Archive for the ‘House restorations’ Category

Rebuilding the rear sections at Burns

Our “house doctor” – contractor Sonny Jacobs and his crew – returned at the end of the season to shore up the two rear sections of the house. The middle section is mainly the kitchen area. The rear section is a mud room. Four problems were covered in the engineer’s report (Joe Rosenstiel at Jensen/BRV in Rochester). In the rear corner of the middle section of the house, the foundation had deteriorated, the sill had rotted, the kitchen ceiling had a 4 inch sag, and the roof had a ‘saddleback’ due to snow loading over the years. The roofing was shot on both rear sections. Moreover, on the rear section, there was no overhang in the roof structure. With no way to throw rain water out, away from the house, it had gotten into the walls and done some damage.

Overall, it was pretty bad. I rely heavily on Sonny and Joe with jobs like this one. I highly recommend hiring an engineer for dealing with structural issues, as I’ve said before. It’s an expensive step, but it pays you back well in the long run.

Love the bright fall colors…


The rear corner of the middle section had fallen 3 inches. Both sections had structural problems in the roofs.

Here are the specs for the job from the structural engineer’s report. Foundation items are nrs. 24 to 26; Roof items are nrs. 36 to 38 (click to view enlarged version) …



Step 1 – Jack up house and remove foundation

One of the things I don’t like to find on old houses is the masonry parges. They are fine for a while, but once they begin to deteriorate, they tend to do more harm than good. The entire foundation was coated at one point. It has spalled away in most places, leaving a crevice for holding moisture and harboring insects. Both are big trouble. Someone also added a cement pavement, apart from the sidewalk, around the base of the foundation. This actually creates splashback from the roof once the gutter deteriorates, adding further to the moisture problems from the failed parge. Not good. So I want to try durable, steel gutters – made the ‘old-fashioned’ way, by soldering the joints – and see whether that reduces the problem of wetness around the foundation. How to handle the outflow from the downspouts is another issue ‘down the road’.

I checked with Sonny about using Type N ‘soft’ mortar for the foundation work, which they knew all about. Modern mortar is made from Portland, which is harder than the older, lime-based mortars used on houses before about 1900 or so. Type N is not lime, but it is formulated to perform like the older products. Fieldstone and old brick are alike, in that they both ‘move’ with temperature and moisture, more so than modern brick. So for those materials, you need a mortar that moves to a similar extent. Modern Portland mortars don’t move as much, and as a result, will cause the building material to chip around the edges. This is known as ‘spalling’ and ruins the work. With old houses, I always use Type N mortar just to be safe. It’s available most everywhere, but I buy it at Home Depot.


The deteriorated foundation has been removed. Temporary shoring is in place. Notice the rotting sill above the shoring. Harold and Al are getting ready to build up the new masonry. The cement blocks were for the inside wall, where they would be hidden from view. This was done to stretch the limited supply of old stones.

Views from the cellar:

Two views, with and without the flash. My right brain thought the darker image was pretty cool, even though the flash gives you more detail.



Foundation work is finished …

All that’s left is for me to replace the missing trimwork: corner boards and base. Notice the uneven gap at the inside corner of the siding? That’s due to raising the corner over the bad foundation. I may just replace the siding on that side with new cedar siding during the warm season next year. I get my siding and other specialty wood products from Matthews and Fields in Rochester (120 Stonewood Ave. in Greece, 585-663-0230, www.mflumber.com). Matthews and Fields is a family-operated business that’s been around for ages, and treats its regular customers like family.


Step 2 – Remove ceiling joists

The inside work was next. I really wanted to save the old plaster ceiling, since there was so little original plasterwork left in the house. But besides the 4 inch sag in the middle, it was heavily damaged. Typical of the Victorian balloon frame houses in our neighborhood, this one used 2X4’s for joists in the unfinished attic spaces. In other projects, I’ve reinforced them by sistering new 2X4 stock made from micro-lam stock. It works pretty well, and it avoids changing the intention of the Victorian builders, but it’s expensive and must be ordered in advance. I didn’t want to hold up Sonny and his crew, so I ok’d 2X8’s for the new ceiling.

Do you notice something odd about the chimney? It ends at the first floor ceiling! There is another one in the front section of the house, over the parlor. This appears to be a way to economize on bricks, but it’s possible there were other reasons. In any event, this “floating chimney” thing caused major structural problems over a century and a quarter. Joe, the engineer, assumed I’d want them removed. Sonny thought I was nuts. Yes, I guess I am a little nuts, when it comes to retaining originality and authenticity in my houses. I am wary of this scenario with rehabs: “This is Washington’s hatchet – the only parts that were replaced were the handle and the head.” Even when you carefully replicate anything you must replace, you need to leave some things alone for authenticity’s sake, for if you replicate everything, even perfectly – what exactly is it that you have?


Step 3 – Straighten walls and roof

With all the pushing and prodding on the structure that was going on, the contractor discovered a bow in the outside wall in the middle section, where the kitchen is. I came in one night to close up and found this system of jacks, posts and chain hoists. My house was in traction! Sonny really knows his business, and I never doubt him, so I just enjoyed snapping this cool shot of his work.

The vertical post, just beyond the image’s frame, is pushing up on a new cross-beam, which I believe is a pair of micro-lam 2X8’s, face-nailed. It supports the rafters halfway up the roof pitch. This was specified by the engineer as the way to push up that ‘saddleback’ sag in the roof. Sonny had to figure a way to apply pressure to the cross-beam to get it to actually raise the sag, too fixed to be done by hand. Taking care to position the post over a steel post in the cellar, he jacked the post to straighten the sagging roof. Crazy, huh? Oh, and I should mention that the crew hadn’t removed the plaster ceiling yet, so he had to make a small hole and thread the post up through it. That’s why he’s the house doctor!


