A banging hammer, the high-pitched whine of a saw… the sounds of voices outside the window elbow me to surface from sleep.
I peep at the clock. 6:45 AM
I try to shut out the noises of someone else’s day beginning and roll onto my stomach, burrowing my head under the pillows. I momentarily slip back into stillness and search for the fragments of the dream I was in. I wasn’t finished with it. But the remaining slivers of that dream dissolve abruptly until there is nothing left for me to remember.
Wheels of a truck crunch over the packed snow and ice and come to a halt in the driveway. The door opens and slams shut. A fleeting bit of quiet…then an engine starts…the excavator’s grumble of diesel, ornery in the bone chilling cold. The staccato beat of its jackhammer stabs at me.
My husband, cradled in our nest of feather duvets, hears nothing. He is deaf in one ear and has turned that to his advantage.
I surrender. OK…You win…. I am awake. I am getting up.
I swing my feet over the edge of the bed. The floor is icy cold. I look for my cashmere cardigan to throw on over my underwear but I can’t find it.
The phone rings. I bolt across the room to grab it before it wakes up Will…
Outside my window is the excavator.
I mean…. right outside.
As I start to speak into the phone.. I realize I am so close that I lock eyes with the operator and we greet each other with a good morning nod. I try in vain to hop out of his line of vision; hopeful he can’t see too far in the cottage. After all, the visual of a scantily clad 60 something might impact his operating skills.
And so begins another day, living on the construction site.
Ever wonder about the people who used to live in your house? Were they happy living there? Were they nice? Did they have a zillion dogs, or a gaggle of happy children? And ever let your mind wander and wonder what you might find left behind in the back of a closet or under a floorboard?
Our tenants, who resided in the red house when we bought it, had been there for ten or so years before we began demolition this fall. They told us that there were two benevolent ghosts, one who smoked and one who turned on the lights and often cooked bacon in the wee hours of the morning, especially near Thanksgiving.
I am sure the number of stories of the red house formed during its six lives spanning two plus centuries are enough to make my head spin.
A few weeks ago we discovered generous clues to the story of one of the owners of the red house, Miss Hague; three letters written to Miss Hague and a fistful of her cancelled checks in the walls of one of the downstairs rooms.
For starters, here is an excerpt of a letter written to Miss Hague from Joseph Choate Jr., dated January 10th, 1896.
Thursday, January 10, 1896
Many thanks for you letter of December twenty seven, which arrived duly, and gave me great and unusual pleasure. I was a little enisled knowing that no letter would come from you for a month of so after your departure, I imagine no one could reach you for a similar period. Which shows what the study of logic will do for me.
And now I am off and running, talking to neighbors, scouring the Internet, trying to fill in her story.
Nails: one of the things I never knew I wanted to know about.
Who knew the study of nails would provide so many clues about the age of the red house.
The evolution of the nail goes something like this:
There are three generations of nails
Wrought nails: All nails were made by hand until the late 1700s. At that time England was the largest manufacturer of nails in the world. Nails were so highly valued it was common practice in the American colonies, when moving, to burn a building down in order to retrieve them.
Wrought nails were made one at a time by a blacksmith from a square iron rod. The rod was heated and then hammered on all four sides to form a point. It was re heated and cut off and placed in an anvil where a blacksmith would hammer the top to form the nail head. Until the 1790s and the early 1800s, hand-wrought nails were used to fasten sheathing and roof boards on building frames
Nail making was an important facet of life but not a practice restricted to the lower classes. Because nails were hard to come by it was common for families to make nails at home. Nails were made for their traditional purpose (to hold pieces of wood together), and also used as barter
Machine cut nails came into use around 1790 making it possible to manufacture nails on a much wider scale. The invention of the nail cutting machine rapidly put the United States in front in the manufacturing of nails and has lead the world ever since.
Type A Cut nails (1790s-1820s). Machine cut nails started out with just the nail portion being cut from a machine and the head was still hammered onto the nail by hand.
Even Thomas Jefferson was very proud of his hand made nails. “In our private pursuits it is a great advantage that every honest employment is deemed honorable. I am myself a nail maker.” Jefferson was among the first to purchase the newly invented nail-cutting machine in 1796 and produce nails for sale.
