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Restoring Old Houses

( Originally Published 1937 )

No ONE, except a ten year old of Boy Scout urge, is going to build or would want to live in the genuine early New England house. That dwelling was a wigwam, copied from the round-topped elliptical structures put up by the first Americans, the Amerindians.

There is no foundation in the belief that our fore-fathers who settled first on the New England coast built log cabins resembling the shelters of later frontiersmen. They did not know how. The first American colonists, dumped here by English joint-stock companies, were for the most part an incompetent, helpless and often lazy lot of fellows; in the colonies of Virginia many of them starved to death because they lacked the primitive knowledge of how to shoot a hare or deer, or catch a fish in the abundant streams around. The New England fathers did not fare much better. They came quite unprepared (with the exception of prayer books) for the rigors of pioneering and wresting a living from nature as they found it. It was well over a century after Columbus first sighted this continent before the English were able to set up and keep going a successful and permanent settlement in America.

To expect from these earliest settlers a contribution to architecture is to expect the impossible. Few, if any, had known much beyond the modest cottage. They, like immigrants to other parts of the country, did the most natural thing under the circumstances: they attempted to reproduce as best they could the type of dwelling they had known at home.

Their first experiment, "wattle and daub," an ancient method of weaving boughs and daubing with clay, need not concern us here. Such edifices were soon reduced to mud in our climate. The half-timber house, which is the style everyone terms "old English" and which has been imitated ad nauseam by the entrepreneurs who construct and sell for profit the awful monstrosities in Long Island and other dark realms of modern suburbia, was also not adapted to the extremes of weather on the eastern coast. After a few trials it was soon abandoned in favor of the clapboard. This last type of dwelling, framed of sturdy, hand-hewn timbers joined without nails, faced with hand-split clapboards, and roofed by hand-split shingles, is the house we can refer to as "colonial." It was a functional structure in the best sense. Its slant-roof helped the snows slide off. Its center chimney, with openings at the back and on two sides for fireplaces, concentrated the heating plant in one up-and-down center unit, just as will be done in the future pre-fabricated structure. Its low-ceiling rooms were easy to heat, and pleasant and cozy in inclement weather. It was convenient to build, and adapted to the country. Its beauty lay in its simplicity and pure functionalism. The same style was followed when the construction was of brick.

As the Americans grew more prosperous—which they did in New England by trading in slaves, rum and molasses, and in ice to the China seas—they began to get more formal. They built larger and more imposing edifices, modeled on the Georgian houses the gentlemen of England inhabited. In New England, whether such houses were found facing a tree-lined common, or in the cities, or even isolated as a single dwelling in the country, these formal structures were known as "town houses," and the financial, moral and social status of a man was indicated by the facade of his house.

The houses we shall have concern with in this book; the houses that people are buying in the country and hoping to fix up, restore and live in, are known under a variety of names: such as the Cape Cod cottage, the salt box, the Colonial, the early American, the pre-Revolutionary, and—later—the Federal, the Greek Revival and the Regency.


WHAT should one do with an old house? The question is asked in all seriousness. The site is attractive, the proportions good, the historic associations interesting; but whether to buy it or leave it, whether to preserve it or wreck it, depends precisely upon just what can be done with it. Allow me to suggest that as a starting point our attitude toward the house itself, its materials and workmanship should be one of respect and deference, if not of reverence. There is no reason why our respect for age in human beings should not extend also to age in the product of human hands, human yearnings and love. But there is something else as well. These houses are the intimate products of human effort, the expression of a quality of faith and dignity difficult to find in modern life. There is about them an air of confident assurance, strikingly different from the apologetic lack of conviction which characterizes the imitative eclecticism of contemporary suburban developments, with here a little Tudor, there a touch of half-timber, and yon a sniff of Mediterranean Spanish.

Examining the House

Let us go down to the cellar. I have often questioned the wisdom of having cellars at all, for they are always damp even when they have tight walls and a cement floor. But there is no doubt about the value of that cool, damp darkness as a place to store vegetables; and if the cellar has outside access and outside ventilation, perhaps the dampness can do no great harm to humans.

