Monday, December 5, 2011

Shop Local, Shop Unique

In our area of Southwest Virginia, we have been hit hard by losses to manufacturing and population, an unhealthy obsession with chain stores, and minimal appreciation of historic buildings. All of that has combined to kill off downtown areas that were once thriving, leaving many empty storefronts. Many of our communities are beginning work to reverse that trend with the help of federal and state programs like transportation funding for downtown revitalization, CDBG funds, historic tax credits for building restoration, and tourism initiatives like 'Round the Mountain and the Crooked Road that highlight our local heritage artisans and musicians.  Many of our communities are still a long way from being destinations for tourists, but there are some specialty shops and restaurants that are drawing visitors for an afternoon.  

We're trying this holiday season to shop locally where possible to help encourage more local businesses in our area and put more money back into our local economy.  It might cost a little more, but the gifts we're buying are unique and better quality than those we find at the big boxes and the atmosphere is much more jolly, which is definitely worth the extra investment to us.  Here's our shopping plan:
  1.  Shop Locally-Owned.  Shop the unique shops.  We visited an alpaca farm, an Amish store, and an old and newly restored mercantile this weekend.  We met the owners of each of those businesses who were more than happy to chat with us, find out where we were from, and answer any questions we had.  We know exactly where (and to whom) our money went.  Can't really say that about the big box store, can you?
  2. Shop Hand-Made.  How about a gift with a little imagination?  Go hand-made!  In our area, 'Round the Mountain provides lots of options to find beautiful, unique, and well-made gifts from local artisans.  Don't feel like leaving home to shop?  Look around on the Etsy website to find all kinds of hand-made items that you've never even thought of, but that might be the perfect gift for that hard-to-buy-for friend.  And while you may purchase something at Etsy from an artist or crafter in California or France, it's still the same principle: you're shopping a small, locally-owned business so you know exactly where your money is going.
  3. Shop Made In USA.  And when we find ourselves at the big box store with just a day left until Christmas?  We'll look for the "Made in USA" label.  And vow to shop earlier next year.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

So That's How the Birds Got In

We've started removing ceilings in the project house.  The floor to ceiling height is pretty low in most rooms (less than 8 feet), so we want to maximize that where possible.  There's some places with strapping that apparently once held, or was going to hold, sheetrock over the cracked plaster that we're taking down, some saggy ceilings where we need to figure out what's going on underneath, and some with water damage.  

We also moved the trim pile around on the third floor so we could tackle the one remaining section of ceiling that we had been putting off for months.  We had found in these ceilings, which are essentially in the finished attic space, that some critters had moved in and made a very significant nest.  They'd been gone for a long time, but they had left some less than desirable remnants of their previous home.  We never were quite sure what was there.  I think birds because there was a lot of straw involved in the nest, but there may have been some bats around the chimney too.

Removing that last part of the ceiling wasn't as bad as we'd expected.  Apparently, they'd lived in the center part that we'd already taken down.  What we did find though, was that there was a gaping hole all along the gable line of that end of the space!  It's a wonder we didn't have a new crop of creatures in there this summer, but I guess we'd made it rather inhospitable in there.  

Someone had taken down the outside trim around the gable, in preparation for what?  Who knows.  The roofer had warned us about it, but we didn't realize what he was talking about and that there was an actual HOLE there.  Since we don't have a ladder tall enough to reach the end, we fixed the hole from the inside using 1"x6"s, our trusty reciprocating saw, and a few nails.  Figures that it wasn't as easy as it might seem.  Nothing is straight and there's a vent pipe going through the roof there, but we got the boards in.  We went out side and started looking at the other ends and it looks like we've got a couple of other holes to find and fix too where the trim was removed.  More fun with the Sawsall and foam sealant to come! 

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Measuring To Create New Plans

We hit a milestone of sorts last weekend.  We finally finished the major part of the demolition of our project house.  There are still a few saggy ceilings left to go and some other odds and ends like removing the siding from the interior of the kitchen(!), but the walls are finished.  We spent some time this weekend remeasuring all of the spaces so we can draw out the plans to get our building permit.  We'll be adjusting the existing floor plan to make it work better for the way people live today and to correct some changes that were badly made in the past (e.g., closing up a window to create a bathroom in an awkward place).  

The house will probably have 4-5 bedrooms and 3.5 baths when we're done.  None of the rooms currently have closets, so we'll have to make space for them, preferably without making the bedrooms any smaller.  The laundry room will be moved from the unheated back porch to the second floor where it is close to the bedrooms.  We'll open up the kitchen so that it flows into the rest of the house rather than being closed off as it is now.  The 2 front rooms will likely become one large livingroom.   And we'll have to figure out how to handle a couple of oddly shaped spaces.  

Drawing the plans will help us make some of those decisions as well as determining where the electrical, plumbing, and HVAC should go.  The house was obviously cobbled together and expanded over the years and really had no character-defining features on the interior, but it has good bones.  We can definitely create a warm, livable home for the 21st century while maintaining the house's street presence and improving the neighborhood.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Purgatory of Demolition

We have been in demolition phase of our newest project for far too long. We've been busy (this blog has suffered too) and have had just a couple of hours a weekend to spend on the project for most of the summer.  You'd think we'd be more motivated since we're paying monthly dumpster rental fees, but we're just not getting it done.  Between jobs that often require evening events, lawn mowing, too hot summer weather, and just life in general, we've gotten ourselves stuck in demolition purgatory. 

