Friday, November 9, 2012

We Bought Another House!

For most of the time we've lived in our present house, the house next door has been empty. It's a 1950s brick ranch house that had been turned into a doctor's office at some point so it's more office than home at this point. We've dreamed about buying the house for years and turning it into a garage and workshop. We have an old Jeep that's been under a car cover since we moved here and our basement is far less than ideal for a wood shop.

Today, the house next door, and several other properties, were up for auction. We watched the number of people checking it out last week at the preview. We tried to judge what people might be thinking about the place and how much it they might think it was worth. It certainly wasn't worth the appraisal they had on it. It's a nice lot, but the building would be a lot of work to turn back into a house. We were afraid someone would buy it, tear it down, and put something next door that wouldn't be a good neighbor to us.

We listened to the auction for the properties before ours and they went for below, way below, the appraised prices. There was hope! Our auction started and the price was low, real low. It was us against one other guy. He blinked. We stayed in the game. We bought the house! We need to wait 120 days for the IRS to decide if the price meets their lien before we start working on it, but after that we'll be on our way to having a 1500 square foot garage!

Friday, September 7, 2012

Adventures in Sandblasting

It's been a while since the last post, mostly because we haven't been doing much preservation-related. We got a sandblaster back in July that sat in the living room for a couple of months because a part was broken. We had gotten so used to it being part of the scenery that I had forgotten it didn't belong there until I started to dust it. We've gotten the sandblaster fixed now and moved it from the living room. We've also gotten the cast iron claw foot tub that precipitated the need for the sandblaster. This is a friend's tub that had been used outdoors as a horse trough for a while. The inside enamel is fine, but the outside wasn't quite ready for prime time. Enter the sandblaster.

We're learning about sandblasting as we go. While we've done it before, it was in a shop situation where everything was set up for us. We didn't have to choose the sand and find out the hard way that a sieve is really, really handy. In other words, the first day's sandblasting was a bit of a dud. The play sand clogged up the hose and more time was spent unclogging than blasting. We found blasting media at a local Tractor Supply and tried that next. It worked much better, though still clogged periodically.

The tub is going in our downstairs bathroom which has white tile with black accents. We decided the outside of the tub would be shiny black so it was primed first.

We then used 3 coats of black spray paint to cover the tub. We did this Labor Day weekend, which, anyone in the eastern half of the country knows was still stuck in the weather patterns caused by Hurricane Isaac. There were storms popping up here and there all weekend. It seemed that every time we went out to sandblast or paint, it would start sprinkling, then pouring rain. Persistence paid off though and we got it done!

Now the other story that goes along with the clogged sandblaster and the popup showers is that a cast iron claw foot tub is HEAVY!  We got it onto the truck with help from friends. The sawhorses you see it sitting on in the photos were about the same height as the truck bed so we could just slide it off and onto them. But getting in the house?? Not a job for the 2 of us (the one of us not pictured is just too whimpy!) So the tub sat in our yard for a week under a tarp and, since we live 30 miles away from our strongest friends, once it was painted we had no idea how to get it into the house. Fortunately, we were saved by a Virginia Tech football game. Friends dropped by our house to see us and we got them to help move the tub in.

Now the tub's inside and sitting on its side. We got to see inside the tub for the first time and are now working to clean all the stains from its previous life. We also need to decide what color to paint the claw feet and find the missing cleat for one of the feet to attach it to the bottom of the tub. Then we can flip it upright, plumb it, and relax in warm, blissful bubbles!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Blacksburg Then and Now

We are excited to announce the release of our new book: Blacksburg Then & Now from Arcadia Publishing!

We had lots of fun finding historical photographs of Blacksburg and Virginia Tech for the "Then" portion of the book then finding those same locations to take the "Now" photographs. We really enjoyed comparing what is there today with what was there in the past and uncovering why some of the changes were made. For example, Blacksburg's Main Street has a jog just past College Avenue where the historic buildings don't line up with the rest of the street. The reason? There was once a Preston and Olin Institute (Virginia Tech's precursor) building in the middle of Main Street's current path - the old Main Street jogged around the building.

We'll be holding a book signing at the Community Arts Information Office on College Avenue next to the Lyric Theatre on Friday from 4-6pm where we'll also have an exhibit from the book on display during the month of July. On July 4th from 10am - 1:30pm, we'll be at Historic Smithfield Plantation. Hope to see you there!