Here is a better shot of that micro-lam cross-beam that I took later during the roof work. The sunlight made an interesting pattern in the crawl space.


Step 4 – Replace middle roof

Al and Harold working on repairs. Do you see the cut in the sheathing just shy of the cornice? That cornice was holding on by a wing and a prayer. I’m really big on keeping the original molding, so the guys replaced the cut-away parts with new wood, and then carefully reattached the cornice to the roof – as good as new. That’s Harold doing the work on the cornice.


The structural repairs are done, the sheathing and felt are up. Ready for shingles. I like to use an architectural shingle sold by CertainTeed, from the Landmark series, called ‘Driftwood’ (www.certainteed.com). To me, it kind of resembles the wooden shingles originally on the house. They were still up there, by the way, under an inch or so of newer layers.


Al carefully replacing that raking cornice …


Sonny (on the truck) working Saturday with his weekend crew …


Step 5 – Replace back roof

To create the overhang, the pre-existing rafters had to be replaced. The guys did a terrific job of straightening the ridge line and replicating the overhang on the other sections of the house. That rear section now blends smoothly with the rest of the house. To this old house guy, it was the crowning touch. When it was all done, Sonny and I just stood there for a while, gazing at it all. Unlike a lot of contractors, Sonny and his crew take real pride in their work.

That old deck, and the T-111 on the back side, are eventually going away.


The final results

The porch, porch roof and main roof are still to be done, but they are all less urgent and can wait a little longer. If the weather holds, Sonny may come back to replace the tarp on the main roof with something a little more substantial, to hold us until the front roof gets done.





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A Proposal to Redevelop #72 Conkey Avenue

For discussions opposing the planned demolition of 72 Conkey Ave.,
Go here. And here.

The structure is currently scheduled for demolition, so this proposal is late, very likely too late. But whatever its fate, I feel it is important to draw attention to what is being lost.

In purely financial terms, for want of the timely investment of $60,000 including purchase, a property that could produce some $2,000 monthly rents, with a payback of perhaps 5 years, is being destroyed. From an urbanist point of view, it means the loss of density, diversity and history – yet another blow to the vitality of yet another neighborhood.

Where does it end?

I. Introduction

The building on the southeast corner at the intersection of Conkey and Clifford Avenues was built in 1879 and was quite possibly the neighborhood’s first corner grocery. At the time, the neighborhood was on the city’s northeast edge as it expanded outward, encroaching on the Irish immigrant farms of an earlier generation.

Here is an idea of what the Evergreen Tract looked like then:

View of Evergreen Tract, 1880
View of Evergreen Tract, from an 1880 panoramic view of Rochester.
Courtesy of rochestersubway.com

Conkey and Clifford is the intersection about midway from the center to the lower right corner of the image.

exterior - store entrancearchitectural detail

This property is typical of the late-Victorian mixed-use storefronts once seen on so many corners in Rochester’s older neighborhoods. It is configured as 3 apartments over a store. Beginning in 1879, the building was a family-owned grocery store until the Great Depression, perhaps longer.

The original owner was Charles H. Schulz, who lived and conducted business there with his family for 30 years, 1879 to 1908.

exterior - north side

The property is a strong potential contributor to the surrounding community and a good candidate for redevelopment. Located at the intersection of Conkey and Clifford Avenues, the property is an anchor, contributing Victorian character, as well as a degree of density and diversity that is rapidly disappearing from the housing stock in the neighborhood.

Ibero houses on Conkey

The Ibero-America Development Corporation (IADC) has recently built 25 infill homes in the neighborhood, 3 of which are on the same block of Conkey Ave. Every lot now has a building upon it.

Please take a moment and view a block that has been vacant and dead for years, as it comes alive and becomes a vital urban space once again. The block is whole again, if only for a moment.

FashionWorks by Ibero

Ibero also opened a retail outlet, “FashionWorks”, on the same block of Clifford Ave.

security camera at Conkey and Clifford

The city recently installed an overhead security camera at that corner, eliminating the illegal drug activity that was rampant there.

community garden at Conkey and Clifford

The neighborhood, which has organized several block clubs under the direction of Project Hope, recently created a community garden on the corner opposite the property.

The Genesee Land Trust (GLT) recently added a playground to the new pocket park across the street.

pocket park where playground was recently added

The neighborhood is organized, significant investments in housing (both new and existing) are being made, crime is trending downward — all these things have changed the investment prospects for the property in the past year. It is in the best interests of the community that the structure be restored, and not destroyed.

About us

Officially, we are Aurora Property Redevelopment. Our objective is to revitalize communities by preserving period structures and maintaining traditional neighborhood density. There is no alternative use for the properties we restore that improves the tax assessment as much for as little expense in as little time.

My partner and I select properties based on 3 criteria: (1) They are within a few blocks radius of our own home on Evergreen Street. (2) They have strong potential to contribute character and stability to our target investment area. (3) They are at risk. We have completed 2 projects within the target area, with 4 additional rehabs in progress, for a total of 8 high quality housing units, with an estimated total gross annual income from rents of $60,000.

II. Gallery of images

Work from earlier projects by Aurora

A PowerPoint presentation showing work from other projects will be included in the submitted proposal.

For examples of our work, refer to:

Devendorf house

Burns house

Images of #72 Conkey Avenue

This gallery presents the building’s general condition (fair to good), its amenities and problems. All three living units retain the original porcelain plumbing fixtures. They all have hardwood flooring that is in good condition. Most window openings still have the original wooden sash, though several are in need of reglazing.