Hopefully this weekend we can finish the last wall and start removing the necessary ceilings.  It's high time to start putting things back together.  Two dumpster loads have left the premises already which included the old roof, plaster and lath, ceiling tiles, old insulation, and sheetrock among other undesirable trash.  We have been recycling as we can, but there's still a lot of debris.  We've got piles for reusable lumber, trim to be stripped and reused, wiring and other metal, aluminum storm windows, fixtures, hardware, chimney bricks, the old cabinets...We've still got a lot of nail pulling and paint stripping ahead of us, but we can do that without a dumpster so, at least symbolically, we'll be headed out of purgatory!

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Economy of Preservation

We spent a nice day in Lewisburg, West Virginia last weekend.  One reason for choosing Lewisburg for a day trip was that it is close to our home in Southwest Virginia, but beyond that, even though we didn't consciously make the decision based on historic preservation, all of the reasons are inextricably tied to it:
  • Lewisburg has a sense of place.  The minute you enter town, you know you are somewhere special and not in Anytown, USA.  History is evident from the old buildings and the tree-lined streets.  The business district has character and draws you in.  This is a place you want to stop.
  • Lewisburg is pedestrian friendly.  Though several main roads connect in town, all of the roads are 2 lanes with parallel parking.  The parked cars and street trees help to provide a barrier between pedestrians and traffic while also slowing the cars driving through.  Why are the roads narrow?  Because the buildings are historic and were built at a time when pedestrians and horses were the norm or few people owned those new-fangled automobile things.
  • Lewisburg is compact, yet expansive.  What do I mean by that?  The area that comprises downtown Lewisburg is just a few blocks, creating a compact area to walk around.  No sprawl here.  But it is expansive enough that you can spend an entire afternoon here eating lunch (and maybe dinner too) at a local restaurant; browsing the galleries of locally-made and high-quality arts and crafts, antique stores, and specialty shops; and taking the historic walking tour.  You can expand your trip to the evening too by taking in a show at Carnegie Hall and spend the night at a local B&B.
  • Money spent in Lewisburg stays local.  The majority of businesses are locally owned and not owned by a faceless conglomerate in another state who doesn't really even know where Lewisburg is.  That means that money you spend in Lewisburg most likely returns to business owners and employees who live locally.  If they, in turn, spend the money they earned from you locally, then the returns to the local economy snowball.
I don't know the logistics of how Lewisburg became the community it is today, but I do know that many small towns have used federal and state historic preservation funding and tax credits to help them revitalize and reinvent themselves after experiencing extended economic downturns due to lost industries and changes in the way people shop.  What does federal and state preservation funding accomplish for these towns?  It creates jobs.  It creates jobs for the people who restore and rehabilitate the historic buildings to be used by restaurants, galleries, specialty shops, grocery and hardware stores, office space, apartments, and a myriad of other uses.  It creates jobs for the business owners and their staff that occupy the historic buildings.  It creates jobs for tourism-related businesses such as restaurants, lodging, and gas that are needed so visitors can spend the day, spend the night, spend the week.  These may not be the large-scale industrial park-type industries our politicians are thinking of when they chant the "more jobs" mantra, but these small local businesses are important for rural economies, small town residents, and the American way of life.  And funding to help with these preservation projects is vital to our economy.  That might not be so obvious if you live in Anytown, USA.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Forces of Nature

We were very fortunate last week.  We live in Virginia, but weren't effected by either the earthquake or the hurricane.  We felt a little shaking, we had a little breeze, but nary a drop of rain.  Many owners of historic houses in Virginia were not so lucky with reports of collapsed chimneys and facades, cracks in brick and stone, uprooted historic trees, long power outages.  Things could certainly have been worse, but they are certainly not easy for those who received damage and must now make the tough decisions about repairing, demolishing, and rebuilding.  Preservation Virginia, the Virginia Department of Historic Resources, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation can all help historic property owners in Virginia with resources to make those tough decisions.  An article in the Alexandria Times talks about the importance of earthquake or hurricane bolts in the historic brick buildings of Alexandria in keeping damage to a minimum and mentions Virginia's last major earthquake which was centered in our county.

Our thoughts also go out to those New England and New York where flooding from Irene has caused unfathomable damage to historic buildings and structures.  It's just heartbreaking to see covered bridges washed into swollen rivers and water flowing through buildings.  I grew up in a New Hampshire town with a covered bridge connecting it to the next town.  Fortunately, the water levels weren't so high there as to put the bridge in danger, but I can certainly empathize with the pain people are feeling for lost bridges.

In our current economic situation, it's hard to believe that any of the bridges will be rebuilt, at least not as iconic covered bridges.  I don't think that it is nostalgia that necessarily drives our emotions when we lose historic bridges and buildings.  The loss of a sense of character is powerful.  The covered bridges and quintessential New England villages draw people because they are different.  They have a very strong sense of place.  You can tell one bridge or one town from another.  You know you are somewhere special the minute you enter town.  Much of our construction today evokes "Anywhere, USA".  From bridge to buildings, you can't tell where you are.  You could be in Connecticut or you could be in Texas, the styles of newer structures and chains tend to be similar.  We're losing our regional architecture and, with it, our sense of place.  That's why it is so painful to see catastrophic damage to the historic structures that define the uniqueness of our communities.  That's why we should make an effort to repair or reconstruct rather than demolish and replace.


