Archive for the 'History' Category

The Basement Wiring

Sunday, March 13th, 2005

Aside from a few outlets with reversed polarity, The Old Man passed the electrical part of our home inspection with flying colors.

Then, I tore out the basement ceiling and discovered some bits that weren’t up to code:

and this:

Scary stuff, but liveable until we can get some electricians in–at least it’s not knob and tube.

Before moving in, while using the Shop Vac to clean out the basement, I blew a breaker and only then did I discover that the entire basement was on a single circuit. Again, annoying, but liveable until we can get some electricians in.

After moving in and plugging in a few lamps, the TV, the stereo, etc., we discovered that not only is the entire basement on a single circuit, but that same circuit also feeds the living room, the sun room, the breakfast room, the foyer, and the front porch.

So, on a single 15 amp circuit, we have:

  • First basement flourescent light
  • Second basement flourescent light
  • Third basement flourescent light
  • Fourth basement flourescent light
  • Basement stairwell light (top)
  • Basement stairwell light (bottom)
  • North basement storage room light
  • South basement storage room light
  • West basement closet light
  • East basement area light
  • Basement Light near water heater
  • Basement Light near washer/dryer
  • Basement Light near furnace
  • Basement Light near workbench
  • Old basement shower light
  • Old basement bathroom light
  • South basement outlet
  • North basement outlet
  • First sunroom outlet
  • Second sunroom outlet
  • Third sunroom outlet
  • First Living Room outlet
  • Second Living Room outlet
  • Third Living Room outlet
  • Fourth Living Room outlet
  • Living Room ceiling fan and light
  • First breakfast room outlet
  • Second breakfast room outlet
  • Backyard outlet (outside)
  • Garage outlet (outside)
  • Garage outlet (inside)
  • Garage yard lights (outside)
  • Garage wall light (inside)
  • Foyer light
  • Front porch light

Now I don’t know if you’ve been counting or not, but that’s a grand total of 21 light fixtures and 14 outlets on a single 15 amp circuit. Now I’m no electrician, but that seems a little excessive to me.

Thankfully, tomorrow, our nephew S. and his friend M., who is an electrician, are coming over to start rewiring the basement (And I’m going to help out-at least until they throw me out). Not only are they going to replace all the wiring in the basement, but they’re also going to divide up the 35 endpoints above across 4 or 5 circuits. I’m really looking forward to this!

And now, a gratuitous shot of the old electrical fusebox, which was turned into a giant junction box by a previous electrician:

My favorite part is the coax for the cable TV that comes in through the hole in the wall where the electrical service used to enter the house–that’s classy.

Not a Typewriter

Thursday, February 24th, 2005

When I ripped out a framed wall in the basement, I found a porcelain fixture on the wall. This is what it looks like, front and back:

The wires had already been cut, although there are three wires hooked to the top (I’m assuming that one is a ground) and two wires hooked to the bottom. The reddish “bars,” which are hollow, but with something inside of them, appear to conduct current from the top wires to the bottom (or vice-versa).

Right above the circular part (which is threaded), you can barely make out the words “Western Electric” raised on the porcelain.

The back side seems to have an “E” shaped depression and two other square depressions that are filled with a waxy substance.

And now for the thirty-seven dollar question:

Just what in the heck is this? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

The Woodwork

Wednesday, February 16th, 2005

One of the first thing we noticed when we saw the Old Man was the woodwork–it’s beautiful, or at least it was at some point. The entire house is finished with heavy oak trim, and the dining room has oak panelling from the floor to about 18″ below the ceiling. The foyer stairs and the upstairs hallway are also panelled to about waist high (undecorated panels, not actual wainscoting).

This woodwork should provide warmth and beauty to the house, but it doesn’t; this picture of the stair railing gives a good idea of what it looks like now.

From what I can tell, one of the Previous Owners painted the woodwork–all of it–with at least one coat of paint, which was very common after WWII. The crown molding (a very simple molding, mind you) is still painted ceiling white. Then another Previous Owner stripped the woodwork, but did an extremely poor job of it:

They neither removed the shoe between the floor and the trim, they didn’t remove all the stripped finish, and they failed to completely put a new finish on the trim after they stripped it. In fact, if you look at where I removed the shoe, you can see where the old finish pooled up and hardened into a glass-like substance. The result: woodwork with an inconsistent “pickled” finish, raised grain, and the look of weathered driftwood.

So I’ve been doing research to figure out what we’re going to want to do with the wood. We bought a few paint strippers to try out on some test patches. We’re going with ReadiStrip, and CitriStrip for starters, and we’ll try SOYGel if neither of those do the trick.

As for refinishing, we’d like to go with a darker finish to provide a contrast with the floors, which were stained with Colonial Maple. However, we don’t want the finish to look muddy, or plasticky–we want it to look like it was finished 93 years ago and meticulously maintained for the life of the home.

Let’s start with what I’ve ruled out:

Several people recommended that we just use Minwax Polyshades, which apply a stain and a finish in one step. It may be easy to use, but wherever I’ve seen it used, it not only obscures the grain of the wood, but scratches easily, and the scratches stand out because the stain and the finish scratch off together.

