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Marking the spot

Permit me one more sad dad post and I’ll return this blog to its regular schedule of updates (and apologies for lack of updates) on the progress of projects at the Ordinary House.

We spread my dad’s ashes this spring and summer in various places that were meaningful to him. We wanted to have one place we could return to visit, and it was important to me that the presence of his remains be marked in a permanent way. I conjured up a series of overwrought grave markers, heavily laden with symbolism before realizing that simplest solution was probably the best in this case.

I retrieved a piece of leftover Carrara marble from our shed, once a toilet partition at the Wolfpack Club in Raleigh. When my dad renovated that building several years ago, he helped me salvage the stone slabs which I turned into beautiful kitchen countertops at our house in Chapel Hill.  True story, and awesome conversation starter.

chapel hill kitchen

With nothing more than a pencil, an old ball-peen hammer (my dad’s), and a stone chisel that I ordered on the Interwebs, I set to work tracing out the letters F-R-A-N-K on the stone. I started chipping away at the slab with the chisel, tentatively at first, and with increasing force as I got the hang of how the marble split.  The serifs in the ‘F’ were a bit ragged, but the letter looked respectable so I carried on.

grave marker tools

By the time I got to ‘K’ two days later I was pretty proud of how things turned out.  The serifs were crisp and the edges of the letters clean. I stamped dad’s full name and dates in an aluminum bar and attached it to the stone as a finishing touch. I think he would have loved it.

marker placement

The marker and the ashes sit in a peaceful clearing of mountain laurel on my uncle’s land in the mountains of southwest Virginia, not far from where my dad was born.

frank highley

My uncle reports that the marker has been shifted to a different position every time he’s visited it.  We figure either a bear has been rummaging around or else my dad, ever the teaser, is messing with us one last time.

1 year!

One year ago, on a sweltering and stormy Saturday afternoon, our movers loaded the last of our furniture into their truck, and we made the short trip from Chapel Hill to Hillsborough for the last time. After months of dreaming, negotiating, packing, and waiting, we could finally declare ourselves honest-to-God “Hillsburgers”.

It was a funny transition, moving from a tiny bungalow that I completely renovated, with a kick-ass kitchen and a brand-spankin’ new screened porch, to a leaning, un-airconditioned, pre-Revolutionary showpiece in desperate need of a paint job. As an architect, I spend my days identifying potential, and if there’s one thing this place has, it’s dump truck loads of potential.

Houses don’t make it to their 250th birthday if there’s not something intrinsically appealing about them. The Ordinary House is dead simple, and very American. It’s the house kids draw when you ask them to draw one – a gable roof, an end chimney, and a centered front door. It doesn’t wow with ornate decoration or extravagant size. Instead, its pleasing proportions and simple materials are assembled in a way that is timeless and appealing.

house silhouette

In some ways, it was a difficult year. Shortly after moving in, one of our dogs died and the other tore her ACL, waiting only a few months to tear the other one. Our boiler quit just before Thanksgiving, leaving us in the cold until we were able to install central heat in late February. Squirrels took up residence in our attic, chimney swifts in our chimneys, and deer in the yard. The electrical service blew itself apart. A toilet leaked, a sump pump died, and the home warranty company denied every claim we submitted to them. A storm blew a tree into our neighbor’s yard and the gutters sprung a leak.

But, lest you get the impression that it was an entirely miserable year, plenty of wonderful things happened too. We got a seriously nice paint job that received rave reviews and helped us win an exterior preservation award. I put in epic weekends clearing the yard of overgrowth, and it’s looking halfway presentable these days. We got a new puppy, Louis, who keeps us laughing even though (or because) he’s got a few screws loose. Meg’s ACLs have healed, and when the circumstances are just right, she’ll accelerate to a trot for a few yards. The new heat and air has made daily life more comfortable, and the energy bills are so low, I wonder if they’re reading the meter right. We’ve got three shiny new low-flow toilets and 200-amps of electricity surging through the breaker box. And we reduced our Triangle real estate empire from three properties down to one.

Best of all, we became full-time residents of one of the friendliest, most interesting towns in the state. We can walk to restaurants, bars, a hardware store, a bookstore and grocery store in a handful of minutes. Everyone we’ve met has been interesting, welcoming, and engaged in the community. I’ve had scores of over-the-fence conversations on topics as varied as the teenage parties that used to happen in our basement to the best brand of weed-whacker to buy. These impromptu interactions have been a steady source of encouragement and advice, and confirm that we live in a special place.