Type B cut nails (1810-1900).
Starting around 1810, the entire nail was cut from a machine, sheared off in a tapered shape. The head was also formed by machine. These nails were more square than rounded with irregular or square heads. They were also made with iron.
Type B cut nails were to become the most commonly used nails through of the greater part of the nineteenth century.
Wire nail (1880s-present)
Wire nails were developed mid to late 1800s in the United States and were originally for small things like cigar boxes. They are made from steel wire and are much cheaper to produce than cut nails. Wire nails came into prominent use by 1890.
We discovered that the red house has all three generations of nails. The hand wrought nails we found in the exterior plank siding of the house indicated it was built in the latter 1700s.
Type A Cut nails appeared in the lath and plaster we removed from the kitchen walls, indicating that the house was updated in 1810-1820. Both Type A and B cut nails were found in the third and fourth additions to the house so we can surmise that those additions spanned across 1830-1870s. Wire nails were found in the upstairs dormer added mid century.
There is no doubt about it… the red house is really old…well over 150 years old in fact… but just how old? We have no idea.
The MLS listing sheet misled us at the get go, stating that the house was built in 1810. One step into the kitchen and we knew that date was wrong. The wide pine floorboards
and the wrought iron strap hinges door hinges
appeared to be much older. Our descent to the basement disclosed massive hand hewn beams and sills and hinted at what may have been an original foundation and later additions.
As a side note, the listing agent happened to mention in passing Daniel Chester French had designed the living room and the gardens.
So…not just a really old house, but also maybe a famous house? That added a certain appeal and cachet, right?
Bring on the intrigue.
This September Will and I began the dirty, dusty demolition process in the red house. We started in the kitchen and dining room, the two rooms that face the street. As we yanked down the plaster and lath and exposed the ceiling beams we could tell we had a real antique on our hands.
Our demolition continued up to the second floor where more clues awaited us. We would stand and stare at the walls and beams and try to identify what we could. But we had no answers. We could only guess.
Sometimes it is all about who you know….
My good friend Lydia is a student working towards her Master of Science in Design and Historic Preservation degree in the joint program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Hancock Shaker Village. https://umasshsv.wordpress.com/ She loves dusty old houses and visited the red house to see our progress. She was able to tell us a few things from what she saw in the exposed walls and hardware but suggested that we contact Myron Stachiw, one of her professors, for the real deal.
And so we did.
Myron Stachiw received a BA in Anthropology (historical archaeology) from Brown University and an MA from Boston University, American and New England Studies (social history, archaeology, architectural history). Since the early 1970s he has worked in museums and historical agencies such as Old Sturbridge Village, Colonial Williamsburg, Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities as a curator, historian, and archaeologist; as a consultant to numerous state and local preservation agencies and museums; and as an adjunct and associate professor of history, architectural history, and historic preservation in universities in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. He is currently affiliated with the joint program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Hancock Shaker Village/ Master of Science in Design and Historic Preservation.
Myron spent the better part of the day pulling nails, (nails…that is a topic for another post) poking his flashlight into dark corners, climbing up ladders and creeping into crawl spaces.
This is what we learned.
Myron was able to identify 6 stages of addition/alteration to the house spanning over a period of approximately 240 years.
Our renovation is #7.
The original structure was built somewhere in the mid to late 1700s but the exact decade is hard to pin down. It may have originally been a workshop before a residence.
The mind reels with possibilities……Perhaps it played a role in the American Revolution, which was getting into full swing in 1774 in Stockbridge. Troops gathered at the Red Lion Inn less than a mile down the street to join the cause. Who knows?
This is from Myron’s notes
The building’s frame is not that of a domestic structure, more like that of a workshop. The heavy framing, massive, closely- spaced joists, and the chimney scar at the gable end opposite the entry seem to support this theory. The heavy framing of the attic floor suggests lots of materials or other stuff was stored up there. The absence of what appears to be a framed stair opening in the original structure also adds to this assessment. What appears to be a framed opening just behind the current chimney may in fact be an access to the garrett – perhaps for a very steep stair or a ladder that was used when necessary to get up there. The absence of what appears to be a framed stair opening in the original structure also adds to this assessment. What appears to be a framed opening just behind the current chimney may in fact be an access to the garrett – perhaps for a very steep stair or a ladder that was used when necessary to get up there.