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Cost of Cleaning a Dryer Vent

It started as a simple question really, but then it all does, doesn't it? The question? "Could you please clean the dryer vent? It smells funny." Since it hadn't been cleaned really well in a while, my husband took this opportunity to give the dryer vent the cleaning of all cleanings. He pulled out the dryer, unhooked the gas line, and unhooked the washer hoses too to really get in there to the vent line. He took the dryer apart, used the Lint Lizard we were given by his mom, and got every speck of lint out of the dryer itself. He took the scrunchy metal vent pipe outside and washed it thoroughly.

Our dryer is not on an outside wall so there is a traditional metal vent pipe to the wall which attaches to a piece of PVC sewer pipe to get it to the outside vent. This is to code and generally works just dandily. That also means you can do crazy stuff with it like hose it down to get all the linty muck out of it. He did just that, sending a soggy pile of lint flying out the side of the house. It took all day to clean the dryer vent, but that was okay. All was clean. All was good.

And then he came to me at 4pm on Sunday afternoon and said we needed to make an emergency trip to Lowes. After checking to see that they were still open (till 7!), we drove the 25 miles to our closest home improvement store to buy new washer hoses. They worked. We did some laundry. All was good.

And then on Monday, I noticed something smelled a bit off. It seemed to be the dryer. But worse than that, there was a bit of a gas smell. Yes, the gas line was leaking too. Another trip to Lowes later, the gas line was replaced. We did some more laundry. All was good.

And then on Thursday, I noticed an odd, sort of wet paper sort of smell downstairs. It has been raining a lot so I thought maybe some water had gotten in somewhere. Later in the day, I happened to look up while I was in the kitchen and saw a bubble in the ceiling. Under the washing machine connections. I ran upstairs to turn the water off up there and the cold water valve sprayed at me as I tried to close it. Off went the water to the second floor. All was not good.

My husband didn't get home until late that evening and had to do something with the plumbing. The water was off upstairs to keep it from leaking and with the water off, that meant no showers. So, out came the sheetrock saw and, with it, the wall around the washing machine pipes. Of course, for some odd reason, he had put a second valve in the wall for the hot water, but not the cold and, of course, it was the cold that was leaking. Fortunately, he had the pieces around to fix that problem and installed a cold water valve for the night. In the process, he spilled the purple primer all over himself (which apparently burns quite a bit!). All was not good.

So, at the moment, we are without a washer and dryer. And the cost of cleaning the dryer vent? We've spent $50 on new hoses and a gas line. And there's more cost to come to fix the pipes for the washing machine connection, the wall that we tore open to get to the pipes, and the ceiling in the kitchen with the water bulge.

Oh, and the dryer vent still smells funky.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Preservation vs. Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets

I hate to keep picking on Virginia Tech, but they've been making it so easy lately. First with their plans to cut part of the old growth Stadium Woods to make way for a new indoor football practice facility, and now with their plans to tear down 3 of the oldest buildings on campus to make way for a new dormitory for the Corps of Cadets. The latter has earned Virginia Tech a place on Preservation Virginia's 2012 Most Endangered Historic Sites list.

Lane Hall, Virginia Tech
Lane, Rasche, and Brodie Halls make up the Upper Quad, creating a picturesque courtyard used daily by the Corps. Lane Hall was built as Barracks No. 1 in 1888 and currently contains offices for the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Rasche and Brodie Halls are both Cadet Corps dormitories each with an older section built in 1894 and 1900 respectively and newer additions made in the 1950s. The buildings of the Upper Quad are some of the few remaining buildings on campus to be built of brick rather than the Hokie Stone form of limestone that adorns construction after 1900.

Drill Field, Virginia Tech, 1890s
photo from Virginia Tech Special Collections
In Virginia Tech's defense, the modus operandi of the university over the years has been to tear down and rebuild - they're just following long held tradition. Today, most of the earliest buildings on campus are gone. The view on Blacksburg's Main Street where a Preston and Olin Institute building once caused the street to jog around it and the buildings of the Drill Field have both changed significantly over the years. The same thing would never happen at the University of Virginia where the Lawn and Rotunda are considered sacred and have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Though parts of Virginia Tech's campus could be nominated to the National Register, the designation has not been pursued. A notable exception is Solitude, the early 1800s home of Col. Robert Preston, from whom the land for Virginia Tech was acquired in 1872.