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Vinyl's Final

Well, not really.  Vinyl really isn't final, no matter what the salesmen will have you think.  You might not have to paint it, but you'll have to replace it when it cracks or otherwise starts to look shabby.  If you have vinyl siding near the ground on your house and you have a penchant for weed whacking, it's likely you'll crack the siding yourself the first time your power tool throws a rock into it.  

So, no, vinyl isn't final.  In fact, as a preservationist, vinyl is the enemy.  It is a covering that removes the architectural character from trim, windows, and gables of historic homes.  It holds moisture on the siding it covers, causing the original siding to deteriorate.  It lasts 20 - 30 years before replacement if you're lucky, but the wood siding that was covered will last many, many more years than that if properly maintained.  From an environmental standpoint, the chemicals and amount of energy used to make vinyl siding are certainly not green.  Vinyl siding cannot be recycled when it is replaced and so it goes directly to the landfill where it probably doesn't break down or is incinerated, releasing it's toxic chemicals into the air.

So why am I talking about vinyl.  It's because I have a confession to make.  We used vinyl on our project house.  <Gasp!>  Here's our reasoning:  The house had badly curled cedar shingles cover the attic dormer and ends (you can see them here). The shingles needed to be replaced.  The house is a bit of a hodge podge of vernacular construction, from the simple, non-matching windows to the asbestos siding.  We're going to flip the house and, frankly, we live in a rather depressed area, so we're looking to keep costs low and the house comfortable while still maintaining the house's character.  We wanted to keep the feel of the shingles on the third floor.  We priced out cedar shingles and vinyl siding that looked like shingles.  The vinyl was much cheaper.  We figured that since the siding will be so far off the ground, it won't be obvious that it is vinyl, it won't be damaged by rocks thrown up by the mower, and it's not detracting from the house's character by covering any existing details.  

So we did it.  We used vinyl.  We'll turn in our preservationist membership card if need be, but we stand by our decision.

Monday, August 15, 2011

What the?!?

Sometimes, we just see architectural "features" that make us scratch our heads.  Case in point is this chimney near our project house.  It appears to have been built at this angle and not that it has sagged to the angle over time.  Do you suppose the chimney continues at an angle inside the house?

(Addendum, 9/19/11: I looked over at this house yesterday and noticed that the chimney had fallen onto the roof of the house!  I don't know if gravity took over or if the earthquake we had a few weeks ago was enough to take it out.  Glad I got a photo when I did!)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A New Roof at Westview

In a perfect world, all fixer-uppers would have a new roof and those of us crazy enough to take them on wouldn't have to worry about that one little detail.  Unfortunately, when people give up on a house, it seems that the expense of replacing a roof is one of the reasons they give up.  The house we live in had multiple leaks when we first bought it and the remains of some really bad attempts at plugging up missing flashing with roofing tar and caulking.  We got the flashing fixed and a few roofing tiles replaced and we've been dry ever since.

At the Westview project house, we knew there were roofing issues when we bought the house.  The blue tarps were the first clue.  The old curling asphalt shingles that blew off in the mountain winds were the second.  We've had a roofer lined up for several months now, but since we're in no hurry, we told them they could put us later in the queue.  Well, this week, they finally got to us.  They took the old roof off Monday morning.  Fortunately, despite the terrible condition of the old roof, it hadn't been leaking enough to damage the oak decking so little work had to take place before replacement could begin.  As of yesterday afternoon (prior to the thunderstorms, fortunately), we had a new asphalt architectural shingled roof!  Very nice, except that it highlights the peeling paint on the attic windows. 

The other slight problem was that the power line to the house was rather precarious and the debris coming off the roof pulled the power line free from the house.  So, we called to have the power company look at it since the roofers mentioned it had sparked when it pulled free and we didn't want to burn the house down.  The power company came by, took one look at that old power line, cut it, and took the meter.  Sooo, now we have NO power.  We only had one operational outlet anyway because the wiring in the house was downright dangerous, but this sets us back a bit since we don't own a generator.  We're investigating now how to get minimal power for construction.  At least painting windows can be done without a power source!

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Keeping the Historic Building Trades Alive

We visited Colonial Williamsburg a couple of weeks ago. We enjoy the atmosphere and the step back in time. I am sure there are those who object to the view of history that Colonial Williamsburg provides or the fact that the colonial city is mostly reconstructed, but I say if visitors go away from there having learned more about the American Revolution and the basic tenets on which our country was founded, then that far overshadows any objection of the place. 

 Colonial Williamsburg's tradespeople help to create an atmosphere and teach people that 18th century life wasn't as easy as one-stop shopping at WalMart.  The tradespeople demonstrate how things are made and answer questions while they are working.  Weavers, spinners, basket makers, cabinet makers, blacksmiths, gunsmiths, coopers, wheelwrights...It is fascinating to see the old tools and skills needed to make things we take for granted today. 

Along with trades needed to take care of basic day-to-day needs, Colonial Wiliamsburg keeps the historic building trades alive. Much of the area surrounding Duke of Gloucester Street has been reconstructed based on archaeological digs, historical papers, drawings, and assumptions based on knowledge of other period buildings. Reconstruction has continued since the 1920s when John D. Rockefeller began the process. 

