Timber Frame Repairs On The Upper East Side

It happens to all of us. Life takes over and we forget where we are sometimes. It’s as if the train is going so fast that the view of the landscape through the window is blurred as it whizzes by. Then there is this moment when you stop to take a breath, usually it’s in one of your happy places, and you remember all of those things you had forgotten. Your senses come alive again as you savor the taste, smell, and feeling of the moment. You breathe. It feels good.

So, here I sit in the peony garden, one of my favorite places to let everything slow down around me. It’s the end of a holiday weekend and a perfect time for catching up.

Peony Garden

I saw a friend earlier this year who said, “I’m so glad you’re done with the restorations at White Plains!” I’m not sure if it was the confused look on my face or the involuntary crinkle of my nose, but she followed with, “You are done, right?” I had to break the news to her. Even though it’s been a productive spring, finishing a lot of major projects, it’s been a busy push to the finish line.

What’s Going On Under There?

One of the first big projects of the year was a structural repair to the eighteenth century timer framing on the north-east side of the house. Having identified some old termite damage in the floors near that area when we first purchased the property, we knew it would be on the docket at some point. Although we had already overseen replacement and stabilization of other major structural beams in other parts of the house, I still felt pretty nervous about this one. Maybe it was the unknown that is ever-present when opening walls of such an old structure or maybe it was seeing my summer vacation budget get converted to an emergency work fund!

Thankfully Jason at Rappahannock Restorations eased my stress from the start and gave us a clear plan on how we would move through the unknown. The first step was to remove siding from the outside to assess what might be happening underneath. Removal began between the chimney and second floor window, where it appears water had been entering for many years, causing not only direct damage but also creating an environment that’s very appealing for termites.

Historic House Repair

As more siding was removed, almost to the brick foundation, you could easily see the trail that the water and termites took through the framing. They had almost fully dissolved several main posts and beams, requiring a bit more work than we had originally anticipated. Thankfully, the damage stopped just before the impressive locust corner post and ran up to the chimney on the other side. This made access to the problem much easier, tackling it from the outside and without requiring us to break into the interior plaster walls – one of my biggest fears!

Historic House Repair

Jason and his crew expertly stabilized the compromised framing, replacing and adding as necessary. After the old 1940’s insulation was removed and new added, it was time to replace the siding. Unfortunately, most of the old siding was too brittle to be saved, but we were able to replace it with a new cedar siding in the same colonial bead-board style. Hopefully it will last for another couple of hundred years.

Historic House Repair

Construction Marks In Eighteenth Century Timber Framing

One really cool thing about the excavation of structures is what you find underneath the layers. Here we found the roman numerals used by carpenters to match up the timber frame components. These marks are commonly found at the joint with a matching roman numeral on the corresponding piece. This method ensured that custom-hewn joints and timber sections weren’t mixed up in either transport or when they were installed on-site. You can easily see them in the unfinished attic here, but it’s always a treat to see the hidden ones. I’d guess they don’t get unearthed but about once every one hundred years or so!  Check out this post from our friends over at Historic House Blog for more about 18th century construction marks. 

Historic Carpenter's Marks

As stewards of this old house, sometimes we have to tackle projects that we’d rather leave for someone else. Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that someone else will come along and take care of it in the way it deserves. As we complete the final stage of this restoration and renovation, I’m often reminded that we all have a role to play in the preservation of our historic assets. This work is just a small part of that.


Big Projects Completed as Autumn Arrives

The weather is tempering and the leaves are already falling from the trees. My apologies to all of you that despise the shortening of the days, but autumn is upon us, and I couldn’t be more thrilled. Although it means no more of the best tomato sandwiches on the planet, I will do my best to fill the void with bonfires, dark beer, pie pumpkins, and dining al fresco. With out-of-town guests visiting, Saturday was a perfect morning for a full waffle breakfast at the picnic table under the old Ash tree. Bonfire

With the desire to be outside more comes the desire to finalize some of the outdoor spaces. After so much inside work over the last year, it’s nice to close the loop on some of the big projects and enjoy the small amounts of our newfound spare time.

Basement Stairs of Death

One project that was imperative to complete was the redesign of the narrow staircase leading into the new basement kitchen, installed sometime in the 1950s. Besides the fact that it was a serious safety hazard with slick, worn bricks, too-tall risers, and very narrow treads, the drain-line that it encompassed to move storm water away from the foundation was faulty and continuously backed up into the basement during a heavy rain. The basement flooded several times, even after the new cabinets were installed. No doubt this had to be a priority!


