Wednesday, October 26, 2022

How Old is This House? 1898? Not so fast.....

The City records show that this house was built in 1898.  But was it really built then?  We're not quite sure.

As we look around the basement, you see lots of old, full size lumber with noticeable saw marks.  But as we've started doing some investigational demolition, we are seeing things that make us wonder when the house was really built.  Some of the structure looks much newer - with modern planed lumber.  It's not unusual for houses to get additions over the years, but this one is a bit confusing, to say the least.

My theory:  the original house was probably a small cottage where the current kitchen is -it has a low crawl space instead of a basement under it and we found old clapboards on the interior walls.  But the roofline probably isn't original and then it was added onto again and again over the years. But I couldn't tell what got added on when!

So I called in an expert.  Les Fossel of Restoration Resources has been restoring old houses in Maine since 1975.   I first met him at the Old House Trade Show sponsored by Portland Landmarks a few years ago and marveled at his wealth of knowledge about how to look at all the aspects of an old house - saw marks on wood, lumber dimensions, nails, hardware styles, window placement, etc - to figure out the age of a house.  He also does consulting and I wanted to get his thoughts on the house to see what he can figure out.

We started in the basement - this is full dimensional lumber (aka a 2x4 is really 2" x 4" - not a modern 1.5" x 3.5") with noticeable saw marks.  But interestingly, in an area that we assumed was originally a covered porch, the joists appear much older.  And all of the porch areas have a full basement under them, which is rather unusual (Note: the porches are all enclosed now as part of the house).

On the first floor there are lots of different rooms and they don't all line up nicely.  Again, that's an indicator of a home that's seen lots of additions over the years.  But the most interesting thing was the back of the siding in what will be my husband's office - the siding came from different buildings.  You can tell, because they were all painted different colors on the backside.  Les assumes they came from uninsulated cottages (hence the paint on the backside of the siding) that were torn down and repurposed in this home.  We're starting to think this house should be called 'Thrifty Mainer Builds His Dream House!!

These windows don't look like they came out of the same house.  And again, we see different kinds of siding and markings from a previous life in another house! 

Thrifty Mainer Builds His Dream House

There was a similar 'ah-ha' moment when we looked at the front facade.  Once we cut some of the giant bushes away, we discovered the windows don't line up at all.  In fact, it's almost like they came from different building sites and were just popped in at random!  

And the glider windows that run across the living room don't match any other windows on the house (they're also falling apart).  And check out the attic window (yeah, there isn't any glass in the bottom half)!

The second floor has a big shed dormer across the front and a hip dormer across the back (that's the dormer that has all the structural issues).  But interestingly, you can see where the attic space was  smaller at some point in time.... but it's hard to tell when/why that was changed!  

I tried mapping out some of the things we found, but there are still some mysteries that we may get answers to as demolition continues. 

And what about architectural style???  There are lots of different styles!  When Les looked at the hardware in the house, he said it's a 1920's Colonial Revival style.  We did a lead paint test on the fireplace mantle and it came out negative - so that means it's post 1978 (practically brand new!!).  And the pillars on the front porch are Craftsman/Arts & Crafts Style.  It reminds us of our rescue dog - a super mutt with a little bit of everything mixed in! 

So......the guess is that the house was probably owned by a carpenter who took materials from other jobs and added them into his own home over time.  The kitchen may have been the original cottage, but over the successive decades, new owners made their own imprint on the house as well.  That might explain all the rooflines and mix of styles.

There are so many different rooflines (gable, hip, & shed) and roof pitches on this house!

Les's final guidance was to keep the quirkiness.  Don't try to make it a totally updated home with everything normalized to today's standards.  And we're taking that to heart.  We don't want this to look like a new home or a 'modern farmhouse'.  We want it to reflect it's mixed history across the decades.  

And in the meantime I'm talking with neighbors and the local historical society to see if we can glean any other information.  125 years is a lot of history, so stay tuned for updates as we learn more!