Often, when you visit, an archaeological investigation is underway to discover the details of an old building or a building is being reconstructed using historic methods. While we were there, the brick makers were forming bricks to dry in the sun. The brick kiln had just been fired - you could see the heat rising from it despite the 90 air degree temperature. Carpenters were working on the rafters "new" building near the blacksmith shop. Part of the roof structure was laid out on the ground while the carpenter cut a tenon joint on a rafter that would be fit in later. He said the boards had been pit sawn and that the lumber was from trees grown nearby. Wood roof shingles were being split nearby. 

The more you ask, the more you learn about the historic building trades, the strength and longevity of the buildings, and the pride the workers take in the construction.   Hopefully visitors can apply that to their surroundings when they return home and understand better the long-term, quality construction of old and historic buildings vs. the short-term, consumable construction of many buildings built today.  

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Cherry on Top of a Historic Building

I've been thinking about chimneys.  Maybe it's all the talk of Christmas in July (Santa Claus, you know) or maybe it's because we've got some whimpy little chimneys on our project house.  There are 2 chimneys and it looks like every room had a coal stove, but no fireplaces, so there was no need for more than a narrow passage for the smoke.  The chimney that ends in the kitchen is propped on 2x4s and didn't even reach to the basement.  Since there's no real reason to keep these chimneys and they aren't what you'd call an architectural feature, we're going to tear them down when the roof is redone.  

On our own house, we had the two chimneys rebuilt and lined so that we could use one for the boiler exhaust and possibly gas logs in the shallow fireplace one day.  The other chimney appears to never have been used (it had no soot or penetrations) and seems like it's only there to provide some symmetry to the American Four Square.  

Back in the day, chimneys were just one area that masons were able to show their skill and pride in their work.  There are gorgeous examples throughout the country that are most definitely architectural features that help to define the historic character of their buildings.  Check out some great examples below and don't forget to look up!

Bacon's Castle, Surry, VA

Shirley Plantation, Charles City, VA

Westover, Charles City, VA

Smithfield Plantation, Blacksburg, VA

Frontier Culture Museum, Staunton, VA

Falling Water, Mill Run, PA



Monday, June 27, 2011

Deferred Maintenance Strikes Again

In the center of our little town, we have an old brick high school building built in 1931.  In a story similar to many communities, the town outgrew the high school and in 1961, a new high school was built.  The old school was used by elementary school students until 1987.  It has been the town community center in the time since.  We have a wonderful recreation program that uses the old gym, the auditorium is used for community programs, and there are some town offices in the building as well.  

Unfortunately, the school is still owned by the school system who has deferred maintenance over the years.  Today, among other things, the roof leaks and has damaged the old wooden gym floors to a point that they need to be fixed before the floors become a safety hazard.  The school system wants to sell the school to the town rather than fix the problems.  The town isn't sure they want to take on the liability of a building that they need to spend a minimum of $150,000 on just to get the roof and gym floors fixed.  

The town estimates it will cost $2.5 million to fully renovate it.  That may be an inflated number to spin favor away from the building or it may be on target.  Due to this dollar figure, town council is now discussing the idea of demolishing a historic brick building that anchors one end of town, contributes to the scenic view of the duck pond area, and has lasted for 80 years and will easily last another 80 if  properly maintained.  Their plan?  Build a nondescript "shell building" for $1.5 million that might last for 30 years if they're lucky to replace the spaces the recreation program will lose if the building is demolished.  

In other words, they have a plan to replace character with mediocrity, and long-term investment with short-term consumption.  Demolition is permanent.  And it's not free. The tangible costs of removing debris and preparing the site for new construction and the intangible costs caused by the changes to the fabric of the community are both mighty expensive in a small town struggling to maintain its unique identity.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

A Preservation Success Story - Pulaski Depot

Photo from The Southwest Times
Back in November 2008, we were all heart-broken to hear of the fire in the historic Pulaski, Virginia train station.  A beautiful stone passenger depot built in the late 1800s, it housed the town's museum and Chamber of Commerce.  The fire was electrical, starting in the ceiling of the museum and probably smoldering for quite some time before breaking into flames during the night.  There wasn't a fire alarm system in the building, but a passerby saw smoke pouring from the roof and called 911.  The volunteer fire department went far above and beyond the call of duty pulling museum items out of the structurally unsound building in the heat of the moment, saving far more than one would have imagined given the intensity of the fire.  

Photo from WSLS

Despite the depot's stone walls and slate roof, the building did not fair well in the fire.  The roof collapsed, taking parts of the upper walls with it and interior features were incinerated.  Even given the best efforts of the fire fighters, the fire was too far advanced when they were called to have had a better outcome.  With current budget constraints and the state of the depot, many municipalities would have decided to give up and demolish the building.  The Town of Pulaski is resilient.  They've been through town fires, the closing of their furniture factories, flooding, two fires in their historic courthouse, and, since the depot fire, a tornado.  The Town decided to use the insurance money they received from the fire to reconstruct the train depot and restore many of the depot's original features.

