Restoring Old Houses

240 pages,
ISBN: 1550138421

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A Book of Ruin Maintenance
by Jill Cooper Robinson

I am trying to recall the halcyon days before I wore my house around my neck. Of course the exercise is fatuous, since I have lived here at "Fortress Hollis Street" for over a quarter of a century, longer even than I enjoyed all those maintenance-free years under my father's roof. Remember the entries in Robertson Davies's The Table Talk of Samuel Marchbanks when he returns again and again to detail the newest battle with his old furnace? That's me, only this entire, circa-1825, twenty-room, Scottish-Georgian townhouse and I are in a perpetual stand-off position. Current score? Probably somewhere in the order: house-a million, me-one. This last being merely the fact I still own it, some days a dubious triumph.
From all of this you may assume that day in and day out I yearn and conspire to hie me to a sensible little bungalow somewhere, that I hate this house. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. While I hate the relationship I have with my house, I love the house itself with the fierce, defensive, unyielding passion that probably only someone else who is a period homeowner could understand. But as it has demonstrated again and again powers of endurance far greater than my own, I also fear it.
The foregoing might give you some small idea of the uneasy regard with which many heritage homeowners see their houses. And this is why we will greet Nigel Hutchins's Restoring Old Houses with such relief. Of course we wouldn't need him so much it, if, about three days after purchase and we well and truly realized we were in the soup, we had calmly drawn up a feasible repair and management plan. But we didn't, because mostly the wrong sort of people buy period houses (or they wouldn't be bought at all I might add). They should be purchased by canny, financially hardened old hands. Instead, we are invariably young, for you must be innocent of any prior exhaustion for a project like this. You will be of marginal income, for as in Murphy's Law the costs of keeping up an old house expand to surpass all the money you have and you must be completely inexperienced where even standard home maintenance is concerned, for anyone who knows even a slightest bit about this sport will recognize that repair to period buildings falls into the "X-games": only for masochists. Repairs to new-ish houses depend only upon choosing an honest and competent carpenter from among many; with period houses you face the impossibility of finding even one craftsman who knows how to do the work. Each year this pool gets smaller, as fewer are trained by the remaining old-timers who are rapidly dying off. Often you cannot get the right replacement supplies for period houses. Mills have retooled, templates are long gone, and old materials used up. Worst of all, most times you cannot get the information you need to do the job correctly.
Hallelujah, maintenance and repair at least are no longer such a problem. Hutchins outlines how to get the pertinent information, skills, and supplies for tackling these old house jobs. He details how to deal efficiently and sensitively with all your collapsing structures, exteriors, and mechanical systems. In so doing of course he goes a very long way in easing the heaviness of your heart and the lightness of your pocketbook. If you know how to deal with repairs yourself, he instructs you in restoration repairs. If you don't he gives you the education to hire someone else to do it properly for you.
This challenge in getting skilled workers over the years was not as easily met as achieving success anywhere else in life would have you believe. Good carpenters and contractors are paid for their work to be perfect. It is usually easiest to achieve this state of bliss by cleaning up a mess (anything falling apart in your old house) and starting from scratch. The bits and pieces remaining are weakened from age and abuse, scarred beyond charms, are no longer whole and so don't fit. But there is no point in saving an old building unless in the end you can claim enough of it to actually have the old building. What we are really asking a worker to do is glue some old shards together into a perfect, strong, warm, dry, handsome whole-if, possible, with none of the seams showing.
In this process of trying to serve both house and craftsman, I have gone astray many times in twenty-five years. Like the time my otherwise perfectly behaved parrot, in a fit of spleen, stayed awake all one night to reduce yards and yards of handmade window trim to millions of matchsticks. It was impossible to buy the correct replacement trim. I had to commission a workshop in the provincial penitentiary to reproduce it. This cost a lot. Or the time the impressive ability of a young plasterer to replicate fancy molding along the length of one large gap persuaded me to hire him to demolish the rest of the barely hanging lumps and replace the whole thing, only to have him leave town the day he was to do all four corners-the real, and now I know it, test. And I still experience a frisson of relief when I think how I narrowly escaped the results of a silver-tongued carpenter who tried to assure me his whole new staircase would be cheaper and just as good-looking as fixing just the banister on my original. Of course, by the time the power people were doing the hard sell on electric heat I was all muscled up by long experience in dealing with such salesmen and, enfolded in the warm corrugated embrace of my cast-iron radiators, laughed at these shenanigans. But it took me years to reach this intractable position and I still worry about breaches in the defence.