The structure may have been moved to its current foundation judging by the double sills, and three feet was added to include stairs to access attic, perhaps late 1700s.
I recall finding in the cellar that the entire structure sat on what seemed to be double sills. My interpretation at the time was that the building may have been moved to this older, smaller foundation, but cannot be certain about that now
The present roof system was added when the building was enlarged the first time to the rear (side away from the road). We measured the rafters which appeared to be the same length, and the peak was midway between the ends of the rafters where they met the plates, indicating they did not reuse the rafters at the front of the building and just add newer, longer ones to the rear.
The house was expanded to include a new side entrance and small bedroom- early 1820s-1830s. Some improvements to the original two rooms were made at this time based on the nails found in the lathe.
From Myron’s notes
The third expansion to the rear enlarged the depth of the back room with an extended leanto roof. That in turn was altered with the raising of portion of the roof leanto roof to a dormer.I recall pulling nails, but not the details of their age. The feather-edge paneling was applied with wrought nails, I member, and I think the lath was applied with type 2 (c1815-1835) nails. If I remember correctly, this correlated with the third expansion that enlarged the rear pile of rooms.
A large addition was added in the rear dating late 1800s to early 1900s. One portion was built directly over dirt where we discovered evidence of a cistern, and then poured concrete under the last 6 feet. Possible designed by Daniel Chester French or his architect, Henry Bacon.
Final addition was rear ell room (designed in colonial revival style
5) An entrance shed and bathroom downstairs added @ 1920
6) An additional dormer added upstairs mid century to add a bedroom.
7) and now our renovation which includes knocking almost everything down, restoring what we can…stay tuned!
Renovating a bathroom- ok no problem…but relocating it too???
Lets face it, one of the first things most people including me notice when looking at a house is not the basement, (which holds all the secrets by the way) but the appearance of the kitchen and the bathrooms. Sometimes it is all about appearances. And…these rooms often need the most updating and the price tag of renovations can affect negotiations on the selling price of a house.
We already had an idea of how much work we were in for because the cottage was condemned and the space the bathroom was in was beyond repair. The original bathroom in the white cottage was in a shed, attached to the rear of the cottage. It had been badly damaged from the fire in the barn about 15 years ago and left neglected.
Tearing off the shed and rebuilding a new structure to maintain the square footage was not in our budget. So not only did we have to remodel the bathroom, we had to relocate it too. This amount of work was a far cry from my former realtor’s quip about every house she showed me back in Fairfield County…”A little paint, a little wallpaper and it will be as cute as can be.” Right? I guess I have come a long way.
Will decided to do a lot of the demolition himself to help us save money. First he stripped the fixtures out of the bathroom and cut out the waste pipe. Ick. I had the easy job of photographing his progress and documenting it for this blog. When I saw the 300 plus pound cast iron bathtub lying on its side in the living room I wondered just how he managed to move it all this by himself.
Ever watch a Popeye cartoon? Popeye invariably winds up in a hopeless situation and pops open a can of spinach, which he always carries with him, and gulps the contents. Upon swallowing it his physical strength becomes super human and he saves the day. Sometimes I think Will has super human strength…I will have to find out where he hides his spinach.
The new space for the bathroom was incorporated into the footprint of the cottage, relocating the bathroom into the space where the kitchen was. In the next cost saving phase of demolition Will muscled out the appliances and began to knock down the wall separating the kitchen and bedroom.
The floor plan of the bathroom was fairly straightforward- a tub with shower, toilet and sink. Regardless of how simple we wanted to keep things, the process of putting all the pieces together was at times overwhelming.
And there is always the never -ending saga of the disconnect between my taste level and my budget to contend with.
What I didn’t expect was the sequence of the decisions I had to make- they all seemed to be backwards. For example, the electrician asked me where I wanted the electrical outlets? I don’t know…the walls aren’t even up yet.
Next came the tiling. Timeless and classic, white subway tiles for the tub surround, and honed marble for the floor.
But just when you think everything is zipping right long, it all falls apart. The tile installation didn’t go as smoothly as planned. It was a bit wonky and it all had to be ripped down and re done. This stalled the project for several weeks.