For details, just roll the mouse over any image. Click over any image to view an enlarged version:

Building exterior

exterior - west foundationexterior - rear egressexterior - west side garage

Apartment 1

apt 1apt1 kitchenapt 1apt 1

Apartment 2

apt2 bathroomapt2 deck egressapt 2

Apartment 3

apt 3apt 3apt 3apt 3apt3 kitchen from entry hallapt3 plumbing removedapt 3


interior showing store frontinterior staircase - 1st to 2nd floor2nd floor landing

Basement / Utilities

basement utilitiesbasement utilitiesbasement utilities


apt 1apt 1apt3 water damageattic showing water damageapt2 water damageapt1 water damageapt1 bathroom - missing floor

III. Redevelopment Plan

Phase 1: Develop housing

In the near term, there are 3 residential units with little evidence they were ever combined, so there are no obvious opportunities for de-conversion. Thus the immediate goal is to return the structure to its prior use (three rental units) with higher quality.

Phase 2: (Not to be implemented as part of this proposal) Develop amenities

Roof deck accessible from the rear apartment upstairs. Although greatly in need of improvement, the basic structure is there.

Line of windows along the rear corner downstairs, on the Clifford Avenue side. Visible on the outside, inside it’s buried under drywall in a closet. Could have been an enclosed porch or sun room at one time.

Side garage A 2-car garage just off the back porch, accessed from Conkey.

4 car cement block garage Accessed from Clifford.

Period lighting to be added to front (Conkey Ave.) wall of building for accent lighting.

Fencing added where appropriate, for privacy and aesthetic appeal.

Phase 3: (Not to be implemented as part of this proposal) Develop mixed uses

There are several features suggesting creative uses that could be developed as a longer term strategy. The primary example is the retail space in the front. I can foresee a number of uses that might benefit the surrounding community. A bike repair shop run by teens, a coffee shop, a laundromat, even a community room providing meeting space (perhaps for after-school activities or music lessons) have all been suggested. Another possibility would be to integrate the entire building as live-work space for local artists or musicians.

IV. Summary of Cost Breakdown of Phase 1 of the Plan (3 residential units)

We worked with Eugenio Cotto, director of Group 14621, over several sessions to complete a thorough, professional plan which includes standard costing of each item in Phase I of the plan. A complete copy of the plan is included in the proposal.

Plan Summary:
Site Work Subtotal: $50.00
Masonry Subtotal: $1,619.44
Carpentry Subtotal: $1776.66
Roofing Subtotal: $9,593.46
Conservation Subtotal: $65.00
Drywall & Plaster Subtotal: $650.56
Paint & Wallpaper Subtotal: $5311.35
HVAC & Domestic Hot Water Subtotal: $19,284.03
Plumbing Subtotal: $3834.73
Electric Subtotal: $10,999.77
Fire Protection Subtotal: $538.96
Weatherization Subtotal: $2,054.00
Paints, Caulks & Sealants Subtotal: $2,427.20
Address: 72 Conkey Avenue Unit: 1 Total: $58,205.16

Project: Vol Rehab 01 Total: $58,205.16
Labor (60% of total Cost): $34,923.09

Material (40% of total Cost): $23,282.06

Estimated Time to Completion: 36 Months

V. Summary of Financing

Personal funding sources: $18,000
Receipts from rents on other income property: $40,000
Possible financing through Bank of America: TBD
Possible opportunities for funding support from Ibero, Group 14621: TBD
Total funds available: $58,000

VI. Application for ‘Request For Proposal’ (RFP)

This section of the proposal is the actual application that is submitted for approval to the city Real Estate office. References are made to the supporting documents where appropriate.

A. Contribution to redevelopment in the immediate neighborhood

The corner location is prominent in the neighborhood. The structure has character-defining architectural features that contribute identity and a sense of place. The structure’s empty retail space could benefit the community at some point in the future. There are many options for the use of this space that could generate healthy street activity. Putting an active residence on this corner will deter illegal activity and thus strengthen the neighborhood.

This property is at the center of several other projects in the adjoining blocks. Ibero has built two subsidized housing builds on the two adjoining lots on Conkey Ave., with many others nearby. Ibero is also redeveloping retail space on the same block of Clifford Ave. A new park and a playground have just been completed across the street on Clifford Ave, and the El Camino trail, currently under development, passes by the property to the east.

B. Compatibility with existing zoning, use, density and structures:

The structure’s late Victorian features are very compatible with the surrounding community. Three apartments ranging in size from 300 to 500 square feet are consistent with current neighborhood density.

C. Developer’s Timetable:

The structure will be secured immediately upon iinitiating the redevelopment contract. Stabilization and cleanout will begin April 1, 2011.

Year 1:

Installation of electronic security system, roof repairs, Steel entry doors, exterior paint.

Personal funding sources: $ 5,000
Receipts from rents on other income property: $ 5,000

Year 2:

Personal funding sources: $ 6,000
Receipts from rents on other income property: $15,000

Year 3:

Personal funding sources: $ 7,000
Receipts from rents on other income property: $20,000

Total funds available: $58,000

Ability to carry out the project: The prior completions of similar projects referenced in Section II of this proposal demonstrate ability to complete the project.
Summary of rehabilitation plan: The images referenced in Section II of this proposal show the general condition of the property. Major cost items include:

(1) The roofing must be torn off and replaced.
(2) Three leaks in the roof have damaged the walls and ceilings directly below.
(3) The bathroom floor in one unit has been completely removed.
(4) The plumbing has been removed.
(5) The electrical service needs replacement from the street to the panels.
(6) Heating units to be replaced.
(7) Painting of exterior and pointing of above grade foundation.

