Your Written Record

Documenting our lives is something we all do, whether through pictures, detailed letters and emails to friends and family, a personal diary, agendas, a blog, Facebook status updates, etc. There are infinite ways in which we could piece our lives together and reconstruct our own stories. Similar to the discussion about digital calendars or paper planners, digital records and your digital life, is the conversation about a hand written diary v. a digital journal.

Do you keep a diary or a journal? Or did you as a child and teenager? For most of my childhood and teenaged years, I kept a detailed diary that spans many, many notebooks, each one carefully chosen based on what sort of size, cover, paper stock, lines and colors I felt necessary for my writing at the time. These are books that I’ll keep forever. And then, soon after that, I guess life got a little busier and a bit less stressful (I can understand why I wrote more as a teenager), so I didn’t have to write as much. Shortly after that, I discovered the world of blogs: Live Journal, MySpace, Blogger and others. It seemed like an odd idea to me. Why would I write my diary online rather than in a book?

Many people were turning to online forms of journaling and recording their lives, some writing as if no one would ever read it and some writing for all to read. It seemed to me that what I wrote on paper were things I’d never write to the entire internet. While writing online will always be different for me than writing in a book (i.e. less personal), years later, I can see the advantages of an online diary. In a way, your words are stored in a safe place, safe as in, one you will not lose. Your journal entries can include photographs and it’s easier to read type than sloppy handwriting. If you are writing about your kids or everyday life adventures, it’s easy to share stories and photographs with family members and friends in blog form.

However, lost may be so much more. The pure satisfaction of flipping through a completed book, one filled entirely with your own words, is no more. The issue of privacy is not a question as long as you keep your book safe. Handwritten words seem so much more personal than pages of font. Handing down your diaries, if you choose, is easier in a book than writing down every web address.

Then again, with the world of fonts and templates and digital effects that we have access to, a blog can be a very personal place on the internet. Passwords can protect your blog from others reading it. An issue I’ve mentioned before, however, is remembering the URL and passwords.

There can be a modern compromise, if you’re interested. There are now publishing programs that allow you to convert your blog into book format. You can “publish” your book, buy one copy and then you have your digital diary in hard copy. While it’s a great deal more expensive than buying a small, lined notebook, this book can have your pictures and different fonts and formats. Since I keep a variety of books and blogs, I’m tempted to print my blogs into books someday. In the meantime, I’ll start saving my pennies and keep on with my combination of record keeping.

How do you record your life? Did you at one time keep a hand written diary and turn to a blog (password protected or not)? Do you find it easier to type or hand-write your words, and which would you rather have in the long run? I’d rather have books for posterity, and to read when I’m old and gray, but sometimes I’d rather be typing because it can be faster.

Abandoned Vermont: Windsor House

This is a different vein of Abandoned Vermont; this house in Windsor is not found down a dirt road or in a small, sleepy town. Instead, it is easily spotted from US Route 5, located within the Windsor Historic District.

Abandoned house in Windsor, VT.

While it is not exactly abandoned (it is bank owned, I believe), this poor house is boarded up, vacant, a victim of fire, and left for further demolition by neglect – it seems. It has seen better days, obviously – days filled with historic integrity. Now it would probably be determined to be a non-contributing structure in the historic district.

Asphalt brick siding, asphalt shingle roof, replacement windows all contribute to a loss of integrity.

While loss of integrity to one building is a worthwhile discussion, there is a more important issue relating  to this house. What greater effect will the loss of integrity have on the character of the historic district?

What is the best option? Complete restoration of a historic structure? This isn’t a house (in my opinion) that someone will look at, love immediately and dream of restoring. Of course, that is not to say that a determined visionary could not take on the project. And who knows, removing that fake brick siding could help give the building a new face. Some buildings have the luxury of being loved, even in their most deteriorated states, but often such simple vernacular structures are not as fortunate. If it is determined to be a non-contributing structure, would demolition and sympathetic infill be the best option?

This house probably had a slate roof in its prime.

What was anyone ever thinking? Asphalt shingles made to look like brick? I have never seen this look good on a building.

Does this house stand a better chance of a second life because it is in a historic district of a larger town? Or is it more at risk for demolition? What do you think?

I can see it going either way. Rescuing and restoring a house in a historic district seems to have a better potential for property values. However, the property may be worth more than the structure as-is. Not knowing the state of the house interior, it is could be too far gone for someone to want to tackle.

