Monday, February 16, 2009

The Voice of Reason

This Saturday, my mom and stepfather came over for a late lunch, and to consult on various house projects, present and future. My stepfather has sold bulding materials for the past 30 years, so while he may not have the experience of someone who has actually done some of this stuff, he has a pretty good idea about what works and what doesn't. He has the insight to figure out how to make things work on a budget. Finally, he tends to be more interested in the solutions that perform the best rather than those that a historic preservationist might choose. This means that I'll hear ideas from him that I wouldn't have otherwise considered, and that I may not be willing to adopt, but that at least will allow me to make a more informed decision.

Water damage to the library ceiling

As I mentioned earlier, a plumbing leak caused this set of lovely bulges and stains on the library ceiling. After I heard my contractor's estimate, I decided that I would do the repair myself. The question became how to rip out the ceiling without damaging the plaster crown moulding.

My stepfather pointed out that the crown moulding was really not in very good shape. On one wall, a large area was repaired quite clumsily. In other places, the moulding appears to be detatching from its substrate.


Further, as can be seen here, access to the moulding is made difficult by the trim that goes over the blinds and drapes. This trim is constructed in such a way that it would be quite difficult to remove without causing some damage. Conversely, with it in place, it would be very difficult to cut out the existing plaster without damaging the crown moulding.

This all comes down to the question of just how much of a historic preservationist nutjob I am (as well as how much of a preservationist nutjob my wife can stand to live with). Given the right house, I could put an insane amount of labor into historic preservation - for instance, for any sort of American farmhouse from the first third of the 18th century, I'd do almost anything. I'd be willing to strip layer upon layer of paint off of woodwork to get down to the original paint or go to ridiculous lengths to repair parts others said were unrepairable.

This, however, is not such a house. It is a very good, but not great example of the sort of house built in this city in the 1920s. While the bathrooms are mostly original, 2 of the toilets have been replaced as well as all of the faucets. There has been some rather clumsy tile work done here and there as plumbing was upgraded. Most significantly, all of the kitchen cabinets were replaced in the 1950s.

Over the course of the work I've done on this house, I've come to the conclusion that, at the time we moved in, all of the walls were the original plaster. The ceiling in many areas has been covered with spikey plaster, but under that, to the best of my ability to tell, the plaster is original. I tore out the wall on one side of the stairs down to the basement and the ceiling in the shower, both to fix city code violations. When I tore out the wall on the basement stairs, I didn't realize that it was original - I thought, from the way it was bowed and shaped that it must have been someone's clumsy attempt at a repair. The material seemed like drywall, so I assumed a later repair. Only when I began tearing open the ceiling in the shower, which was clearly original, did I realize that all the walls in the house were comprised of plaster on fiberboard.

Do I regret tearing out these walls? A little bit. Would I have found ways to avoid doing so if I had it to do again? Maybe. The light fixture at the time in the shower scared me - a plain bit of porcelain with a bare bulb. If I had known at the time that I started to tear out the ceiling how relatively water-resistant it was, in comparison to most similar fixtures, I might have tried to argue with city hall in favor of ignoring this code violation. Again, if I had realized that the walls going down to the basement were original, I might have considered just drywalling over them or smoothing them out in some other way.

However, I didn't know any of this at the time, and as a result, I can no longer boast that I have entirely original plaster walls. This puts me on a slippery slope with regard to the rest of the house. If I hadn't torn out the walls in the other two locations, I'd feel more strongly about the ceiling in the library. Or, if the kitchen was original, I'd work harder to retain absolutely every original detail, no matter how small.

Further, the ceiling of the library has been covered with spikey plaster and a least a couple layers of paint. This makes it just about impossible to remove the ugly spikey plaster. While the ceiling could probably be repaired by removing but half of the plaster, that would leave me with the dilemma of how to finish the area that I replaced. I hate spikey plaster. Hate hate hate. I hate it more than 1970s faux wood paneling. If I replaced but half of the plaster, I'd be left with a ceiling that would be half smooth and half spikey. I simply cannot bring myself to put textured plaster on the area that I will be repairing.

Finally, it will be really nice to have access to just about all of the plumbing for the second floor bathrooms. A large part of this plumbing is highly suspect - though not because of previous work, but merely because of age. It will be really really nice to have access to all the deteriorating parts and replace those that need to be replaced.

With all this in mind, my stepfather pointed out that the plaster was not in very good condition and that previous repairs had been less than sympathetic. He suggested ripping out the entire ceiling and replacing it with drywall. No two rooms share the same moulding, so it removing it will not remove some similarity between it and the rest of the house. When I am able, I will find some walnut crown moulding and install it. While it may not be a match to the original, it will match the intent and feel of the room.

Of course, I will thouroughly document the original moulding, and retain a section (or sections) of it in good condition, as a record. This seems to me the most reasonable solution.

It seems that this is a somewhat moot point. I've found, in the course of my demolition, that the ceiling has been replaced at a date that is definitely in the past 40 years. I'm still unsure about the age of the moulding. More to follow.


Why S? said...

Maybe we want to be preservationists because we wish everyone had been preservationists and our homes had been well cared for since the beginning. No one wants to be the PO that didn't respect the history of the house.

That said, there's only so much we can do. My own 1909 bungalow had almost none of the original character remaining when we bought it. All we could do was remodel to "suggest" what the house should have been.

I think if you are respectful of your home's original style and historic features, that's all it could ask of you.

Jason said...

Agreed - I let the history of the house dictate how much of a preservationist I am. There are a couple historic homes downtown (with actual history - I looked them up) that seem to be in disrepair. If our paths were to cross with one of theirs down the road, you bet I'd be a stickler for authenticity. Sparkling as the day it was christened, that house would be.

Our house, on the other hand, is great and old, but not the kind of house that gets written about in local historical accounts. So we try to do right by it as much as we can (and can afford to). Rather than "Was it originally this way?", we ask ourselves, "Would the original owners have liked it this way?"