D. Financing Plan:

Refer to Section V of this proposal.

E. Public Program Assistance:


F. Preservation (preserves character of site and structure):

My interest is in community revitalization, in large part by preserving period structures and historic neighborhood density. My work conforms to the US DOI Standards for preservation where feasible: I repair where possible, replace where necessary with materials and workmanship ‘as good as or better’ than the original (see images referenced in Section II of this proposal).

G. Tax Status of Proposed Projects:


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If you are like me, you love the Queen Anne style for its bigness, its brashness, and, despite all that, its warm, embracing hominess. So before beginning the story, let’s take a moment to see where those things come from.

Origins of the Queen Anne style

The Queen Anne style originated in England in the 1860’s, by which time industrialization had led to a decline in traditional craftsmanship and a widespread destruction of Medieval buildings. A desire to return to an authentic English style of architecture launched a search for pre-industrial forms. Gothic was English enough, but too formal for the prevailing mood. A countrified English vernacular was a more interesting antidote to the rhythms and rigors of life in the Machine Age. The brief reign of Queen Anne around 1710 came to be seen as a high point of indigenous building styles, and gave this emerging style its name.


“A countrified English vernacular was an interesting antidote to the rhythms and rigors of life in the Machine Age.”

The surviving examples of this era were eclectic by Victorian standards, with “half-timbering, casement windows, irregular rooflines and asymmetric elevations,” and the second floor often overhanging the first, according to Janet W. Foster in “The Queen Anne House: America’s Victorian Vernacular”. They were informal by design. But in the intervening century and a half, the additions, updates, and repairs that were made, using whatever materials were handy and whatever styling was popular gave them a quaintness and charm that must have delighted the nostalgic yearnings of the hyper-industrial present.


“The surviving examples of this era were eclectic by Victorian standards.”


“In the intervening century and a half, additions, updates, and repairs gave them a quaintness and charm…”

Here is what the style originally looked like in England:

English version of the Queen Anne style

An English architect’s rendering of the Queen Anne style, 1866 (Richard Norman Shaw). From Foster, “The Queen Anne House”

And here is the style in its debut before an American audience:

America's first glimpe of the style

Mainstream America’s first glimpse of the style. The Brittish exhibit at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, 1876. From Foster, “The Queen Anne House”

But after the style came to America, things really got interesting.

To American architects and their clients, “the willful irregularity of the exterior massing of a Queen Anne house allowed a great deal of informality and flexibility in the arrangement of interiors. This freedom from a formal plan was perhaps the most desirable element of all, expressing a new way of domestic living that valued function over form,” writes Foster.

The irregularity of exterior massing allowed flexibility in the arrangement of interiors

In America, the flexibility in the floor plan that resulted from the irregular exterior massing made the new style enormously popular. From Foster, “The Queen Anne House”

And then the builders got hold of it.

In America, balloon frame construction was revolutionizing the homebuilding trade.

“Balloon framing allowed a house frame to be constructed faster, and with a crew of less-skilled workmen than the joiners who had once made mortise-and-tenon joints for connecting huge, heavy timbers into a frame.” It also offered “great freedom and ease in the construction of varied forms,” meaning the shapes and sizes of things.

Balloon framing revolutionized the homebuilding trade

Balloon framing allowed greater flexibility at lower cost. From Foster, “The Queen Anne House”

As a result, this new way of building houses allowed “more expressive plans and elevations, practically inviting construction of projecting bays and turrets, gables and cross-gables, all of which fit perfectly with the Queen Anne style.”

A new way of building houses

“This new way of building houses invited construction of projecting bays and turrets, gables and cross-gables.” From Foster, “The Queen Anne House”

Innovations of the Industrial Age

Several technological advances were also changing the way houses were built. By the 1880’s, according to Foster, ornamental millwork was no longer made by local craftsmen, but could instead be catalog-ordered from millwork factories, which copied and mass-produced architectural designs as they became popular. The domestic production of white lead paint meant that ready-mixed paint was widely available and easily affordable in a rainbow of colors. And advances in indoor plumbing, lighting and home heating were offering unprecedented comforts and conveniences. The water closet, gas – and later electric – lighting, and central heating, including steam boilers and radiators, began to be incorporated into homes at this time.

An iconic American style

In the Industrial Age, the Queen Anne style combined a nostalgic look backward, in its informal aesthetics and relaxed spatial arrangements, with a forward-looking taste for innovations that improved comfort and convenience, selection and efficiency. And all of it was put within reach of the average household. The Queen Anne house was thus uniquely suited to the American temperament of the late 1800’s.

Early house history

For the first dwellers in my neighborhood, the spaces for living and working were smaller, more dense, intertwined. In some cases, the builder-owner actually lived in the house as it was built. In others, people operated cottage industries out of their homes. And in the present case, the homeowner actually operated a factory, built on the premises.

In 1887, Thomas W. Galvin, an Irish immigrant, bought one of the last undeveloped lots in the neighborhood, and moved his soda water factory from its downtown location, into a small building at the rear of the lot. The next year, he and his wife Nellie moved the family into the new house at the front of the lot. Both family and factory grew, but while an addition or two to the house was enough to keep up with the family (by 1900 there were 7 children, ranging in age from 3 to 19 – we count 4 bedrooms and 2 common rooms upstairs), the business eventually was moved to a larger operation on Hudson Avenue.

Galvin 1888 plat

View of T. W. Galvin house, from Rochester plat map, 1888

The family lived at the house for at least 30 years.