Due to the loss of integrity, this could be a situation in which loss of a now non-contributing structure will not affect the historic district, but what goes in its place can have a positive or negative effect.

How often do you come across similar abandoned structures? What do you think about the fate of this building and the impacts to the historic district?

Memories & Songs

Are significant songs classics? Are only classic songs significant? What makes a piece of music important and worthy of archiving?  After all, the world is full of beautiful cultures, all with unique traditions, rituals, folklore, stories and songs. Music and songs can be defining characteristics of a cultural group, perhaps even of your heritage, your ancestors.

Well, here I am to admit that I have absolutely zero ounces of musical ability or talent in my blood. I played the flute in fifth grade, and that was it for instruments. Instead, I took chorus throughout middle school and early high school. I knew I wasn’t a good singer; but, my goodness, I worked hard in chorus class. In high school I received the “Most Improved” recognition award at the end of the year. You probably didn’t need or care to know that about me, but my point is that I am not an expert on music and will not pretend to be.

However, I love a good song and I think it is important to talk about music and preservation. Have you ever considered the songs that would play in the background of a movie about your life? Ten or 20 or 50 years from now, will you remember your favorite songs and what you listened to in the car or while hanging around the house or hosting dinner parties?  Sure, you’ll remember your prom song (maybe) or your wedding song and those few favorites, but what about the others?

The soundtrack of our lives would all be different, but just like old photographs, doesn’t a familiar favorite make you smile and recall a time in your life?  I may not know songs dear to my ancestors from Ireland or Scotland, sadly, but the songs I know keep me grounded to my own story, one that I’d like to remember.

Songs trigger sweet memories, whether specific to a particular moment or day or era. They can make us say, I haven’t heard this song in ages or I used to love this song or I’d listen to this song when…” 

Music can serve as a time capsule and a time warp, nostalgia included. Maybe that song that you loved in high school or the one from the day you moved into your first apartment means nothing to anyone but you. It is still significant and it should be a part of your self-made life soundtrack. They can be popular, unknown, brilliant, terrible, happy, sad; there are no rules for why songs are meaningful to us.

The most important songs that would appear in my list take me back to dancing in the living with my sisters, Dad blasting music from the garage as the entire family worked in the yard, celebrating holidays and the first mixed CD from Vinny. A few remind me of high school homecoming, others recall college track meets and late summer night writing marathons. The summer I lived in Omaha, Nebraska and had my first car (Derby) has many songs to its memory. My list goes on and on, as yours does, I’m sure.

And if music can be such a powerful trigger for memories, wouldn’t it be a good idea to keep a record of them? Calendars, photographs and journal entries probably skip over the music playing in the background as you write and work. Just as we talk about the sounds and smells of historic sites, the background sounds to your life are also worth noting and remembering.

So, write down the names of these songs and start your own playlist. Share it with your children and your grandchildren. I would love to know what my grandparents listened to as they studied, got ready for a date, traveled across the country, took care of their children, cleaned the house or as they simply relaxed. Of course, I could guess based on the decades, but that’s too impersonal and potentially inaccurate. I’d rather know specific songs and their memories.

What do you think? How important is music in your life?

What am I listening to as I write Preservation in Pink? Tonight it’s country music. (I love it.)

Preservation Photos #124

The Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford, VT.

The Justin Smith Morrill Homestead is a Vermont State Historic Site, open May – October.  This Gothic Revival cottage, designed by Morrill, is a shade of pink.  Also on site is a carriage barn, horse barn, cow barn, sheep barn and corn crib, representing a gentleman’s farm in rural Vermont.

Reef Bay Sugar Mill

And the cold weather has returned to Vermont. And because Mother Nature has a sense of humor, it is snowing today whereas last Monday I drove with my windows open and wore short sleeves. Anyway, I’m sure you all have similar crazy weather patterns.

So, let’s go back to the USVI, shall we? We left off at the end of the Reef Bay Trail hike, which brings us to the Reef Bay Sugar Mill. Originally a cattle and cotton plantation, it was converted to a sugar plantation and sugar cane production in the late 18th century.

The Reef Bay Sugar Mill, as seen from the horse mill.