Last Saturday, June 11, 2011 was the grand reopening of Pulaski's depot.  It was exhilarating to see how many people gathered for the celebration.  The exterior of the building has been restored to its appearance prior to the fire.  The slate roof with its distinctive cupolas has been reconstructed along with the upper sections of the stone exterior walls that were lost to the fire.  The interior has been returned to its original appearance with fireplaces at the ends of the main rooms and beadboard covering the walls. Some changes were made to reflect the new functionality of the building.  A new museum will be built across the street, so the depot will become a meeting space for local groups and those looking for retreat space.  New restrooms and a ramp were added.  Probably the most important new feature added to the building?  An alarm and fire suppression system.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

What's in the Walls?

An interesting thing about gutting an old house to add insulation and new wiring, plumbing, and HVAC is what you find (or don't find) in the walls.  Our project house is definitely a vernacular house added onto and built with whatever the carpenters had.  Some walls had plaster, others old sheetrock.  When we got to the studs, we found that none of the walls had insulation and that the sheathing was flipped over and reused painted siding from another building.  Must've been pretty cold and drafty in there with the mountain winds blowing in winter.

We've also found that you can look straight up the wall cavities from the first floor to the second.  In other words, we've got balloon framing.  Today's buildings generally use platform framing where each floor is a platform extending to the outside wall and the wall studs are attached to the floor above and sit on the floor below.  With balloon framing, longer studs are used that reach from the base of the first floor to the second floor ceiling.  The floor joists are nailed to the wall studs.  The structure will usually have some bracing and the sheathing also helps to strengthen balloon framing.

Balloon framing doesn't meet today's building codes because the open walls create a chimney that can transfer smoke and flames throughout the building quickly and with devastating results.  So, one of our tasks is to add fire blocks in the walls.  We'll be insulating, which will reduce the chimney effect, but we'll also be adding 2x4 blocks that fit between the stud bays to further block airflow.  Since we've got real 2x4s and the distance between studs is probably not uniform, we won't be able to simply use big-box-bought lumber and cut all the pieces to the same size.  It'll be time consuming, but worth it in the long run for the safety and comfort of the new occupants.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Salvaging What We Can

We're currently in the demolition phase of the rehabilitation of our project house.  That means we've been wielding our sledgehammers and have got a dumpster outside.  We're pretty selective about what we're throwing away though:  
  • The old wood windows will stay and be reworked.  We'll add storm windows to make them just as efficient as new double-glazed windows.
  • Some of the doors will stay and be stripped and repainted.  The front door is a new door so we'll get rid of that.  Not all of the interior doors match and we'll be changing the layout of the rooms, so we'll be visiting our local architectural salvage to buy some solid wood 5-panel doors.
  • The wood floors just need to be refinished.  The old yellow spotted linoleum kitchen floor and vinyl bathroom floor will go.
  • Lumber and trim will be reused in this house or another.
  • The bricks from the chimneys that are no longer necessary will surround planting beds and create a retaining wall in the yard.
  • The acoustic tile ceilings?  Outta here.
  • Old insulation? What old insulation?
  • Old metal pipes, electrical wiring with copper in it, and the old appliances will be recycled.
  • The old kitchen cabinets will find new life in the shed in the backyard.
  • The old blue bathroom fixtures will be donated to the local ReStore.  (Can you believe the architectural salvage place wouldn't buy them from us?!?)

It's in everyone's best interest to be selective about demolition debris.  The bottom line for us is money savings: a lighter dumpster means cheaper tipping fees and reusing materials means we don't have to purchase them new.  The less that ends up in the landfill and the more that we can reuse, the better.  Reused materials mean less energy is consumed in making new and probably inferior products.  It's a little more effort for us, but worth it in the long run.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Lost Communities of Virginia

We now interrupt the regularly scheduled blog for bit of shameless self-promotion...

Are you curious about small rural towns and how they came to be?  Are you intrigued by commercial structures that now seem to be in the middle of nowhere?  Do you enjoy hearing stories of the past from those who lived it?  Lost Communities of Virginia is a new book by Terri Fisher and Kirsten Sparenborg from the Community Design Assistance Center at Virginia Tech, published by Albemarle Books, and distributed by University of Virginia Press.  

From the book jacket:

"Virginia’s back roads and rural areas are dotted with traces of once-thriving communities.  General stores, train depots, schools, churches, banks, and post offices provide intriguing details of a way of life now gone. The buildings may be empty or repurposed today, the existing community may be struggling to survive or rebuilding itself in a new and different way, but the story behind each community’s original development is an interesting and important footnote to the development of Virginia and the United States.
"The Lost Communities of Virginia project began with curiosity as Kirsten Sparenborg followed a green highway sign pointing to Eggleston and found a rural Giles County community, an elderly storekeeper, and the no longer obvious story of a once-thriving springs and railroad community. The Eggleston encounter planted the seed for Virginia Tech’s Community Design Assistance Center’s project to locate and document small Virginia communities before their built history and storytellers are lost. Over 2,600 communities were surveyed with 30 chosen that best represent the range of community types found in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
"Each community, though typical, is also unique. Lost Communities of Virginia documents stories of coal towns and grist mills, railroads and steamboats, clay smoking pipe makers and excelsior manufacturers, maple syrup and shad, church meetings and jousting matches, traveling salesmen and springs resort visitors to pique the imagination. The communities have lost their original industry, transportation mode, or way of life, but contemporary photographs, historical information, maps, and excerpts of interviews with longtime residents
awaken the bustling past."
Kirsten began this project, but I completed it, researching and visiting each of the 30 communities, writing the chapters, making maps, and taking additional photographs as needed.  Each of these small communities is, in its own way, a microcosm of American history.  Some contributed to national causes like Pocahontas coal powering U.S. Navy ships; all were affected by national economic and social circumstances such as Depressions and the advent of the automobile.  

