This project has had its share of delays. I had a serious health problem in April 2016. Some things just take awhile to recover from. And I am not the most patient person in the world. But as with most things, time has a way of working the wrinkles out. Just when I got to the go button, my carpenter Jim had his issues. Already busy milking a herd of goats and tending to chickens and bees, he's putting a major addition onto his own house. On top of that, his elderly parents have moved in with him and Rhonda.
But we got the ball rolling again.
We think this is the oldest part of the house. It was built as a one room cottage, in the 1830s or '40s, and later connected by a dogtrot hall to a very similar building that is now the master bedroom.
Here is the dining room we inherited. In keeping with the rest of the house, it is large, with interior dimensions of about 18 x 19 feet. The walls are solid brick, over a foot thick.
The mantle has been removed, and we have begun to take down the 1980s coffered treatment where the ceiling meets the walls.
To the left of the fireplace is a nice period built-in closet. We know the closet came after the room was finished, since the original baseboard runs along the wall behind the door. But all of the construction details point to a very early build.
Inspection from above and below brought great news. The original flooring can be saved!
In the 1980s, beveled-edge siding was placed at a 45 degree angle where the walls meet the ceiling. The square cut on one side and the gap in the center show they didn't even try to miter the corner.
The ceiling was pulled off to expose the beams. New beveled siding was nailed down on top of the beams to make a wooden ceiling.
And of course, every bit of the plaster was removed by the owner.
The decision to save the original flooring in this room had profound implications.
In other rooms, we ripped the old foundation out and completely rebuilt it. That would not be an option here. We would have to leave plumbing, wiring, and ductwork in place and shore up the foundation from below. Fortunately, there was a basement down under. But it wasn't quite deep enough to stand up straight without hitting our heads on the floorboards. Jim and Rockie dug footings, poured concrete, erected piers, brought in heavy beams, and installed new joists in situ.
Then they took 20-ton jacks and raised the whole floor. They were bent over the whole time.
That took a couple of months.
A frame to support the hearth was originally constructed of heavy timbers. Demolition revealed only one beam remaining, and it was loosely attached. The rest had been jerry-rigged by the previous owner such that the hearth was seemingly holding itself up. I'm surprised it didn't fall in and take someone with it. We realized the danger years ago and erected a temporary fix until the definitive restoration came.
It's been blocked up and reframed. John Jenkins came in and restored the firebox and hearth out of old bricks that came from Elysian Grove, a house built in 1842 and now in ruin.
Demolition is completed. Insulation in the ceiling makes for a much more comfortable room to work in. We have installed new wiring throughout. Instead of outlets in the floor filling up with dirt, we have new ones in conduit buried in the wall. The firebox has been restored.
The lighter brick at the top of the walls is the original color. After putting in the coffered corner treatment, the previous owner sprayed the rest of the wall with a water sealant that made it darker.
The door has been removed from the closet. Its frame had to be freed up before jacking the floor back into place.
All of the moulding in this room is original. The baseboard is even intact in the back of the closet, revealing the original type of finish.
The top piece lies horizontally and has a simple beaded edge. It's a clever design, providing a nice, clean line to butt the plaster onto.
We haven't found any gold, but this house is full of architectural jewels.
We've encountered this detail before, when restoring the porch just outside this room. These rods extend completely through the outer wall. The porch joists were anchored with nails through the holes in the rods.
We were able to reuse several of them when rebuilding the north gallery in 2013.
These were clearly handmade by a blacksmith.
We restored the windows. The original pulleys and weights were still there, but the cords had been cut. I ordered new sash chain. Rockie removed the pulleys and cleaned them up. The heavy windows are beautifully counterbalanced now, and very easy to operate.
In 1832, Miles Greenwood opened what was to become the largest foundry in the midwest. He built steam engines and battleship turrets for the Union Navy. But he is best known for designing and building the first practical steam-powered firewagon. As a result, Cincinnati had the first fire department and the first professional firemen in the world.
And he also made window pulleys.
While working in the basement, we found a series of supports attached to the undersides of the joists. They are carefully aligned, and extend from the front of the house back toward the cookhouse. Each of them has a hand carved, rounded lower edge to its hole, probably designed to cut down on friction and eliminate snagging.