This sugar mill is part of a National Register of Historic Places as the Reef Bay Sugar Factory Historic District. While the Virgin Islands are home to many sugar factory ruins, the Reef Bay mill is the best preserved example, partially because it operated longer and later than any other mills. One reason for its longevity is that production power was converted to steam power in the 1860s. You’ll recall that the Annaberg Sugar Mill operated off wind and horse power.

View from the trail.

You can see, outside and inside this section of the factory, the steam power mechanisms. This engine room was built to house the mechanisms.

The steam engine.

In this picture, take note of the frame and sheet metal roof over the ruins. This is a common method (adding a lightweight roof) to protect a site without altering its features. The roof is clearly distinguishable from the historic building.

Inside the factory, these boiling coppers are more visible than those at Annaberg. This is where the sugar was boiled and processed.

Individual view of one of the coppers.

Looking into the boiling house.

Weathered door frame, hinges and building masonry.

Weathered bricks. All of the weathered and worn masonry provided excellent color contrast, which made the site even more interesting.

The Reef Bay Sugar Mill was documented by the Historic American Engineering Record, and if you look at the photographs in that collection, you’ll see that it was documented prior to site stabilization and the sheet metal roof.  The site operated as a sugar factory until the early 20th century. Read the data pages of the HAER documentation for a full history.

The only downside of the trail and the historic site is the poor condition of the interpretive panels, which have faded and developed a tacky surface, which make reading the information difficult on some. Obviously, the Virgin Islands National Park faces budget cuts, like all other parks, but it is a shame that the history has to suffer. If you want to get the most out of your visit, read background information on the site or the HAER documentation before you go.  The views, the scenery and the historic site are certainly worth a hike down the Reef Bay Trail.

Other USVI posts: Preservation Photos #122. Annaberg Sugar Mill. Preservation Photos #121. Home Sweet HomeHistoric Sites on the Reef Bay Trail.

PreservationNation Feature

A Preservation in Pink guest post at PreservationNation.

I am psyched to announce (if you missed the Twitter and Facebook chatter) that Monday’s Preservation in Pink post, You Do Not Have to be a Historic Preservationist, was featured as a guest post on PreservationNation, the blog of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. If you do not read the blog, check it out for Preservation News Roundups, special features and more.

Thank you NTHP and David Garber, the PreservationNation blog editor. Preservation in Pink is flattered!

All the Rage: Cash Mobs

March 24th is International Cash Mob Day. What is a cash mob? Good question. A recent community focused, local-centric, economic recovery/boost tool is known as a “Cash Mob.” 

In case you’re wondering, mob refers to people en masse, and not the mob like in The Godfather.  And the term “cash mob” is referencing “flash mob,” in which people break out into choreographed dance or other surprising random, organized activity.  

This mass of people will simultaneously enter (let’s say invade) a local business with the purpose of making a purchase of at least $20 in order to help the proprietor. Perhaps this owner experienced a poor year of sales and deserved the extra help because of his/her commitment to the community. It’s like a wave of economic stimulus within one hour. A little community concern, collective effort and positive vibes and actions can go a long way in helping economic vitality and morale.

While not exactly a bricks and mortar effort or a long lasting community change, cash mobs show the importance of supporting local businesses. A cash mob can show a local proprietor just how much his/her business is appreciated. We all know that every little bit counts, whether financial or a friendly smile and a good day. Business owners need their customers, and we need local businesses in our towns and cities.

Check out if there is a cash mob event near you. Vermont has had two cash mobs already, one in Middlebury and one in Waterbury, with two scheduled for Saturday: Barre and Waitsfield (follow @CashMobVermont on Twitter). But events are everywhere! Follow @CashMob on Twitter for more information. Read this article from  Public Radio International for additional information. YouTube has many cash mob videos from around the country and the world.

If there is not a cash mob in your town or area, Saturday would still be a good day to get and support the local businesses and economy. Instead of heading to the usual chain stores, take one minute to consider the local store you’ve yet to patronize. Perhaps there is a local pharmacy or garden supply store or market or stationery store. Give your town a chance. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Aside from thinking about local businesses, I cannot get the term “flash mob” out of my head. Anyone want to turn synchronized cartwheels down the street with me? No? Okay, how about just setting your lawn flamingos outside to enjoy the springtime?  Happy weekend and happy local shopping!

Painting, Alligatoring Paint and Plaster Walls

Painting is one thing. Dealing with decades-old, failing paint on plaster walls is another thing.