I’ve also ruled out polyurethane, because of its plasticky look.

I’m looking for a finish that will highlight the beauty of the wood and give it a nice warm deep glow. At the same time, I’m looking for a stain that will highlight the grain of the wood while darkening the body of the wood without completely blackening it.

So far, all of my research indicates that I’ll want to start with a dye stain, apply a pigment stain over that, and finish with a few coats of shellac followed by a microcrystalline wax.

That sounds like a lot of work.

I’m planning on doing some experimentation on some test pieces of wood before actually trying it on the actual woodwork, but I’m hoping to find the look that I want without too many failed attempts.

Insulation? What Insulation?

Sunday, February 13th, 2005

While it’s no surprise to many that old houses were built with no insulation, it was still a rather large surprise to me a few weeks ago when I learned that the old man in indeed one of those old houses that has NO INSULATION. Mind you, the day that I discovered this, it was a balmy 3 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside, and we had just gotten a gas bill that looked more like a mortgage payment than a utility bill.

Truth be told, we do have a little insulation in the attic floor, but it’s loose fill–ancient, thin, and without a vapor barrier. I’m guessing that it’s giving us a net R value of about 3, and that’s being generous. Of course, in our neck of the woods, they recommend an R value of 38 in the attic.

A little investigation and research revealed that the old man is built using a framing technique called “balloon framing.” Google found me the following definition of balloon framing:

Balloon framing is a system of wood-frame construction, first used in the 19th century, in which the studs are continuous from the foundation sill to the top wall plate. Floor structures (one, two, or more) are hung from the studs. Balloon framing, which replaced post-and-beam construction, was made possible by the availability of structural lumber sawed to uniform sizes.

A balloon frame, which is held together entirely by nails, could be erected faster than a post-and-beam frame, with the use of less-skilled labor; and the end result was stronger and more apt to be square and plumb. Balloon frames have one serious drawback: unless firestops are installed at the level of every floor, the stud spaces form what are essentially chimneys from cellar to attic, greatly accelerating the spread of fire.

(More on balloon framing, along with some pretty pictures here)

And indeed, our home has no firestops in the stud spaces at the basement ceiling, so in addition to insulating the old man, we also need to install firestops. Installing the firestops in the basement shouldn’t be hard, but if we’re supposed to put them between the 1st and 2nd floor, we’re going to have a problem on our hands since we don’t plan on ripping out the original plaster walls (although we are planning on sprucing them up a bit).

Two more items for the large project TODO list.

Goodbye Swingset

Saturday, October 9th, 2004

The house came with this swingset in the backyard

but we really don’t have any use for it, so I called up my friend J., who has twin 2 year olds, and asked him if he wanted. Well, “free” is J.’s favorite word, so he drove over in his truck and J., D., and myself set to work taking the set apart.

As I ducked down to start removing the bolts that held the bottom parts together, I noticed some writing under the swingset:

Joe and Augie, if you’re reading this, sorry about the toys, but they had to go. :-)

Architectural Style

Sunday, September 26th, 2004

Our house is a little unusual as far as architectural style goes. From the outside, it looks like a four square at first glance, but inside it’s nothing at all like a four square.

We got word from J. (the Architect) today about the style of our house. She did a little research and told us that it’s an American Four Square with Prairie influences, and Arts & Crafts influences on the inside.

She also gave us some pointers on where to start looking to find information about our house’s history: Original architect, building permits, and possibly plans. Unfortunately, we need a copy of the deed or a water bill to initiate a lot of this research, and currently we have neither.

Not to worry… we’ve got years to find out all about our house’s history.

A Brief History Lesson

Friday, September 24th, 2004

One of my good friends from college (well, I went to school with her husband) came over tonight at our invitation to take a look at the house and give us any insights into its history. J. is getting a masters degree in architecture, and we were hoping that she could both tell us a little about the house and brainstorm about some of the things we can do to make good use of our spaces.

J. was pretty excited about the house, but wanted to see the basement first. Now our basement is pretty weird. The front half of it is concrete block–something extremely unusual for an old home. Architect pointed out that the concrete blocks (half-thickness) aren’t actually load-bearing, but instead, they sit in front of the foundation, and the block wall that divides the basement in two has no supports whatsoever. She noted that a good swift kick could probably knock half of the wall over. So the basement is actually encased in concrete block as opposed to “made of concrete block.” This is good news as far as I’m concerned, because I want to rip the block out at some point anyway (although it’s pretty darned low on the priority list at the moment).

Next, she pointed out that our house, while a brick house on the outside, is not entirely brick, but it’s actually a frame house with brick facing.

Oh, and our radiators, which are hot water (as opposed to the typical steam heat), are not original, but were likely installed in the 30′s or 40′s. Radiators from our house’s era (it was built in 1912) were ornate and decorative since they were out in the open. These radiators are plain and were always meant to have radiator covers on them.