Thursday, October 31, 2013

of syrup and cisterns

Things have been somewhat quiet around here the past couple of weeks, as family visits and a last minute Halloween get together here have not only kept us busy, but the cleaning required has prevented us from working on much of anything with risking undoing all our hard work. In the almost three years we've been here I think we've only sat in our dining room a half dozen times, so it was somewhat thrilling to sit and enjoy a Halloween dinner with friends, finally putting our big old house to good use (Guinness Beef Pie, Bourbon Slushies and Mulled Wine helped, I'm sure, as did a Nightmare before Christmas and Rocky Horror Picture Show double header projected on the wall)!

We've always taken Halloween quite seriously - for us it is The Holiday, so not being able to decorate (our bins are buried in the disaster that is the 3rd floor, not to mention it's a bit hard to work around decorations) has caused us more than a little grief. At least our house is more than terrifying enough on it's own, even with minimal decorating our neighbors told us that the majority of trick-or-treaters took one look at our house and kept walking. Guess that just means I get to keep the Costco bag of candy all to myself.

I'll also go ahead and blame our neighbor and good friend for the slow down in progress. We mentioned our cistern to him a few weeks ago, and his curiosity got the best of him.

We've looked in it before, but couldn't make too much out as it was filled with water. We were hoping to find out where the overflow was located, as well as which gutters still fed into it. As it turns out, he used to work for a pool company, and now that it's fall they were happy to loan him a monster pump that got it drained in just a few hours. What we learned is that it's a somewhat circular vaulted brick cistern, about 10 feet in diameter and 12 feet deep. The water was crystal clear (although there's a few inches of silt in the bottom), and it looks like three downspouts still feed into it, all of which are partially clogged with small roots which may explain some of the moisture in the basement.

We also learned that our hips are bigger than they seem - it's lucky that we brought out a tape measure before trying to climb in or else we'd have had a real Augustus Gloop situation on our hands... Luckily we have a very tiny cousin, but I'm still inordinately disappointed that I won't be able to get down there myself (it may be the perfect excuse for a diet).

The rain we've had the past few days will make borrowing the pump again necessary before anyone gets down there though... Judging by the fact that it's in excellent condition I doubt there's any cool stuff to find, but I'd like to take a pruner to those roots and get a better idea about an overflow. We were able to see the pipe in the bottom of the cistern that went into the house. For those not familiar with how cisterns work (or at least not familiar with how "we think" ours worked) - the copper gutters and downspouts flowed into the cistern, which connected to a pipe that flowed to a pump in the basement. This hand pump pumped water into a smaller cast iron cistern in the attic, from which our plumbing was fed via gravity. Thus an 1886 house that seems to have always had indoor plumbing.

that's the cistern on the left, you can see the disconnected pipe

None of this is particularly interesting I know, but look, we're starting to plan the front porch! The syrup made for a great gazebo stand in . . .

Saturday, October 19, 2013

something's squirrelly

I know I had mentioned our pressing need to close the gaping holes on the third floor, and to that end we knocked down a rather large chunk of wall (9x7) on the first. The wall had it coming, and I've been waiting nearly a year to do the deed. We knew that our house, like many period homes, should have something of a foursquare plan on the first floor (very early open-concept I suppose, bleh). After determining where the staircase and original front door had been (the door is now a window in what was a first floor bedroom when we bought the house), we knew several things were terribly wrong.

floorplan when we purchased her
After fixing our hall of mirrors and restoring the placement of the staircase, the next thing on the agenda was reopening the doorway between what had been the entry and the main parlor.

two years in
We knew this entry existed not only because it was sort of a given that one of the largest rooms on the first floor would never have been entered only through a tiny non-original hallway leading to the bathroom, but also because extensive doorway shaped cracking in the plaster, said "sledgehammer here" (which is a lie, because we use his and hers demo hammers).


This diagram is also a lie, as it would lead you to believe we were some of the lucky few that found unmolested pocket doors in the wall, never fear, the previous owners of our home would never let us off that easy. What actually happened is that a year ago I noticed (in our neverending basement of mysteries) a particularly lovely toilet partition in our Pittsburgh bathroom ( Said partition was crudely sawn off on one end, solid cherry and uniquely paneled. Naturally this discovery led me to grab a grinder and cut some viewing holes between the cracks.

head sized holes that could be hidden behind
furniture, that window should be the entry doors
We weren't just missing a door or an arch, we were missing pocket doors! Sadly the holes revealed that there were no doors hiding out in there, but they did suggest that the track may be intact. Fast forward a year . . .

everyone agreed this was a squirrel . . .

mystery diagrams, and you can see
the large pocket on the right

Both sides of the wall demoed, filler studs (that we could tell were reused from elsewhere in the house because of the lath shadows to the inside of the pockets) removed, and 30 bags of plaster from the floor and pockets swept up and we now know we're missing two 9 foot by 3 1/2 foot quartersawn cherry pocket doors. Thanks to ebay we've identified what they looked like (we have the top 2/3's of one door).

same panel detail, but pine and 10 feet tall
Our track however is perfectly intact, and seems to be made up of two 12x4 iron I beams (this is the Steel City after all) on top of parallel brick and fieldstone walls, which explains why the center of our house has no sag what-so-ever. We've given ourselves another week or so to find temporary doors and hardware that we can use (the originals are so lovely we'll have them replicated at some point in the distant future after we win the lottery). The doors are easy to find, but while all the rollers seem to fit in the track, our hardware requires a two inch drop to the top of the stop that keeps the doors from derailing, instead of the one inch that seems more common. We have one last lead, but if that falls through we'll treat the opening like an arch and trim it out, because the chimney effect we have going on is astounding (and starting to get down right frigid).