The last post about this room, Paint Chatter, pondered what the problem could be. While I began the paint removal process before Christmas, I abandoned the project for a few months when my citrus stripper method proved unsuccessful. Clearly, this room was going to be difficult. Based on communication with the previous owners and their knowledge of the house’s history, supplemented by staring at and pondering the state of the walls while reading about paint and plaster, I came to a conclusion.

This one coat of blue paint was improperly applied 83 years ago. Beneath this paint, there was not a coat of primer; rather, it was applied directly to the finish coat of the plaster. In other words, this room had not been painted since 1928.

Before undertaking the paint removal project.

Over the course of these project abandonment months, the chipping/alligatoring/flaking increased in surface area and/or began to drive Vinny and me mad. If we were to run our hands over the wall, the paint would flake off easily. And the room looked horrible. It had been relegated to storing our books, boxes, files and power tools (during basement repair).

There comes a time when you just have to jump into a project and not look back. For Vinny and me, that time was two weekends ago. The oddly warm March weather allowed us to open the windows while painting.

Care to jump in and see how we tackled the paint problem? To refresh your memory, here is one section of one wall:

Alligatoring paint in the blue room.


Before we proceed, I have to add this DISCLAIMER: I am not a professional painter or certified for lead testing or removal. Our house has not been tested for lead, but if your house or building was painted prior to 1978, you should assume that there may be lead. With that said, I am not recommending my methods, but merely sharing as a fellow historic homeowner. 


First, the problems in list form:

(1) How do you remove alligatoring paint without removing all of the paint? Do you have to remove all of it?

(2) What do you do when citrus stripper does not work at all?

(3) What do you do when you are fairly certain that the only coat of paint on the walls has been there for 83 years? While I am not a certified professional in terms of hazardous paint (e.g. lead), I know that paint made prior to 1978 is likely to have traces of lead.

I love our house and value historic integrity; but, sometimes you have to conduct a few experiments and then make some decisions and/or concessions. In the case of our house we decided:

(1) Citrus stripper did not work on the walls. (I used it another room for peeling, not cracking, paint, where it worked well.) An orbital  handheld sander, with a bag for holding the dust, did not work either.

(2) We would remove the paint with a 1″ metal scraper. We would not to remove all of the paint from the walls. This would require an insane amount of work; but more importantly it would create more dust and paint chips than necessary. Rather, we decided it was best to tackle the failed paint areas and leave the rest undisturbed.

(3) Not to repair the surface cracks in the plaster, because that would possibly create more damage. The cracks are not structural or causing plaster failure, so we figured it was best to leave it alone. (If you are repairing your plaster, that is obviously a job prior to painting.)

(4) Not to build up the finish coat of plaster after removing paint. If our wall surfaces were uneven, we could live with that.

So, we set to scraping the loose paint while wearing respirators, covering the room in a plastic, disposable tarp. We set a fan to blow air outside and closed the door while we worked. It was not a fail-proof method, but it seemed to work well enough for our minimal purposes. (But because I was trying to keep everything neat, I did not take photographs of the paint scraping process.  And I’ll spare you from the frightening photograph of me in a respirator.)

We used a 1″ blade on a scraper and simply put enough pressure on the wall that when pulled down, it removed the paint. It was surprisingly effective in areas where the paint had completely failed. However, it did create nicks in the finish coat of the plaster, which was another reason to not scrape the entire wall surface (again – aside from the insanity of such a task).

A lot of paint came off very easily. We lightly sanded the edges of the paint-free plaster areas to hopefully insure that it wouldn’t flake under the new coats of paint.

After removing the paint and cleaning up the large paint chips that missed the tarp, we disposed of it and began to prep for painting, including taping all of the trim and window/door frame edges. We used grey primer, knowing that we were going to choose a darker color for the walls; on the ceiling we used white primer. This house likes two coats of primer, at least, because the shiny decades-old paint seems to slurp in that first coat of primer, making it look like it’s not there at all. A second coat seems to give a more stable looking coat. We also use two coats of paint on the walls and ceiling, for similar reasons. In addition, two coats or more coats of primer and two coats of paint help to even out the wall surface and hide some of the flawed areas.

And the finished product:

After! The color is Sailor's Sea Blue (eggshell finish) by Benjamin Moore. The wall on the right was the worst in terms of alligatoring paint.

Not totally after (pre-cleanup), but the walls and ceiling are finished.