Evidence of the factory

Here is how the factory complex grew over the years:

Galvin 19-- plat1

View of T. W. Galvin house, showing additions to factory complex

Galvin 19-- plat2

View of T. W. Galvin house, showing additions to factory complex

And some views of what is there now:

soda water factory

Driveway ends at ‘loading dock’, a late addition to the complex of buildings

soda water factory

View of entire site. The ribbon marks the front of the added wing along the side lot line.

soda water factory

The front walkway found under 4 inches of sod helps to locate the front face of the structure.

soda water factory

View of site of the original 2 structures – the inside corner where they met.

soda water factory

View of original building – rear section. The slight rise suggests that some backfilling was done following demolition.

Uncovering the exterior

This is what the Galvin house looked like a while before we bought it. Do you see the aluminum flashing under the roofline?

Front of Galvin house before restoration.

Front of Galvin house before restoration.

Underneath, we discovered a stunning Victorian cornice molding. Take a look…

Cornice molding

The cornice molding was hidden beneath modern materials.

The flashing had to go. Besides hiding the Victorian molding, it also retained heat and moisture, harboring bees and other pests, and accelerating deterioration of the house.

View of house during restoration

View of house during restoration of the exterior.

The siding behind the 2nd floor porch was white, which made the porch ‘jump off’ the house. Being the same color should integrate that space and return the focus to the central mass of the structure.

Here is a view of the house with the front nearly restored.

exterior painting

Restoration is nearly completed

exterior painting

The original appearance is beginning to emerge.

We’ve cleaned up the porch, removed the modern shingles and painted. Before we decide on a color scheme, we like to take samples of paint chips from the house, looking for the layer that’s next to the wood, trying to understand what colors were used when the house was built. In this case, we used the original color scheme without any adjustments.

Uncovering the interior

Entry halls are always a pleasure to restore. The cathedral ceiling here made it necessary to use a ladder to reach the high spots.

entry hall stairs

Coats of paint had covered peeling wallpaper and failing plaster, and obscured detailing in the woodwork. Count on plenty of updates as we restore this once-beautiful space to its former glory.

entry hall stairs

An interesting little stained glass window illuminates the stairwell

entry hall wallpaper

I exposed some of the original wallpaper at the bottom of the stairs, next to the parlor doorway.

Front stair landing

The view from the landing. The double entry door leaning against the wall was bought at ReHouse on East Main Street in Rochester. It’s a perfect fit!

The parlor

A proper restoration of the parlor would require deconverting the house back to a single family dwelling. Here is the problem…

No central hallway! You went through the house by going from room to room to room. The floor plan doesn’t work well as apartments.

parlor door

View through the house shows the lack of a central hallway.

Ditto on the east side of the house…

living room doorway

Again, rooms connected directly – no hallway.


View of parlor showing veneer paneling covering the plaster walls.

1st floor parlor - ceiling detail

View of ornamental plasterwork in need of restoration.

Wallpaper and finishes

One rather frustrating aspect of our work is the original interior surface treatments – the wallpaper and finishes. You can expose patches of it, you can document it – but you really can’t restore it. It has to be removed and redone.


Detail of middle bedroom showing floral patterns in the wallpaper and frieze


Detail showing ceiling paper. The silvery color must have cast a warm glow in the gaslight of the period.

Victorian woodwork was often grain-painted, which was a way of making ordinary lumber look like fancy hardwood – a painstaking process. (Grain-painting, or graining, is one of a set of techniques called ‘faux finishing’, which includes such things as marbeling, sponging and ragging. Graining was widely used in Victorian residential work, unlike the others.)

The “secret staircase”

Yes, we even have a staircase to nowhere. It goes up, turns, …

secret staircase

And bumps into a bathroom floor upstairs!

secret staircase

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We rent a floor sander from a local Home Depot when we do floors. Not the usual drum sander, it’s actually 4 independent orbitals mounted under a shroud, for dust control. I prefer this sander because it takes wood off the floor more gradually, and eliminates the gouges you get at the end of runs with the drum sanders.

We sanded the floor, starting with a coarse grit, followed by successively finer grits to get a smooth surface. We did 7 1/2 rooms in 3 days and then took a day off to recover!

Applying stain directly to new wood (repairs)

Applying stain directly to new wood (repairs)

Before applying varnish to the whole floor, I put a little stain directly on the patches of new wood wherever I’ve made a repair. This is done so that the new wood matches the darker hue of the older wood.

toning coat on 2nd floor

Applying toning coat on 2nd floor

I always mix some stain in with the varnish, for at least the first coat. This is called ‘toning’. I find that doing this helps hide minor blemishes. The amount and the number of toning coats depends on how bad the blemishes are.

I added a blend of MinWax ‘Old Oak’ and ‘Antique Maple’ gel stain to the varnish (Cabot satin polyurethane) – 1 scoop each per 2qts varnish.

For a measuring scoop, I bought a small gravy ladle at a grocery store. I keep the recipe simple so I can remember it easily and duplicate it later if needed.

toning coat on 1st floor

Applying toning coat on 1st floor

This is the toning coat on the first floor, a bit darker than the 2nd floor due to greater wear and damage on the 1st floor. I used 1 scoop of MinWax ‘Old Oak’ gel stain per quart of varnish.