I urge you to look at your own home town and learn more about its past.  If you live in a city or large town, look at your neighborhood.  What economic driver caused its development?  What happened when that driver was lost?  Why would new development be likely to survive today when it didn't in the past?  Are there older residents who can tell you about your community's past? Be curious about your home and you will learn a lot about the community's place and its attitudes in today's world.

The Lost Communities of Virginia book is available through on-line sellers and at your local bookstore if you live in Virginia.  Be sure to visit the Lost Communities of Virginia Facebook page for more information.

Monday, April 18, 2011

How National Register Listing Can Attract Business

Our small town was once a bustling metropolis.  Okay, not really, it's always been a small town, but all of the empty buildings downtown used to be full of stores, restaurants, and other businesses.  Today, we have a few businesses and some traffic, but nothing like the photos of 50 years ago.  What happened?  The main road bypassed town.  Fortunes changed as employment at the chemical plant dropped to less than a quarter of its peak.  Reliable cars and improved roads made it easier to drive farther for supplies.  So today, we're left with a downtown full of empty storefronts.

In the last several years, a renaissance of sorts has begun with the old hotel reopening.  The owner has helped restore several other buildings so we now have a cafe/coffee shop to complement the well-known locally-owned home style restaurant and an artisan's shop to complement the art gallery that has been here for years.  These are wonderful businesses for a county that has embraced tourism as one of its future economic drivers.

The town has outgrown its old office building just off of Main Street and needs to either build new or rehabilitate an existing downtown building.  This is not a rich town so all expenditures undergo extensive scrutiny.  A local developer has offered to purchase the empty old furniture store on Main Street, rehab it, and rent it to the town with the option to buy in the future.  The idea is that this could bring a viable entity to downtown that could entice others to rehab other buildings and make downtown a vibrant place once again without costing the town as much as it would if they were to pay for the construction themselves.

So what is the sticking point?  The developer won't begin the project unless the downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  This makes perfect business sense.  If the building is listed or in a district that is listed, then the developer will be able to take advantage of federal and state tax credits to reduce the cost of the rehabilitation by up to 45%.  Furthermore, National Register listing can help attract other investment downtown because other developers can take advantage of tax credits as well.   

There is some concern among residents that having a National Register Historic District will limit the town in some way.  This couldn't be further from the truth.  Unless the town creates a local historic district with local zoning ordinances, building owners are able to do as they please with their National Register buildings.  Being registered encourages owners to be good stewards of the buildings, but there is no legal means of making sure that happens.  Registered buildings are eligible for state and federal rehabilitation tax credits of up to 45% and technical assistance from the Virginia Department of Historic Resources for such projects.  

A small investment of $10,000 for a consultant to prepare the National Register nomination will help us to get a new town office building, and potentially attract businesses, and their accompanying tax dollars to downtown.  The town can help its residents embrace the future through the county's tourism initiative and other local business so the next generation will live in a bustling metropolis and the empty buildings will be but a memory.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Buildings Aren't Consumables

When did Americans become so reactive instead of proactive?  Why do we wait until something reaches a critical point before we fix it rather than treating it early, before it gets to the critical point?  Why do we throw money at the effects rather than the causes?  Why do we discard rather than repair?  When did we become such a consumer society? 

What do these questions have to do with historic preservation?  A lot.  Preservationists understand the importance of being proactive with an old or historic building to reduce costs and maintain the life of the building:
  • Being proactive will save money over the life of the building.  Buildings fall down or become extremely costly to restore if we wait until the roof leaks or the windows fall out or the termite damage is visible before we fix them.  Inspect the building at least yearly.  Spend money to repair the roof when damage is evident, get out the glazing putty when the windows panes are loose, and spray for bugs yearly. 
  • Fixing the cause will save money by fixing the effect. Rather than just fixing the bubbling plaster wall, determine what is causing the plaster to bubble in the first place.  Is it caused by water coming in the wall?  How is the water getting in?  Is the gutter in the wrong place?  Are the window sills holding water instead of shedding it?  If you don't fix the underlying problem, the plaster will keep bubbling and you'll continually need to spend money fixing it.
  • Repairing saves money and often lasts longer than replacing.  Your old windows are hard to raise and you need to put a stick in the track to hold them up?  Fix them!  You just need to open up the trim and attach new rope to the weights.  Add some weather stripping and new storm windows if they're drafty.  It'll save you more money than you think because you won't have to replace your new vinyl windows yet again in 20 years when they cloud up.
  • Buildings shouldn't be considered consumables.  A well-maintained old building can last hundreds of years.  The materials and workmanship used to construct old buildings are often not available anymore.  The dimensional lumber, hand-formed bricks, old-growth wood, and other materials are far superior to what is available today and will likely last longer than most buildings constructed today of less robust materials.  Why spend the money to bulldoze a perfectly viable building built of high quality materials for something built from lower quality materials?  Rehabilitate, reuse, don't bulldoze.
Preservationists get it.  Spend a little time or money now, save lots of time and money later.  Now if we can just break the rest of America from reactive and consumptive habits...

