View Full Version : Old houses

08-27-2008, 10:47 AM
Jamie's travails with Airlie got me thinking about renewing old construction, and why we do it.

We've been renovating our 150 year old house for the 6 years we've owned it. Essentially nothing had been done for about 25 years, and what had been done ... wasn't always done well. Every surface and every system needed attention. It's a big old place - 3200 square feet, excluding the semi-finished attic and a 300 square foot attached shed. Couldn't have afforded to buy it anywhere else in North America ... and couldn't buy it now, here.

When we're done, we'll literally have repaired, refinished or replaced every surface, in every room ... including all the plumbing fixtures, and about half the lighting. While other guys have replaced the furnace, plumbing rough-ins and most of the electrical, up 'till this Summer I've done virtually everything else. My wife jokes that "this is the house that Tom built."

Not quite, but close. A great aunt recently died; Agnes' legacy is partly being realized in hiring out the much needed exterior paint job, and the heaviest lifting in a domino-effect set of renovations that will finally create a decent bedroom for our youngest lad. What had long ago been turned into a kitchen for an upstairs suite will once again be a bedroom; Nat and I pried up the battleship linoleum over the weekend, to reveal the 6-8" wide first growth plank floor for the first time in probably 50 years.

13 rooms.

When we're done, I'll have refinished 8 of the floors, and laid new flooring (2 hardwood, 1 each of cork, ceramic tile, lino) in the others. Will have installed 2-3 piece stacked crown mouldings everywhere except the bathrooms. Chair rails in 6 major spaces, made panelled wainscotting in 2 more, and beadboard wainscotting in another 3.

I'll have repaired cracked plaster/lath in every room, and wallpapered or repainted every interior surface in the house that's not varnished - including mullions on 12 new 6 over 6 double hung windows. By now, I can cut a decent paint line with either hand ...

I've replaced rotted posts and decking on the front porch, made window seats and built-in bookcases. Installed two salvaged fireplace surrounds, 6 stained glass windows - half with period glass - all with period trim.


My wife and I never had a family home - all our lives, we moved and moved and moved. Now we're staying still. More to the point, this house will eventually pass to our daughter, and she wants to stay still. It means something to her, and to me, that we can see my hands all over this place. That she's got memories in every corner, every brush-stroke, every window frame.

It matters to her, and to me, that we've redeemed what had once become commercial space, re-purposing it again as something to nurture a family. Nurture it through acknowledging that humans need beauty and history at least as much as they need disposable consumer goods or pre-packaged vacation experiences.

It matters to me that I can see the places where my late Dad and I worked together on a few projects. He was slipping away into Alzheimer's by then and our worker/helper roles had reversed from my boyhood ... but I see him there still. My kids will see me there, when my turn comes.

Renewing this house has become a statement of the importance of the social meaning of objects - how houses, or boats, or other "things" acquire meaning and resonance thorugh our social relationships.

Frankly, I only intuited it, when we started the work. Now, I'm realizing - and seeing in my kids' reactions - how important it is, and how much I missed through not having it when I was a child.

08-27-2008, 11:31 AM
Our house isn't old by any means, it was build around 1977-78. We bought it in 1987, intending to live there 3-5 years, then move on to a little bigger place. Well we're still here. It has been the only home the kids know, and they say they can't really imagine moving. When we contemplated moving to Jacksonville, they were excited about the new potential place, but a little sad at the thought of leaving "home".

It was a fixer-upper of sorts when we bought, all cosmetic stuff, nothing serious. New carpet (professionally {sort of !!!} installed), new floors in the kitchen and baths, new countertops, refinished cabinets, everything repainted or wall papered. Small deck in front, bigger deck in back, lots of landscaping, etc, etc. Slacked off when the kids were really young and it started to show in many areas. Now its getting back in shape, one piece at a time.

I grew up in a similar house in Virginia, a little bigger than this one. We moved there when I was 4 and I grew up there. My parents lived in the house until my Mom died in 2005. For many years that house was "home", when the kids came along our house in Savannah became "home". Baring the unforeseen, we'll probably retire there and our kids will deal with finally selling it.