Here are a few images showing the results from the first coat:

floor refinishing

End result of toning coat on 2nd floor

floor refinishing

End result of toning coat on 1st floor, middle room

floor refinishing

End result of toning coat on 1st floor, front room

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Few things damage a vacant house like a late-night fire. But that’s what happened, years ago, before we bought the house. A neighbor once told me it was set by a malotov cocktail thrown through a second floor window. There was a large, rectangular opening cut into the floor upstairs, as if a staircase was being built there. The sawn edges were charred, suggesting the opening was not created by firemen. I’ve always thought that the liquid explosive must have fallen through that opening. Charred blobs in the floor downstairs are consistent with liquid fuel splashing on impact. The blaze was evidently spectacular, as it drew a crowd from the surrounding blocks, according to kids in the neighborhood.

The damage extended from the cellar, nearly into the attic. A main beam and several joists were nearly burned through in the cellar. Flooring, door and window frames were charred on the first floor. The flames were in an upstairs wall and perhaps seconds away from spreading to the attic. Unfinished attics are tinderboxes in old houses, and fire there can destroy a house within minutes.

So it was bad.

The remediation work wasn’t too bad, though. We began by hiring Joe Rosenstiel from Jensen Engineering to review the damage and put together drawings and specifications to guide the work. L.C. (Sonny) Jacobs did the structural work in the cellar. As I recall, the work cost us about $5,000.

View of structural repairs

View of structural repairs. Steel columns installed over concrete footings, 24 x 24 x 12 in. deep

View of structural repairs.

View of structural repairs. Ganged micro-lam beams installed under burned main beam running between parlor and middle room.

View of structural repairs.

View of structural repairs. Steel I-beam running laterally beneath center of middle room.

Fire repair - Before

The remediation work in the upper floors was done by us. A center wall in the middle room was ‘ground zero’ fire-wise. This shows the condition of the wall as we found it. View is of the center wall – between the middle room and a small side room. The fire burned through both ceiling and floor.

Fire repair - During

View of reconstructed center wall, all original dimensions. Patched subfloor shows extent of fire damage. I mill my own historically dimensioned stock. Most old subfloor is T&G 1X6. It measures 7/8 thick which I mill down from 5/4 stock. It’s a pain but the result fits flush with the original, allowing minimal replacement. Lath and plaster grounds are up and ready for plaster.

Fire repair - After

The finished product. Finish plaster over brown coat. Door casings and base are all reproductions based on what was left in the house. The reddish color matches the aged patina of 100 yr old shellac we found underneath added stuff. The new finish is brushing lacquer over stain on clear pine to approximate the low-build, low-sheen of the original shellac. I only use polyurethane when I have to.

Detail showing corner block

Detail showing corner block

The corner blocks I turned in my shop, 72 pieces at 2 minutes per. All had been removed except for four in the front hall, leaving ‘shadows’ in the paint wherever they had been. Oak flooring in 1 in. strips replaced as needed.

This is what the other side of the room looked like then:

1st floor main room - before

And now:

1st floor main room - after

This really shows the extent of the damage:

1st floor main room - floor repair

All the new wood in this room replaces what was ruined by the fire. That’s the floor sander in the upper left corner of the image. Replacement of fire-damaged flooring is complete (1 in. oak strips, 1/4 in. thick). Ready for sanding.

Floor sanding is complete and ready for finishing:

1st floor main room - floor repair

The final result:

1st floor main room - after

I tone the floor by adding gel stain to the varnish. It looks older and hides blemishes the sander couldn’t get.

This is the view into the parlor showing fire damage:

view into parlor - before

The room in the foreground (living room) is where the fire originated. The piece of plywood covers a huge burn hole where a main beam was burned 33% of the way through.

parlor - after

View into parlor after restoration. What a difference!

Details showing carved trim in the parlor before and after restoration:

trimwork - before

parlor trimwork - after

The entry hall as we found it:

front hall - before

We’ve removed the modern paneling and acoustical tile. Plasterwork repair was simple. I don’t think drywall could survive a fire like that. Turns out, neither do insurance companies… plaster is cheaper to insure, seriously!

And today:

front hall - after

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“Great houses are those that tell their own story.” What does that mean?

To a rehabber, one thing it means is doing constant battle with things that cover: dropped ceilings, door plugs, outer layers of paint or paneling, carpeting, layers of modern siding, sealed “dead space”.

An example is modern siding. Why are aluminum and vinyl siding expendable? They are essentially sheets of stock, formed into a hollow shape that is meant to look like the original wood. Imitation versus authenticity. But aren’t aluminum and vinyl products more affordable than real wood? That’s a big question which we will often revisit. But for now, the short answer is, “it depends.”

removal of modern shingles>

Removing modern shingles to reveal original wood siding. Note that as water damage occurred in the gable siding, it was hidden from view under the added layer.

So part of the story is told by uncovering and restoring layers that are durable, aesthetically rich, authentic. Another way is by replacing lost features, or preserving existing ones.

2nd floor back room

Here, we’ve replaced the stovepipe covers with new ones instead of just covering up the holes when we removed a conversion-era kitchen.

Yet another way is by adding decorative detailing to bland modifications to the original, in a way that interprets the historical style. For example, if a porch has been closed in and it’s not convenient to restore it right away, we might apply beadboard ceiling and wainscot inside, with period-appropriate trim, then wipe on a light stain and seal with a paste wax to simulate age. We’re not above cliche. In fact, we embrace it, so long as the quality is good and the effect is unpretentious.

Original rear porch, enclosed

Original rear porch, enclosed. We added siding and trim to follow Victorian treatments.

Rear porch interior

Rear porch interior

Rear porch inside with period-sympathetic beadboard paneling and trim.

How we choose houses

Our choice of houses to restore is based on 3 criteria: (1) they are within a few blocks of earlier projects, (2) they are potentially strong contributors in some way, and (3) they need lots of work and are at risk of being demolished. In fact, most of our houses are already scheduled for demolition when we get them.