The upcoming year will provide plenty of blog fodder. We’re about the kick off a big kitchen renovation. While that’ll occupy the bulk of my hands-on house time, there is a smattering of other projects that we’ll tackle when time permits. I’m going to increase my involvement in town by joining some volunteer committees. And I’m sure there’ll be plenty more activity that I can’t predict.

I didn’t know if I’d stick with this blogging thing for long, but it’s proven a satisfying way to document and share our slow-motion renovation with everyone who’s reading. Please stay tuned and spread the word…the more, the merrier.

I hope that this is only the first of many more extraordinary years in the Ordinary House!

dog in party hat

One hot mess

A wise man once said: you don’t own an old house, it owns you.  Every time I begin to suffer the illusion that we’re running the show over here, another issue crops up. Late last week, the house bent me over its knee and gave me a gentle reminder of who’s boss.

We’re continuing to limp along with space heaters while I collect bids for the HVAC installation. To complicate matters, our electrical service has never been upgraded beyond 100 amps. Even a single  A/C compressor would overtax the electrical panel we’ve got. In order to get enough juice for the new HVAC units, and to give us plenty of extra capacity for future wiring, we’re going to jump up to a 200 amp service. Fortunately, beyond the main panel, the wiring in the house is relatively new. Most of the receptacles are even grounded. As with any older home, it’d be nice to have more outlets to meet the constant power requirements of all our modern gadgetry. But we’re fortunate not to have to worry about knob-and-tube or aluminum wiring (perhaps I’m tempting fate with that statement?).

Thursday night I returned home after a late meeting, walked through the back door, flipped a switch and – nothing. No light. One room away, the dining room lights worked fine. But the ones in the living room didn’t. Neither did the outlets – so much for our electric heat. All told, about a third of the power in the house was active. To confuse matters greatly, not a single circuit breaker was flipped in the panel box. I grabbed my flashlight and checked a few outlets for an obvious loose neutral or signs of damage, but it didn’t make sense that the outage was spread across multiple circuits. An electrician had been to the house that very morning to talk through the service upgrade, and he’d looked in the main panels.  Maybe he looked at them wrong?

I was exhausted and went to bed, consumed by worry that we were about to have to rewire the entire house, not just the main panel. Thankfully, my weary musings were wrong. The following morning, another electrician showed up to prepare an estimate for the service upgrade. I’d already rehearsed a pitiful plea that he take a look at our problem while he was there, out of the goodness of his heart, even though it wasn’t a service call.  But, the electrician had solved our problem before I even opened the front door.  He introduced himself and immediately noted that “your main service cables don’t look very good.”  I glanced over and saw this hot mess:

electrical service

I’ve never claimed to understand electricity, but I really, really don’t understand how it’s possible to have power – any power – when your service drop looks like that.  A quick call to Duke Energy alerted them to the issue, and they fixed the cable the same day.  From the ground, the patch looks almost as sketchy as it did before, but I’m going to insist that it get corrected when the service upgrade happens.

For now, we’re back in action, electrified, and fully confident that we’re NOT in control of this crazy old house.

And then there were none…

…warm floors in our house, that is.  Recently, I wrote about our lack of upstairs heat.  Well, just in time for the first mid-20 degree nights of the season, the circulator pump for the downstairs heat decided to go belly-up on us.  The good news is that I was home to hear it and shut the boiler down before any major damage was done.  The bad news is that the warranty company is really outdoing themselves with this claim.  First, they called accusing us of trying to have them come fix the upstairs heat, which they’d already refused to fix earlier.  Now, they claim that nobody in our service area can work on a boiler.  Never mind that they sent somebody out to work on our boiler a few weeks ago.  The company has made it our responsibility to find a contractor and have them “pre-authorized” by their agents.  Then, they’ll consider reimbursing us for the fix, assuming it isn’t excluded in their shifty, fine print contract, the same one with the smiling HVAC technician replacing a family’s broken-down A/C system on the cover.  Anybody want to make a bet on how this will go?

American Home Shield’s business is a sham.  They prey on nervous new homeowners who hope to protect their wallets from further damage.  They make any and every effort to deny claims, knowing full well that their business model doesn’t add up if they don’t.   Their practices are deceitful, unfair and just plain wrong.  I’d gladly take my money back in place of this headache.

Fortunately, I had the perfect stay-warm activity lined up for the holiday weekend: raking the yard.  It took three partial days to finish and clearly hadn’t been done for many years.  My shoulders and neck are reluctant to forgive me, but the lawn looks good.