The wall on the left in this photograph has a noticeable uneven-obviously-scraped surface, if you look closely in person. However, for now, my solution is to line that wall with our tall bookshelves.

How long will this repair last? I’m not sure, since the first coat of paint was improperly applied and is obviously still underneath the new paint. If it cracks and fails again, I’ll try a new way of paint removal. For now, this room has improved exponentially. Actually, I’m sitting in this room as I write this post.  The bungalow is an ongoing experiment, and I love it.

Now,  how have you dealt with paint related problems in your house? 

The Un-Covered Bridge

Have you ever seen a covered bridge without its roof (its cover)? How about without its joists, floor beams, deck and everything but the arch? How about this scenario with the other span (the other half) of the bridge intact?

It doesn’t sound like a common sight, and it’s not. However, you can see such an “un-covered” bridge in Woodstock, Vermont. Stop by the Taftsville Covered Bridge on Route 4.

The Taftsville Covered Bridge, as seen from VT Route 4.

The Taftsville Covered Bridge was damaged during the floods of Tropical Storm Irene on August 28, 2011. What you cannot see from this picture is the failing stone abutment. Due to structural and safety concerns, the bridge was closed to traffic and then pedestrians soon after the August flooding. Unfortunately, the abutment continued to show signs of stress and failure, to the extent that it would have to be replaced.

Closed to traffic, but you can park off Route 4 and take a look (just don't cross any barriers or fences).

Because this particular site poses many obstacles (nearby buildings and power lines), but required immediate action in order to save the bridge, the Vermont Agency of Transportation made the decision to dismantle one span of the two-span bridge. This allows temporary reinforcing to be installed, prevents the bridge from being completely dismantled, and allows the abutments and pier to support the remaining weight of the bridge. For further stabilization, the abutment is supported with newly poured concrete (you’d have to catch a glimpse of that from the Quechee side of the bridge).

The central pier between the two spans. Only the arch remains.

Close-up view showing reinforcements installed (see new cables).

Additional reinforcements. The failed abutment (not shown) would be located on the bottom right of this image.

Looking east.

Looking northwest.

The Taftsville Covered Bridge, constructed in 1836, is one of the oldest covered bridges in the State of Vermont.  Originally constructed as a multiple king-post truss, the burr arches (the exposed arch you can see in the photograph) were added in the early 20th century. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and documented for the Historic American Engineering Record.

Friday’s Quiz Answer

The Preservation Pop Quiz from Friday March 16 asked if you could identify this architectural material:

Quiz subject.

This is located in the bathroom of my 1920s bungalow, and at first glance it looks like subway tile (most people think it is, and with a fresh coat of semi gloss paint, it continues to look like subway tile).  There is a chair rail about 4′ up on the bathroom walls; what you see in the picture is below the chair rail, and above is the regular plaster surface. However, the peeling paint gave it away; this was not tile.

The truth is, until yesterday, I was not entirely certain as to this material. It looks and sounds like plaster, but without any holes in the wall, it is hard to accurately compare it to the plaster walls. I was not going to do any exploratory destruction. However, after some searching, I’ve learned that plaster scored to look like subway tile was fairly common for a 1920s bathroom. And it’s the subject of some online discussions (see This Old House).

After reading more on plaster, I came to the conclusion that my plaster walls have rock lath/plasterboard/gypsum board of sorts, meaning that there are only two coats of plaster necessary (brown and finish), as opposed to the typical three of earlier plaster (scratch, brown, finish). From NPS Preservation Brief 21: Repairing Historic Flat Plaster by Mary Lee MacDonald:

Rock Lath. A third lath system commonly used was rock lath (also called plaster board or gypsum-board lath). In use as early as 1900, rock lath was made up of compressed gypsum covered by a paper facing. Some rock lath was textured or perforated to provide a key for wet plaster. A special paper with gypsum crystals in it provides the key for rock lath used today; when wet plaster is applied to the surface, a crystalline bond is achieved.

Rock lath was the most economical of the three lathing systems. Lathers or carpenters could prepare a room more quickly. By the late 1930s, rock lath was used almost exclusively in residential plastering.

So, the answer? The picture shows plaster walls in my bathroom scored to imitate subway tile. The brown and finish coats are scored; beneath them is the rock lath.

Does your house have anything like this? I had never seen it before (or it was done so well that it fooled me into thinking it was tile).