The old staircase of dangerous, damaged bricks and a faulty drain

The start to the project was simple: carefully tear out the old, damaged bricks and cracked concrete pad and then find the best masons in the area to lay new ones. Away we went with the removal and excavation of the old drain line. It was a mess once we discovered that the exterior drain was actually diverting back into the house’s main pluming lines – a big recipe for disaster. That was quickly capped and a new design was implemented to direct the water through PVC down the hill. This would reduce any risk of interior flooding.


Phil and Chris look on as removal of the old concrete pad begins


Mr. Phil completed the first phase of the work and was a real inspiration to watch. He did all of the work himself with only a small excavator and hand tools, his intuition and experience guiding him each step of the way. Thankfully his experience with historic masonry meant that he was very conscious of the existing brick foundation, chimney, and intersections of old and new brick.

Rebuilt Stairs

Once the modified drain was installed, the new bricks could be laid. It was one early morning that I heard the loudest truck coming up the driveway carrying two pallets of the most beautiful handmade bricks. It is incredible how much they look like the original bricks in the foundation.

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Beautiful handmade bricks to match the existing historic fabric of the house’s foundation

The best masons in the area, the father and son team of Hamp and Hampton, laid the bricks using old pattern styles and mixed mortar according to historic standards. Having worked on so many of the area’s oldest homes, their knowledge of historic building techniques was invaluable during the project. Not to mention they are two of the best storytellers. There were plenty of times at the end of a long week that I would look forward to sitting and chatting with them as they worked.

img_9788The new drain is laid and the brick side walls become a reality

The bricks are laid with care, waiting for mortar, while the new door takes its place

As much as I enjoyed the company of everyone working on the new entry, I was ready to have exterior access to the basement again. Carrying groceries upstairs and then downstairs had become a bit cumbersome after more than a month. Finally the finishing touches were installed including the new door and accent lighting to highlight the beautiful masonry work.

img_0278-3Smokey guarding the new basement stoop

Now we have a well-functioning basement entrance that is both safe and carries the water away from the foundation of the house – just in time to enjoy the outdoors more. My next project is a small kitchen garden just to the right of the stairs with herbs and flowers for cutting. Stay tuned!

Bliss is an Old Homestead with a New Kitchen

The feeling of divine satisfaction settles into my bones as I sit here with my computer, writing from my new kitchen island. Cup of coffee in hand, homemade muffins in the oven, and a little music to keep me company. I can’t imagine a better morning. Oh, how I missed this. After a full year of a makeshift kitchen in an upstairs hallway with a single hot plate and microwave, I didn’t realize how much I needed something so simple to feel human again. It’s amazing what new cabinets and a little paint can do!


The new copper countertop on the kitchen island

Over the past year, I was pushed to the outer boundary of my capacity. I have never felt so destabilized and unsettled. It is in reflection on this past year that I realize the social and interactive importance of our personal and communal spaces. For me, a kitchen is not only an important outlet for my creative expression, but it’s a space where friends and family gather to share stories and provide the collective cheer that we all so desperately need.


The dark and dreaded hallway kitchen – it can finally be a hallway again

My nineteen year old cousin came to visit from Florida a couple of weeks ago. She was the first weekend house guest since we bought the farm and began restorations 2.5 years ago. It was a push to get everything done before she arrived, but the joy her visit brought to the house was exactly what we needed at just the right time. We spent time sharing recipes, cooking meals, telling stories about our kin folk, and just getting to know each other.

And isn’t that the beauty of these old homesteads? This has been a family home for at least 230 years. I intend to continue that tradition and provide a space that celebrates the joy of sharing good food, drink, and meaningful time with friends and loved ones. What an amazing gift that we live in a time and country where that’s even possible.

It’s going to take some recovery time after a long year of stressful renovations, but I’m loving this place more and more each day. And I’m starting to feel like my self again. It may not be all butterflies and sunshine around here, but it’s a hell of a lot better than another year cooking on a hot plate!


The driveway is on fire with blooming tiger lilies 


In other news, the baby ducks have hatched! Although we lost a couple to a six-foot black snake that crept its way into the brooder pen (that’s another story), we have two cute little ducklings running around. Their favorite thing to do, besides playing in the water bowl, is to perch on mom’s back while she squeaks at the guineas running by.

Although I wish that we’d had a higher hatch rate, I learned so much going through this first cycle and look forward to another round next year. But for now, I’m looking forward to a renovation break and time to enjoy everything that has been hatching over the past year – feathered and otherwise!

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Modern Kitchen and Bathroom Finishes for a 1786 Tidewater Colonial

We are finally to the point of confirming selections of kitchen and bathroom finishes. When people ask how the renovation of this old house is going, I try to find a way to convey the breadth of the project, usually by sharing the data point that we’ve been without a kitchen since May 2015. Of course I get a variety of looks and responses that include uncomfortable laughter, disgust, and usually a little pity on top.

