Friday, February 28, 2014

this old home

Old houses can be beautiful.  Our house was built in 1786.  At least by American standards, it is very, very old.

           It's not good because it's old, it's old because it's good.

This house has been very well cared for over the years by all of the owners before us.  The most recent ones left us this silly sign, price tag still on the back, a passing of the torch.  We have kept it, placed on the trim above the poorly placed laundry closet.  Occasionally, it falls off, upset by the loud and rhythmic jouncing of the spin cycle of a washing machine that sits on the old hand hewn timbers which still have a bit of give to them.  The thunk it makes, or the near miss to my head when I open the closet door, is a reminder of the work, the sometimes inconvenience, of living in an old home.  With drafts and mice and wear and poorly placed things.

Since we moved in, we have done a few improvements, such as replacing the leaking barn roof, but mostly we have lived in it, and added to its wear, its patina, more than anything.  Added our own dings and dents and scratches and scuff marks.

Moving here, we knew this home came with responsibilities, to preserve and maintain one of the oldest homes in Portland.
Connecting people to our colonial roots and to help them discover, imagine and value the relevance of this history to our lives.
mission statement of the Tate House Museum 
a Colonial Era home open to the public in our neighborhood

For three years, we have lived here and noticed, besides its beauty, the things that do not work quite right.  And mostly, we have made do.  But now, familiar with its weaknesses, we hope to do a few small things this coming summer, to mend a few problems and update systems to make the house greener and more energy efficient.
It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future. 
William J. Murtagh
Perhaps it is because I noticed that our large silver maple has begun to bud, perhaps confused by a warm patch we had a bit ago.  I got worried that this could be a problem for Sylvia.  But Jonathan reminded me that likely, in Sylvia's 250 year old life, this has happened before.  Like our house, she has seen this before, and will withstand it.

Another early sign of a change in the light is that the chickens are beginning to lay more eggs.

We are preparing for spring as well.  Ordering our seeds and trees, laying out our gardens and fruit patches and making our summer plans.

All the spring signs are making me want to freshen and spruce, to make the house a little better, to use these last weeks of winter to get ready for all the time outside when we will not want to have indoor projects with which to busy ourselves.  This itchiness to cleanse, purge, and spruce is a sign of late winter for me, too.

I am working on convincing Jonathan that I need to paint the kitchen cabinets.  I talked about this last year at this time too, but I never got to it.  Never convinced him that this was a wise project to take on.

Yuck, right?
Soon our tag sale wood stove/new sap evaporator will not be my dry straw storage area in the barn anymore, and will be carried outside for maple syrup season. And I will not have time to paint.

Besides the sprucing, mostly painting, that I would like to do myself, our minds have turned to some of the caretaking that we hope to do in the warmer months of summer.
These old buildings do not belong to us only, they belong to our forefathers and they will belong to our descendants unless we play them false. They are not in any sense our own property to do with as we like with them. We are only trustees for those that come after us.
William Morris
I warn you.  There can be things about old houses that are anything but beautiful.  There is some unsightly going on here.  But I thought I would show you a few of these things.  The dark underbelly, so to speak, of this otherwise incredible home.

There are a number of projects we would like to work on outside.  The first and probably most important one is the chicken coop.

This has been a hard winter on the chickens.  We would like to either modify or change their housing for next winter.  With the intense cold and deep snow, they have seemed too confined this year.  And our flock has sadly dwindled.

And given that their coop is freestanding and not well insulated, we have had to rely on a heat light to keep them warm enough on the coldest of days.

We are thinking of either expanding and insulating their space here, or finding a place in the barn or perhaps building a different structure for them elsewhere. We would like to rely less on the heat light and more on an improved shelter. Because my electricity bill does not like heat lights.

And make some storage for supplies as a part of it. Because the hauling of supplies across the tundra during the polar vortex is wearing on me. And my arms.

Another outside project is the repair of the stairs to the river.  They are desperately in need of leveling and support, having been bent and buckled and snapped by the intense frost heaves that form on the bank when the draining melt freezes fast and hard over and over again.

And, we hope to build a more permanent wood lot structure, one that does not involve the wind catching, rain permeable, frozen to the ground, and therefore human impenetrable tarp.  At least this year we seem to have ordered and stacked enough wood.  Even with maple syrup season still ahead of us.

And while we are at it, the garden shed is slowly rotting away.  There is a hole in the floor that is widening, and my piece of wood with a brick on top if it is no longer sufficient.  I am thinking that the roof may have a lot to do with this.

As I walk around thinking about these projects, I realize just how much of how we live here, and how it is different from how we have lived elsewhere, is inspired by the story of this home.  By its history, its land, its outbuildings and landscape.
We shape our buildings; thereafter, our buildings shape us. 
Winston Churchill
The exterior of the house needs most definitely to be painted.