Monday, April 4, 2011

We Need More Historic Building Tradespeople!

I may have mentioned before that it is nearly impossible to find anyone in our area that knows how to work on an old house (or new one for that matter, but that's another story).  In addition to working on our own rehabilitation projects, we are both museum directors responsible for historic house museums and their upkeep.  At home, we can take things apart, work on them, put them back together, and learn during the process. At work, it's not our responsibility (thank Heavens!) to fix bubbling plaster or make the windows functional again. But, that means we have to find someone who can.  And not just someone who can, but someone who knows what they are doing.

We may live in Virginia, but we are far from Jamestown, Williamsburg, Richmond, and the historic places where buildings matter.  We are in the mountainous southwestern part of the state that was settled much later than the east.  Our county has just celebrated its bicentennial.  The farther south and west you go, the younger the community.  And, for whatever reason, there isn't a reverence for historic buildings that translates to their upkeep.  People revere the land that their ancestors have owned for generations and will gladly point out their homeplace.  But, more often than not, that homeplace is falling to the ground.

So when it comes to finding someone to do plaster work, properly repoint brick, repair wooden windows, or replicate old woodwork, it's nearly impossible.  The trades consist of vinyl, vinyl, and more vinyl: siding, windows, porch columns...  Replace it don't fix it.  Just another example of our throw away society.  Throw away the old, dependable fixtures.  Throw away money.

Our consumptive Walmart society is one problem.   The American view that all children must go to college to be successful is also problematic.  No matter that a person who is successful at a historic building trade is likely to make more over their lifetime than many college graduates and not spend their life paying back college loans.   There is an unfortunate stigma related to the trades, that can lead high school students who would be far happier working with their hands tackling a new preservation problem to a long, struggle through college classes and an unsatisfying desk job. 

And for those high school students who might want to pursue historic building trades, they probably don't know the opportunity exists.  In our area in particular, it is likely that students don't recognize that historic buildings are different than new construction.  If their school happens to have a technical track, it is likely they will build a new vinyl house with metal studs.  A two-pronged approach requires an understanding of the built environment and different types of construction, as well as the technical skills and critical thinking required to build or repair different types of buildings.  Until we can make the preservation trades a mainstream educational track, it will be difficult to find young people to replace the older generation and it will be come increasingly harder to find someone qualified to fix the amazing features of old and historic houses.  

Note: The Preservation Trades Network preserves and teaches historic building trades and is working to develop education initiatives to keep the trades alive.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Be Careful How You Define "Old" When It Comes to Buildings

After reading Historic Preservation Basics No. 2 at Preservation in Pink last week, I was bothered by the distinction made between historic ("Listed in or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Typically, such properties are 50 years or older, though that is a guideline, not a rule.") and old ("Referring to a property that does not possess historic significance or historic integrity. Not eligible for listing in the National Register.")   Defining old in this way seems to indicate that old buildings are not worth saving (though This Old House and Old House Journal seem to indicate otherwise).

To be eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, a building or neighborhood must in general be 50 years old or more and:
  1. be associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of our history; or 
  2. be associated with the lives of significant persons in or past; or 
  3. embody the distinctive characteristics of a type, period, or method of construction, or represent the work of a master, or possess high artistic values, or that represent a significant and distinguishable entity whose components may lack individual distinction; or 
  4. have yielded or may be likely to yield, information important in history or prehistory.
There has traditionally been a bit of snobbery about what is historic and what is not.  Monticello?  Yes.  Mount Vernon?  Yes.  The Victorian next door?  Maybe, but they painted it such garish colors.  The American Four Square?  Probably not.  It's too new.  And well, it's just so...common.  The Ranch House?  Definitely not.  But it was built in 1959.  It's 50 years old. 

I would argue that there are plenty of traditional, vernacular buildings (and ranch houses) that don't meet any of the four criteria, but that are over 50 years old and are sturdy houses that, with some rehabilitation, can meet today's needs.  Preservation is inherently green.  That means that retaining these houses is more environmentally (and usually economically) sound than building new.  Save the dimensional oak 2x4's, old growth wood windows, and solid wood doors.  Insulate the walls and attic, replace the wiring and plumbing, add storm windows, and move some walls around.  These houses don't have the high expectations, distinctive characteristics, and architectural details of those listed on the National Register.  Retaining the neighborhood character and creating a cozy and environmentally sound home for a new family should be the goals for traditional, vernacular old houses, not the landfill.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Beware the Electricity in Your Old House

If you are rehabilitating an old house, it's a good bet that the wiring in the house is downright scary.  And, since bad wiring can cause a fire and burn down your new investment, it's best to have a professional assess the situation and give you the bad news about rewiring.  As the DIY'er, here are a few red flags that suggest your wiring is probably not up to snuff:

  • The electrical panel is on the porch.  For some reason, this was really popular in our area and many old houses still have the panel on the front porch near the front door.  The panel is outdoors so it's susceptible to wind-driven rain, temperature swings, insects, rodents, and anything else that might be on your porch including someone with less than legal intentions.  Seems like an episode of CSI just waiting to happen.
  •  The electrical panel contains fuses instead of circuit breakers.  This can be okay if it signifies that the house's wiring has not been changed in any way.  However, an electrician with experience in older wiring systems should be consulted to be sure that hi-amp fuses haven't been installed that could cause wires to overheat.
  • There are a mixture of old and new outlets in the house.  When many of old houses were wired, electricity was still a luxury.  There is often just a single outlet and switch in each room.  Today, our lifestyles demand many more outlets for lights, TVs, computers, clocks, this gadget, and that.  Old knob and tube wiring can not be safely grounded or spliced with new wiring so if you see a mixture of outlet types, investigate further.  
  • The wiring looks dangerous.  If the wiring looks dangerous, it probably is.  With the main circuit breaker off, open up one of the outlets and gently pull it away from the wall.  Is it frayed?  Is it even the appropriate kind of wire?  We found one outlet in our project house wired with speaker wire.  Not appropriate.
  • There are bare wires protruding from the wall or ceiling.  Don't touch them!  It's quite likely they are live and you'd rather find out with an amp meter than by shocking yourself, wouldn't you?   
  •  There's charring on the framing near an outlet.  Turn off the circuit breaker.  Do not turn it on again until you get the wiring inspected!
  • The electrical wire servicing your meter hangs low over your house.  It might touch your roof or you could reach out a window and grab it.  This is an electrocution hazard.  Talk to your electrical company about moving the wire.  If it's hanging over the roof, that means it's a danger for someone roofing the house.  If you can reach it out the window, than a child may try.  Get it moved.
  • You don't have any GFCI outlets.  These are code today and important for safety in kitchens, bathrooms, and anywhere else that water and electricity might mix.  They automatically shut the juice off to prevent electrocution on a ground fault.  Add them.
Don't mess with electricity yourself.  Call an electrician and have the wiring inspected and corrected to preserve your investment!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Finding a Little House in a Big House

Last week I talked about the hidden treasures you can find inside the walls of an old house and the stories they can tell of the occupants and their lives.  The walls themselves can tell a story also.  In this case, its the story of different iterations of the house and how it has grown and changed to accommodate different uses over time.

We are in the midst of demolition on the Westview House.  And yes, gasp, we are removing the old plaster.  This house dates to the early 1900s, and has absolutely no remarkable features on the interior.  It's more important to us to make the house warm, comfortable, and safe for the new occupants.  So, we are removing the 1970's paneling, old sheetrock, dirty plaster, and who knows what all else so we can add insulation, new wiring, and new plumbing and adjust the floor plan to better fit today's lifestyle.  

We knew that this house had been changed to three apartments in the 1940s when local industry boomed.  We could also tell that the stairs to the second floor was not original since it is in the back of the house and ends at a side door.  Great for apartments.  Weird for a single family house.  Lo and behold, as we demolished the walls in the front room, we found the diagonal framing for an old stairway.  Next to that was a closed in doorway that would have provided access to the stairs and the other now-closed-in front room.  We could also tell that the existing doorway was new.

In the same room, the back wall had several other hidden surprises.  One was that the existing doorway was once much larger and may have once had French doors.  The French doors were probably not original though because the lumber, though old, wasn't as old as the framing.  But also because the other hidden surprise was that the wall had window framing inside!  That means that this house was once much smaller (and means I need to take a trip to the courthouse and see what I can find out about the property).  We're not going to be able to tell on the first floor if there's a matching window hidden in the next room because of the doorway configuration, but we may be able to tell upstairs when we get to the rooms above.  

Looking at the outside of the house, the windows match on the upper and lower floors only one room deep: this was probably a vernacular I-house that was heavily added onto.  It will be interesting to see what else the house tells us as we move through the demolition phase.  We had already expected to find some additional exterior windows, but what else might be hiding behind the old plaster? 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Hidden Treasures

If you've ever taken walls down or removed trim in an old house, you've probably found hidden treasures.  There's always the hope of finding enough cash to pay for the house rehab, but usually you're more likely to find the items of everyday life.  Ticket stubs, photographs, buttons, and loose change slide get lost under the base molding.  Mice move newspapers, clothing, and other nesting materials into walls.  And sometimes items are dropped or placed in the walls during construction.  All of these treasures tell a story of the history of the house, its occupants, and the local area.

We live across the street from an old movie theater and found movie ticket stubs, an ad for an upcoming movie, an old movie reel, and even a single frame of an as-yet unidentified movie.  We found lots of loose change, dating back to the early 1900s when the house was built, though unfortunately no coins worth much more than their face value.  We have lots of loose buttons, a hair pin, and razor blades. 

We had a few small mouse nests with old newspapers and a sock or two incorporated in them.  Of course, one of the most famous mouse nests was found at Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest where the nest provided an archaeological look at life in the 19th century.   Travis McDonald provides an interesting look at the Poplar Forest nest in "Rat Housing in Middle Virginia: The Diffusion of Every Day Life" in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture.  Our nest wasn't nearly that elaborate (thank goodness!) or exciting, but still provided a look at the early 20th century.

One of the more interesting items we found was a small glass from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with the house's first owner's name painted on it.  The glass was placed on top of the header of the door between the master bedroom and sitting room.  It was obviously placed to be found by someone removing trim to renovate the house in the future.  

What are we doing with these found objects?  We've created a display case in one of the walls where we'll put many of the treasures behind glass.  The back of the case is the back side of one of the plastered walls with the oak 2"x4" framing in the center so the construction of the house is visible as well.  We're creating our own museum to display our hidden treasures.