How to Have a House

Living with and understanding a home.

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Ouch. Maybe a little mismatch on that house purchase.

Recently a couple we know moved away to Iowa.  They sold their 100 year old house here in our city after they left.  We liked this couple, two women, who were at the parties we went to and who were married in Iowa a couple years before they moved there.  Some of my family is from Iowa, they are quite conservative so it is good fun to thank them for the gay marriage laws Iowa has passed. I suggest to them the marijuana laws are not far behind. This makes their hair stand on end, but they continue to love me for my charm and wit.  Our friends who moved there say they did so because of Iowa’s excellent civil rights laws.  I could go on and on about this but back to the 100 year old house.

They sold the house just recently and like a lot of home sellers they kept track of how the new owners have treated the house.  You realize by now house people are like cat people or dog people or dedicated employees, even after they leave they expect things to be cared for in the same manner as they did. This house is no exception.

It seems the new owners have crossed the line. They have apparently torn out much of the oak trim and built-in book shelves siding the fireplace.  Ouch.  What trim is left was painted white.  Blasphemy.  Seriously.

I’d like to meet the new owners.  I want to know they had great reason to do this.  I’d like to see their bright shiny faces and know what they were thinking.  I’m not really a dramatic but person, but really?

It’s hard for historic house enthusiasts to accept this sort of action.  Why buy and old house if what you really want is a newer house with no trim? Where is the reason in destroying history? What good will hundreds of feet of antique oak trim do in the landfill?  How will they justify their choice to the next buyers when they sell this house? What do they tell their friends who come over and see an antique house on the outside and a white box on the inside? Maybe their friends wouldn’t come over until the place was “updated”.

It’s hard to tell. I called them the strongest word I could muster without being offensive, “suburbanites”. They aren’t bad people, they just managed to make everyone who has ever been in that house completely mad. I’m sure they have watched enough HGTV to be experts, because as we all know HGTV is the ultimate authority on good homeownership. That’s if you believe everything you see on TV. Maybe the real estate agent gave them the great idea. Maybe they are allergic to historic trim but are required by their jobs to live on that street. Whatever the reason, it hurt some feelings.

It’s an old fashioned thing but a little consideration goes a long way. I’m one of the least considerate person I know, but I have a deep respect for all things history. I would never buy an antique car, but I respect the time and effort some people put into them. I don’t own very many books, but I’m glad for people who keep libraries.

I know we’re Americans with our bill of rights and all. I realize we have the right to pursue happiness at almost any cost. But sometimes we could just throttle back a little and buy a house for it’s existing character. It’s possible someone next door knew the people in that house, had lunch in that house and love that house for it’s amazing history and character.

Embrace your taste and style. Make a statement. Do something dramatic and beautiful with your new house. But please, don’t tear out the trim and built ins. Other people love that house too.


Tuck point is hard work. More please.

If you have a house with brick, stone, stucco or masonry construction, it’s likely you’ll learn about tuck point, crowns, or  scratch coat mortar, among other things, at some point in your home ownership. Brick, block and stone are constructed by craftsmen who are good with plumb and level, have excellent math skills and can’t deny their artistic streak.  This type of construction is artful, long lasting and often reflects the style of the original constructor.  Maintenance and repair of these house components are as basic as window well walls or as challenging as the highest chimney feature.  I don’t climb a lot, so chimneys over about fourteen feet are not mine to do. And I never do the inside flue work on a chimney.  Same with high exterior walls. But foundation walls, window wells, porch pillars and landscape walls, I’ll do these things anytime.  A lot of this work is basically art. Hard, messy, heavy art.
For the last few weeks I’ve done tuck point out doors. It’s fall in this region and the weather and plants are changing.  There’s more mice and beetles in the basements.  The light starts to fall off to the edge of the sky, and since exterior mortar work is subject to freezing, the tiny place in my brain holding the most ancient lessons says it’s time to hustle.  Not so many more weeks before mortar is done outdoors this year.
The first job last month was two walls facing a behind the house garage off a shared driveway.  The walls were likely original to the house, that made them somewhere near a hundred years old.  They had been tuck pointed off and on over the decades, and they were due for another round.  Vines were draping over the walls but not climbing them.  If you have climbing vines on your house and trees, stop that.  Vines eat houses and trees.  It looks pretty, like a cottage in the woods or a house in old world such and such.  Vines ate those houses too. Anyway, Cutting away the vines and growth showed both walls fully, they had about three or four inches of exposure facing the soil behind and stood about five feet at the tallest end.  Both the loose ends out in the yard had fallen to rubble.  Using a light power washer and electric chisel I cleared the mortar joints, washed away soil and debris and prepped the wall for mortar replacement.  Almost one hundred percent of the viewable exposure would be tuck pointed.
The rubble ends of the walls were re-stacked and set in mortar.  The tuck point was installed on the face toward the driveway and the back face toward the soil.  I use an electric concrete mixer for these jobs, it keeps the mortar moving, allows a near perfect mix to continue throughout the day and saves a ton of time compared to hand mixing.  The tops of the walls had been tucked in the past but never crowned.  The customer preferred the natural look of leaving off the crowns. Because of the rubble wash outs, and the condition of the walls, a lot of space was left in the hollow part of the wall. Since the front and back were freshly tuck pointed, I mixed several batches of pourable mortar and filled the wall through the gaps in the unfinished top of the wall.  These gaps were tuck pointed back to appearance and the wall turned out to be very solid. To finish things off I drilled a series of drain holes along the lower part of both the walls to let water through.    All in all the repair was completely appropriate.  The walls will last a lot of  years before they need much attention.  The cost was considerably less than a new engineered wall and the value of preserving the antique wall behind the antique house is undeniable.  Preservation.  Heavy preservation.
The home owner of this house hired me about six years ago to improve the kitchen in the house.  I’ve worked my way all over this house.  Kitchen, bathroom, living room, exterior repairs and lots of tuck point.  I love this house.  The owner and her family have had a habit of preserving history, through their house, public work and living standards, for a long time.  The dog knows me and expects attention. The last dog who lived there made such and impression on me I built him into an online parts house password, “jackbarks”.  When I get there in the morning I get a cup of coffee, grab some sugar from the cabinet and  put the spoon back where it goes.  My customer wants to know how the kids are and if my truck is fixed.  At the end of the day I drink a beer from the basement fridge.  During the week I line my caps up on the work bench in the basement, just so we all know how much I love that beer.  If there’s no beer downstairs, there’s more on the top, left, shelf in the kitchen fridge.  Those caps to in the trash.  Get it?  This is how to have a house.  How to work on a house because you love the house so much the house loves you back.
This house will get more work.  This winter I’m going to paint a first floor bedroom and wood work.  I’ll do my thing, make the plaster just right, good primer and paint and of course polish out all the hardware.  Next spring I’m going to tuck point the exterior foundation wall and three window wells on the south side of the house.  The air will be warming up, all the way through the night.  The sun will tip back up overhead. Knowing there’s only so many days in a summer, that tiny part of my brain will have me hustle the tuck point again, love the house and pet the dog.