Can you see how uneven all the tiles are? And…two different colors of grout. OOOPS
Next came the vanity, my favorite part of the bathroom. Will was inspired to do something fairly industrial and designed a steel frame, which we had made by Sam Finch of Finch Welding.
One of the hardest choices to make was the light fixture above the mirror. I don’t really care for it or the way it casts light.
But LOVE the medicine cabinet- we chose Kohler’s Verdera
And choosing towel racks? Oh boy- those almost put me over the top. We ended up copying the towels hooks used in our friend Bobbie’s house on Martha’s Vineyard. She does everything right when it comes to houses in our book.
The bathroom is up and running, but still not accessorized. Stay tuned for an image of the complete project.
Need any Acme Portable holes or Acme earthquake kits? No? How about some Acme Jet-Propelled Roller Skates? That is what instantly came to mind when we saw this sign.
Remember the infamous Acme Corporation featured in Looney Tunes’ Road Runner cartoon? Wile E. Coyote often purchases ludicrous gizmos from a mail-order company, the fictitious and ironically named Acme Corporation, which he hopes will help him catch the Road Runner. The devices invariably backfire in improbable and spectacular ways and the coyote usually ends up burnt to a crisp, squashed flat, or at the bottom of a ravine.
According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, the definition for acme is as follows: the highest point or stage; also: one that represents perfection of the thing expressed
Acme Kitchenettes Corp based in Hudson, NY has been in business manufacturing unique and dependable kitchenettes for over eighty years. Acme takes great pride in delivering the best kitchenette in the market, at very competitive prices. Customer satisfaction and fast and reliable service are what they hang their hat on. In our experience, we could not agree more.
Acme Kitchenette Corp. can manufacture specific to your needs and offers a variety of models to pick from. It is pretty amazing. “Efficiency” models run from 30-48 inches wide and feature a sink, 2 burner cooktops and refrigerator. “Full Feature” models come in widths ranging from 48 inches to six feet and include additional features-4 burner cooktops, gas or electric ovens, microwaves. Upper cabinets, dishwashers, range hoods come in the most deluxe models. “Barrier Free” models are also available, conforming to the strictest local and state codes for wheelchair and physically disabled accessibility.
To customize the perfect kitchen all depends on just how wide a space you have to work and what appliances you prefer. The choices for counter-tops and cabinet faces come next. Acme offers extensive options for counter-tops- the range swings from high-pressure laminates, solid surfaces like Wilsonart and Formica along with stainless steel. Cabinet choices include thermo foil, solid wood and bamboo.
Will and I went for the 60 inch model, 2 burner gas cooktop, electric range and refrigerator. Stainless steel counter-top and Formica’s Basalt Slate Matte finish for the cabinet base.
The Kitchen was perfect. The challenge we faced after we relocated the kitchen was giving it “soul”
A quick trip to Ikea for additional storage- we purchased a wall cabinet and a Stenstorp kitchen cart to add to the left of the kitchenette along with a shelf. We added a vintage lab cart from our old apartment on the other side for storage and chopping space. Doug Kent’s Goldie, a birthday gift from Will , sits on the shelf. And Voila- instant soul.
New Year’s day was a busy one for the red house. Here is a highlight of things to come. Dan Clark can manipulate this heavy equipment as if it were a delicately choreographed ballet, of bucket, cement and dirt. Truly amazing.
Those words have resonated with me ever since. So how does a 340 square foot cottage have a kitchen with soul?
The allocated space for our poor kitchen had been flying around like a wild Ping-Pong ball on our floor plans. (Remember my earlier note to self…never ask the opinions of others…follow your first instincts???)
It bounced between the original plan, on a nine-foot wall in the front section of the house to the revised plan, butting up against the exposed brick of the chimney in a much smaller space just off the rear deck. Perfect for summer barbeques we thought. We had five feet to work with…a mere sixty inches to shoehorn in a sink, counter top, refrigerator and cook/oven.
My first instinct was to head for Ikea. With the emerging trend of tiny houses I thought for sure IKEAwould have perfect options in both appliances and storage ideas for us. Wrong.
We looked a kitchen designed for boats but that wasn’t right either- not enough built in benches or cleverly hidden cabinets to store things in. I kept researching small-scale appliances only to discover they were exorbitantly expensive. What to do, what to do.