Solitude, Virginia Tech
As in all cases of preservation, the facts can be spun to support whichever side of the cause you'd like. For developers, or university officials who want to tear down a building or 3, that means pointing out things like cracked plaster and the lack of air conditioning to make the point that the buildings should be replaced. We've heard that the bean counters have been given such a tour of the buildings and asked to determine how much it will cost to demolish them. We can only hope that an equivalent and fair determination of the cost of renovating these buildings is also being prepared.

The greenest building is the one already built. Rather than just paying lip service to the idea of sustainability, reusing and retrofitting older campus buildings like these would go a long way toward real sustainability. So would preserving Stadium Woods.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Stadium Woods vs. Virginia Tech Football

While we typically talk about historic preservation in terms of the built environment on this blog, in honor of Arbor Day, I'm going to stray into the forest. Buildings are residences, businesses, industries, and gathering places for people. Trees are the buildings of the natural environment. They are the homes and gathering places for resident and migratory birds, animals, insects, and reptiles. The business of trees is to provide food, cover, and lodging to residents of the woods and those migrating through. Their industry is absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, releasing oxygen into the atmosphere, and filtering and slowing storm water runoff.

The Virginia Tech campus has a 15-acre section of old-growth forest adjacent to the football stadium that is locally called Stadium Woods. It is unusual in that it is in a highly populated area, used mostly for farmland at one time, and it has never been cut. Trees in the woods are older than Monticello, older than the founding of our country, and pre-date European settlement in the area. Students use the woods to learn about trees, birds, plants, animals, soils, insects, water absorption, and other topics. People also use the woods to decompress and get away from the hustle and bustle of campus and downtown. It is calming to listen and identify the bird calls, search the tree tops for the source of the songs, watch a squirrel follow the superhighway of tree branches high in the air, listen to the wind rustle the leaves, look for an elusive wildflower.

But this natural, educational environment and community may soon be lost in favor of a 120,000 square foot indoor practice facility for the Virginia Tech Football team. Why can't they continue practicing outdoors? If they must have an indoor facility, why can't they walk a bit farther from their outdoor field? Why must they take a section of forest with trees that long pre-date the invention of football for a building that will be obsolete in 50 years? The answer, as in all questionable development, is greed and, here, keeping up with the ACC. 

We'd never allow them to tear down 7 acres of the human community of downtown Blacksburg for such a facility. We shouldn't let them cut down 7 acres of the natural community for Stadium Woods either.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Demolition and the Nesting Instinct

Confession time: our project house is a mess. If you've ever gone through the demolition phase of a project, I don't have to tell you this. You know it. You've been through it. There's nothing you can do about it. Friends and family want to come visit and see what you're up to in your spare time and the first thing you think is, "do I need to clean up?" Or, more appropriately, "what do I need to do so no one gets hurt?" So you walk through the place and move the extension cords, make sure there aren't rusty nails laying around, put something over the hole in the floor and hope for the best.

I think it's just a general nesting instinct we have. The house may be bare to the studs, but it's still a house. We want to make it look as good as we can. It helps brighten the rose-colored glasses that all of our visitors must wear to enter our project. Of course, by straightening up the demolition mess and vacuuming the nasty black dust periodically, it improves our morale as well as making it a safer work environment and easier to move to the next step of putting things back together. And believe me, any morale boost you can find during a never-ending demolition phase is important even if it means hours of wielding a ShopVac!

Are we the only ones who try to "clean up" our project house for visitors? Or do you do it to?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tourism: A Cautionary Tale

As an author of Lost Communities of Virginia, I recently participated in the Virginia Festival of the Book and had the opportunity to think about potential economic drivers to revitalize these places. Many of the places are isolated geographically, at the far ends of the state, or far out (and up) winding mountain roads. Despite the isolation, several of the places are reinventing themselves as tourist destinations. Paint Bank is a busy place on a weekend afternoon as people navigate the curvy roads to have lunch at the Swinging Bridge Restaurant, shop in the General Store, or spend the night at the Depot Bed and Breakfast. Which brings me to the question: is tourism an appropriate way to revitalize or preserve a community that has seen better days?