TomF, I have a different picture of my Dad helping me with a project! I was trying to fix a roof leak around the furnace stack and he attacked it with silicone caulk (white) on the dark brown roof.:eek: He looked at me and said, "You don't really care what it looks like." When we got down I told my wife not to get upset, I'll fix it later.:o Next time he visited I didn't mention any issues I was having. He could fix most anything, but he was definitely not big on cosmetics.



08-27-2008, 11:31 AM
Tom, that was a wonderful post. Thanks for telling about how special your home is, and of all the loving work that went into it.

I'd love to see some pictures of it.

Norman, your home sounds really nice too.

I also love old houses and antiques, -much more than new... They have warmth and history and they just feel right...

08-27-2008, 11:53 AM
as one real estate agent we were talking to put it .. you can buy an old house and renovate and then when you are all done you have a renovated old house

i bought new

Bruce Taylor
08-27-2008, 12:29 PM
Great post, Tom.

Our place is a big, shambling timberframe structure built in a rustic style from the hand-hewn beams in an old barn (c. 1830), about thirty years ago. It has an imaginative (some might say eccentric) floorplan, featuring, by my count, eleven levels connected by short and long stairways... sort of like a huge treehouse, as reinterpreted by M. C. Escher. It's a good place for hide-and-seek -- most of the rooms have curious cubbyholes, lookout perches, and hidden closets -- but a nightmare to maintain. The original builder had a generous spirit and a romantic temperament, but worked quickly and without much regard for building codes. Since the house is framed in old timbers, nothing is quite square, level or plumb.

Since we've been here, I've replaced just about everything at least once, nudging the design away from "country" (hayrakes and dough-trays on the wall, etc.) and toward Arts and Crafts. I've now reached the melancholy stage where I find myself renovating my own earlier work. :( Right now, I'm renovating the downstairs bath for the second time, tearing out flooring I chose and installed just a few years ago. Soon, I'll rip out the walnut and cherry cabinets I built and replace them with something steely and modern, to match the glass tile shower we installed this summer (in a style that could best be described as 1930s Operating Room :D ).

It never ends.

08-27-2008, 12:45 PM
We are about to close (selling) my 1850 brick house that I purchased when I was 22 and have completely renovated over the last 10 years. It's bitter sweet. We looked at a bunch of potential new houses, including a couple of gigantic old brick homes that needed almost everything done.

I almost pulled the trigger to do it again, but in the end we got a great "Contemporary" built in 1955. 1700sq ft, and in great shape. It's a great feeling to not have another project on my hands, but I also miss the charm of 150 year old wood work (even if it needs to be completely re-done.)

08-27-2008, 12:47 PM
I've often wanted to build new, as a cottage which turns eventually into our retirement home. Build it to look precisely like an old home - in materials, mouldings, detailing etc. ... but using modern design and building techniques to make it energy and water self-sufficient.

Can't sell the idea to the missus. At all.

Frankly, I can't quite understand the depth of her resistance, but I'm smart enough to realize that it just won't happen. But I'd dearly love to live out a my retirement in a beautiful, comfortable home with virtually no cost for winter heating!

I'd love to see the homes you guys are describing. I love brick, and timber frame. But I gotta say, Bruce, I don't think I could sell the idea of 1930s operating room. Closest I could get would be white subway tile ...

08-27-2008, 01:06 PM

Your house sounds amazing - in a cool way. I tend to like totally impractical things (53ft sailboats, old houses, British cars) and your place sounds right up my alley. Got any pictures?

08-27-2008, 01:18 PM
i like to sit out on my 2008's style back deck and drink beer , often replenishing the beer as it begins to run low

once and awhile i'll go out and buy a bunch of lumber , since i have to drive right past the lumberyard on the way to the beer store, and stack it up in the back yard ..the lumber not the beer.. i think it looks pretty good

Russ Manheimer
08-27-2008, 01:36 PM

Thanks for a heartfelt post. Any pics to share?