Acme has been in business for 80 plus years and specializes in custom-built kitchenettes. This place is pretty cool and I will post more about Acme in another blog. Acme produced a kitchen to our specifications, sixty inches long, fully loaded with all appliances, even a gas cooktop. They shipped it to us in a box. Seriously.
We unwrapped the kitchen and installed it in the back of the white cottage.
It fit pretty snugly into the space and was perfect access for all the outdoor dining we anticipated doing on our deck. The electricity and gas lines were hooked up. Will and I made a mad dash to Ikea for some cool minimalist storage ideas.
Kitchen installed- tick that box.
Ha- not so fast.
No sooner was the kitchen in place then we decided it was in the wrong place. We kept looking at clean open space in the front of the cottage. It was calling us. Will unhooked the electricity, shut down the gas lines and moved it to the front.
It looked pretty forlorn, all by itself, there in the living space. Downright soul less in fact.
A much improved location…but giving it soul quickly became our next mission.
The red house holds a lot of secrets. First secret was the hidden door Will discovered in between the kitchen and the dining room. And then came the wallpaper that revealed itself, hiding behind the lathe and plaster, when Will started tearing down the walls of the dining room.
As Will worked his way around the dining room, tearing down every square nail, ripping off every inch of lathe and plaster, we discovered there was not just one, but two layers of wall paper and a border on the plank walls.
It was a pretty darn cool discovery. However, neither one of us knew much about wallpaper. We had no idea what this discovery could possibly tell us about the house or its former owners. I can’t speak for Will, but I can tell you my knowledge of wallpaper is limited to licking lollipops while my mother poured over enormously large and heavy books filled with reams of wallpaper samples when she fell into full blown decorating mode. The shopkeeper let my mother take the old books home and she would spend hours re wall papering my dollhouse. Lollipops and doll houses is where I draw the line. I was clearly not educated or equipped to handle our new discovery.
Will and I, eager to show off our latest discovery, invited our neighbor Carl Sprague http://www.carlsprague.com/and his mother Tjasa Sprague ( famous for her tireless work on restoration of Ventfort Hall , http://gildedage.org, the guilded age mansion and museum in Lenox, MA) who have a wonderful appreciation and curiosity for such things to come see our latest findings. They snapped pictures and ooohed and awed and then told Robert Kelly, a renowned expert on wallpaper, to come see for himself.
I asked Mr. Kelly how he got so interested in wallpaper. He started out innocently enough as a painter/paperhanger in his hometown of Pittsfield, Massachusetts and little by little got pulled into the romance and history of wallpaper — one of the most prolific and enjoyable decorative materials ever invented. After a long career spanning over thirty plus years working with wallpaper in historic homes (including Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Martin Van Buren’s Lindenwald, Washington Place in Hawaii and the Governor’s Mansion in the Virgin Islands..(And now the Red Cottage), he turned to writing. His first full-length book is the Backstory of Wallpaper, published on September 12, 2013. http://www.amazon.com/dp/0985656107 . It has been nominated for the Historic New England book prize and nominated for the Lee Nelson Book Award of the association for Preservation Technology. Mr. Kelly also has a wonderful blog, http://wallpaperscholarblog.blogspot.com/
We were in the hands of an expert. From Mr. Kelly’s wallpaper interpretations we learned a few more secrets about the age of the house and who may have lived there.
The front room, aka the dining room, which is original to the building of the house, has unpainted plank walls that are 9”x15” wide and run vertically for the most part. The middle section of the wall facing the street is paneled horizontally. In preparation for wallpaper the grooves of the tongue and groove planks are filled with a cement-like substance but it was impossible to determine when this was done. Since the planks remain unpainted it is possible that the planks were not decorated for some time in the 18th century and early 19th century.
By the mid-eighteenth century, Britain was the leading wallpaper manufacturer in Europe, exporting vast quantities to Europe in addition to selling on the middle-class British market. Fashionable eighteenth century Americans purchased wallpapers from France and England. The origin of the paper in the red house was distinctly American. It was of poor quality in Mr. Kelly’s professional opinion, and the application of the wallpaper was also poorly done, leading him to surmise that the people who lived in the house were not entirely well off but wanted to appear as such.