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Wednesday, October 19, 2022

The Scary Basement

I feel like this blog post needs Halloween music to go with it!  You see, like most old houses, the basement is something that makes you think about slasher movies.  It’s dark.  It’s full of cobwebs.  And we’re pretty sure there are/were animals living down there.

Dirt floor - check.  Asbestos on pipes - check.  Low head room - check.😂


The basement stairs appear to have been an afterthought – they’re more modern with poured concrete walls and must have been put in much later.  There is an exterior door, which was probably the way they entered the basement for decades.

Oddly enough, the stairs appear to have been built into part of the original kitchen, because there are old cabinets on one side of the stairs – including a window that looks out to the sunporch.   And on the other side is a window into the current kitchen.  So strange!  
Cue the spooky music now!!

At the bottom of the stairs is a window – but when you lift it open it looks into another crawl space that also has a window.  Why?  There appears to have been an addition onto the dining room at some point in time. 


But the dominant feature in the basement is all the ledge.  Ledge is the granite rock that exists along the Maine coastline.  It’s extremely hard and difficult to remove and in this case it appears that some previous owners just poured concrete around it.  The center is still exposed ledge with tree trunks as posts, supporting the living room floor.

Tree trunk posts!

The ledge was encapsulated in concrete around the perimeter


Under the kitchen is a crawl space.  This is a rubble foundation – the term for small stones that were sometimes laid dry, sometimes laid with mortar.  Ours appear to have mortar and are in surprisingly good shape.  No scary bows or sections needing major repair (that we can see).  See - sometimes we get good news!

Some of the rubble foundation is exposed, some of it has been parged with concrete, to create a smooth surface.

There is a giant forced-hot air furnace in the basement, with lots of ducts extending all over the basement (It makes me think of a spider with lots and lots of arms).  

So much ductwork!!! 

The ducts appear to have been added at different times and the heating experts I’ve brought in think it’s dubious it would have provided balanced heat throughout the house.  All of the ducts are wrapped with what looks like asbestos tape at the joints, so once again we’ll have an asbestos remediation project ahead of us.  Oh, and the furnace doesn’t work and has a hole in the exhaust that was apparently pumping exhaust fumes into the basement (very, very dangerous, but the basement was so drafty, maybe that kept the danger low??).  Needless to say, that will have to be removed.

Giant old furnace with lots and lots of ductwork snaked all over the basement

And behind the furnace and water heater there is something that looks like a burlap curtain.  Why??  What is it hiding?  No one has been limber/brave enough to climb back there to see what's behind Curtain #1 (does anyone remember Let's Make a Deal??)

What's Behind Curtain #1???

And finally we have what we’ve affectionately called the ‘hobbit’ door. You would have to be pretty tiny to walk upright through this door! This was probably the original entrance to the basement, before the interior staircase was added.  The glass windows provide some nice light, but as you can see at the bottom of the door, there is lots of room for critters to come and go.  We need to fix that, but it’s great to have an exterior entrance/exit for getting work done down there. 


The 'Hobbit Door' provides ventilation (and critter access) at the bottom!!! 😂

Will we be fixing it up as a finished basement?  Very doubtful.  This isn’t a basement that was ever designed to be living space.  But there will still be a LOT of work done down here - we will be updating all the systems, eliminating asbestos and providing energy improvements as part of our renovation.  Not to mention installing a new heating system.  Once it’s a dry, insulated space, it should provide the appropriate foundation for all the other work we need to do.

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Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Getting Started - Finding the Problems

This tiny little bottle was in the back of a cabinet
As you start pulling back the layers of an old house, you're bound to find problems.  This house has some big structural issues that we saw when we bought it.  And we're fully aware we will find some other surprises as we go along.  That's just the way things go when you're renovating an old house - particularly one that is this old.  (We know of a highly respected builder who came to look at it when it was on the market and recommended tearing it down.  He said there were just too many structural issues and would cost too much to fix them.  Obviously we don't agree, but we know there will be challenges😁) 

But sometimes we also find some cute stuff.  Look at this tiny bottle of rum we found in the back of a cabinet!  