What I love is that it almost always ignites a connection over a shared experience of a similar renovation or project that they went through. It’s fun to hear how others have coped during major and minor renovations (whiskey seems to be a popular favorite), whether it be two weeks or two years! And yes, I heard one story of a family without a kitchen for almost two years because of contractor issues and legal disputes. I can always find a way to be thankful after that conversation.

Basement Kitchen, Before
Basement Kitchen, Before

We always find our way to kitchen and bathroom finishes and the exciting, creative opportunity to reinvent a space. It’s interesting how it evolves over time. In that regard, it’s a good thing the renovation took longer, because I have changed my mind on many of the choices that I felt so steadfast on last spring. A final trip to the tile store this weekend helped me lock-in many of my selections and I’m finally ready to order tile, which will begin to be installed next Monday.


The kitchen finishes were my starting place, and I have tried to honor the history of the house through living and natural finishes while being conscious of the need to create a modern space. And this is particularly tough working within the constraints of a basement with low ceilings, smaller windows, and structural walls that require a little more creativity.

I have chosen a distressed hexagonal tile with overall light coloring and a great deal of variance. Although I’m sure this floor was dirt throughout much of its life, this tile reminds me of the type of cobblestone or brick floors that might have been in a basement cellar at one time. And I can’t help but think about my bee hives when I see the pattern! What a nice way to bring the outdoors in.

Kitchen Finishes

The blue raku-style tile weaves bronzes and blues into a 3×12 which will be the backsplash above walnut countertops in the prep spaces. I am still debating a copper countertop on the 12 foot island, and will probably depend on having any money left when it comes time to install cabinets!  The cabinets will be painted white with the island being a colonial blue, another tip of the hat to one of the prominent wood trim colors used throughout the house in the 1940 renovation.


For the bathroom finishes, I struggled to find a unique floor tile that I liked, and in the end was compelled by the hex pattern and decided to carry it through. This might change, but, for now, I love the continuity between the spaces. The laundry station will have dark green cabinets and a cherry countertop accented by a rust/green glass backsplash. The shower will incorporate subway tiles although I haven’t picked the exact tile yet (these are stand-ins for color), brushed nickel hardware, and a federal-style vanity in cherry wood with two sconces.

Bathroom Finishes

I’ve had people tell me that I need more continuity, less variety of finishes, and more matching. But having lived in old houses for most of my entire life, I’ve come to appreciate the layers of years, styles, and materials that have been used to create a space. The wrought iron door hinges from the 1700s with the un-laquered brass from the 1930s, the colonial blue on the trim with the hand-hewn wood floors, and of course the modern conveniences that we all appreciate. I want to bring this same tasteful connection to the past into the renovated spaces below.

We are making progress and will hopefully have a warm, home-cooked meal in the new kitchen soon!

The Best Day of 2015

2015 was a tough year, perhaps one of the toughest I can remember. And yet, today, the very last day of the year, something happened that I’m very close to considering the best day of 2015… WE HAVE HEAT AGAIN!

Radiant Boiler Setup

Radiant Boiler Pex PipingA big thanks to Chris K. and Pete for their hard work on this very complex system. Installed in 1940, the system utilizes an oil-fueled boiler to heat water, pushing it through galvanized pipes to 17 radiators throughout the three stories of the house. When this type of system is in peak working order, it’s a dream, but when it hasn’t been maintained well, it requires more attention. Chris and Pete replaced all of the old galvanized piping with state-of-the-art PEX, routing it with care above ceiling level through many old joists and beams. The result is a much higher efficiency – and you can actually see out of the basement windows without the obstruction of black pipes.

Once the piping was done, Pete took 17 almost-unsalvageable brass radiator valves and brought them back to life with a lot of care and elbow grease. What a beautiful sight.

Radiator Valves Radiator Valves

One of my favorite elements in the basement is the old flue cover on the wall behind the boiler, probably from the 1940s. I love that the house has blend of technology spanning 230 years. In just one picture, like the one at the top, you can see the hand-hewn beams, next to the PEX, copper, PVC, and handmade bricks. It certainly tells a story of craftsmanship and skill.

Flue Cover

Those of you that know me personally have heard me kvetch for almost six months about getting the heat restored before it got cold. We moved into fall with brisk weather, then November, and finally December, but something odd happened… the temperature kept going up! We had spring all over again with highs in the 70s and lows in the 50s. It has certainly been an odd start to winter. But who’s to complain when you don’t have heat? It was like an early Christmas miracle. This weekend, it will drop to 25 and probably keep dropping for the remaining season. And just in time, the heat is hooked up and ready to go.

