The Scent of Historic Houses

Today in Vermont it’s below freezing (as in currently 15 below zero), and while the snow-covered branches are beautiful and glistening, it is just not warm anywhere. The only way I can think of to be warm today is to heat up the house by cooking. Considering cooking is not my domestic forte, this gives some inclination as to how desperate I am for a warmer house.  And I started thinking about what would have been prepared on the antique Hardwick stove in my kitchen. Care to explore food of a historic house with me?

Do you associate certain foods with different eras in history? Do you ever think that your ca. 1910 house would have different meals prepared and served than your ca. 1850 or ca. 1940 house (that is, until they existed together)? What we think about most is probably how different regions have unique culinary traditions.

In the same way that appearance and noise are important to historically accurate interpretations of settings, scents and smells can play a significant role as well. Scents have the power to transport people back in time, usually in a good, nostalgic way, and can help people recall distant memories and scenes. For example, when we think of fall, we think apples, hay, pumpkin, leaves — the smells of fall. Winter smells like pine and cinnamon or snow and bitter cold. It is amazing how we can assign a smell to an event.

Now think to your favorite residential building, someplace with a kitchen where you could or can gather over meals. It doesn’t have to be a prominent historic site like a house museum. When was that house built? What do you think it would have smelled like then? What does it smell like now? Each period of history has signature foods. What do you think they will be in the early 20th century? Will it be a split of health fanatic households v. convenience food households? Perhaps a house from 2012 will only smell of coffee in the morning, nothing in the middle of the day, and a good, family meal some nights of the week? (This is of course a generalization, as each family has its own routine.)

Food has changed because of technology and because our lifestyles have changed. This article, “Dining Through the Decades: 100 Years of American Cuisine,” offers an entertaining overview of such facts. The website, Food Timeline gives a summary of food throughout time, years of product invention and food introduction, as well as summaries of food throughout the 20th century decades. In the 1920s segment of the food timeline, for example, foods are discussed as the Great Gatsby dining or speakeasy dining and cocktails, which may not necessarily reflect farmers in rural American. However, technology innovations are included, too. Combining the knowledge of which food were available and what technology existed, go a long way in deciphering what people may have eaten (aside from first hand accounts).

And lastly, do you think it is important – for house museums and historic sites, not necessarily your own residential house – to smell historically accurate? Beyond that, when should foods be prepared as they would have been historically? Many historical recipes have been adapted for modern ingredients and modern kitchens. Is preserving the methods of food preparation just as important as preserving the smells of historical foods?

Preservation Grammar: Affect v. Effect

Previously: Historic v. Historical

The grammar topic for today: affect v. effect.

“Affect” and “effect” are commonly misused words, whether in relation to the preservation field or not.

While the nuances of these two words can seem complex and there are instances in which both can be verbs and nouns, it is generally straightforward when applying definitions to preservation documents. Still, remembering and applying the appropriate word is important. This is because of their use in the National Historic Preservation Act and the Section 106 regulations.

“Affect” is a verb. As in, will not affect historic integrity.

“Effect” is a noun. As in, adverse effects.

Historic Preservation and the Final Frontier

All of a sudden, it seems, the discussion of historic preservation, cultural conservation and archaeological protection on the moon and in space, is making the news. If you glance over space preservation or moon preservation or similar subjects, it could sound a bit strange, yes? Some people (the pessimists) might even think, oh great, now the preservationists want to prevent change on the moon and in outer space. Or maybe you thought that. I’ll admit, I had never given thought to preservation in space until a recent few articles.

From the New York Times article, “To Preserve History on the Moon, Visitors Are Asked to Tread Lightly,” to the post on HISTPRES, “Space Preservation: Proposing a Lunar Protection Agency,” preservationists, archaeologists, and others are abuzz with what this might for our related fields. For those who have worked toward preservation in space, some (such as Dr. Beth O’Leary of New Mexico State University) since 1999) this recognition and widespread discussion must be a long time coming.

Read the above articles for the full story (both are worth your time). In brief: as space travels moves closer to reality, people are starting to consider what cultural significance there is on the moon (Tranquility Base – on the moon – is where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. Their footprints remain). Artifacts from the space expedition in 1969 are stored in California and cataloged in the archives in the states California and New Mexico. In other words, the objects are protected.

However, what about the footprints? The famous footprints of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin? These footprints and Tranquility Base could be considered a worldwide cultural landscape (called a World Heritage Site).

Buzz Aldrin's boot print on the moon. Photograph via Wikipedia through NASA (this photograph is in the public domain).