Eastlake on a corner lot, near a neighborhood gateway

Devendorf house, our 2nd project, before restoration.

house with carriage barn

A good candidate for restoration.

abandoned house

Another good candidate for restoration.

Eastlake house with horse barn

A really good candidate for restoration.

Shackelton house before restoration

Our first project. Something just said “buy me”.

Shackelton house after restoration

Same view after restoration.

Death by bureaucracy

The vacant and abandoned houses in our neighborhood soon become city property. In our efforts to end blight here, the city is not an ally but an adversary. We have no way of knowing their plans unless we keep asking. And the city often chooses to destroy a house rather than let us restore it, even after we express an interest. If we don’t act soon enough, one day they just knock it down. Perhaps I’ll live to see a reformed city hall whose staff can behave like humans and not like drones in the borg collective (borg-eaucrats?) – carrying out policy, doing their jobs, but to those who value the buildings and spaces they destroy – unswerving, unthinking, uncaring, and in the end – systematically brutal.

Take a look at a few lost gems…

30 Durgin (demolished)

30 Durgin (demolished)

To prepare this house for demolition, the asbestos siding was removed, revealing a handsome pattern of clapboard siding and corner boards underneath. Truly a shame.

65 Conkey front (demolished)

65 Conkey (demolished)

Someday I’ll do a post showing what the wonderfully appointed interior of this buiding looked like, but to give you a taste: marble tile flooring in foyer and bathrooms, fir flooring elsewhere, original porcelain plumbing fixtures, spacious, bright rooms, stained hardwood doors with period hardware. Wonderful, irreplacable urban sophistication. The loss of this structure was due to nothing other than uncaring indifference on the city’s part.

Conkey Ave. (demolished)

Conkey Ave. (demolished)

Don’t know much about this one, but my guess is, there were at least a few seriously cool features inside.

72 Conkey (to be demolished)

72 Conkey (to be demolished)

Another one I’m going to blog about. Sooner rather than later.

Do you see a pattern here? How is it that dense and diverse housing structures are the big losers? And what does that say about (1) the economics of blight, (2) the efficacy of city government’s demolition policy, and (3) the prospects for inner-city neighborhoods as density and diversity are systematically destroyed?

Learning the basics

In our first few projects, we had to learn the basics. We needed to find suppliers for all the stuff that’s no longer used to build houses, like real plaster, period tile patterns, antique lighting, replacement plumbing parts, window glass, wooden sash and tin ceilings. We needed information about things like period color schemes, finishes, floor plans, even Victorian landscaping. And we needed to learn the myriad builders’ crafts to at least a passable level of skill.

Devendorf house - plasterwork under stairs in main hall

plaster repair – lath work

Devendorf house - plasterwork under stairs in main hall

plaster repair – brown coat

tin ceiling repair

tin ceiling repair

reproduction period trim pieces

reproduction period trim pieces

period porch work

period porch work

period tile patterns

period tile patterns

antique commode

antique sink

Antique plumbing fixtures from ReHouse in Rochester. Hard to see, but they fit perfectly into the original ‘footprints’ in the tile wall. ‘Standard’ meant something back in the day.

Repair, replace or evolve?

How best to honorably maintain the 19th century, working class dwellings, handmade by German carpenter-families in our neighborhood? How to regard the most significant event since then – the conversion to rental apartments in the 20th century? And how to prepare them for the unforeseeable demands of the 21st century?

With respect to 19th century work, the answer is to restore everything you can. With respect to the 20th, understand that the century’s improvements to Victorian originals amount to (1) the central staircase, (2) the Craftsman kitchen, and (3) the push-button light switch. Anything else, especially anything done to maximize occupancy and minimize cost, is fair game. Keep what you like. With respect to present-day work, follow the Department of the Interior (DOI) Standards. First, do no harm to history. “A man is wealthy in proportion to what he can afford to leave alone,” observes Thoreau – at least that’s my mantra. Second, repair when you can, replace when you must, with work that is of the same or better quality and comparable materials. Make sure that your building ‘learns’ as it should, making a consistent statement about evolving building practice, aesthetics, and practical value throughout its history. The structure and styling of a house should be simple, honest and apparent, so that future modifications can be the same.

Galvin house at dusk

Galvin house at dusk

“What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death; still less is the right to the use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors.”

John Ruskin
The Seven Lamps of Architecture [1890]

In the 1840’s Andrew Jackson Downing wrote, “the good house is sound, beautiful, and commodious.” Join us, as we strive to build good houses…

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This is our fourth house project in our neighborhood.

 view from sidewalk

This is the oldest house we’ve done so far.  It was built around 1875, when the neighborhood was still only a few houses encroaching on Irish-immigrant farms. The house is styled in a tidy, but unassuming vernacular that I tend to see more in the short side-streets in neighborhoods like ours. 

This house has needed more work than most.  There were serious structural and foundation problems, some layout issues, no working utilities at all, and the roof was a complete mess.  In addition, much of the wallboard had been gutted by a fire that was set by intruders while the house stood vacant before we bought it.  The updates made by a recent owner were suitable but amateurish, and now damaged by heat and smoke.  Everything had to be redone.

View into kitchen - before

Dining room doorways - before

After the fire, the city put the house on the list of structures to be demolished.  Nobody, the conventional thinking goes, would be willing to spend the $60,000 to fix the place.  Well, we’re not conventional.  We live in the neighborhood where we invest.  Some projects cost $20,000 or so, one cost us $70,000, not including countless labor hours we put in ourselves.  We don’t buy on an expected economic return, but on the strategic value to the community of restoring the house.  This thinking consistently puts us at odds with the city, strange is it seems.