May you all have an equally warm and uplifting new year!

New Year's Eve in Virginia
December 31, 2015 – The Beeyard

This Ruined House

They say it is in the struggle that the deepest parts of our soul are unearthed. This has definitely been true during the renovation – and not always for the better. I had forgotten about my shadows, the dark spots that lurk in the corner, trying to hide from sight. But it is in the shadow that we remember how vivid and striking the light can be. The contrast gives us definition. Purpose.

Jungian analyst Robert Johnson points this out in his book, Owning Your Own Shadow: Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche:

The message is unmistakable; our own healing proceeds from that overlap of what we call… light and dark. It is not that the light element alone does the healing; the place where light and dark begin to touch is where miracles arise.

Beauty and Decay

And similarly, it is in the contrast of beauty and decay that Joyce Kornblatt has recently inspired me through her essay, This Ruined House: A Meditation on Beauty, from the winter 2010 issue of Parabola. At first she angered me. I felt condemned and guilty when I read her words. She “just didn’t understand” about the beauty of old things. But then I realized that she very much understood them. She embraced them. Their wear, their cracks, and their awkward existence in a world that wants them to be new. She writes about this contrast:

Foundation - White Plains
A foundation of the old barns at White Plains
Sunsets transfix us, seem to soothe us with their undeniable evening truth: finished, over, changing into something else. These fadings can’t be doctored, and this “defeat” awakens us to the inherent beauty of what cannot be fixed in time. So what might happen if we stepped more fully beyond the bounds of conventional aesthetics? We would see the loveliness of a cracked china teapot, a pile of rusty keys, a rocking chair—like the one I have—whose broken rocker resists the glue with which I keep trying to repair it.

What if we left the flowers to shrivel in the vase, allowed the peeling paint of a front door to reveal its layers of color, right down to bare wood? What if we looked in the mirror and appreciated the scar, the asymmetry, the wrinkles and gray hair, the age spots and the sagging skin? What if we lived with a wilderness mind, in which change is the only constant, and the process of decay is recognized as beautiful? . . . It is this turning toward, rather than away from, impermanence that relieves us of the burden of our futile attachments and makes a humbled love possible. We become available to the beauty of the moment as it is, and available to one another as we are.

I’m not sure that I can claim arrival at embracing impermanence. Although I find loveliness in the cracks, rust, and broken pieces, I always want to fix them – to make them whole again. And it isn’t always possible. It is defeat. But in this defeat, there is another path. Joyce shares a poem by Izumi Shikibu, written more than a thousand years ago:

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roofplanks
of this ruined house.

In those evocative lines, the conventional distinctions between ruin and beauty blur. One can read the poem as metaphor for how to find consolation in the world of devastation, but looking again, one finds a more challenging suggestion: it is because of the house’s disrepair that the moonlight can enter.

… Most of us have grown up in a culture devoted to the habits that blind us. We resist, replace, disguise, crave, acquire, hoard, defend against, and throw away. We lionize the new and discard the outmoded. We believe that “more is better,” whatever the cost. We yield our obsession with novelty only when we turn what ages and decays into a status-conferring commodity—antique furniture, heirloom clothes, vintage cars, historical preservation districts—but it is not a yielding that brings us peace. We collect and remodel, via carpentry and surgery, in order to prop up the illusory sense of a separate and enduring ego. Yet all around us, the evidence of the Buddha’s teaching asserts itself: nothing lasts, life brings suffering, there is no solid, separate self. We flee these truths in terror, but a life of meditation and inquiry can transform our denial into freedom.

It is because of the house’s disrepair that the moonlight can enter. It is this acceptance of the shadow and comfort in the impermanence that we find freedom. And so it is at White Plains, the cracks in the plaster, the chipped masonry, and the decaying wood are all opportunities to see beauty and to be as we are.

Trim - White Plains
Reclaimed wood trim from White Plains

This Old House Overwhelm

Have you ever watched “This Old House” and wondered, “How did they do that?” That’s the exact question I’m asking right now. Some days I feel like I’m suffocating in this house. The projects. The lack of help. The lack of money to do them all adequately. And the lack of stamina to manage everything.

As adventurous, as grand, as historic, as mysterious, as interesting, as beautiful, and as inspiring as White Plains may be, it is also proving to be one of the most intense and stressful of experiences.

