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).

For the Love of Painting

A historic house is sure to come into your life with paint problems. Whether it’s too many layers, peeling paint, cracking paint, lead paint or wallpaper + paint, you are going to have some quality time to spend with your house. If you bought a historic (or old) house, you probably expected and/or wanted some hands-on repair work. However, some people, preservationists included, find no delight in painting. On the other hand, I love painting.

[Sidebar] If you are a Gilmore Girls fan, you will recall an exchange from the episode, That Damn Donna Reed, in which Lorelai convinces Luke to paint his diner:

LORELAI: Ok, how about this? I’ll help you because I love to paint.

LUKE: You do?

LORELAI: Yes I do.

LUKE: You love it?

LORELAI: I want to marry it.

LUKE: You have strange passions.

RORY: She likes washing dishes too. She’s multifaceted abnormal.

LORELAI: Ah come on, we’ll drink a couple of beers and we’ll sing some painting songs.

LUKE: Painting songs?

LORELAI: Yeah painting songs like, um…you know the songs that goes, um…’Grab your brush and grab your rollers, all you kids and all you bowlers, we’re going paintin’ today’. Say yes or there’s another verse.

I do like washing dishes, but I do not have painting songs, or at least not that I would admit. Gilmore Girls often plays in the background while I paint, if I’m not in the mood for some good country music or a Billy Joel/Bruce Springsteen combination.

Entertainment aside, why do I love to paint? Is there anything more satisfying than physical labor that results in a beautiful, personalized transformation on something you own?

If you’re like me and have a house that hasn’t been painted in the past 40 or 80 years (not kidding), you know it’s time to show the house some love. Cleaning the walls, scraping, sanding, plaster repairs, priming many coats and finally painting: when else will you be this close to the walls and ceilings of your house for such an extended period of time? Prep work for painting is not my favorite part, but it’s a necessary evil in order to get to the fun part: COLOR.

It is a labor of love. It’s a source of pride. I feel as though I’m communing with my house and getting to know its quirks: where the hairline cracks are in the plaster, where the pictures have been hung, how the ceiling meets the wall, where splashes of the first coat of paint remain on the edge of the door trim, how the walls look at all times of day. While that first or second layer of primer hides the brush strokes from the original paint, it’s easy to imagine someone lovingly painting the walls before me. A change, even one as simple as paint color, is refreshing in a building.

Painting takes a lot of time, particularly when the walls and ceiling need more than one coat of primer and more than one coat of paint. But, the end result is always worth it. Suddenly the house looks like it belongs to us, as opposed to looking like we simply moved in and set down our belongings. A new coat of paint brings new life to the house, as we begin the next chapter of volume of its history.

House painting = maintenance = care = preservation = love.

Having Izzy watch me paint is helpful throughout the long process.

Are you still so sure that you don’t like to paint? Or do you love to paint?

p.s. Next week, I’ll follow up on the Paint Chatter post about the specific paint problems in my house.

The Alison House

It’s a week of House Hopping with Preservationists! Continuing on from stop one in central Virginia, let’s make our way to Columbus, Ohio. Maria, a historic preservationist, is busy researching, planning and prioritizing restoration and other projects for her house. Read on as Maria shows us the significant architectural features and shares the first projects she and her husband have undertaken. 

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By Maria Burkett

About a year ago, my husband and I purchased our first home, a beautiful little two-story brick vernacular house constructed in a working class immigrant neighborhood in 1914. The house is one of the newer buildings in the neighborhood, which dates to the 1860s, although most of the neighboring buildings on my street are from the 1890s and early 1900s. We are located north of downtown Columbus, Ohio and many of the early homeowners worked at nearby factories or shops. One of the early owners of our house (the Allison family) was an auto-mechanic and had a large garage in the rear of our yard, off of the ally. The garage is long gone, but the 1921-1922 Sanborn Map shows the location of the garage as well as the mixed development in the area with several multiple dwelling units and businesses mixed together.

Sanborn Insurance Map, 1921-1922.

One of the things that attracted us to the area was the diversity. The factories and garages have been replaced by restaurants and art galleries, and the area continues to change with many new developments planned for the neighborhood that will reuse the older buildings or appropriately in full the vacant urban lots. It is an exciting place to live.