Without any yard work to be done during these early dark evenings, it gets a bit chilly.  We bought space heaters, but they’re outmatched by our tall ceilings and drafty windows.  I’m sure that someday we’ll regale our kids with stories of survival from our first winter in the house.  But for the moment, our funny bones are frozen.



Happy Turkey Day, ya’ll!  The missus is working, and so are the painters, so I count myself lucky to be able to enjoy my coffee at a leisurely pace before heading to the yard for some good old-fashioned raking.  Weezie and I were in New York City last weekend for a friend’s wedding.  It was a great time to visit, crisp but not bone-chilling, with holiday decorations just beginning to appear.

One thing that kept catching my eye were the “for rent” signs all over the city which used “pre-war” vintage as a selling point.  In big-city parlance, I know this translates to: “pint-sized, but with craftsmanship and details not found in newer construction”.  If I lived in the City, I would no doubt be among those people attracted to earlier apartment buildings.  It reminds me, though, of my favorite old-house quote:

“It’s not good because it’s old, it’s old because it’s good.”

Most of New York’s colonial past is literally buried, with new buildings continually replacing older ones.  This forward-looking attitude is exactly what one expects in the Big Apple, but it makes me appreciate even more how lucky we are to own a home that’s pre-Revolutionary war, with craftsmanship to match.  Any Europeans reading this are snickering at the delight I derive from this 260 year old structure, but I really get a kick out of having a physical connection to that formative period our country’s history.

Today, I count myself very lucky and very thankful for our new home, and for all the interesting stories it will tell us over the years.

Happy Thanksgiving!

187 at 157?

We reeled in a grand total of (wait for it) THREE trick-or-treaters last night…and they came in one trip.  Not exactly the haunted hootenanny we were prepared for.  Turns out that $50 buys a lot of candy and Weezie and I both hauled a fat sack of it to work this morning.

Maybe we can blame the underwhelming treater turnout on the tape strung all around our yard which, at a glance, makes it look like a crime scene:

Our painters started yesterday and the tape is part of their compliance with the lead paint renovation laws enforced by the gub’mint.  If they don’t comply, they leave themselves vulnerable to hefty fines if an EPA agent were to visit the job site.

The sequence of events for the job will be: scrape, sand, wash, scrape again, apply primer x 2, apply top coat x 2.  Right now, the painters are on their first round of scraping, which is done after wetting the wood.  The company we’ve hired owns a fleet of electric sanders attached to HEPA vacuums.  This allows them to safely sand the siding without releasing clouds of lead dust.  It also means that the painters can really lean into their scrapers; any errant gouges or fraying of the wood will be worked out once they get to sanding.  There’s some beautiful, dense, old-growth wood underneath that peeling paint.

I’ve spent a fair chunk of my life with a paint brush in hand: I earned money by painting houses during the summer in high school and more recently painted our house in Chapel Hill, inside and out.  I can convince myself that it’s fun for short periods of time, but the epic amounts of prep involved with this job leave me very happy to leave it in someone else’s capable hands.

Color me impressed

This blog is ostensibly about a house, and yet that house hasn’t been featured very prominently yet.  That’s all about to change because we signed a contract to have the place painted last night.  We’re spending a small fortune to have it done, for a number of reasons.  The paint’s in bad shape, for starters.  We’ve got the full spectrum of paint problems: peeling, cracking and alligatoring are all well represented.  In some places, the layers of paint are too thick and they’ll eventually have to come off altogether.  And, of course, there’s lead.  If we assume the house has been painted every 10 or 15 years on average, there are somewhere between 15 and 25 layers of paint on the siding.  All but the last 3-5 are likely to have lead in them.  Our painter will be taking the requisite precautions to deal with this: spreading plastic around the perimeter of the house, wet scraping, sanding with HEPA vacuums and requiring the workers to be in suits and respirators.

Once the house is prepped and washed, we’ll be using the Cadillac of primers: XIM Peel Bond, a product I used on my last house.  It’s like painting with Elmer’s glue, but creates a super-pliable, breathable base for the paint layers that follow.  It also builds heavily, helping to smooth the wall surface and bond the remaining paint to the wall.  It worked wonders on my last house, but this job will be a true test of its effectiveness. The two top coats will be Sherwin Williams SuperPaint.  I used the SW Duration line previously, but our contractor warned us that it has a tendency to aggressively shrink as it dries, pulling old paint right off the walls.