But it can harm timber, and that is what we came down to look at. You should have your flashlight, penknife and spirit level. So—you go poking about, observing the condition of the timbers, testing them with your knife for soundness, and noting whether they have sagged or whether the cellar walls are falling in. Many of these were "dry walls," i.e., laid up "dry" or without mortar. The term is a misnomer, for, should the house be built on low ground, the water is quite likely to trickle merrily through. Where this has happened often you will find the walls settled or pushed inward and the timbers proportionately out of level. Well, if a timber is much rotted it must be replaced; if sagged much out of level it should be raised.

Examine the frame of the house in the attic and elsewhere to ascertain the condition of the timbers. Renew any of the framing pins which have rotted or become brittle where exposed to dampness.


If it is bad to put new wine in old bottles, it is equally bad to restore an old house with new materials. There is a shouting disharmony between the impersonal monotony in the surface of machine-made wall-board and the mellowness of genuine hand-hewn beams and hand-planed panels. Our job is to repair the ravages of time in such a way that the house will live again in its original character while adapting it to future occupation. It is not difficult to locate supplies of old timber, boards, brick, and slate, if you have a nose for such things; and they can usually be purchased cheaper than new ones. Hard-ware stores in country towns always carry old fashioned cut nails, and these make a suitable fastening for old boards, besides being much stronger than wire nails. Also, one can collect old hand-made nails.

Take personal charge of operations unless you have a man who understands the old construction and is not afraid of using old materials. There is a distressing lack of adaptability in many carpenters: they are so accustomed to having everything done for them by machine that they are stumped by a problem calling for a little forethought and ordinary skill with hand tools. They will invariably avoid coming to grips with such a problem by telling you that it is impractical to use old materials, and that it .will be much better and cheaper for you to buy new. This is far from the truth. But you need to be on the job to get results.


When you jack up a house, you must expect to repair the plaster afterwards. Remove the windows before you start, to avoid breaking the glass. Then, to get the jack under the sill remove some of the stones from the cellar wall. If you are raising a corner use one jack at each side of it. Then screw up gently, watching the effect inside and out, until your corners, sills and eaves are nearest to plumb, level, and true. Then drive in tightly two opposed wedges on a block of suitable height under each timber; nail the wedges securely to the blocks and remove the jacks. Replace the stones in the wall. Mix up some good cement mortar (page 162), and puddle it in with insertions of bits of stone under the timber.


Set up on jacks on suitable solid supports a temporary beam against the joists—parallel, but not too close, to the timber to be replaced. Now screw up your jacks until they just begin to lift the beam. Knock out the old beam with a sledge hammer and crowbar. Set your new beam in place, wedge it up level and puddle cement mortar between it and its permaent support. Be sure that you allow ample time for the mortar to set before removing the temporary beam.


The finish of the house is an aesthetic as well as a practical problem. The philosophy of these alterations, therefore should be based on the soundest of aesthetic principles: Eschew all imitations! An imitation is an ignoble attempt to conceal identity by pretence.

On Working With Wood

In brief: We shall not

(a) Buy new timbers and hack them up to make them resemble old ones.

(b) Buy cast brass hardware that has been hammered and plated to imitate iron. (This sort of work is a shameful affront to both metals.)

(c) Use cast concrete blocks that imitate the shape of chipped stone, or asbestos shingles moulded to imitate wood, or wood shingles rounded to imitate thatch.


The style and period must always be considered. In a country house of the early period, the plaster is somewhat coarse, and the timbers, where they are exposed in the downstairs rooms, hand-hewn. But your plasterer is convinced that nothing equals a perfectly white, perfectly smooth (and perfectly characterless) coating of plaster; and he will be quite insulted when you advise him that the art of plastering is in a period of senile decadence, having long since passed its first vigor. Get him to try out a few samples on a small area of the wall, and stop him before he gets to the putty or white coat, so as to leave the plaster while it still has life in it. Tell him to omit the putty coat and stop at the "scratch coat," but not to scratch it. Use some sand and fiber or hair in the finish coat, and smooth it with a wood float or straight-edge, not with a steel float.

