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Posts from the ‘Before Tour’ Category

Before tour: the ? room

This time, dear readers, you get to tell me what the post’s featured room is. Because we live here, and we don’t know.

The ? room is located immediately adjacent to the front door, nestled between the living room and the library. It has identical dimensions to the west bedroom above it, 9′-6″ wide and a little over 19′ long.  At the south end of the room, opposing doors define the path to the library.  On the west side of the room is a fireplace with a mantel that matches the one in the living room next door.  There’s a tall window on both the north and south wall, though both are shaded by porch roofs, resulting in a space that’s dimmer than you’d expect.

question room plan

The walls are covered in vinyl wallpaper with hand-stenciled patterns. Of particular note is the rendition of a George Washington inaugural button that the previous owner placed over the mantel. It can’t stay forever; the plaster beneath the wall paper is crumbling and will need to be removed and replaced.  The ceilings are wide planks with seams hidden by batten strips, the same way they’re treated in the living room. Somewhere along the way, new hardwood floors were installed over the original 1754 floor boards – and God killed a kitten.

the unknown room

At one corner of the room is an access hatch that leads to the dead space below the stairs. You can’t get into it now because the oak floors prevent the door from swinging. But I’m holding fast to the conviction that there’s a sack of priceless colonial booty stowed away down there that will finance an early retirement into a life of leisure as the new Baron of Inchdrewer. But short of that, I suppose we’ll need to find a good use for this space, and I’m interested to hear what you think. So far, the room’s most useful purpose was to act as a temporary repository for the accumulated junk that we unearthed during move-in and wondered, “Why in God’s name do we own this, and why are we wasting energy to move it?” I’m looking at you, ceramic basset hound door stopper.

unknown room south

So what’ll it be? Formal dining room? Office? Guest room? Or something else?

Cast your vote below.

Before tour: the hall bath

I can sum up the upstairs hall bathroom in one word: yellow.  It’s very, very yellow, which Weezie likes to remind me is a color often associated with a frequent bathroom-based activity.  That’s my girl.

guest bathroom

The layout is a conventional three fixture setup with a toilet and sink on one side and a tub on the other. A small east-facing window admits some light without compromising privacy. At the other end of the room, a sizable linen closet pokes into the adjoining hall, providing plenty of storage space.

guest bath

Here I’ll insert my oft-repeated analysis of the condition of rooms in this house: the space is reasonably functional, but in desperate need of an aesthetic overhaul. The embossed and stenciled fiberboard wall and ceiling panels are getting a bit haggard. The vanity is plain and the vinyl floors unremarkable. One exception is the clawfoot tub which is in good shape and is worthy of preservation, though it’s been plumbed with exposed copper tubing that restricts water flow to a trickle.

And then there’s the infamous old toilet, recently replaced. Of it, Weezie writes:

While it may seem odd for such a young blog to have more than one entry about toilets already, the toilets themselves were not so young. And the last of three toilets to go certainly deserves mention. The guest bathroom beauty was a cast iron relic stamped with the year 1918 (that’s 95 years old for those of you trying to do the math in your heads). While we both enjoy Downton Abbey (at least the first season) and find the era that it depicts fascinating, that fascination does not extend to the plumbing of the time. Part of me would like to see that toilet celebrate its centennial, but deep down I know that a toilet that predates the Treaty of Versailles (or the Carter administration, for that matter) has got to go. So, for the good of our water bill (and our guests), this throne has been dethroned in favor of another Toto Drake II. I’d like to think that we’ll find a tasteful way to preserve it as some sort of yard ornament, but if you look in the dictionary, “tasteful toilet yard ornament” is the first entry under oxymoron.

For now, the hall bath works for our infrequent guests, but I’m sure there will be some more urgency about improving its condition once it sees more regular use.



Before tour: the master suite

Welcome to the master suite (boom-chicka-wah-wah).

At nearly 23 feet long and 16 feet wide, the master is one of the largest spaces in the house, but it feels much smaller due to an awkward layout that forces the bed into a corner that measures only 8 by 10. The bathroom and closet occupy the southeast corner of the room, creating an L-shaped space that’s difficult to furnish efficiently. The long leg of the L is too wide to be a hallway, but too narrow to be home to anything other than a dresser. Louis uses this area to work through spastic bouts of puppy energy while we’re in the bathroom.

master bedroom plan

At some point, the master suite was cobbled together from two smaller bedrooms, which explains its size, uncommon in houses of this vintage. The north end of the room is pleasantly daylit, with large windows on three sides. Unfortunately, this feature can work contrary to the goal of restful sleep, particularly when you have a puppy that’s ready to rock and roll at the faintest glimmer of dawn. A shutter order is in the works.

