Wednesday, March 28, 2018

the Wirsing School's family

In the past year, two different branches of the Wirsing School's original family have reached out through the blog.  This is astounding and wonderful, and beyond gratifying.  I would say that it's incomprehensible to think that such a charming little place almost met such an undignified end, but, with grand mansions being torn down every day we know that's not true.  Still, the little schoolhouse that could must have known it had a fan club, it's the only thing explaining why it still managed to stay (mostly) upright. 

Here's a bit of it's history, in photos...

1912 - check out the original bell tower, chimney and porch!


 The two photos above were sent to me by a member of the Wirsing family whose cousin, Ronda Ball, was the last Wirsing to own the schoolhouse. Her grandfather, Wayne Wirsing, bought and restored the schoolhouse in the 60's. He was born just down the lane from the schoolhouse in a farmhouse. Her 3 times great grandpa donated the land and some of the funds to build the school house in 1875, and it was in operation until 1948. The bell is not original to the school and was gone when her grandpa, Wayne, bought the school (The bell had already been stolen when we began work, what a relief to find out it wasn't original). There was a Wirsing reunion held at the school each August from 1967 until the late 1980's.  There are several school desks from the schoolhouse house still in the family.

The photos below are one I just received, taken in 1999 by another Wiring descendant who was doing genealogical research.  Sarah Jane Wirsing (daughter of John Wirsing and Sarah Rush) is his 4th great-grandmother.




1999 - check out those wasp nests!


The next few photos are the schoolhouse as we found it in early 2013, after responding to a "free stuff" posting on Craigslist.  There are not enough thank yous in the world for the people who posted it...




After the first coat of paint on the front following it's resurrection (see, this is a timely almost Easter post!)...


More or less as she stands today below.  Paint will get finished this year no matter what, as will gutters.  I'm not sure I'll have time to finish restoring the beadboard shutters though.


Given that Wirsing School Road no long has it's school, I think we'll be buying a replica street sign for our driveway, just in case the family reunions resume and they need to find the place...

Friday, January 12, 2018

stop gap stuffing the gaps

We've long had issues with the pipes that run up to the third floor freezing if temps dip below zero.  This has confounded us, as the pipes are in an interior wall running through the middle of the house.  On the first floor they run through the curved wooden chase that everyone's so fascinated by in the dining room, and continue through the guest bedroom wall and third floor bath.  When the house was built they connected the in-ground cistern to the attic cistern, which provided water pressure through gravity. 

Now that the beadboard ceiling is down on the old front porch the reason for the problem has become a little less mysterious.  For no particular reason, it appears that whoever built it ripped off the moldings from around the base of the roof and box gutters.  This left an enormous gap all the way around the perimeter of the bay, which opened directly into the floor joists of the second floor, explaining both the floor of ice in the guest bedroom and the frozen pipes.  This whole section was closed off only by the new porch roof above, and the beadboard ceiling butting up to the bay below where the moldings should have been.

Obviously we had hoped to have this demoed and repaired in the fall.  While the demo work could easily get done over the winter, there are a lot of elements that need repair once the porch is gone.  In addition to the new shingles over the little bay, there are also bricks to repair where pockets were created for the joists, repairing the box gutter and downspout and refinishing the doors. 

So in the meantime I crept up the ladder before the current storm hit to try and close up what I could.  When I went out it was 63 degrees, when I came in two hours later it was 40, raining, and windy.  You know what spray foam doesn't like?  The cold.  Also, the wind.  The spray foam I had planned on using wasn't curing, and the draft blowing into the house was so strong it was sucking the foam through.  If I had had more time I would have cut foam insulation sheets down to size, but I was in a rush.  And when in a rush one stuffs fiberglass batts wherever they can and hopes for the best.  It has to be better than nothing right?

Thursday, January 4, 2018

roofing the beast

Now given that we haven't seen the roof for two weeks with the incredible deep freeze Pittsburgh's been having, a post about shingling the roof seems less than timely.  So be it... 

After much hemming and hawing we ended up going with the GAF Camelot II shingle in charcoal.  We had initially called for the Camelot shingle in Sheffield Black, but that added tremendously to the price for no obvious reason other than color.  This is a slate look shingle, and was well worth the slight price difference over a regular dimensional shingle. 

The entire roof was wrapped in Grace Ice and Water Shield.  This was not only because of the relatively low slope on some of it, but also so that the sheathing would be protected if roofing was delayed. 

We also went ahead and did all the flashing in copper, along with copper ridge caps, valleys and drip edge.  Copper flashing isn't as expensive as most seem to think, and in this age of lifetime rated shingles it's foolish not to use flashings that will last as long as the rest of the roof.  While aluminum doesn't rust, it does get very brittle over time, and really can't compete.  The visible copper really adds to the roof, and is enough of a distraction that the eye doesn't immediately realize the shingles aren't slates. 

There was one complication to using these shingles that no one anticipated however, and that was the tower roof.  Our roofer (Deluca Roofing for the locals, and highly recommended) was familiar with cutting individual shingles to accommodate the curve of the conical roof, but there was no real way to cut and lay these shingles properly since they vary in shape and are layered as you can see in the above photo.  The front of the tower looks fine, and the inconsistencies are mostly hidden on the back.  It's a relatively minor disappointment, but something to consider if you're planning a similar project. 