For example, it’s been nine months since we started planning the basement kitchen renovation, a major overhaul that would also rework the house’s main plumbing, HVAC, and electrical systems. Two months since everything was moved out from the space and readied for the rehab, we have still have not begun and there is no end in sight. We essentially have three months before cold weather sets in, a nearly impossible timeline considering that we haven’t even begun the work. If we don’t begin soon, we risk the long wait until Spring to continue because of the need for heat.

Cucumbers in the GardenI came home today with a deepening sense of dread – a feeling that seems to deepen every day. And so I began where I usually do, in the garden. A space of cultivation. Of growth. Of natural creativity. The Connecticut Field pumpkins are coming along nicely and the sweet potatoes are vining in every direction.

From there, I moved to check on the bees. Another natural marvel where order, community, and structure prevail. Each bee moving in sequence, part of a perfectly choreographed dance. They are doing well – all three hives. Each building new comb, raising brood, and getting ready for the impending winter.

And finally, I ended the night bush-hogging the field. The slow, steady rumbling of the tractor is rhythmic as it moves across the grass. The occasional bump of a small tree wakes you up from the zen-like movement up each row. It reminds you that you’re in control of the tractor – in control of which path to take. You’re driving the tractor – it isn’t driving you.

Perhaps it’s a reminder that this whole experience is one that we ride through, like driving the tractor through the field. Just drive. Enjoy the view. Feel the rumble. And take the small trees as bumps in the path that are gone in the blink of an eye.

Fields at White Plains

Guest Bathroom Dissection

The saga of the guest bathroom continues as the removal of old wallpaper ensues. I started with the small hall that connects the guest bathroom with the soon-to-be office, coat closet, and the main central hall. My first attempt was to use a clothes steamer (it’s all I had!) to essentially create so much moisture in the small hall that the wallpaper began to peel away.

Lucky for me, there were two layers of wallpaper – one definitely more attractive that the other – your personal preference can dictate which is which. My guess is that the green stripe is from the 1950s after the house was renovated and painted in 1940; the flowers are unfortunately from the 80’s. The stripe could just be the paper liner for the other, but it seems a bit too nice to be just a liner.

After the trials of the clothes steamer, my dear friend Julie loaned me her wallpaper steamer which made much more sense. We were able to complete removal in the guest bathroom as well, finding a very striking midnight blue paint underneath.

With the wallpaper gone, we began rewiring the electrical from the over-the-mirror light to the ceiling, to accommodate the new chandelier. That’s the beauty of high ceilings – you can be graced by chandelier lighting while washing your hands.

While one rewired, the other worked to stabilize the finish on the old trim. Much of the paint was flaking off and some of the wood needed filling and sanding. Once that was done, the pine floors and trim could go back in! It has been six months since we had floors in that part of the house and it will be nice to have them back. Mike, the plaster guy, comes next week and we’re that much closer. The toilet, sink, hardware, and lighting have arrived, waiting to be installed. Until next week with another bathroom update.

Bathroom Overhaul

20131222_152614Our first [major] home renovation project has been the 1/2 bathroom on the first floor, the primary guest bath. Yes, there has been lots of plumbing work, sporadic electrical, and lots of small jobs, but this is our first overhaul. And of course, it was pretty bad. Here is a photo from the real estate listing. As always, click the photo for a larger view.

Despite its condition, demolition is always the fun part, or at least the easier part. You can rip stuff out and see results fairly quickly. The problem is that you may not always like what you find underneath! This was definitely the case here.

IMG_4968 We first discovered a somewhat deteriorated subfloor. The previous “handyman” had simply attached a piece of plywood to rotting boards, mitigating the problem instead of properly relaying new pine. Thankfully, neither of us could just put new flooring on top and pretend like the problem didn’t exist. This is where OCD comes in handy.

Unfortunately, to replace the subfloor, we had to raise the main corner post just slightly to remove the plywood. And this is where it gets interesting… We found that a primary load-bearing post, running about 10 feet tall had been about 80% eaten by some wood-boring bug a long time ago. There wasn’t much left. 20140208_115346

And so began the journey to find a white oak post to replace it. We searched all over the area for 4×6 (real dimensions) at least 10 feet long. We stumbled upon Ferguson Sawmill near Fredericksburg and they were awesome. They had three beautifully milled white oak posts, each about 13 feet long. We grabbed two and with help from the Colonel, got one put perfectly into place. We’re saving the other one as backup for the next time we open up a wall and find mayhem…20140316_170543               IMG_5239








With the primary post replaced, the subfloor repaired, and the plumbing switched out from copper to PVC, it was now time for a layer of durock – a stable cement board that we can easily lay a new tile finish on. Next will be the wallpaper removal, plaster repair, and new tile. The fixtures, hardware, tile, and lighting are already ordered – we are so close! Stay tuned for an update next week.