Skip to content

Posts from the ‘Ordinary archaeology’ Category

Kitchen progress update #01: Demo

The Ordinary House kitchen project is officially underway. Two weeks ago, I had a 15 yard dumpster delivered. Since then, I’ve been doing some minor demolition and architectural reconnaissance to find out what’s behind these old walls.

For the record, I hate – no, loathe – demolition, and I recognize that this puts me in a minority. Watch a few minutes of HGTV and you’re guaranteed to see a sledgehammer-wielding homeowner practically giddy with delight as he pulverizes every intact surface of his home. Cabinets on the wall? Never mind that they’re easily demounted by backing out a couple of screws, Captain D.I.Y. would rather DESTROY them, reducing the boxes to a pile of splintered wood.

My approach to demo is methodical and might be better described as deconstruction than demolition. This method minimizes mess and collateral damage to surfaces that will remain, but it slows the process to a snail’s pace. I didn’t have any idea how much of the existing dining room would have to go before I started poking around. The unfortunate answer is: most of it. The first few days of demo have revealed a good amount of work that is best described as jackleg. A good result can only be achieved by stripping away the accumulated layers of shoddy workmanship and beginning anew. All told, the demolition process will take 4-6 weekends to complete.

kitchen demo

The good news is that the underlying structure I’ve uncovered is solid as a brick sh*thouse, with apologies for my French. Records indicate that this wing of the house was added in the 1870s, but the wood posts I revealed are indicative of a much earlier structure.  They range from 4″-6″ wide and look similar to the framing in the 1750s portion of the house.

old studs

Based on this, I’m certain that the dining room wing was a separate, older building moved to the site and tacked onto the back of the original home. The framing in the attic is more like what you’d expect for a home built in the late 1870s: smaller dimension sawn lumber. So it seems that the second floor and roof were added over the dining room. And we know that the kitchen was yet another independent structure. So, between the original house, the library, the dining room, the kitchen and the master suite, our house is actually an amalgamation of FIVE houses, which goes a long way toward explaining its quirky layout.

Other things I’ve learned:

We have a mouse.

We’ve been aware of his presence because of the “leavings” he scatters across our countertops at night. But I didn’t expect him to boldly skitter across the hole that I was examining with my flashlight. I swallowed a girlish scream, but nearly jumped out of my skin and used some four letter words that I won’t repeat here. Later, it became apparent that we’ve HAD mice, because I found several of his ancestors in balls of insulation behind the walls.

mouse skeleton

Time to buy some traps.

The dining room was once green, then purple.

A crumbling plaster wall behind the old built-in buffet reveals the original paint colors.

green purple

The heart pine floors are going to be beautiful.

I’ve never loved the russet-colored stain on the floors, so I couldn’t resist hand sanding a small patch of one old plank to get a look at the underlying honey-colored wood.

sanded heart pine

I don’t need any more color than that.

The dining room was last renovated in 1950.

I discovered strips of newspaper beneath the baseboards that are dated February 24, 1950.

february 24, 1950

In ’50, you could get a “lastex” girdle for $3.99:


a “super-duper” Gene Autry cowboy shirt for $2.98:

cowboy shirt

and if you suffered from constipation, particularly the “clogging, transient kind”, you could count on Dr. Edwards’ Olive Tablets:


I look forward to leaving a similar memento for the builder who renovates our kitchen in 60 or 70 years time.

Ordinary archaeology #002: Who was Bill East?

Who was Bill East?

If I were a betting man, I’d say he was a mischievous young boy who visited our house on April 12, 1936. Or, maybe 1836?

If you look carefully at the front window in the east bedroom, you’ll see that Bill commemorated his visit by etching his name into one of the runny glass panes:

name carved in glass

The next pane over has a smaller, less confident “Bill” inscription, perhaps a test run for the final engraving.

It’s possible that Mr. East is still with us; if he was seven in 1936, that’d make him 85 today. Whoever he was, I’m sure that Bill would be proud to know that his mysterious legacy lives on, upstairs in the Ordinary House.

Ordinary archaeology #001

The most interesting thing about old houses are the stories that they tell and the secrets that they reveal as you get to know them.

Last weekend, I removed our old electrical meter and the conduit that connected it to the breaker panel in the basement. These components became obsolete when we upgraded our electrical service this winter. Because the conduit had been painted over umpteen times, a relatively clean cross section of paint colors was revealed when I yanked the tubing off the wood siding around back.

As you can see in the photo below, it turns out that the new siding color is remarkably similar to another color used on the house many decades ago. That earlier color is a darker, more forest-y green than the gray-tinged “Link Gray” that we used on the siding.  Even so, I find it fascinating that other owners had similar ideas about which hue best suited the house. Since then, various shades of light gray seem to have been the color of choice.

Another fun fact: see that block of wood posing as a brick just below the siding? Nowadays when contractors talk about “blocking”, they’re referring to pieces of wood concealed in walls to provide attachment points for wall-hung materials or equipment.  But the origin of the term are wood blocks like these, buried in a brick wall, to provide secure anchoring points for wood windows and doors. Neat, huh?

paint match