Welcome again to Saturday Morning Home Repair blogging, where we talk about fixing houses, the things in them that are supposed to work for us, and fixing them up. An ad hoc cadre of building professionals and gifted amateurs attempt to answer questions that arise from readers, and offer encouragement and advice for those inclined to do things for themselves, if they can. We all do a lot of things, collectively, and can probably help out with insights from our vast experience.
Or sometimes, we just gab. So grab a cup of coffee and come on in.
I have been remiss. At least, I've been guilty of poor manners, in that I have not made proper introductions. I've written a couple of times about bits and pieces of my house, without introducing the house appropriately. Therefore, meet my own little slice of heaven, and what it looked like when we first met.
This is RiverBank.
Fifteen years ago, when we first met.
RiverBank had been abandoned for almost twenty years when we happened on it. It took us about a week to decide we were going to buy it (and, yes, our families thought we were insane). Forty-one acres, half a mile on the Shenandoah River, and this:
This is the front of the house.
When we first laid eyes on each other, based on the fact that the porch roof was pretty much, well, gone, we thought the roof on the rest of the house was also gone. Fortunately, we were very wrong. The main house had a Standing I-Block roof that, although it had rotted around the edges, was pretty much intact, although it was admittedly leaky. On the good side, for us, we were in the middle of a drought that lasted a while, so the leaking roof wasn't an immediate problem.
This is the north side of the house.
Two things to note about the photo above. First, except for the boxwood on the left side, all the verdant foliage that covers the house is poison ivy. One of Andy's friends said about the house that it was the only place he'd ever been where you needed a flashlight in the middle of the day. Yes, it had to be removed. Slowly. By hand.
The other thing to note is the break in the wall around the second-floor window on the right. The walls are solid brick, and the foundation wall had collapsed, cracking the wall all the way up. It took years to fix that. But all of that came later. First of all, we had to hack our way through the weeds to get in.
The south side, and no, you couldn't see the house from the road.
The southeast corner of the back wing.
In the 1960's, the house and farm had been bought by a family that had a lot of kids and no interest in historic preservation. Fortunately, they didn't get the chance to mess up too much. They did, however, do a number on the double porch, ripping it off and making a Florida room out of plywood and vinyl siding.
It didn't do well. Because we're right next to a river, rot is a kind of a thing. These days, if it's not old growth and original, it'd better be pressure-treated (although I've learned that treating wood with glycol is great for stopping and/or preventing rot).
After cleaning, and before removing that abomination of a porch.
About that back porch/Florida Room--we didn't dare walk out on it. The floor was more than a little rotten. In fact, we could stand in the doorway and watch the roof sagging. We thought we'd have to stabilize the roof, too. In fact, it was the weight of the porch pulling the roof down. When we tore the porch off, the roof popped back up and level.
But today I'm not going to write about the porches, except in passing. Or the interior. It'd take me all night to write it and you all day to read it and, let's face it, it's not that interesting. But I will take you around the exterior and acquaint you with the changes we've managed over the past fifteen years, and that'll be quite long enough.
In the Beginning or, Rather, 1997
After we cleaned off the scrum, the place looked...like Dracula's plantation house.
Yes, it's a plantation house. We're not exactly sure how old RiverBank really is--it's probably 1780's, at least that's what the architectural historians say. The records were burned during the Civil War, so they're of little help. A comprehensive renovation in the 1850's, and very little else done except electricity and plumbing.
The property was kept in the same family for almost 180 years, before it was sold out of the area. It was a summer home for a Pittsburgh doctor, then sold to a farming family. Then Coors bought RiverBank and some 3,000 surrounding acres, locked up the water and development rights and then, over time, sold off the acreage. We happened along at just the right time.
Coors locked the house up and left it empty. They also were death on trespassers, so RiverBank remained intact--doors, window glass, rimlocks. So we were lucky twice--the house wan't stripped when it was empty, and also it wasn't renovated at the turn of the century when most houses were gutted, the original floors changed out and the rooms cut up.
After preliminary cleaning.
