One of the greatest challenges in owning an old home is maintaining its exterior, regardless of its materials. In Virginia, you most commonly find wood and brick construction. It is not until you travel into Maryland and, of course, Pennsylvania that you see more use of stone.
After a few years of bandaging issues on the exterior at White Plains, it was finally time to start the conversation of giving the house a fresh coat of paint. I say, “start the conversation” because such an endeavor is not for the faint of heart! Finally by fall, we were ready to get started.
I have learned a lot about historic woodwork and masonry over the past few years, understanding what is required to keep it well maintained and attractive. For wood, maintaining a solid coat of paint adds protection and is essential for its longevity. Similarly, historic masonry needs to be patched and pointed-up as necessary to keep moisture out.
Like many other buildings from the same time period in the Tidewater area, White Plains is a traditional brace-framed house with a wooden weatherboard exterior. It is built over a raised cellar with walls of handmade brick laid in English bond, extending about 14 courses, or rows, above ground level.
While the old masonry has been patched many times over the years, the original portions still retain the 19th-century white wash, as can be seen in the picture above. Upon close inspection, you will notice that the patching appears to relate to the closing or opening of entrances into the cellar and repairing areas of water damage. The changes to entrances likely happened about 1840, when the cellar would have been turned into finished living space, including a fireplace built into the existing chimney. I love all of the layers from decades and centuries of change.
Preparation of the exterior is the most important part before painting. A poorly prepared surface means the paint may not adhere well, causing popping and cracking sooner than it would with a properly prepared surface.
Here, we only employed the use of hand-scraping and the occasional electric hand sander where build-up of old paint was extreme. Although I wanted a well prepared surface, I didn’t want to lose the texture and character that old wood has. Unfortunately, this can be a much slower process, requiring attention to detail and a lot of manpower.
Each of the old shutters was removed and will be prepared in a similar way to the weatherboarding with repairs made to rotten areas and a fresh coat of paint. My current conflict is picking a color that both honors the traditional while giving a fresh look. My current choices are between Essex, Colonial Verdigris, and Waller greens, all Benjamin Moore colors.
I once suggested that we consider a body color that evokes the type of excitement as August Boatwright’s house in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, but I can reassure everyone that it will remain white. But you never know when color will strike! As August put it in the book, “I had a nice tan color in mind, but May latched on to this sample called Caribbean Pink. She said it made her feel like dancing a Spanish flamenco.” Who doesn’t want to dance a Spanish flamenco every day? But I digress.
In addition to preparing and painting the weatherboarding, almost all of the old windows need to be reglazed. At nearly 30 windows, this is no small task! First, the old glazing has to be carefully stripped from each window pane, hopefully without breaking the glass, and then new glazing is artistically puttied into each groove. After the glazing cures, it can be primed and painted. Not only will this help them look as good as new, but it will increase their energy efficiency, sealing all of the tiny gaps between the glass and wood-frame mullions.
Waiting Patiently Until Spring
Although we started a little late in fall, we had high hopes that the weather would hold, and we would be able to finish by Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, we barely made it through the prep work on the North side and a handful of windows before consistent rain and freezing temperatures set in.
I was hoping to have everything looking pristine in time for the holidays, it will all have to wait until Spring and better weather. Hopefully that isn’t too far away.
Dave Brown, Thane Harpole, and Libby Cook, “National Register of Historic Places Registration Form: White Plains,” Virginia Department of Historic Resources (March 2018).