It was love at first site for my husband and me with our house. First of all, it is one of the most unique buildings I have seen from the exterior. Although its form is rather plain, the buildings materials are unique. The front of the house is a beautiful yellow brick with red mortar and red brick details, and the other sides are a darker red brick, much darker than normal. Luckily for us, little repointing has been done, and we still have most of the original red mortar. The house has no additions and most of the windows are original, although all three of our doors have been replaced.

Front corner of our house—you can see the original 1/1 window, yellow brick façade, and red brick details and red brick side wall.

The interior is just as extraordinary; the house retains the original reddish hardwood floors and wood trim. The trim in the kitchen and first floor bathroom was painted, but one of my jobs this year is to remove the paint and refinish the trim.

The original floors and trim really excited us about the house when we were looking.

One of my distant projects is to remove the drywall in the firebox and find and appropriately sized gas insert.

My favorite part of the interior is the upstairs bathroom. Most of the bathroom has been redone (which I think is pretty ugly and will be giving it a makeover eventually), but the original clawfoot tub is still in place and there is a curved wall detail to accommodate the tub.

My beautiful bathtub—I can’t wait to rip out the tile and flooring.

We have done relatively little in the ways of improvements to the house so far. One of my husband’s requirements was that we did not, under any circumstances, purchase a fixer upper. Our house was move in ready, but like all houses, a person can dream up many projects. I made a three page list of every dream, which is why we delayed beginning work – in order to prioritize these projects. This past fall, we took the first step and insulated our attic. We like to think our house is warmer this winter, although the winter has been so warm it really is hard to tell.

After the insulation = a nice warm house. None of this existed in the attic before.

This spring we are going to start the task of repainting our exterior trim (one reason a brick house is so great, so little to paint!) and fix our gutters and front porch. The roof was incorrectly built and years of water and ice damage have left a considerable gap between where the roof ends and the gutters begin. I would also like to get some storm windows up and restore all of the rope and pulley systems in our double-hung windows, but that may have to wait another year.

One of my favorite details-a corner guard! We have several of these upstairs, although others are painted (for now).

In the meantime, I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring so I can continue work on my yard. For a house that is closing in on its 100th birthday, it had almost no landscaping to speak of until we bought it. I spent last summer putting in raised garden beds and planning perennials, azaleas, vinca, and whatever else I could get my hands on.

My nice garden last summer.

Our dog posing by a newly planted azalea.

The beginning of the garden. We later discovered that the dirt path running through out backyard is actually a concrete walk buried under several inches of mud. That is a project for this coming spring.

We are looking forward to continuing my battle against grass and installing a back walk this year. We love our old house and are constantly surprised and gratified by what we find and complete to make it our home.

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Maria works in Columbus, Ohio where she lives with her husband and dog. She is part of the fabulous Mary Washington Preservation class of 2006 and a flamingo enthusiast since 2005. 

Thanks, Maria!  You are a great inspiration for how to carefully plan restoration and other home renovations. Good luck with this year’s projects. Last year’s garden looks beautiful.

Next stop on House Hopping with Preservationists, we’ll head further west to the Great Plains: Montana!

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.

If Someone Offered Free Vinyl Siding

Note: This is going to get a bit lengthy, but if you are interested in my ongoing battle with insulation decisions, read on.

Last week, we had a free post flood assessment offered courtesy of Efficiency Vermont. The organization has really stepped up to help those affected by the flood throughout Vermont. Though I signed up beforehand, I heard more about the post flood assessment at the Button Up Vermont Workshop, and was under the impression that the assessment would address all sorts of flood related problems: moisture, mold, air sealing, insulation, etc. Although insulation wasn’t on my list of post-flood worries, I was eager to talk to someone about mold and cleaning my house and to hear about other energy efficiency measures for future reference.

I need to note that the contractor who visited my house was a subcontractor of – not an employee of – Efficiency Vermont.

Upon the contractor’s arrival, I summarized the flood damage and events for him, but what he really wanted to see was the basement. After I explained the water levels and what we did to clean the basement, etc., he looked around and asked if I would be opposed to spray foam.