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

dirty broken pretty things

I'm pretty sure there's a help line out there for furniture and objects in need, and the number they give out is mine. Pittsburgh has been extremely generous to us, I think it helps that since we work for home we tell people we can pick something up anytime (not to mention that old picture of our house is pretty convincing when we say the house NEEDS something). Two recent freebies are this Victorian buffet and Aesthetic Movement desk, both were pulled from basements where they'd been pressed into workbench slavery. The horror . . . I didn't intend to talk about them today, so forgive the absence of before pictures.

Yes, we have the drawers and cabinet door

Obviously they're rough. The buffet is high Victorian though, and aside from some chipped quartersawn oak veneer is in rather brilliant condition under it's paint splatters, deeply embedded grime and nailed on linoleum top - even the glass is in perfect shape. We picked it up a week ago with only a vague description to go on, and it's owner was very dubious of our promise to take it no matter what. Truthfully I was half expecting some 1970's thing with fake stained glass that we'd promptly have to drop off at the ReStore, so to see this thing in the dark basement was a sight to behold. Working on it was supposed to be a winter project, but we decided we could use it, so stripping the shellac has begun (I'm about half done).

First pass on the right, glue from the linoleum on the left

This is the first time I've stripped shellac, and though tedious, it's sooooo easy compared to what I'm used to (50 layers of paint, heat guns, and caustic strippers). I'm using denatured alcohol and varying grades of steel wool, q-tips, scrapers and shop towels. I read on (bought some garnet flakes that are on they're way now) that most denatured alcohol you can buy now is trash (including the jug I bought at Lowes) because of the ingredients - so I know to use the good stuff for mixing my shellac, but does anyone know if the better stuff makes stripping easier?

As for the cabinet, this is similar to what it's supposed to look like - rolltop and bookcase that fit into the top with pegs, but, all we have is the cabinet (insert sad face here).

It's really just serving as a flat surface that things get stacked on for now, but since we were getting ready to move it upstairs I decided to give it a closer inspection. We had assumed that the top was missing it's leather, although that didn't explain why the moldings didn't match up. When I pulled out the drawers it all became clear though, obviously the top was on upside down, now why didn't that occur to me?

now why would there be pink felt UNDER the desktop?

I have no idea what possessed the previous owners of this poor little cabinet to ditch the top, break the door and two handles, and remove the top and glue it back on upside down; but, at least the top is right-side up now.

so, anyone know where I can pick up tiny Greek Key border?

What I don't want to talk about is the fact that although the top was glued in - it's also mounted in an original channel so it could slide in and out. It took us longer than I care to admit to figure that second part out.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

fall is upon us

Fall is upon us like a ton of bricks. I'm sure everyone with a house wide open to the critters and elements is feeling just a bit more stressed with every leaf that turns. Although our game plan for this year was finally closing up the house, a certain little one room schoolhouse put a wrench in those plans.

On the other hand, closing up the schoolhouse looks like it will go much more quickly than planned. We have an old PT Cruiser that has been my hauler for many years, but now that the trained monkey and I work out of the house full time the extra car is just costing us insurance money. Although it's a good little car it's really not worth much, thus when our carpenter's assistant mentioned he wanted to buy it we worked out a deal for a bit of cash (just enough for tires for the Ghia and the rest of the gravel for the schoolhouse floor) and his work putting up the slate and siding (with us working as assistants). The only issue with this is that we won't be able to dry and prep our wood a few pieces at a time (you've seen pictures of the building before we took it down, so you can guess how bad the siding is), but it'll be worth it. The expedited siding installation will mean I should be able to get her painted before winter - which, hilariously enough, would mean that our biggest project to date will be one of the fastest to finish . . .

Although it'll be a straightforward paint job, just prepping and painting the beadboard for the soffits and the louvers (which are pretty much unpaintable once installed) took a week, so I won't say it'll be easy. We're ready for siding now, all we need to do is finish the concrete work around the foundation (we decided to pour a curb all the way around instead of just in the back corner), and prep a bunch of siding. I'll do my best to update and write about all this in more detail before our next round of houseguests . . .

door from removed stair addition
and windows installed
louvers installed and carved ridge beam
about 1/5 of the siding dry and stacked
first of the oak flooring loaded into the rafters
cupola sided and trimmed

Oh, and Lucy wishes you a happy October!