In a town house of the later period you will find no hand-hewn beams nor rough plaster, but smooth walls and ceilings, and graceful mouldings of delicate proportions. Give your plasterer a free hand. He will take great delight in matching his skill with that of his ancestors.

When you come to buy wall papers, under no circumstances accept a so-called "Colonial Design" that is really the work of contemporary designers attempting to bolster poor work with a dignified name. But a genuine reproduction of an original Colonial pattern may be regarded as merely a new edition of the same thing, when it is printed by a reputable firm. There are good original designs of modern wall paper that harmonize with an old house, but they are rare. A safe rule for one inexperienced in these matters, is to use only genuine reproductions of good early de-signs, put out and guaranteed authentic by a reputable house. Ceilings should never be papered. The manufacture of ceiling papers was an afterthought of the paper-makers when they began to feel the limit of the public's capacity for absorbing their production of wall paper.

A similar case of public taste being turned in a new direction by those who stood to profit by the change, is exhibited in the current craze for "knotty pine." Not many years ago knotty pine was: unheard of as a material for anything but cowsheds. But as the lumber companies came to the end of the sup-plies of good clear timber (a situation that need never have arisen), they turned to the culls of rough, knotty stuff that had never before been considered worth cutting. A cleverly managed campaign of public instruction created the impression that knotty pine was something typically "Colonial," very precious and desirable. Of course, a colonial carpenter having to saw and plane over all those knots by hand would curse violently if he had ever been asked to finish a room with it. Still, it would not be unattractive if it were not finished with that bright yellow, shiny surface and left with the raw newness of its treatment at the mill so obtrusively evident. We should clear our minds, however, of the idea that it represents a colonial custom. If there is one thing against which people should be strongly cautioned, it is against al-lowing themselves to be stampeded by propaganda from the monthly magazines and selling organizations into an acceptance of any special style or finish as "the" correct and only one. In any case, where you wish to use natural wood, do not finish it with oil, shellac, or varnish alone.

Sometimes an old house contains pine panels in splendid condition, covered up with layer after layer of old paint. When this is removed, they need nothing more than a patient rubbing with steel wool and paint-remover to acquire a soft, velvety sheen. Do not be disturbed if the color is not perfectly even:

I must caution you against an overzealous exploitation of the "rustic style" in interior finish, exemplified in such acts as building in a house an immense, heavily proportioned cobblestone or fieldstone fireplace, which is suitable only for a hunting camp in the woods. Because of its clumsy scale, such a fire-place seldom harmonizes with the symmetry of the room nor adequately returns to the room the heat from the immense quantities of fuel it consumes. There is also the curious urge to strip lath and plaster from ceilings and joists, and expose, in all their nakedness, the rough-sawn (not hewn) 2" x 8" joists. The crowning imbecility in this direction was a ceiling I once saw where between ordinary rough-sawn hemlock joists, carefully divested of their clothing of plaster, and stained brown, had been fitted sheets of white beaver-board. And around the edges were smooth white-painted quarter-round mouldings! Sad to relate, some people have gone to the other extreme and boxed in, with western fir, beautiful, hand-hewn old beams. In replacing these priceless reminders of an age when craftsmanship was man's common heritage, they have achieved the distinction of a ponderous mediocrity: let us hope that they enjoy it.


Where additional trim is needed for replacements or alterations it is difficult to match the old material with commercially available mouldings. Find a carpenter who knows how to use old moulding planes and have him make some by hand. If the quantity needed is small this will cost less than having special shapes cut at the mill.


A number of people have made their own wrought iron hardware by a simple arrangement with the local blacksmith for permission to use his forge and tools. If they get into difficulties, or do not have time to finish everything they start, the master is always there to lend a hand. Or the whole job can be tured over to the blacksmith, who should, however, be encouraged to use his own imagination and inventiveness, rather than asked to follow an exact pattern. Wrought iron hardware should have all the sharp corners and edges filed off and the surfaces rubbed with emery cloth, because it is quite rough when it leaves the anvil. It should be rubbed finally with a little wax.