SPRAY FOAM?  As if I wanted to talk about spray foam. However, I gave the contractor the benefit of the doubt and said that I am opposed to spray foam, but if he could convince me of the merits of spray foam, then I’d consider. This was a matter of understanding the product, not questioning his professional abilities. He didn’t have a great answer for me, but we talked about air flow and the space in between the first floor joists. (For reference, there is absolutely no insulation in my basement.) He said my basement was perfect for foam because it could be hidden and there wasn’t really an aesthetic to ruin; it’s not like I had a dry laid stone foundation. Aesthetics is only one part of my concerns.

The contractor mentioned that normally putting spray foam in a basement like mine – just between the joists, above the concrete foundation – would be about $1500. Hmm, that sounded like a good chunk of savings. I considered it a bit more, with caution. I said I had to talk to my husband about it. When I couldn’t reach him, I called my father-in-law, who seemed to be in favor of it. However, I was still not convinced (because I’m difficult like that).

In the meantime, the contractor said he would do a blower-door test. That was neat! If you’re wondering, our house is completely average for air leakage. While this was going on, I was frantically reading about spray foam online and harassing a few preservation colleagues for their opinions (thanks, Jen). Nothing I read about spray foam was beneficial to historic buildings. Nothing. Yikes! For starters, here is a paper from Historic New England.

Why so frantic? Well, it seemed like a decision that I had to make that day. Admittedly, I did not ask outright, but that seemed to be the case. Back to discussions with the contractor. He had said that either you insulate everything or nothing at all; you can’t insulate half your house if the other half is not insulated. I brought that up, figuring that my walls did not have insulation. Why should I insulate the basement, I asked? No good answer. He also told me that spray foam isn’t reversible. And he never mentioned anything about a vapor barrier.

Finally, Vinny and I had a chance to talk. I told him that something about spray foam just made me nervous (well, lots of things) even if it’s just in a few spots. I didn’t want to regret doing something later. The only thing that sounded good about this offer was that it would be absolutely free to us. Vinny, agreeing with my hesitation, said to me,  “If someone came around and offered free vinyl siding and installation, would you take it?”  Without skipping a beat I scoffed and said, “No.”  He replied, “There’s your answer.”

Good point. Doing something to my house just because it’s free, when it’s something that neither one of us feels comfortable with or has researched enough, would be a ridiculous decision. My main conclusion was that the 83-year-old house does not have any problems, but I change the air flow, it’s quite possibly asking for problems. Right? Why ruin a good thing and fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed? Before we decided on the amount of heat loss and cost and understand how this house works through winter, we shouldn’t mess with the system.

However, this particular contractor was focused purely on air sealing. To his credit, he did talk buildings with me and gave me much to think about. He looked in the attic and checked out the insulation there (currently 6″ of cellulose that possibly doesn’t extend to the eaves – yes, I am aware that it needs to be addressed). He was patient with me and didn’t give me a hard time when I sort of said okay for spray foam and then nevermind. Perhaps it was my own mistake, but I was not under the impression that this assessment would only be about air sealing. After all, you can’t air seal your basement and not consider the effects on or what is needed for the rest of the house.

If someone such as myself who is so vehemently opposed to spray foam (in my own house anyway) could waver a bit by the temptation of free work and materials, then surely I was not ready to make such an important decision without any warning ahead of time. I hate to think that others made rash decisions for their own buildings.

This is not meant to sound like a rant, but more to explain why I was probably the worst candidate for this type of flood “assessment.” I am grateful for Efficiency Vermont’s assistance to flood victims across the state and think overall they’re doing a great job. However, their sub-contractors on this job should be better informed.

The most beneficial part of the “assessment” was realizing just how much I need to study before making decisions about insulation. It was a good reality check for me as a new homeowner to think carefully through every major project.  But for now, I’m holding true to my anti-spray foam and air sealing, especially because the drafts of my historic house are no worse than a normal house less than half its age.

We can discuss other types of insulation after I read some more material. This graduate thesis by Sarah Elizabeth Welniak, Energy Efficiency in Historic Buildings, seems like a good place to start. What else do you recommend?

Old House v. Historic House

Is that an old house? Is that a historic house? Is that the same question?