Tourism can be a great economic driver and far less disruptive than heavy industry. Once you've enticed tourists, they need a place to eat, a place to stay, things to do...all of those needs can result in a revitalized Main Street, new businesses, jobs, and more tourists. But, what does that do for the locals? Sure, they may be the business owners or workers, but what does tourism do to their way of life? Do they still have local shopping and commerce opportunities or have all the businesses become antique shops, art galleries, gift shops, and trendy restaurants? 

Virginia Tourism Corporation has several trail opportunities that are meant to help struggling areas of Southwest Virginia showcase their talents. Artists, crafters, and musicians are the focus of 'Round the Mountain and the Crooked Road, with the trails guiding visitors into rural areas to visit studios and attend events. That seems like a noble effort, but what if these efforts really take off? Part of the charm of the trails is the rural nature of the venues. How does that change if hundreds or even thousands of people start visiting these places? 

What does tourism do to the environment? If the tourism draw is a river, mountains, or the ocean, what happens when more people use the resources? More people can mean the need for more lodging and restaurants; beyond what the community's existing buildings can handle. What happens we tear down the old downtown or level the dunes to build a new multi-story hotel? We end up with Pigeon Forge and Myrtle Beach. Places that are tourist meccas today, but where the original character and charm that originally brought visitors has been lost. Is that what we really want when we attract tourists to rural areas?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Trip to the Springs

In the mountains connecting Virginia and West Virginia, there are countless mineral springs. Many of the springs became popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, first as healing springs and later as resorts. The different minerals and compositions of the waters were thought to heal most any ill either by drinking or bathing in the water. Most of these places had hotels at one time and traces of the resorts can be found in the landscape as well as in descriptive road and community names: Red Sulphur, White Sulphur, Blue Sulphur, Green Sulphur, Yellow Sulphur, Sweet Sulphur, Sweet Chalybeate, Sweet, Hot, Warm...

We were fortunate this weekend, to have the opportunity to attend a conference at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Virginia. While the first resort buildings were built in the 1700s, the large brick hotel seen today wasn't built until the early 1900s. The building was built in the Colonial Revival style with plenty of columns, pilasters, floor-to-ceiling windows to let in natural light, and sumptuous spaces to delight the preservationist in me. Sitting in the Grand Hall, you can imagine well-known guests from years past arriving with their entourages or making their way to dinner. The Homestead has hosted presidents from Washington to Clinton and the rich and famous from financiers like J. Pierpont Morgan to well-known names like Thomas Edison. 

The Homestead is, today, still a place known for its excellence and not one that we can frequent often, but it is fun to imagine the past while we are there. To imagine the intrepid travelers in the 18th and 19th centuries who came to Hot Springs by horseback, wagon, or stagecoach, from Eastern Virginia and other areas of the South, climbing the curvy mountain roads, carrying their many trunks of elegant clothing, to heal in the springs or enjoy resort activities. Even today, there are many roads to The Homestead, but no easy way there. It is a slow, winding, uphill trek in a car on paved roads, but by horse on dirt roads? Wow.

We also stopped to visit the bath houses at Jefferson Pools in Warm Springs. Unfortunately, though owned by The Homestead, they don't seem to be faring as well as the hotel. The Gentlemen's Spa was built in 1761 and the women's in 1836. Both are large frame buildings inclosing the spring-fed pools that naturally run at about 98 degrees. Though still open to the public, the exteriors of the buildings show wear with missing wooden shingles and rotted boardwalks. The buildings were placed on Preservation Virginia's Most Endangered List in 2010 and were listed as Threatened by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2011. The local Friends of the Pool have mobilized to save the bath houses, but without hotel's blessing, that can't happen. Hopefully, The Homestead will decide soon to preserve and restore the bath houses to a level becoming of such a luxury hotel before it is too late.

Friday, February 17, 2012

We're Still Here!

Just a note to say we're still here. We haven't fallen off the face of the blogosphere or maimed ourselves with powertools. Our projects on our own house have mostly consisted of painting and tiling - nothing worth blogging about. And life (and the cold weather!) has gotten in the way of much progress on our project house

Things will pick up here soon, so keep checking back - we're still here!