I also restored the last antique weathervane which is mounted on the tower peak.  It's nowhere near as exceptional as the schoolhouse weathervane, but I deliberately chose something that wouldn't compete with the original spire on the main tower roof.  Not to mention the price was right, and it had it's original mount, which can be quite difficult to find. 

All that's left is installing copper gutters and downspouts.  I'm sure the price on the radius gutter will be nothing short of heart stopping, so we'll kick that can down the road as long as we're able.  If anyone's interested in the planning behind the roof check out the posts from this year.  There was a lot of head-scratching involved in both the products used and the construction. 

Monday, December 18, 2017

columns and Christmas lights

The turned porch posts went in at the end of October.  They are tremendously beautiful.  Each one is 10 feet tall, and turned from an 8x8 post.  Anything smaller would have been under-scaled, and I'm pleased we got this part right. 

The posts themselves were custom turnings purchased from Mr. Spindle in North Dakota.  We worked with them to perfect the pattern based on the historic photos of the house.  My only complaint is that posts of this scale are only availible as laminated cedar.  BUT, most companies don't even stock 8x8 posts, and those that do only have them in laminated woods, mostly pine, and all for considerably more than we paid.  Customer service was beyond exceptional (the owner or general manager picked up every time I called), and I'm just so damn pleased it all worked out. 

Initially we had only planned to buy the two posts that would flank the porch window salvaged from the porch we tore down.  That window is 10x7, and we didn't want disassemble and remount it when we got around to doing the final columns (our initial plan had been to use 6x6 posts temporarily).  I had talked at length with several different companies, and it was just happenstance that I talked to Bob (the owner) last.  I'm a sucker for anyone who wants to see photos of my house and know its history, and at that point I knew the price he offered to turn the posts for wouldn't be beat.  We paid $5000 for the posts (yes, it hurts to write that number down).  To put that number in perspective, other companies had quoted us $1200 for a custom 6x6 in finger jointed pine, we paid $500 a post for ten 8x8 cedar posts. 

The only mistake made is on my shoulders.  In the historic photos you'll see the routed detail at the top and bottom of the posts. 

I'm willing to bet the scale and router bits used to create it are identical to the box posts on the juliet balcony off the second floor bath. 

clearly I need new posts, any volunteers?

This complex detail would have to had been done by hand on the already turned posts, and understandably, no one really wanted to risk ruining the posts.  Our builder would have done it had I pushed, but I was overwhelmed enough at that point (and lacking the funds to buy more posts if they were ruined in the process) that I settled for a much simpler set up. 

It's one of an infinite number of things that will bother me that no one else will notice.  It's clear though that the shallow routing has much less impact than the original.... 

The posts are mounted to a square piece of AZEK on the bottom, so they don't wick moisture from the porch floor. The bottom of each post is wrapped in a beveled ceder trim to match the original.  Regrettably I didn't have an opportunity to get the posts painted before it got too cold, but the ends and all contact points have been coated with an excellent oil primer.  I also got primer on where the turning ends at the bottom of the posts.  That tapered bit was quite porous, and I hated the thought of snow just sitting there all winter with no protection from the moisture. 

Thursday, December 14, 2017

figuring out the border

 Shockingly, it was the border around the porch floor that created the most enduring drama of the build, THE BORDER!  Now the idea of a border around the deck is straightforward enough.  It would dress up the edges, protect the end grain of the boards, and sit under the columns so that new flooring could be added without impacting anything structural.  Perhaps most importantly it would dress up the huge expanse of boring deck boards, and bring them just a little bit of class.  We considered doing it in 5/4 treated pine, ipe or cumuru (tropical hardwoods), and AZEK.

A huge area, especially when measured in tiny toddler feet.

The pine was a no go for obvious reasons, we wanted to avoid having to replace it (preferably forever), not to mention it's prone to cupping and splitting.  The ipe and cumuru are beautiful, but they are notorious for not holding paint well (i.e. if they started to fail we wouldn't be able to paint them to extend their life), and they're prone to splitting in dry weather.  Additionally, the widths and lengths we'd need to cut to build up the curve of the gazebo would add considerably to the price, and have left us with many seams.  This left AZEK.  I'm as wary as anyone about putting plastic on an old house, but there are times when it's a life saver.  In the case of this porch it will make up the border, and parts of the fascia and skirting on the gazebo.  Now, one of the greatest things about AZEK is that it bends, and AZEK makes a special heating blanket just for this purpose.  Could I find one to rent or borrow anywhere on the planet?  No, and I called EVERYWHERE...  Luckily I had the brains to call corporate, and they put me in touch with the western PA rep.  He had a blanket.  He came out to bend the boards for us.  FOR FREE.

The deck boards were left long and cut down with a track saw on the straight sides, and a router on the gazebo.  The AZEK trim was bent around the curve so that it matched the radius perfectly.  While this was happening the temporary porch supports were cut and supported as each piece was installed.  No one's quite sure how the section facing the stairs will fair with frequent foot traffic, so we made sure that section can be removed and replaced if it becomes an issue in the future. 
The stick and nail trick was used several times to perfect the curve, including marking for the final decking cuts

Specifications for the lumber and deck stain we're planning to use recommend waiting a year before finishing, so I guess we're done with the deck until summer.