Our small cottage su le mer, all 1,300 sq ft, is the place Julia and I hope to be carried away from. We've been here for 20 years this October and it's the place I've felt most at home anywhere. Absent a new front porch and several windows we've not done much. Downstairs is mostly paneled in pine and has not seen any finish since the house was new in 1946; great patina. Pics here (http://www.flickr.com/photos/sjogin/sets/64794/detail/).

The house is due for new cedar shakes and still more windows along with a tightening up of the insulation for our retirement years but that’s about it.

Best of luck in your continuing renovations,


08-27-2008, 01:41 PM
I think its cool doing a restoration but I would like to see people more interested in Alternative construction. I had plans and almost went forward in building an Air formed concrete dome but as you know banksters will have nothing to do with anything truly efficient and practical. With all we know now about conservation and limits on stick built construction you would think these alternatives would be more deeply considered.

Bruce Taylor
08-27-2008, 02:23 PM
Bruce...Your house sounds amazing Got any pictures?

I'll take some...it might be a few days before I get to it, though. Kids are going back to school tomorrow & I'm rewiring half the freaking Western hemisphere. :D Gotta get the power back online before they start lining up for showers.

Tom, I share your dream of a perfect little retirement house, built my own way from the ground up (and maybe using some of the alternative tech. Mark mentions). In fact, on long car trips Maggie and I sometimes while away the hours by "designing" the perfect place (incorporating everything we've learned trying to make this madhouse work).

Mind you, I'd kinda like the next house to float. ;)

Phillip Allen
08-27-2008, 02:34 PM
post a few pics Tom. the most important ones are the ones you can tell a story about

If I EVER find the cable to the camera, I'll try to post a few of this house...a good thread

Rick Tyler
08-27-2008, 03:05 PM
The original builder had a generous spirit and a romantic temperament, but worked quickly and without much regard for building codes. Since the house is framed in old timbers, nothing is quite square, level or plumb.

They don't build 'em like they used to.

And sometimes that's a good thing.

08-27-2008, 03:11 PM
I'll happily post pictures of my favourite rooms over the next couple of days - though I might wait 'till the exterior paint job's complete and the new deck's finished. For the first time, we've got someone else building the deck instead of me...

... and it's cool to stand at an objective distance for a change, and watch someone else build your design. The deck's framing posts extend up to hold the railing, then on 2 sides of the deck extend up another few feet to support an arbour shaped like a miniature pergola. The arbour posts will be the focal point, and are a bit of a risk. Spaced on 6' centers, they'll either really "make" the deck, looking wonderful draped in wisteria, roses and autumn blooming clematis ... or they'll feel like the bars of a jail cell. Crossing my fingers here.

The deck helps enclose the back part of our weird, stairway-shaped yard, making it a separate garden room. Looking from one direction, one of the arbour's posts will help frame a diagonal "view" from the back corner of that garden room, down a flagstone step at the room's entrance, landing your eye 80' away at what will be a focal point (probably a bench) at the far corner of the lot. Looking out the doorway from the house, the same arbour post will be one leg of a "picture frame" leading your eye along a (not yet built) flagstone path to another focal point (either a "dramatic" shrub planting, or a pond) across the yard. I hope that planning the views will tie the garden and the house together aesthetically, making both more satisfying. Didn't cost any more to build the deck so the post landed there ... so I haven't lost anything if it doesn't work ...

And next year's major project will be the yard. If I'm lucky, I can get the existing beds expanded and the new beds dug before freeze-up (one will need a short retaining wall), and involve my artist-daughter in designing the plantings over the Winter.

08-27-2008, 06:37 PM
Looking forward to some pics Tom.

08-27-2008, 10:37 PM
I enjoyed that too, thanks, Tom.

C. Ross
08-27-2008, 10:48 PM
What a great thread. I can only faintly echo TomF's story.

My 1892 house, purchased in 1991, has had my hands and tools on every wall, and all the plumbing, fixtures, wiring, tile, appliances, drywall, plaster and paint were placed there with sweat.