By the 18th century designs include panoramic views of antique architecture, exotic landscapes and pastoral subjects, as well as repeating patterns of stylized flowers, people and animals. The foliate leaf/vine pattern paper is a repeating pattern that is made from hand carved blocks.
Things I never knew…the real key to determine the age of the paper is whether the paper is “joined” paper or “continuous” paper. Joined paper was necessary prior to the invention of continuous papermaking machines; the method was to paste the edges and join the sheets together end to end into long rolls. The paper was then grounded in color and finally printed upon.
Continuous paper was documented for commercial use in France by 1831 and advertised in 1835 in several locations in the US. It is logical to assume that continuous paper gradually edged out joined paper over a 5 to 10 year span so that by 1845 practically all wallpaper would have been continuous.
What Mr. Kelly found surprising and the incongruity hard to explain is that the underlying wallpaper is NOT joined paper, while the one on top IS. The underlying paper may be an early cylinder paper, which was known to have been produced in Berkshire County. The Berkshire connection is especially interesting because of the existence of the Laflin wallpaper factory in Lee, Massachusetts, 1825-1837.
Will and I have owned the red house and white cottage since June of 2013. This past January we began working on the white cottage for a few reasons; it was condemned and in an appalling state of disrepair. The cottage was also very small in scale so we thought it would be a good way to cut our teeth before we tackled the big project ahead in the red house. And most important of all, the red house had tenants so we had a modicum of income until the Spring; at least we thought we did.
The origins of the red house are a bit of a mystery but we know parts of it date back to the mid 1700s. The clues are in the hardware, the joists and nails. It has been altered and adapted several times over the past two hundreds plus years and is now a complex mix of hair brained ideas, scotched taped and gerry-rigged solutions to hold it together. It lacks insulation in the downstairs, and is in need of all new plumbing and electrical wiring. It’s in pretty sad shape. No wonder it took us a while to get the plans drawn for the red house and just last month get to the point where we could hang the building permit in the window.
Let the fun begin. Here is our plan: Start with the kitchen and the dining room. These are the original two rooms of the house.
Step one, put on respirator and protective eye wear. Get crowbar and hammer. Tear down the plaster walls, remove the lathe, rip down the ceiling. Then the floors in these rooms will have to be removed to sister (along the lines of learn something new every day , yes, sister can be a verb ) existing framing in the basement and add additional floor joists to levels the floors. Right now they are far from level, and pretty springy, not to mention kind of beat up. We plan to restore them- we shall see if we get there.
The demolition work is hard and dirty. It is also gratifying to make progress and even more fun when we stumble upon the unexpected.
Discovery one- Will removes the kitchen range and discovers a hidden door connecting to the dining room.
Progress…the fruits of our hard labor
Can I tell you this not only contains 200 plus years of dirt and dust, but it is also REALLY heavy. Plaster weighs a ton which makes for a slow clean up. There were days when I told Will I just couldn’t lift and empty another bucket full of debris into the dumpster. I felt like Marcel the Shell…wanna see me lift this? I can’t, I cant. Honestly, all this heavy work and progress is gratifying but I prefer conventional weight training in the gym.
We make our second discovery in the kitchen…an original corner post.
We have a treasure on our hands. Just how old is this house?
Once the kitchen is stripped we move into the dining room. Will removes the makeshift closet, along with the walls built around the chimney while I continue to empty small trash cans of debris into the dumpster.
He pokes at the plaster walls, trying to see what lurks underneath and we make our next discovery. Wallpaper!
The plaster and lathe are pried off, strip-by-strip, landing on the ply wood creating great heaps of dust. It is hard to breath. My respirator fogs my glasses. I bend down to scoop up an armful of lather to take to the dumpster. The nails intrigue me. The nails are square and many appear to be hand made, not machine made. I make a mental note- research the history of nails. How old could they be?
Next down comes the ceiling. Tiny corncobs, like mini Indian corn, and fossilized walnuts drop from the ceiling. How the heck did they get there? Primitive insulation? Mouse droppings cover the floor.
What was I thinking? Be careful what you wish for…those words continue to haunt me. We have embarked on a DIY project of enormous scale.