But, I bore you with technicalities.  What you really want are color selections, right?  Well, without further delay, here are the three final selections for the siding:

This turned out to be an advertisement for why you should ALWAYS get real live samples on the walls for this kind of paint job.  The camo-green on the right was supposed to be a whole lot browner and the supposed “slate” blue in the middle went a lot lavender on us.  Fortunately, Weezie and I both love the third color on the left which is called “Link Gray“.  It’s a dark greeny-gray chameleon color that changes throughout the day based on the light hitting it.

I’ve told several people that I’m bored of non-committal architect colors.  The houses that make you stop and say, “Holy cannoli, look at the paint job on that house!” are not painted timid tan.

This time, I’m going bold and I have a feeling it’s going to turn out to be a great decision.

Week one, done.

We made it.  After all the dreaming and scheming, planning, packing and moving, we live in Hillsborough.  Just to make sure our first week here was interesting, Meg, the world’s laziest dog, pushed the limits of irony by tearing her ACL.  To ratchet the tension up another notch, Jacques (dog two), convulsed himself awake with a seizure on Thursday morning.  Everyone is doing fine, except perhaps for the people.  Oy.

Between unpacking and cleaning, I’ve done a few things that qualify as home-improvement this week.  Waking up on this rainy Sunday morning, I was curious why all the storm windows seemed to be leaking at the meeting rail.  Water, as you know, is a building’s worst enemy.  It’s an insidious foe, flowing relentlessly downward until: a) it gets to an ocean, or b) something else stops it.  If that something else happens to be your home, sooner or later you’ll have problems.

After a quick examination, it turned out that EVERY storm window in the entire house had the outermost storm panel set at the bottom of the window.  Which means that all the rain that hit the top panel flowed behind the lower panel.  Which resulted in pools of water on the window sills whenever it rained hard.  Fortunately, there are about 278 layers of paint on those sills, so they don’t seem to have rotted at all, but they were filthy.  Really filthy:

So today, I wandered around with the vacuum and some Lysol wipes and paper towels, reversed the storm window panels so that they actually shed water, and scrubbed all the window sills clean.  It wasn’t glamorous work, but it was fundamental and easy and I’ll rest better knowing that my window sills aren’t collecting puddles of water every time it rains.  And they look better, too:

Why so ordinary?

So, what, you ask, is all this “ordinary” business?  Well, if you open your Oxford English dictionary and go deep into the entry for the word “ordinary”, you’ll find the following “archaic British” definition of the word: “a meal provided at a fixed time and price at an inn, an inn providing this”.

The road-weary eighteenth-century colonist didn’t have the option of checking into the nearest Hilton Garden Inn with his Delta Skymiles.  Instead, he stayed in an ordinary, where he could park his horses, get a hot meal and a tall glass of grog and a room for the night.  William Reed’s (our) ordinary  was perfectly situated to welcome out-of-town travelers, located a stone’s throw from the courthouse.  It’s at the intersection of several important roads from that era: King Street, the Great Halifax Road and the Old Indian Trading Path.  It’s where the action was, and continues to be.

It doesn’t take much to imagine our basement, as it looks now:

as an ordinary, how it might have looked then:

I suppose I’ll have to start scouring Ebay for scabbards and muskets to hang over the mantel because it’s clear to me that this room must be restored to its “ordinary” state (yes, I’m going to continue to work this pun for all it’s worth).  I’m fairly certain that this project is low on the list of priorities, though some have suggested moving it straight to the top, assuring myself of a nice place to drink and sob when the inevitable sorrows of a lifelong renovation project take hold.

Nothing but ordinary

Things that crazy people do:

1) Befriend inanimate objects.

2) Speak in tongues.

3) Buy houses built in the 1700s with no central air and move into them in triple-digit summer heat.

While I am fond of my cordless drill and have been known to utter words of encouragement as it powers through thick boards, most of my best friends are, in fact, living creatures.  And although my wife, Weezie, and I give our dogs strange nicknames (Boober McPhee, Little Miss Cannellini Beans and Stinky Pete, among others), that’s about as close as I come to speaking in tongues.  So, the best evidence yet that I’m crazy came on June 28th when we closed on William Reed’s Ordinary, a 1754 colonial house in Hillsborough, NC.

Never mind that we own two other houses and that it doesn’t have air conditioning and not one of the seven fireplaces is functional.  The house is utterly beguiling, and we fell so hard for its spell that we’ve signed away a good chunk of our life’s earnings for the privilege of living there.

Here she is in ’55:

Over the next three years decades or so, I’ll spend many most of my spare moments giving this crazy old place the love it deserves.  Stay tuned…