But I worry less since Restoring Old Houses came into my life. Just take that example of my parrot-ized window trim. Such trim falls into the category of joinery, just one of the mysteries through which Hutchins so comfortingly guides us. Joinery is important because along with old house proportions it is surely one of those benchmarks which so visibly identifies a house as "period". Joinery is also a field which separates the would-be expert from the real thing. For instance, by now I think even I could probably put up a rudimentary, sound, basic structure. But I cannot make the kind of soffit which takes thirty-two steps to turn a corner and is breathtakingly beautiful, or panel a whole room so it looks as exquisite as a piece of furniture. Before Hutchins I was so far from this state of knowledge I wouldn't have been able to delineate between the charlatan and the true pro when they applied for the job. But listen to Hutchins on joinery:
"Even though the master builder was a combination of architect, craftsman, and decorator, there seemed to be a distinct difference between a master builder and the joiner, a craftsman who was a carpenter but one who specialized in finished woodwork. The joiner's work can be divided into five sections when it is approached by the preservationist: moldings, baseboards and valances, doors, fine work, wainscoting and paneling, stairs and mantels. Moldings and decorative trim were not common elements in the shanty or first home, but as early structures in Virginia and Quebec will attest, their skillful application was not long in coming."
And again:
"Although it is not always possible, removing part of the molding to be reproduced gives the best profile of all and for the amateur who does not have sophisticated equipment it is by far the best method. Most moldings were attached using soft nails, so it can be a relatively simple operation. Usually period molding reproduction requires custom milling as thickness and moisture content are considerably different from today's standards. Moisture content should be between five and ten percent."
The man is both enlightening and soothing to a degree. He gives a person hope. I can now see myself dealing with a period milling job, armed with confidence and the weapons of this knowledge. This is the beauty of Hutchins's book. He breaks down the overwhelming size of what you need to know into component parts starting from the big picture and progressing to the details. He addresses the whole gestalt; the inscrutable mystery of construction, your anxiety to do the right thing by the house, the dilemma over exactly where best to direct your always grossly insufficient funds and where to cut corners if you absolutely have to compromise. More than this he puts your house into the context of the architectural styles which preceded it, the advent of materials and techniques which made it possible when it was built, and the rising fashions and whims which inspired the first owner's original choices. This is not merely a how-to book but a how-to-understand book.
The very chapter which addresses this sort of stuff is worthy of expansion into a book of its own. Hutchins discusses how the "preconceived ideas of what the house should consist of, both in style and physical content" and how the "social life of the vast majority of immigrants was contained within the family, and the house was the major physical expression of this fact," and how, "as late as 1820 the government of Ontario in Lanark County issued to each group of four families a grindstone, a cross-cut, and whipsaw" and so on, and of how the shanty, the guilds, religion, and the layout of homesteads all had an effect on both the particulars and overall development of our eventual domestic Canadian architecture.
The book has a few deficiencies. His treatment of décor is superficial, whereas interiors are now regarded as worthy of serious sociological attention. Landscaping-properly seen as the period setting-is relegated to a few passing remarks. I feel certain too that the book does not delve deeply enough into any one area to satisfy the pedantic or academic, but then this is not meant to be a textbook and it does give enough to educate the innocent period homeowner or one of lamentably little patience but thankfully average intelligence.
With these few caveats then, it will suit and suit almost everyone. And it arrives just in the nick of time. Period homeowners or innocent bystanders, we should all be grateful for that. Our domestic architecture is in a state of do or die. Although many good minds have laboured for years to save some obviously outstanding official sites, the roll call of domestic period buildings shortens yearly at a rate of geometric progression. We don't just take down old buildings because we need newer buildings. We also raze old buildings through ignorance, avarice, or lack of foresight, without even giving them the chance to compete. We are obsessed with having a tidy landscape or we get a good deal on levelling an old block or haven't the imagination to see a wreck as it could be. The irony is, a fine old building in bad repair is shunned and scorned while the same building, restored, six months later is then exalted.
So while cleanliness and good repair are not next to godliness they are next to new, and it is part of the human condition that a new thing is easy to love. So, in order to save old buildings we must breach this gap between rundown and therefore worthless and well-kept therefore worthy. Hutchins's Restoring Old Houses makes this possible.

 Jill Cooper Robinson is a Halifax writer.


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