So what's the biggest problem we know about?  First and foremost is the failing back dormer.  We have no idea when this was added, but it's got some serious issues.  Typically when you add a dormer to a home, you put the back side of the dormer over an interior wall or the outside wall, so you can carry all the weight of the dormer to the basement foundation.

That didn't happen here.  The outside of the dormer comes down in the middle of the back sunroom.  And when you look at it from the back, you see it falls in the middle of the dining room.

This hip dormer isn't properly supported below and is sinking into the rooms below

And you can see some of the issues by looking at it from the outside.  Instead of a nice, level line, it's dipping on either side of the stink pipe (that's the cast iron waste pipe that vents to the outside) - particularly on the right side, where it's sinking the most.

And the floor plans really illustrate what's going on.  The corner that is failing the most falls right in the middle of the dining room.  That's not a good way to handle all of that weight!

We've started doing some exploratory demolition to peel back layers and see what's really going on.  And what we discovered is pretty horrifying.  It looks like the dormer was built correctly, but at some point (and judging by the dark oxidation on the wood it was quite awhile ago), someone just cut off the posts holding the dormer up - and transferring all that load to the basement - and figured they weren't needed.  Instead they treated it as a cantilever and built a new wall a couple of feet back.

They did add a few 2x4's in the basement under the new wall that was built (on 24 inch centers!), but they are clearly not handling the load. 

And in the dining room (the spot that has the huge drop in the floor above), someone tried to hang a joist hanger on the ceiling joists (with lots of shims in between), but again, that's not sufficient to handle that much weight from above.  

How can you really tell?  Well if you go into the bedroom above the dining room, you immediately notice the slope of the floor.  I started with the usual marble trick to see if it rolled downhill quickly,

 but followed up with a laser level - which showed the floor drops 4 INCHES in a 7 FOOT wide room!!!  

Sigh.... I hate when we find things like this, but am happy that we can fix it before there is some sort of catastrophic failure.  We're working on a plan now to replace that dormer with one that is properly supported.  It will be a big renovation, but absolutely necessary.

And in the meantime, we'll keep peeling back layers to see what other surprises are waiting for us!  Stay tuned for all the fun! 

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Tuesday, October 4, 2022


You probably know that we’re intent on restoring this house to its original look as much as we can.  Why?  Because we love old details and quirky elements – that many people might want to tear out.  We prefer to highlight them and honor their history.
Which doors are original and which is replacement?


That’s why this is so distressing.  Since this is a 125 year old house, we assumed it had all plaster walls and original trim (which appeared to be simple woodwork, but that’s not unusual in old houses).  But once we bought it and had some time to spend in it, we discovered the house is all drywall and new trim.  Horrors!!!  We never thought to go around the house rapping our knuckles against the wall to hear that solid thud of plaster while we were looking at the house.  We just assumed the walls and trim were original!

If this isn't original trim, did they copy what was original??


And before purchasing, I had done a search of city records and didn’t find any permits pulled that said the house was gutted.  The previous owners had done some updates, but they pulled permits for the work.  They had lived there since the 80’s, so the house must have been completely reworked before they owned it.  Maybe it was redone after the 70's oil embargo, to better insulate the house?


Seriously, this is like a punch in the gut.  Instead of a great old house with lots of original details, we have one that was probably completely redone in the 70’s.  Was it done right?  Did they recreate the original moldings?  Why didn’t they update the electrical to include grounded outlets?  We have so many questions, but for now we’ll just have to wait until we do some exploratory demolition to figure out what’s going on!

Is this mantle original?  Or was it a new one they installed when they gutted the house?

Is this built in original? Maybe not, since the heat duct is part of the design...

Stay tuned for updates.  And in the meantime, I'm just going to feel sad, while I wonder what original features have been lost.....

We love this door - hopefully it's original!


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