The closet is cavernous, but its square shape makes it difficult to take advantage of the large volume. Buried in the wall behind the closet is a chimney, which I’ll expose to the room one day, perhaps throwing our house’s nickname, Seven Hearths, off by one.

master bedroom

If any room in the house could rightfully be labeled “updated”, the master bath is it.  A new-ish vanity and shower insert and a brand-new toilet keep bath time a notch above disgusting. Though unattractive, the linoleum floors are durable and easy to clean.

master bathroom

master bathroom

The ceilings throughout the room are Celotex tiles over beautiful beadboard planks (shaking fist at all those who foist the “easy fix” on unknowing and frustrated homeowners). The walls are drywall, though there’s evidence to suggest there’s beadboard below that as well. The floors are narrow heart pine boards that are pitted, gouged and stained in ways that make you wonder if the room was once the site of a UFC cage match.

master bedroom

Though there are no immediate plans to renovate the master suite, we can’t wait until we’re able to. As our friends and relatives can attest, Weezie and I keep geriatric hours and consider 10:30 p.m. the middle of the night. Any improvements to our nightly domain will be greatly appreciated, if only through closed eyelids.

Before tour: the dining room

Our dining room is less notable for what it is (the mostly empty room we pass through on our way from the living room to the kitchen) than for what it will be – a showcase kitchen. When Weezie and I were thinking about buying the house we learned that two of its quirks were deal-breakers for most potential purchasers. The first was its notable lack of central HVAC. We fixed that. But they also pointed to the the tiny, outdated kitchen that’s down a set of steps from the main living level. Aside from the obvious challenges this arrangement presents for anyone with mobility issues, it makes the space feel remote from the living room, where we spend most of our time. We’re gonna fix that, too.

I’m not one to toot horns, but I had the kitchen location problem solved before the end our first viewing. The solution was clear as day – move the kitchen. Duh. To find its new home, I didn’t have to go far. The dining room, just up those aforementioned steps from the existing kitchen is the perfect spot for our kitchen-to-be, just off the living room. And since we do all of our coming and going by way of the existing  kitchen, the room is well situated to transform into a mudroom once it’s no longer needed for cooking microwaving. We’ve just started planning this exciting project and hope to get it under way this summer.

Located in the “new” 1870s portion of the house, the dining room is sizable and well-suited to the large formal gatherings we have – well, never. The room swallows the little round table we dragged from our last house. On the east wall, a large picture window flanked by two skinny double-hung units looks out to the side yard and across Cameron Street.

dining to living

On the north wall is the door to the kitchen and a huge, built-in buffet. Right now, its shelves are home to all of our books. A panel over the kitchen door provides access to an unexpectedly tall interstitial space between the ceiling of the kitchen and the floor of the master bedroom above.

dining buffet

The west wall begs for a window, but is blank except for a fascinating hand-hewn post, whose location and configuration confound everyone who encounters it. The post appears to have accepted a pegged diagonal brace, now absent, but I can’t sort out why that was ever necessary in this location. The joinery is old school craftsmanship at its finest, and it’s a fun conversation piece for visitors interested in the history of the house.

pegged joint

The volume of the ground floor bathroom bumps into the southwest corner of the room. Originally, this bathroom was part of an inset porch that had a back door into the living room, visible in an old photo I included in my post about that room. The entire space is wrapped with an elaborate carved chair rail that was copied from the stair hall trim of a North Carolina plantation house reconstructed in the Winterthur museum in Delaware.

chair rail

Lovely as the dining room is, I’m anxious to see it reborn as the 21st-century heart of The Ordinary House. More on that soon.

Before tour: the west bedroom

The west bedroom is the fraternal twin of the east bedroom across the hall and it’s one of my favorite rooms in the house. With northern, southern and western exposures, it’s bathed in light for all but the early morning hours. We’re reserving it for the good kid. (Somewhere, my mom’s heart rate jumped a notch at the mention of this hypothetical kid. “No pressure” she assures me.)

west bedroom light

The west windows frame views across the roof of the library and down King Street to the tower of the courthouse, making the room feel very connected to the heart of Hillsborough. Like the east bedroom, there’s a fireplace, this one with a mini-me version of the living room mantel. The experienced eye of a brick mason who toured the house this summer identified the brick hearth as the only untouched original in the house, as evidenced by the spiral pattern of the masonry.

The closets are slightly less offensive than the large one in the east bedroom, but I’ve got some ideas about how they might be improved.

west bedroom closets

The original plank ceilings have been concealed with humdrum wood paneling that I’d like to eventually remove. As with most of the walls in the house, the plaster is failing and is tenuously held in place by a layer of vinyl wallpaper that’s been painted over (curses to all those who commit this unforgivable crime). The floors are delightfully lumpy, creaky and imperfect.