Hardware should be logically suited to its purpose. A long, heavy spear-pointed hinge applied to a graceful panelled door is an evident misalliance. The rougher, heavier type should be reserved for plank and slab doors, using for the more finished styles either plain butts or the HL type of hinge. Carefully finished brass was often used in the later houses. As there has been no significant change in the method of manufacturing cast brass hardware for generations, good modern brass work should harmonize with an old house, if selected with taste. You can take brass hardware as sold, and finish it yourself with files and buffing to a higher degree of finish, if this is desirable, perhaps enriching the surface with a little chasing or engraving. Then lacquer it.


The very first windows in New England houses were made of oiled parchment or paper, but few houses standing now had such windows in them, for one of the first building materials imported (apart from nails and lime) was diamond glass set in leads, ready to be put in the sash. These small diamond shaped panes were very popular for a while, but soon gave place to larger rectangular ones, set in sash of eight or twelve lights, four across the width and two or three lights high. In some localities the twelve-light sash was below, and in some above the eight-light; and in others a window was made of two twelve-light sashes. The size of the lights was usually 5" x 7", 6" x 8", or 7" x 9".

In the late Victorian period many of these sash were replaced with two-light units of ugly proportions. We need feel no hesitation in again replacing them with eight or twelve-light sash of the original proportions. To keep the delicate proportions the bars or "muntins" should have an outside width of 5/8" and the sash should be i" thick. Stock sash are 1 3/8".

I believe it is impossible to get stock sash in the exact Colonial proportions. However, special sash ordered in lots of 10 or more are almost as cheap as stock sizes. The nearest I have found in standard sash is the eight-light over twelve "Colonial Windows" of the New York layout. (Standard Lumber sizes are classified either as "New York Layout," used throughout the country, or the "Boston Layout," used chiefly in the vicinity of Boston.) The windows mentioned are made by the Curtis companies and distributed through lumber dealers everywhere. The smallest window fits an epening 3'-0" x 4'-8", and has lights about 8" x 10".

Outside Finish

Clapboards exposed to the weather for generations without painting acquire a rugged surface and a soft grey or brown tint that harmonizes beautifully with the tones of rocks, lichens and the bark of trees. While it would be a great pity to replace them with new wood, in many cases they are so loose that they require refastening before the house can be occupied. Here is the correct procedure, which, applied to several houses under my observation, has proved entirely satisfactory:

The clapboards are carefully removed and the frame of the house repaired wherever necessary. Then the studs are covered on the outside with a layer of one of the good insulating wallboards, and a layer of tar-paper applied to this again. The clapboards are replaced outside the tar-paper, being fitted as neatly as possible. It is usually necessary to obtain from some other source a few clapboards of a similar age and condition to replace those damaged in the removal. Rock wool insulation is packed between the studs at a suitable opportunity before the job is finished.

If the roof needs renewing you have your choice of two natural materials, wood and slate, and several artificial ones. As in other things, the natural materials inevitably have the advantage of more character. Hand-split pine shingles have a long life and great attractiveness, but are expensive to make. Sawn cedar shingles have the advantage of cheapness but a relatively short life, especially in a damp or shaded location. Slate, an ideal material, is weather-proof, fire-proof, capable of lasting several lifetimes if solidly laid with heavily coated galvanized nails. (It is stupid economy to use uncoated nails for any kind of roof covering.) For early country houses, the rougher, thicker slates are good. Second hand slates or chipped culls are suitable, especially if you can find some with a variety of color. For the more finished style of the "town house" or "Greek Revival," the even, neatly laid regular slates are in keeping. In any case, keep away from fancy patterns of laying. All deviations from the normal weatherage and overlap are traps for the unwary that eventually lead to slates blowing off and to leaks developing.

Artificial roofings lack the character of natural ones, but if they do not pretend to be more than honest roof coverings they can be very satisfactory. An honest roof covering should go with an honest house if the texture and color schemes are in keeping. A dishonest covering, insinuating itself into your notice by its imitation of old natural materials, should be scornfully repudiated. Naturally, no one would consider roll roofing as anything but a temporary expedient.

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