Our modest house was bought for two, now contains four, and though we've outgrown it we haven't outlived it. Mortgaged and repaid twice to build a business, a sanctuary from severe illness, two births, and many happy days.

I would like to move somewhere where I could have a heated shop but to my children this is their Jerusalem, their motherland. We'll be here quite a bit longer.

Ron Williamson
08-28-2008, 05:46 AM
About my house, my grandma said,"You can't just leave well enough alone,can you?"

08-28-2008, 05:46 AM
I loved reading about the renovation/restorations of your family homes. My wife Sue and I have just bought a big old (60plus) house in The Shoalhaven Valley. It is in fairly good condition and I am looking forward to all the honey-do jobs that Sue has planned for me this summer. I have had to have ducted air-con installed for Sue as her condition is destroying her bodies ability to control her internal temperature. All the other jobs are ones I will be able to do myself. I look forward to showing them on the forum as they are done. Barney

Dan McCosh
08-28-2008, 06:08 AM
A 73-year-old boat wasn't enough. We bought a 90-year-old house.

08-28-2008, 06:35 AM
My brother made a killing buying run down Victorians and completely restoring them while adding all the modern creature comforts.
The process was incredible as he would strip out the interior and catalog the pieces and store them while going through the place from the roof down. Slate roofs, the whole 9 yards. He did a couple that Banks converted into branches while maintaining the dignity of the building. Very cool stuff and I had fun putting in hydronic heating in a couple. It was amazing what these well off couples would pay to own one.
I just saw all the work that went into one and always thought it was a bit of a waste when one could build a very efficient and practical home for a lot less.

Chris Coose
08-28-2008, 07:10 AM
Maybe it was growing up in Marblehead and something about my personal economics but I have had three old houses to fix up and one boat of importance to keep up so far.
Because this last one was such a desperate fixer-upper I landed on beautiful waterfront with a wharf, in a divinely protected cove that I could barely afford. As was the case in all the purchases.

The reno plan will likely extend to my dirt nap, at which time my remaining family will be left with some fancy equity.
Renovation has been a global theme for my life. I have never wished to build new.

08-28-2008, 07:27 AM
I love older houses, but their layout is not always well suited to modern life. I like the idea of renovating an older house with modern touches and saving it from the wrecking ball. I think most of the houses built nowdays just lack that special something.

08-28-2008, 08:07 AM
I suppose the best thing of selling this house is that the inspection went really well - sort of an affirmation of the work that I have done for the last 10 years.

The house we were selling was pretty small (only 1130 sq ft), and was built cheaply originally so it didn't have lots of high-end details. Still, it was a great little house in a good location (2 blocks to the walking street in Burlington, 2 blocks to the water front.)

A couple of pics to make the thread more interesting:




08-28-2008, 08:42 AM
Lovely stuff.

It can be very hard to leave a place you've laboured on, though I agree that the validation of a good sale can be a bit of compensation.

Our first home was tiny - 2 bedrooms upstairs, total of about 700 square feet. We did an addition, and created a makeshift 3rd bedroom in the basement, and got everything else about the place looking great ... but having a 3rd kid 5 1/2 years after our 2nd tipped the balance.

Our two boys were too far apart in age to share a bedroom ... and while the older lad and his older sister could share a bedroom while each was little, that couldn't continue much longer. Selling that home really hurt; if we had only 1 kid (maybe two), we'd likely still be there. The neighbourhood was wonderful, even though we weren't too hot on the city or the politics involved in the job I had at the time ...

Neighbours can make up for a lot.

08-28-2008, 08:43 AM
nice job noah , i had a 1950's style bungalow about the same sq footage , a real charmer h/w.. frpl.. ceramics.. mouldings, worked on it for some 13 years , but the reno's never did seem to end , great little house tho' , i like small spaces

sold it off in a matter of hours, got two or three competitive bidders right off the bat just for putting a sign on the lawn (market's pretty hot)

then built new , first thing i noticed was staying warm after i got out of the shower in the morning , radiant heat and efficient h/a exchanger makes for nice fluffiy dry bed sheets too .. i ain't going back