11 August 2012

Secrets of an 1873 house

In the summer of 2010, I started renovating the four-bedroom house of roughly 1600 square feet that Sam Barter bought in 1898 and that I inherited from my grandmother, Jane Allen. In the English fashion, Sam named the house "The Maples" and there are still a lot of old maples here. The house itself is a balloon-framed two-and-a-half-storey clapboard dwelling built 1873 by or for James Fisher who also operated a tannery on the same property. The exterior features a simple, vernacular style that seems pure and elegant in its wooded environment -- a 1.25-acre lot that borders the Little Presque Isle Stream where one can swim and fish for trout.

At the outset of this adventure, when I was investigating the possibility of restoring the house, I was delighted to find that the structure was extremely solid (despite my many years of neglect) and with the exception of a few sloping floors, quite square. Although a partial basement was installed sometime in mid-last-century, I had a concrete foundation poured in 2010 to stabilize the house which was in danger of sinking into the wet ground.

The Maples has four 10'x11' rooms on each floor with nine-foot ceilings downstairs and an eight-foot rise upstairs. In 1917, the kitchen was enlarged by 6 feet on the south side; imagine a family of eight in a 10'x11' kitchen (plus pantry) where nearly all the space was used up by a big old wood-fired cookstove. The expansion,engineered by Lottie while Sam was off in France in wartime, required a small mortgage to finance the work. In the ensuing years, the payments were somehow overlooked and the house was eventually foreclosed; daughter Jane saved the day.

After my grandmother Jane retired in the early 1950s, she put some money into upgrading the house (for instance, I think that's when electricity was installed as well as the tongue-and-groove wood ceilings in the living and dining rooms) and then, in the 1960s, added a bay window in the living room, two sunporches and "Insulbrick" exterior siding. I had the siding removed in 2008 and was relieved to find that the original clapboard was in pretty good condition and had a light grey coat of paint that was also in good shape. I eventually replaced about 30 percent of these boards and repainted the whole exterior a dark green with beige trim. The east sunporch and the bay window have been removed and the simple but pleasing design of the original house has now re-emerged. (You might also notice that the south wall in the photo below was shingled and quite badly weathered; it has now been redone in clapboard.)

More renovation photos can be found in my Picasa album.
In restoring the house, I tore down the interior plaster walls and refurbished the extensive woodwork on the first floor making many discoveries. For instance, I found an old bicycle catalogue dated 1896 inside one wall. That leads me to believe that the walls were not plastered when it had been built decades earlier and perhaps Sam had the walls re-done after he bought the house in 1898. There were also many bottles, magazines and newspapers hidden inside the walls competing for space with the sawdust and buckwheat insulation.

Looking back, I often wonder what transpired in the almost two years between Sam's purchase and moving in with his new wife, Lottie Wallace, on 3 January 1900. Perhaps he rented it out. Maybe he was renovating. Or he might just have been too busy with his general store (where he lived as a widower in the second floor quarters with two young daughters) and the cheese-making businesses to bother with a new project. Or maybe he just needed a new wife and mother to help before moving to a larger home.

Three layers of wallpaper dating
from about 1900 to the 1950s
Scraping down the woodwork has shown that the original colours on the ground floor were quite dark. A dark olive green trim in the living room. A charcoal grey in the kitchen. (This makes me feel good because I love dark colours. So did Jane.) I was also able to look at the wallpapers used over the nearly 140 years in the life of the house. Most of them looked quite spiffy and I like them, a lot. In fact, I hid a 3-layer wallpaper sample under the new gyproc in the kitchen!

Now that I've worked on the trim in two of the upstairs bedrooms, I find that the woodwork there was originally painted medium grey and the floors had been done in a dark mustard yellow. But I was confounded with what I found in one of the bedrooms: the walls were originally faced with two-inch, dark-stained, beaded tongue and groove boards and these had been mounted horizontally! They somehow escaped being plastered but have several layers of wallpaper over top.

Most of the floors are softwood, probably spruce which would have been covered, eventually, in linoleum. I found a 1937 newspaper used as underpadding for the "Feltol" lino (ordered from Eaton's catalogue) in one of the bedrooms and more newspaper underpadding in the den advertising a 1920s Charles Chaplin film. The dining room has a beautifully varnished hardwood floor that likely was installed in the 1930s as well. (Depression? What Depression?) The old pantry (now a half-bath) also had hardwood installed at some point that had been painted and stenciled, by Lottie no doubt, in a wild rose pattern which I have very labourously preserved.

Speaking of the pantry, it had the only west-facing window in the whole house -- and I wonder why. Perhaps it was meant to keep the strong summer sun from heating up the house too much. But there are now two new west windows on the ground floor and that has made the house much brighter and welcoming.

Now that the restoration is nearly complete and I've hammered or scraped and painted just about every square inch of The Maples, I'm really impressed with the craftsmanship of those early builders to whom I can be grateful for a house that has once again come into its own.