As with the east bedroom, our interventions here will be relatively minor, aimed mostly at updating and freshening the finishes. Until then, I’ll continue to occasionally step in to survey our domain from on high, and appreciate the views of our neat little town.

Before tour: the east bedroom

The Ordinary House has three bedrooms, all upstairs.  Two of them are in the original, 1750s portion of the house.  Since the house was a tavern at one time, I presume that these rooms once served as guest quarters for overnight patrons.  If only those walls could talk…

Both of the small bedrooms are long and skinny by present-day standards at about 9′-6″ wide and over 19′ long. It’s not a room proportion I’d ever draw for a client, but it’s actually quite cozy, in a good way:

east bed to hall

The room has original heart pine floors and ceiling boards.  The walls have been covered with some cheap-o paneling that I’ll pull down sooner or later.  The door appears to be original and has a nice cast iron rim latch with porcelain knobs.  There are three double-hung windows with nine-over-six sashes and wavy glass panes.  As you’d expect, the east bedroom gets great light in the morning.

Our master suite is large and has lots of potential, but I admit to being jealous of the fireplace that shows up in each of the smaller bedrooms:

east bed fireplace

Note the radiator piping that continues across the firebox opening, camouflaged with a bit of trim paint where it runs in front of the mantel.  Maybe the boiler installer thought this would be a convenient way to boost the output of the radiators on particularly cold mornings? The mantel in the east bedroom is very different than the ones in the rest of the house, so I suspect that it may have migrated here from another home during a past renovation.

At some point, a closet was added to the end of the room.

east bed closet

The choice of sliding doors is unfortunate, and will be remedied by the business end of my sledgehammer. The bedroom renovations will be fairly low impact and will mostly be about freshening up finishes. For now, we use the east bedroom as our guest room. Someday, it’ll be nice for a rugrat.  And until then, we’ll fill the void with gratuitous cute puppy photos.

For example, Louis enjoys our new central heat (there’s a register right behind him):

louis likes heat

Before tour: the living room

It seems appropriate to introduce you to our living room since we spend nearly all our time huddled up there these days.  It’s home to two electric radiators cranked to maximum overdrive that keep the temperature somewhere between barely tolerable and toasty, depending on the weather outside.

living room 1

This room is in the earliest portion of the house, built circa 1754. The focal point of the space is the fireplace and the formal mantel that extends to the ceiling.  Simple wainscoting lines the room’s perimeter and begs to be painted something (anything) other than the current ghastly shade of salmon pink.

The floors are tight-grained heart pine boards of varying widths face-nailed directly to the joists below. They have a lovely worn patina that only two hundred years of foot traffic can create.  The wood appears to have been coated with wax, but it’s worn thin and we’ll eventually have to figure out whether to rewax or sand the floor and try a more durable penetrating finish. I was squarely in the former camp, while the missus is in the latter, but each spilled drink brings me closer to sharing her point of view.

The ceiling is tall and composed of painted wood boards. At some point in the past, someone tacked up wood battens to hide the seams between the boards, creating the stripe-y look you see in the photo.  I’m not a fan, so I’ll be looking for a better solution in the future.

The volume beneath the stairs houses a full(!) bath, with a minuscule shower shoehorned in below the treads above.

stair bath

Of course, this hasn’t always been the case. Originally this is where the back door was, which led directly to the backyard. When the rear wing of the house was added, the door remained and was accessed from a porch inset into the mass of the house.

rear entry

In this sixties-vintage photo below, I’m not certain whether the back door opens to the porch, or whether a half bath had already been added. A short door that provided access to the space below the stairs now lives in the library and leads to a small storage closet.

sixties living

The proportions of the living room are spot on and it’s a wonderful place to spend an evening. It needs a serious cosmetic overhaul, but its grand simplicity typifies the best of colonial architecture.  One day we’ll upgrade beyond our hodge-podge of twenty-something furniture and restore this room to its rightful role as the formal highlight of the ordinary.

Alternate dimensions

This weekend, I took on a task I’ve been avoiding for some time: drawing floor plans of our new home. When people learn that you’re an architect, they tend to assume that you walk around with plans of your house in your back pocket, ready to whip out at a moment’s notice. Not true; it’s cobbler’s shoes syndrome. A quick survey of my colleagues revealed that exactly zero of us had drawn up their place of residence.