Well, they are often used interchangeably in passing, casual conversations, but actually there is a definite distinction between the two: old & historic.

Work in historic preservation is defined from the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966 (since amended) (legal code 16 U.S.C 470). In the law, “historic property” or “historic resource” means any prehistoric or historic district, site, building, structure, or object included in, or eligible for inclusion on the National Register, including artifacts, records, and material remains related to such a property or resource.  In other words, a “historic” house would be one only if it is on or eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Historic means “historically significant.”

The brief explanation of how properties are eligible for the National Register of Historic Places is that they (generally) must be at least 50 years old and they must have contributed to or played a significant role in national heritage. The longer explanation involves four criteria for evaluation and seven criteria considerations, which can be read here or in National Register Bulletin 15. A side note, most houses are not on the National Register, although they may be listed on a local or state register.

What about the definition for old? That can be a house that has reached the 50 year mark, but is not historically significant. Of course, that is not the say the house is insignificant to its occupants, but in terms of the National Register and the NHPA, it doesn’t count. The distinction is made to assist rulings of the NHPA as well as to assist with tax credits from the National Park Service.

While “old” and “historic” could certainly be discussed more, those are the easy definitions. Still, old houses, even if not historic by NHPA standards, are still important to our heritage and deserve to be loved and maintained. A building not on the National Register doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not eligible – maybe it hasn’t been nominated. If research reveals arguments for national significance, give it a try!

Any other thoughts on the definitions of old or historic?

How You Know You’re Living in an Old House

Plaster and lath in the closet, covered by gypsum board and now filled with insulation.

Plaster and lath in the closet, covered by gypsum board and now filled with insulation.

Note to pet owners: be sure to cover the exposed wall with gypsum board so the nosy cats do not jump into the fiberglass insulation. But, make sure you can remove the board so you can show off the plaster and lath (even though it’s mostly lath now).

Apartment Renters

In high rent, high turnover, high demand areas, you pretty much take what you can get in terms of an apartment. Maybe you’ll get the basic things on your wish list (pets, location) but not that fireplace or extremely detailed doors and transoms you always dreamed about.  For Vinny and me, location, price, and pets were what we could not compromise on, i.e. we had to be able to walk to school, we would not go over a certain dollar amount (read: poor grad students), and we had to have the cats.

We were able to find an apartment with those qualities just when we were at the end our rope. Realtors didn’t return calls, craigslist ads weren’t much help, and we had already seen a not-so-great apartment and one building that we wouldn’t even set foot in. (Elyse Gerstenecker wrote an article about her troubles while apartment hunting in the December 2008 issue of Preservation in Pink.)

When we saw this apartment, we knew it was our best shot. We didn’t have other options. So we signed a lease for this tiny apartment (as in small for one person) and we started thinking about how to improve it because the guy who lived here before us had never cleaned a day in his life.

Cleaning the apartment top to bottom was a must, cabinets, floors, windows, refrigerator, oven, bathtub, everything. We picked out paint colors and decided the cream color needed to be white for the window frames and door frames, crown molding, baseboards, and cabinets. Cleaning and painting is exhausting and it gets expensive.

So why would we bother doing this to an apartment that is only temporarily ours? We’re not getting reimbursed for painting, though our landlord did rip up an old rug for us and give us floor cleaner. We are trying to make this apartment feel like home, make it someplace we want to stay in for more than one year. And in the process of making this apartment a pleasant place to live, we’re keeping things in mind for how to do things when we restore our own house someday.

The apartment is in a historic house, one that was divided into apartments long ago. The more I sit in the house, the easier it is to see clues to the house’s history. Clues like crown molding in the closet, a former exterior window (now an alcove above my head) is in the living room, the molding around an old door frame that has since been closed in, hardwood floors under the kitchen linoleum, and other  things have revealed themselves as we’ve been painting and cleaning. I think our living room is a former porch.

I’ve never lived in an old house, so this project is one I’m more than happy to have. We’re taking care of the apartment, something it has needed desperately. And with all of this work, we already feel attached. Granted, it’s just a facelift and minor maintenance, not restoration by any means, but we feel that the house deserves it.  Once our work is done, I’ll do some historical research for the details.