As the articles point out, lunar tourism – even just one group or spaceship – could destroy this landscape. How do we (collectively, as an entire population) protect such a place? Who will curate the space? Who visits the landscape? How do you protect something in space? Chloe Castro’s HISTPRES post (based on her thesis) discusses the current lack of measures for protecting the landscape and the footprints. She makes suggestions for a Lunar Protection Agency and explores need for international, cooperative involvement.

What’s the bottom line right now? Why is this an issue and not some ridiculous preservation idea? Simply put, many people are keen believers in space travel for the future. People – and not just scientists or preservationists – will walk on the moon again. That puts the significant landscape at risk. Fortunately, one nation does not own the moon. And while the footprints may be those of United States citizens, they represent the world and new beginnings. Losing the very beginning – the physical evidence on the landscape – of human contact with the moon because we had not considered its importance and its preservation, would be a tragic loss for the world’s heritage. In other words, we need to act now in order to preserve our heritage on the moon and in space.

Preservation Photos #114

Standing on the platform of the restored Waterbury train station (a transportation enhancement grant project recipient), which is home to the Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Cafe, and looking down the tracks. The freight building on the right is in the process of being dismantled and relocated.

The Bungalow: Paint Chatter

How about some homeowner fun on this Monday morning? Let’s talk paint.

All houses have their mysteries, and ours is no different. One of the things that we loved most about this house was the minimal updating. In fact, the paint colors even gave the impression of decades ago and the shadows on the walls showed where picture frames and shelves had hung for those same decades. We placed “painting the entire interior of the house” on our list of aesthetic priorities. There’s just something so satisfying about a new coat of paint suited to your own tastes.

I love to paint. Honestly. Give me some work lights, good music or Gilmore Girls for the background, and I will paint all night long (I don’t really have time to paint during the day). Prepping and priming aren’t my favorite tasks, but I’m warming up to them. But I love colors: thinking about them for days or weeks, matching them, choosing lots of different colors, etc. And the end result is always worth all of the effort and the paint that somehow ends up on my face.

So far I have painted three rooms (living room, bedroom, guest room) with four to go (dining room, kitchen, bathroom and office).  The guest room, which is the smallest room, took the longest amount of time and the most effort because of peeling paint on the plaster ceiling. And then I was inspired to paint horizontal stripes (which, by the way, sound scary and require a lot of painters tape. but turned out great). I owe a great deal of thanks to a few flamingos and my sister Sarah for their help.

Now I am moving on to my next project: the office. It is currently a pretty shade of blue, but there is one big problem: the paint is chipping everywhere in this room. By chipping, I mean something akin to alligatoring. See below.

The chipping blue paint.

Another angle of the chipping or about-to-chip paint.

And that is only one small section of this room.  See here:

Most of the room looks like this.

More chipping. It’s on every wall. And some ares of the ceiling.

Fun, yes? Good thing I like a historic house puzzle. However, this one is driving me crazy. Why is the paint chipping like that? It is the only room in the house where this is happening. For reference, aside from the wall with the windows, all of the walls are interior walls. I’ve asked everyone who walks through the door, but no one has come to any conclusions, yet. Perhaps you can help. Here is what I know about the paint in our house (with thanks to the sellers who were kind enough to answer my questions):

The upstairs rooms have only been painted once, probably with one coat. Downstairs rooms have been repainted in the same color, except for the kitchen (new color). Any room that was repainted was done in the 1970s. The house was built in 1928. In other words, there is very likely lead paint in this house (pre-1978 as all preservationists know).

My questions relating to this information: How has one coat of paint lasted 83 years? Why is the blue room chipping and the other rooms are not? And, how am I supposed to remove that chipping paint? And will this happen again when I repaint?

Regarding the one coat of paint: it’s good to know now that some rooms have been repainted. But was lead paint that durable to have one coat last 83 years? Isn’t that impossible? So far in my paint endeavors I have not found evidence of multiple coats. Others have suggested that the house was wallpapered, then stripped of its wallpaper and painted. (I would not want that job.) Others have suggested that the house (the walls) froze last winter when it was unoccupied and unheated. And others have suggested it’s just a bad application in the blue room. That was my first instinct, but I’m still amazed at the other rooms that have had only one coat of paint.

Regarding paint removal: scraping creates dust particles and scratches the smooth plaster. Chemical stripping or something like citrus stripper is not effective.

While I love colors and painting, I am not an expert. If you have experience with chipping paint or can help me solve the old paint questions, I’d be very interested to chat. This room will take a while to finish; but, I will share what I learn and the end results.

