Posts Tagged ‘old house’

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


Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

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

Read Full Post »

“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…

Read Full Post »