The picture has been inverted in Photoshop and levels adjusted. There is writing in chalk, but I can't tell what it says. I believe the first line starts with "10" and the second line with "15".
Our best guess is that this was constructed to carry a cord such as for a servants' bell ringer. I would appreciate input from anyone who has seen such a device. It is old, secured with square nails.
The mantle and closet door frame have been reinstalled. Everything we don't want coated in plaster had to be hermetically sealed, because the stuff gets everywhere.
This is hot work. The heat index outside today was 103. The window has been removed. Plaster has a high water content when applied, and the room is very humid. The men are working on top of this scaffold while plastering the ceiling, and it is much hotter up there than down on the floor.
The crew has done the final "white" coat on the ceiling and upper few feet of the walls. They'll finish laying mud tomorrow. All that's left after that is sanding and paint.
Three men inside laying down plaster are keeping Skip busy mixing and hauling.
Did I say plaster work is messy? It gets on shoes and no matter how hard one tries, it gets into every room in the house. And the yard in front of the porch is trashed. But it will be worthwhile.
And that's where we are in late July 2017.
Here are some things that will go in the room.
One of three window valances, American, 1850-60. They came from a Massachusetts dealer.
These will be installed on the window cornices and wrap the curtains.
Stenciled patterns were popular in the mid 19th century, and we are fortunate to have found these original ones.
Lighting fixtures make a big impact.
This 1830 Argand chandelier is English. It originally burned oil, but has been electrified, and will go over the dinner table.
Coalport, English, c. 1820.
July 25, 2017 update: Jim's mom fell and broke her hip today. It's very serious, given her pre-existing condition. Let's hope this ends well.
Sadly, she passed away a couple months later.
We had several complications, but were able to pick up the pace in early October.
After completing the plaster work, there was some MAJOR cleanup needed. Plaster lays down as a slurry, and the room hovered around 100% humidity for weeks. All the woodwork became moldy, and that required a lot of scrubbing.
The flooring is original, and we wanted to preserve the character as much as possible. Abatron makes a really good water-based stripper. After several applications, we got up all the terribly scratched, yellowed polyurethane and went with an oil finish.
There were a few patches we made with old boards salvaged from earlier projects. Because of significant color differences, I had to apply one coat of stain to blend it. We went with a 1:1 mix of medium walnut and cherry Danish oil.
In the old days, they put down multiple coats of linseed oil. Besides the well-known fire hazard, each application of linseed oil takes weeks to dry. We went with four topcoats of tung oil, which is harder and more durable, and were able to reapply after only 2-3 days.
A pair of sconces went up on the north wall.
Hooper, Boston, 1840.
After an initial mockup proved the valances would work, Ken Cummings and Bonnie took over. I am no good at this. Bonnie had the wall color already picked out, and Ken came up with some really nice draperies.
The walnut mantel is original, as is the built-in closet to the left.
The gilt overmantel mirror is American from about 1830.
Boston andirons and fire tools, also about 1830.
Derby porcellain, 1810.
This could be called a brandy table or drink stand, but it is known throughout the South as a Hotty Toddy.
American, it was made about 1835, which is very close to when this room was built.
A lot of work went into serpentine contours everywhere.
I never cease to be amazed at the mahogany grain they were able to work with and incorporate as a major design element.
Just after we finished up with the room, John Harris called. A labeled American sideboard was in a Memphis estate sale.
He sent me a phone picture of a Zerox copy of an old ad in The Magazine Antiques. We happen to own a complete set of that magazine back to 1922. I was able to dig up the original October 1961 ad.
As soon as I saw the piece, it was obviously from the right period. Looking closer, there was no question that this was the one in the ad. It is simply impossible to fake the grain pattern in veneer of this quality.
The sideboard was in great condition.
A few minutes later, the deal was done.
Michael Allison was one of the great New York cabinetmakers of the early 19th century.
He was a contemporary of Duncan Phyfe.
This label is affixed to the center drawer bottom.
Although Bonnie and I tend to prefer earlier, simpler furniture, there can be no doubt that this was the peak of quality in cabinetmaking.
Machines and mass production took over within a few years.
This project was finally completed a few days before Thanksgiving.
The Serapi carpet is about as old as the room, and was in bad shape. Mr. Taghavi did a great job on the repairs, and this is how the room looks on March 3, 2018.