Vacant Buildings: I Wish This Was

Most towns have at least one vacant storefront. Does yours? Mine does. Many more have vacant second or third (or more) stories above the ground floor, whether vacant or occupied. How does anyone fill those spaces? It takes more than an idea to create a viable business in any town; it takes money, planning, community support and then some. But, neighborhood revitalization and economic development begins with an idea, with an ounce of hope and excitement.

While a designated group may guide the development and implementation of an idea or a project, it likely grew out of ideas from many. What makes a successful endeavor is when the entire community contributes (which is why public input is an essential component of the Section 106 review process for historic resources). What is the best way to gain public interest and community involvement? Something catchy, of course. How do you come up with visions for your community? Brainstorming.

Recently, I came across a unique way to engage the community and to receive public input. It is a public art project called “I Wish This Was” created by artist Candy Chang, an artist, designer and urban planner. This project began in New Orleans, LA in November 2010 in order to figure out what the community needed and to inspire.

I Wish This Was a Grocery. (via: -- click for source)

I Wish This Was stickers. (via -- click for source)

See the Flickr photo set of “I Wish This Was” in action.

I love this idea. It seems so simple and so intriguing. People can voice their opinions without attending public meetings, which, frankly, most people do not enjoy. They can write on buildings (the particular stickers for sale will not cause property damage). People can scan the ideas of others for inspiration. The community can start dreaming and answering the questions, “What do you really want? What do you need in this town? In this location?”

Has anyone seen this project in person? What do you think? Would you use it in your town? It seems like a great idea. Red stickers would probably call attention to a vacant building.

Frosty Windows in the Bungalow

A few of the windows in our house turn frosty on extremely cold days. The ice is on the storm window some on the interior window, too.

Look familiar? That’s quite typical for my house, now.  I remember some icy windows in my parents’ house, too. To combat the ice, every winter my parents would blow dry the plastic over the large metal frame picture window in our 1957 ranch house. While we would lose our windowsills for the winter and the cats would sometimes scratch holes in the plastic, my parents assumed it beat the alternative of having icy window panes. It made sense to me. About 10 years ago, they replaced some of the windows, including that old picture window (with larger double hung windows).  After that, I didn’t see frosted windows or plastic over windows until this winter in our bungalow.

The 1-over-1 wood frame windows in this house are all original, glass included. They are in good condition (some TLC needed such as the sash cords) and I love them. Unfortunately, 16 of the 19 original 2-over-2 wood storms have been replaced with metal triple track storm windows. Perhaps they were cheaper or considered more efficient at the time, but those metal storms are a pain. The windows get stuck in the tracks and some of them hurt my fingers when I try to slide the windows up or down.

However, these metal storms are better than nothing. I say this based on accidental winter experiments and casual observations about my house so far.

(1) The windows that have metal storms with the glass down (screen up) are icy on the exterior rather than the interior (mostly) (see picture above).

(2) The windows that have the metals storms with the screen down (meaning I haven’t slid the glass down yet) are icy on the interior wood frame window (seen in the picture below).

(3) The windows with the metal storms that aren’t set in the tracks properly allow for a bit of ice on the interior window.

(4) With the metal storms set properly, these windows do not feel drafty.

(5) As for the wood storms? Two of those windows do not open, and if they did, would open to the enclosed front porch, so they are completely ice free. As for the functional wood storm? It is the one window in the house that does not allow any moisture or ice on the interior wood window and barely collects  ice on the exterior storm.

Not as bad in this window. Notice that the screen is down. Ice has not formed on the inside yet, but at night it will.

What’s the point of sharing all this? We are attempting to study the energy/moisture/air flow in our house this winter in order to assess heating bills and weatherization measures that we may need to take for later in the winter or next year. Vinny and I are in favor of the original windows, always, but we understand that some might need to be covered that hair-dryer-blown plastic sheet. That’s okay – it certainly is cheap enough. For now, we’re making observations like those listed above and we’ll see how it changes throughout the winter — and how it changes once our furnace is replaced (no central heat in Vermont in January – ah, another story for another day!) What are your best weatherization tips?

On a different note, I like the look of the wintry, frosted, icy windows – it certainly is winter in Vermont!

Preservation Photos #113

Driving through Vermont's Mad River Valley in August 2011 (pre-flood).

Waiting for snow? Me too. In the meantime, here’s a good summer drive photograph. Maybe next week, I’ll have a few snowy scenes.