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.