More preliminary cleaning - look, ma, no poison ivy (but lots of dirt).
The back porch, without Florida room.
First thing that had to go was that awful porch.
Unfortunately, we had blown our budget buying the farm, so we had to improvise and do a lot with sweat equity. Also there was a a guy who messed up a lot of things but did help us get the house into a move-in condition (such as it was). One of the things he did was sit on my ankles while I hung over the gutter so I could chisel a maple tree out of the wall. It had started life in the gutter, moved over to the roof and sent its taproot into the wall.
Why was I doing this, you might ask? Simple--our guy didn't really do heights.
He did heights enough to climb on the roof and cut the joists on the porch. Then we hooked a chain to one of the columns and attached the other end to the tow-hitch on his pickup truck, and the whole thing came down in an explosion of dirt and snake skins.
It looked like this, afterward.
Remember that damaged wall? Here's why it cracked:
The only thing holding up the floor was the old water heater.
Whether it was the flooding or the neglect, we don't know. But this is what we found in the basement.
Lewis Caricofe, a retired math teacher and brick mason who knew Andy's family for a generation, came out, took one look at the house and said, "No way, too big, and I'm retired." But Andy talked him into helping us fix the foundation.
First we cleared the brick heap and laid a footer. That winter, with Andy helping, Lewis repaired the wall from the basement to the first floor. By then, I was back in chemo with a recurrence, and Andy talked Lewis in teaching me how to repoint brick. Lewis felt sorry for us (especially Andy, who was looking at raising a 5 year old in Castle Dracula), so the next year he rebuilt the wall from the first to the second floor, and the third year, he finished the job.
Lots of Foolish and Reckless Behavior
Lewis was an amazingly humble man who wouldn't take credit for anything, but he's not in a position to complain.
First up was rebuilding the chimneys. For the first year, I helped Lewis and, when he let me work on my own, I started off powerfully messy, but....got a little better.
I spent a lot of time on the roof--we have six chimneys plus four sham chimneys on the exterior walls. Fourteen fireplaces. The front of the house has eight fireplaces, with four chimneys, each having two flues. The back wing has two big chimneys, three flues each. Santa has no trouble here.
And the roof was not in the best shape ever. It was old enough and un-slick enough that it was marginally safe to repoint brick off a scaffold on a roof.
I insisted on perching on the uphill side so that if it started to slide I had maximum time to jump off before going airborne.
Working off the roof is one thing. And working off the ground is okay, too. But when you get to sheer walls and collapsed lintels, you get into funny territory.
Territory like this.
The limitation of working off a ladder and a windowsill, beside the fact that I'm not that tall anymore, is that it was impossible to get a fix that spanned the windowframe. Eventually, we settled on using angle iron mortared into the wall, but that was an innovation that had yet to occur to us.
And then there was this.
This might have been my finest hour. The way I got above the windowframe out the second floor was by putting scaffolding in the bedroom, running 2 x 14's out the window (propped up on cinder blocks to give me some height), counterweighting the whole contraption with my entire library, and then laying boards across the 2 x 14's. Andy, who doesn't do heights and was worried about how he would explain if I fell, took the tractor and tipped the front end loader up at its maximum height so that, if I fell, I'd fall into the bucket.
The following year, most of these antics were resolved when I got a special something for Mother's Day.
Show me another mom who got a hydraulic lift.
Suddenly, repointing got much less dramatic and dangerous.
Today, most of the repointing is done. The porches have been restored. We still have a not-inconsiderable amount of work to do, but I have to confess, it's an adventure I would not have missed.
Here's what it looks like now:
North face, still without poison ivy.
The south side and double porches. The curtains help shade and cool the house. This photo was taken between up and down stairs being done, and the curtains will stay up until October.
Aaannnddd, the front.
We still have a lot to do--plastering, colorwashing, window restoration, etc. etc. etc. But we have a cool house.
Oh, and this is the back yard--
It looks even better when the leaves are on the trees.
Okay, I'm done with the interminable vacation slides. What are you working on?