While doing so, repairs will need to be made to address some trim rot,

and shingling work.

While we line up a small amount of funds to begin this work, through refinancing and saving, we are getting excited about making this old house a bit more modern.  We would like to update our heating system.

What's your envelope?  we were asked by a consultant.  Given that we didn't know what this means, we know we have a lot to learn.  R values and such.  But, a bit of research is helping us to learn.  It starts with windows.

Our windows are gorgeous and original.  But in need of repair.

Some are broken.  And most do not readily open.  Which makes for some hot and stuffy summers, and some cold and drafty winters.

And also?  Our attic should probably be insulated, right? is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us.
John Ruskin

And perhaps I should not be able to see outside quite so easily through the vents and window surrounds.  

I think our envelope may have a tear or two.

Currently, we heat the house primarily with two wood stoves.
Whatever is goode in its kinde ought to be preserv'd in respect for antiquity, as well as our present advantage, for destruction can be profitable to none but such as live by it.
Nicholas Hawksmoore

These, plus the heat set on the lowest possible setting to keep the pipes from freezing, especially when we are away, keep us warm enough, but not as warm as I would like to be, particularly in rooms farther way from the wood stoves.

Unfortunately, it just isn't feasible to tend all eight fireplaces.  Though I often marvel at what life must have been like centered around each of them, tending each and every one as a regular part of the day.

And now, I take you to the most terrifying of places.  The basement.  Basements of old homes.  They hold the home's truths we were told by a historic home preservationist who visited us here.  Never have I seen someone so eager to explore a basement.

But those basements?  They can also can be quite scary.  In fact, our friend refers to ours as the Blair Witch Project basement.  They definitely hold rodents, and maybe?  Ghosts.  Even if they do have knowledge of this home's story.  I don't like to conduct my interviews with unexplained noises and shifts in light and movement, in the basement.

This is our system.  

But, given how cold it is in the house, and how we sometimes still have to fill the oil tank in the summer just for hot water, we would like to get the hot water off the oil furnace system because summer oil seems silly.
Memory is reality. It is better to recycle what exists, to avoid mortgaging a workable past to a non-existent future, and to think small. In the life of cities, only conservation is sanity.
Robert Hughes

Seriously, the basement is a bad place.

And I can't imagine that this system I devised beneath the kitchen one morning is the best way to keep the water pipes from freezing.

So, we are thinking about solar power.  We have this perfectly oriented roof on the barn.  Newly shingled and all.  There is something snappy to me about the idea of solar panels on the roof of a 250 year old barn.
Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings. 
Jane Jacobs

While walking around this week, I accidentally found another necessary project.  And, the unexpected should be expected here in an old home.  The problem started here, we think.  A build up of snow and perhaps an ice dam.

I came upon, noticed, as I was dreaming of fresh paint, this. We have a problem.
Ah, fiddleflop.
Rebecca Stetson Werner

Just upstairs, I noticed this, in the wall.

Great architecture has only two natural enemies: water and stupid men. 
Richard Nickel
I am trying not to think too much about how this soft area in the wall is where I have also heard some late night scratching in the wall. Because I think this hole is getting bigger.

Well, that's what the experts are for, right?  Good thing we had them lined up to come.  Because I don't think paint, or even duct tape, is going to fix this one.

Our home.  Sometimes it's not all pretty.  And it is a lot of work.  
History is who we are and why we are the way we are. 
David McCullough
And it's not even mud season yet.
American culture, and advertising in particular, has done an excellent job of convincing consumers that they are the center of the universe, and that their needs and desires should be more important than anything else. This has led to a huge sense of entitlement, including the idea that one's time is so valuable that it couldn't possibly be spent maintaining the house. Here's some news you may find distressing. You are not the center of the universe. I am not the center of the universe, either. We are temporary. We are not playing Monopoly, and there is no "get-out-of-maintenance-free" card. (Those who are elderly or disabled get slack.) A house comes with responsibilities, and a historic house comes with more responsibilities. We are only the caretakers of these houses, which were here before we owned them and which will be here after we are gone. They contain the wood from the old-growth forests, they are monuments to the skill of those who labored to build them, they represent our cultural heritage. To destroy them, or allow them to be destroyed by neglect, to remove their original fabric in the pointless pursuit of "no maintenance" is profoundly disrespectful both to the trees that gave their lives and to the labor and skill of those who built the houses-with hand tools, I might add.
Jane Powell
Who knows how many of these things will happen this summer, and what our small budget will allow after the necessary fixes occur.
Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men's blood ... Make big plans; aim high in hope and work...
Daniel Burnham

* While I was researching greening historic homes, and envelopes, and r values and such, I came across the National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers website.  The quotes in this post are taken from that site.  The NCSHPO is the professional association of the State government officials who carry out the national historic preservation program pursuant to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, as amended (16 USC 470).  Strangely, I find that act a fascinating read.

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