.  So all of the old wiring had been cut, but at that time, the only access to the attic was through a very small hatch into a very dirty space so the knobs and tubes remained up there.  Another removal was what was probably the ballast tank for the radiator system.  It's still up there because it's too big to get down, but also because it's pretty cool with all of the rivets that hold it together.  It's a great design piece that we'll find some use for.

We were hoping to find a million dollars hidden in the attic.  No such luck, but we did find a few interesting things that we'll incorporate into a "museum" case in the wall when we finish the space.  Our most recent finds were an envelope postmarked December 1913 - the year the house was built and a christening dress.  The dress was in perfect shape, just dirty from being under the insulation.  It's nothing fancy, but does have some embroidery on the yoke.  I'm thinking we could come up with a gothic novel about how the dress found its way up there, but then I might get a little nervous when I hear normal creaks from above!

Monday, November 8, 2010

We've Got Bats in the Belfry!

Some people would say we have bats in the belfry for rehabilitating our old house, but those aren't the bats of which I speak.  Our sanity aside, the bat (I think just one) is in our attic.  

We spent the weekend on our ongoing task of replacing the old, dirty, blown-in fiberglass insulation in our attic.  Suited up against the dust and fiberglass pieces that can cause itchiness if touched and respiratory problems if inhaled, we have a system where one of us crawls into the depths of the attic corners and fills plastic kitty-litter containers with the insulation and hands it back to the other for disposal in a trash bag.  Once most of the insulation has been removed, a Shop Vac is used to get rid of the remaining pieces and accumulated dust.  We clean out as many of the cavities as we can before back and knees protest too much then fill smaller holes with spray insulation foam and the cavities with fiberglass bats (not flying bats!).  

There's a blog posting for another time about the environmental pros and cons of different types of insulation, but I'll be perfectly honest - we got a quote for spray foam and decided that we'd go with fiberglass for now.  Our attic space will one day be an amazing room.  It has a dormer for light and is essentially a big square space with high ceilings throughout most of it and plenty of place for storage where knee walls will be placed one day.  Today, however, it is just the attic and if we can improve the energy efficiency up there, that will lower our heating bills.  One day, when we turn that into a room in the house, we will want to spray foam the ceiling/roof and we can easily remove the fiberglass bats if we so choose.

We are almost done with replacing the attic insulation and I was admiring our work, thinking about what a great space the attic will be one day, mentally constructing the knees walls and all the storage they will provide, calculating how long it will take to finish the job, congratulating ourselves on not having signs of creatures in the attic, and measuring and cutting the insulation to be installed when...I thought I saw something.  Daylight savings time started on Sunday, so it was starting to get dark outside, though it was plenty light in the attic from our shop lights, so I thought my eyes were playing tricks on me.  

Then frrrrrrr...whiz...ack!  It was a bat.  Circling the center of the attic where I was cutting the insulation.  I was out of there so fast that I was halfway down the attic ladder when I realized that I ought to turn around or I'd end up on my face in the hallway!  My poor husband was still up there, stuck in the far corner of the attic and I stopped to think..."Gosh, I hope he isn't stuck back there!"  Well, down he came soon after and we abandoned ship for the night.  We'll wait for a sunny day to go back up and finish the insulation! 

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Saving the Viewsheds

I've gotten so that I look out the top of our windows to look over the unfortunate views that have developed from our house over time.  I imagine that if the Quonset hut (and all the junk behind it) were gone, we might have a great view of the New River.  From upstairs, I can see the  upper half of the mountains on either side, their colorful leaves in fall, the ice in winter, and the slow spread of spring green.  In our back yard, the cute little Victorian house is marred by the swath of power line scarring the mountain behind it.   

Historic preservation is not just about saving buildings. It's also about preserving land and viewsheds. For those unfamiliar with the term, a viewshed is what you see from a particular place. So it might be the familiar views of a historic Main Street or the untamed wilderness along stretches of a meandering river or the field and mountain views from a family homestead. 

Many of us take these views for granted until something changes.  Unfortunately, that something is usually something irreversible.  Tearing down the historic courthouse in downtown's central square.  Widening the highway and razing historic farmhouses or entire neighborhoods.  Placing a campground on the river's edge.  Building a WalMart on a Civil War battlefield or a McMansion on top of a scenic vista.   Developing a huge housing complex across the river from an 18th century plantation.  While oftentimes these changes are the result of greed, certainly nature has a hand in fires, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, landslides, and hurricanes that can also drastically change viewsheds.  Nature can be forgiven though, while human hubris cannot.  

In our area, the New River Land Trust gives landowners who want to protect their property  from becoming the next big development or industrial site on the river the opportunity to donate a conservation easement.  With the conservation easement, the donor donates the rights to develop the land to a state agency or land trust in exchange for generous tax credits and deductions.  The landowner remains on the property and gets the peace of mind that the land won't be developed.  His neighbors and those who passively "use" the land by driving, hiking, or boating by receive the benefit of a preserved viewshed. 

Historic preservationists have a similar tool in preservation easements available through the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.  For buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places, a preservation easement protects the characteristics that made the building eligible for the National Register including architectural features, outbuildings, archaeological sites, historic landscaping, and open space.  The property is protected under the easement, though modernization that doesn't compromise the building is allowed.  The owner receives tax credits and continues to live on the property.  His neighbors and passersby continue to admire the building and its contribution to the historic character of the community.