The first step was to obtain a report from a structural engineer.  The report detailed the work that was needed to repair the deteriorated support system.  The engineer’s report becomes the controlling document for the project.  It is used by contractors to bid on the job, then do the work.  It is ultimately used by the building inspector to approve the job when completed.  I highly recommend not to skip this step when this type of work is needed.  It provides the homeowner with a roadmap, safeguards against shoddy or unscrupulous behavior, and is a virtual guarantee you’ll be taken seriously by the inspector.  It’s a win-win-win when you think about it.   We have always used Joe Rosenstiel with Jensen Engineering in Rochester.  Mr. L.C. (Sonny) Jacobs, aka the “House Doctor”, is our structural contractor. Sonny is an absolute artist with a 13 ton jack.

Engineer's Report Sheet1

We began rehabbing the house in earnest during the last week of December, 2009.  We spent $33,000 on 5 contractors over the next 100 days.  The challenge was to replicate the original interior, and make it feel like an old house as you moved through it.  The newly renovated look is not us. It should heat efficiently and offer modern amenities without seriously compromising the period aesthetics. 

Here is our progress over those 100 days…

cellar - view of structural work

The structural work came first.  Once the structure was made sound, the rest of the work would be a safe investment.  The existing makeshift and rotted piers have been replaced with new steel and concrete.  According to the engineering specs, each adjustable steel column is capable of bearing over 13,000 lbs. They are set on concrete footers 24x24x12 inches, bedded on undisturbed soil.  The center of the house had sagged an amazing 4 inches. Once Sonny had poured the footers and put in the columns, he was able to gradually push up the sagging floors by adjusting the height of the columns.  He then poured more concrete to cover the threading, which fixes the height of the posts permanently.

view into parlor - pre-existing wall

Next came the framing on the first floor.  The wall between the parlor and middle room had to be redone.  This was a modern wall, located where the original wall had been, but with a small opening for a modern door.  When this two-story house was converted into flats, the parlor was needed as a bedroom. Marks on the floor showed us where the original parlor door had been.  It was much more spacious, as you can see in the next image. 

Also, the pre-existing work prevented further sagging of the second floor, but did not repair it.  The sleepers nailed to the ceiling joists in the picture tell the story.  If you follow along the bottom edges, you can see they are wider and lower toward the wall, thinner and higher toward the center.  This had to be fixed before a serious investment could be justified.

view into parlor from dining rm

The new framing is complete.  A 2X10 micro-lam header now supports the 2nd floor, which includes the full weight of a chimney.  Yep, you read that right.  In this house, two chimneys were raised, one in the front for heat, the other in back for cooking.  They ended at the 2nd floor, with a hole to accept a duct rising from a stove on the first floor.  Which means the weight of the chimneys had to be borne to Earth by the framing over two floors.  Now you know why they sagged. 

So Joe and Sonny had to fix a problem that was built into the original house.  Here’s how they did it.  First is the two 2X10’s, face-nailed with a 1/2 inch spacer in between.  Notice in the right end of the wall, the last stud is a 4X4, double width.  The 4X4 is directly under the chimney.  Finally (you’ll have to take my word on this), Joe purposely located one of the steel poles in the basement such that it would be directly under the 4X4!  So now the weight of the chimney is borne properly to the ground.

Note the doorway has been restored to the exact original dimensions.  The front room has been deconverted from a bedroom back into a parlor.

Antique radiators from ReHouse

To heat the house, we bought antique radiators from ReHouse, an architectural salvage shop on East Main Street in Rochester.  At our request, they gave us free delivery due to the size of the purchase (9 units), which helped us a lot.  To that point, ReHouse had not been pressure testing their radiators, and a few of them leaked.  Owner Kathy offered to exchange them when they got more in stock, and they have since begun to test the units before sale.

New boiler installation

Modern high-efficiency heating system.  The boiler piping includes separate heating zones for 1st and 2nd floors and the hot water tank.  The supply and return lines to the radiators are modern PEX piping, which won’t freeze and can be run in the walls. The two zones allow the comfort level of each floor of the house to be independently controlled using separate digital programmable thermostats for maximum efficiency.

2nd floor bath rm - apartment era

The 2nd floor bathroom was actually on the stairway landing.  A small hallway was sealed off.  This is a good example of the downside of conversion, when  simple, honest spaces are cut up to fit more in.  The initial conversion occurred after 1928, according to a newspaper we found under a modern stud wall in the main stairwell. 

2nd floor bath rm - new location

The new bathroom on the 2nd floor, moved from the landing into a real room with better load bearing support.  Notice the cool old radiator we got at ReHouse.  Modern sink has been replaced with an antique pedestal sink from ReHouse.

2nd floor insulation

Plumbing and electrical roughing is complete.  A work crew installs R30 insulation with a vapor barrier before hanging the wall board.

Front room ready for wall board

Trim, plaster grounds and baseboard nailers are done, following the Victorian practice.  Insulation has been installed.  The parlor is ready for blue board.

parlor during plaster work

We had the blueboard installed like it was brown-coat plaster.  This is backwards from the established (modern) practice.  The trim is installed first, then the wallboard is put in to fit.  This made installation very challenging for the crew.  The blue coating allows application of finish plaster over the board – just like original.

detail of doorway 1

Detail of doorway showing replicated Victorian trim found in the house.  Blue board is installed flush with the trim.

detail of doorway 2

Image showing trim after finish plaster has been applied.  The excess plaster on the wood will be sanded away before painting.

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