Some architects have little patience for recording the existing conditions of a house. I feel that it’s worth the time and effort to document everything accurately. I measure to the nearest 1/8th of an inch. There’s no rocket science at work here. After roughly sketching the plans, I bust out a tape measure and start jotting down dimensions. The end result of this process is often messy:

Hand drawn plans

After taking hundreds of measurements, the sketches get put into the computer. Using CAD drafting software, I translate the chicken scratch of the measuring process into legible plans.  Inevitably, there are places where rooms don’t quite come together, or dimensions on one side of the house are different than another. This is partially due to the fact that construction is an imperfect process. In an ideal world, a house is square, level and plumb; in reality, they rarely are. Typically, the older the house, the more these discrepancies become magnified. As wood-framed buildings age, they shrink, sag, twist and turn. And in this case, there is a Bermuda Triangle for dimensions just outside the upstairs hall bathroom.  There are two inches missing there.  I looked for them for hours, measuring from every different direction, and they’re just…gone.  Somehow, the house is torqued or racked or something, and I can’t get the dimensions in that area to come together neatly, whatever I do.  Eventually, I had to ignore my  anal-retentive proclivities in the name of sanity.

The end result of all this tedium are plans like these (click on the image to see a larger, more legible version):

Floor plans

With HVAC planning about to start, these drawings will come in handy as contractors do load calculations and map out duct routes. And the next time somebody asks me for plans of my house, I might just have them in my back pocket.

Bring the heat

Weezie, Meg and I powered through the first fall cold snaps with the help of thick sweaters and blankets. Finally, two weeks ago, we made the decision to fire up the boiler, a hulking steel box that lives at one end of the basement.

It’s an old oil-burning unit that has been converted to natural gas, feeding baseboard radiators through a spaghetti-like network of copper pipes.  There’s something oddly appealing about its old-fashioned hulk.  It reminds me of cars of a similar vintage, from a time when efficiency was overlooked in favor of muscle and bold styling.  The “Winkler” logo on the front even looks like a badge ripped off some old Detroit steel.

I was unprepared for the symphony of bangs, knocks and whooshes that would accompany start-up.  I flipped the breaker on, opened the gas valve, heard the click of ignition and then a deep, rumbling roar as the flames began doing their work.   The circulator pump squealed to life and pushed water into the pipes, which creaked from expansion.  The boiler is located directly below the living room.  Because the floor boards in that part of the house sit directly on the joists, the boiler might as well be in the room with us.  It’s loud.

Retiring this system is high on our list of priorities.  It needs to go for a number of reasons:

  • The exhaust gases are eroding the mortar on the interior of the chimney flue.
  • The baseboard heaters conceal the base molding all over the house and prevent us from opening any walls.
  • Despite our house’s nickname “Seven Hearths”, there’s actually an eighth fireplace closed in behind the boiler.
  • It’s inefficient.  New boilers are up to 96% efficient (meaning 96% of the fuel burned turns into heat).  This unit’s efficiency is probably somewhere in the 70s or lower.

Despite the boiler’s audible protests, it performs reasonably well.  It’s not the kind of heating system you crank up to 75 degrees for the winter.  But set in the mid-60’s, it chugs along and provides non-drafty, comfortable heat.

Unfortunately, that heat doesn’t make it everywhere.  Turns out that there’s a short in the thermostat wire for upstairs, and the circulator pump for that loop won’t cycle on.  I actually enjoy sleeping in the cold, but getting out of bed sans heat on a 30-degree morning can be challenging, to say the least.  We got a home warranty thrown in with the house at purchase.  After the company (starts with ‘A’, ends with ‘merican Home Shield’) initially agreed to cover the fix, they reneged and claimed that we were responsible for tearing out walls and identifying the break in the wire before they would pay up.  The logic of this makes me really angry, so I try not to think about it.  The HVAC guy offered to install a wireless thermostat for a cool grand; we passed.  I’m going to rig up a temporary t-stat in the basement to get us through winter.  But for a little while longer, we’ll be doing our mornings authentic colonial style: cold.

Before tour: the kitchen

If there was an interior decorating style called “50’s country”, our kitchen would be a leading exemplar of the type.  Brick pattern linoleum floors, wormy-wood cabinets with wrought-iron strap hinges, and ye olde appliances leave us yearning for the kitchen we left behind.

The large beams at the ceiling seem to indicate that this room was once a separate structure, with a roof of its own.  This was typical in the American South, and was done to keep extra heat out of the house.  With “help” to do the cooking, the inconvenience of a detached kitchen was easy to overlook.

Despite its fascinating past, the kitchen’s present condition leaves a bit to be desired.  It’s also down a set of steps, so it’s not entirely convenient for 2 a.m. kitchen raids.  To remedy this situation (hardcore preservationists, cover your ears), we intend to build a new kitchen in the current dining room, on the main level of the house.  Since the kitchen is the room closest to the driveway and serves as the main daily entry and exit point for us, we think it has a fine future as a mudroom.