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Building them like they used to

by admin on July 21, 2011

 I’m in the midst of my own small kitchen addition. I’m pushing out the side wall of my kitchen twenty inches. Why only twenty inches, you ask? (Everybody else does.) It’s because that’s all we need to cure our ills, and going further would block a view out a family room window. It may be a small addition, but it’ll be a much-needed makeover of the whole kitchen.

Builders are available these days for the lowest rates I’ve ever seen. That’s part of the reason I’m doing my project now. I’m doing enough work myself just to make sure I still “got game” when it comes to assembling a house.

Cutting through the side wall of my hundred and twenty-five year old house became a history lesson. The seven inch thick wall was built up from multiple layers of sheathing and siding, two of which were installed by me a mere two decades ago. The original layers of planks included boards as wide as 18” with barely a knot in them, such was the plenitude of lumber in nineteenth century California. I saved many of the antique nails as souvenirs as we cut the wall away. They’re like modern nails except square and tapered.

Later, when we were framing in new studs, I honored the old house by using one of the old nails to help stitch-nail together a couple of studs. It drove in just fine and provided that satisfying solid anchoring that the best nails always do. It was easy to imagine the original driver of this nail standing in this exact location in 1885 sinking this very nail into place with a few confident hammer swings. I pictured these home builders of yesteryear to be dressed better than I, being Victorians and all, surely with suspenders, long sleeved shirts and a hat of some sort, certainly nothing like my torn cargo shorts and faded logo t-shirt.

A horse-drawn cart would have come up the dirt road that was West K Street to this sparsely settled end of Benicia to deliver a thick stack of long knot-free boards and a box or two of new square nails and the lads would have set about their task. In an era without power saws a carpenter must have had tremendous strength and endurance in his “sawing arm.” Keeping sharpened saws on hand was surely job one.

Despite the lack of such conveniences as power tools, these carpenters excelled at the manipulation of cut wood. The houses of that era generally had well proportioned roof lines and sturdy siding and substantial trim elements that gave these houses a stateliness that will always be admired. Where these nineteenth century houses are not so wonderful is the substantial lack of closet space, low bathroom count, minimal kitchen amenities, lack of earthquake engineering, no insulation. To name a few.

It’s often said that we don’t build them like they used to. Fact is, we build them far better. From the ground up. Foundations are vastly better, deeper in the soil to prevent heaving, reinforced with high quality steel to prevent cracking and separation.        

Even the old nail that I hammered in to honor my 1885 counterpart has been improved. A modern straight-shafted “sixteen penny sinker” has a green vinyl coating that acts as a lubricant when being driven into wood but then dries as an adhesive. The list of improvements goes on from there. Our houses are sealed against water and drafts by metal flashing and durable vapor barriers placed under our siding. Low-E glass in windows prevents fading of fabric and increases energy efficiency. Water lines are done in copper to last forever instead of galvanized steel that eventually corrodes. Simple two-by-four fire blocks added inside walls and ceilings help control the spread of fire. Underground sewer lines made from ABS pipe don’t clog with roots like old ceramic pipes do. We have programmable climate control that is very easy to get used to. Standards for electrical features have gone from non-existent to off the charts.

This list could go on, and become evermore arcane. But there is something profound that can’t be ignored. These new features have undeniable utility and are appreciated but, alas, are not beloved. And that’s where the old houses exert their self-confidence.

Nineteenth century houses have front porches that invite lingering. They have tall ceilings that give rooms more poise. There are bay windows accented by hand-carved corbels. Doublewide passageways between the front rooms add a feeling of openness to the formality. Windows have wavy glass that literally softens the view of the outside world.  

Fans of these older houses are devoted to these aspects. We could build new houses with these touches, and sometimes we do, but often not with the focused determination that our elders did.

These houses evoke a simpler time, even if the so-called simpler time truthfully had more than its share of problems, with some really big wars, depressions, not to mention lack of antibiotics and more. In my case, these houses recall childhood visits to the Queen Anne house of my grandparents in Rock Island, Illinois. For me as a young boy, that robust house truly did represent simpler times.

A PBS reality show called “1900 House” followed the life of a modern family placed inside a nineteenth century home. For weeks on end they lived just like the Victorians did, eating and dressing and entertaining themselves in all the ways of that era. These modern-day transplants coped fairly well with the major inconveniences brought by this assignment, or so it seemed until the teenage daughter was caught on film sneaking into a nearby drugstore to secretly buy some shampoo. This transgression was not supposed to be part of the show, but to me it became a defining moment of the whole experiment. Apparently, using regular nineteenth century hand soap on your head in the manner of the era wasn’t an easy thing to endure. Not if you were accustomed to a more livable alternative.

Each generation wants its comforts. We like our hair to be bouncing and behaving, just like we like our kitchens to have a two drawer dishwasher ergonomically placed just to the side of the undermount kitchen sink complete with three-quarter horsepower garbage disposal. Even purists who restore historic houses to their original period usually make an exception for the kitchen. A typical compromise is to imbue these updated kitchens with historic-seeming touches like old style cabinet faces, subway tile, and a pot rack that hangs from the ceiling.

That is what I’m doing to a lesser degree in my semi-historic house. There have been some eye-opening moments for me with my kitchen remodel, some reality checks that will surely make it into the next column or two.

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