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Home owners unite. In earnest.

The historic home buyers crowd is continuing to organize in this area. Recently, I was invited to speak at the First Annual Historic Home Buyer’s Expo, presented by Historic KC in Kansas City. The event took place in Kansas City’s historic Union Station. The room for the speakers was inspiring. Really tall ceilings with windows all along the north wall, from about 5 feet off the floor rising maybe 12-15 feet. The glass was frosted so it was just a giant wall of glowing, cool north light, spilling into a long, terrazzo floored room. Someday when I grow up, I’ll come back to that room and it will seem smaller. The trim is huge and made of plaster. In fact, a man who worked for the company responsible for a lot of the plaster created during this station’s recent restoration was presenting in the next hall. There were chairs for about a hundred people in the room with a long carpet the whole length in the isle of the seating. It was naturally warm and comfortable. The room was less than 50 feet from the station’s main floor. The station’s main floor is like the grand canyon, bigger than can be understood. On the diagonal side of the main floor, in the wings, was the other trade show room. A young expo in a grand environment.

Friday night was spent in the trade show room. It was as beautiful as the speaker’s room, but cozier. The scale of these rooms is huge, discrete to the point of whim, with the amazing trim, naturally lighted glass and the right furniture, making the room very nice. Several vendors filled the room, not really booths but tables with dark surroundings and a glass wall on one side. It felt professional and comfortable. We hung out and laughed at who we knew from around town. We were glad to be reminded of one another’s natural interest in preserving historic houses. Not just because we’ve made a living at it, but because we’ve made a difference.

The public, attending the room, was cool. People with a sense of history in the property they moved into. These people have spent more time on the internet, gathering information, than can be imagined. These are people whose kids are grown, or they never had them. Maybe they’ve got kids, but, have that weird ability to do almost everything. It’s a good crowd to throw yourself into. The room feels good, the expo attendees are fun and full of stories. I meet a guy restoring old tractors, that’s a real win for me. We laugh at the Mid Century Moderns for their manic defense of their houses. This MCM community is preserving a great stock of houses that are becoming appreciated for their historic significance. My wife was with me on this trip too. She’s a pro when it comes to working a pretty room. It was a rehearsal evening with a live audience.

expo workbook

Saturday was fun. I was given fifty minutes in the speaking room, and knowing the relaxed conversational style of historic home chat, I knew that wasn’t enough, especially with a bunch of people in the room. The How to Have a House workshop is four hours, and that’s if there’s twenty five people in the room or only three! For the Historic Home Buyer’s Expo I blogged out a handout based on the How to Have a House work book. It allowed me to put a value in the hands of the attendees, and, knowing I’d never make it through five sections of a house workbook, I was able to relax and enjoy the time I had. It felt good. I was scheduled for the opening slot on Saturday morning, I was glad. This was a job that was all about the mood and attitude of historic home ownership. Get that covered and the rest is more effective. I gave the room my best and found the audience to be lively and ready for the day.

We spent the rest of Saturday until about 4:30 in the trade room. It really was nice. It was apparent that a lot of highly qualified home owners, contractors, craftsmen, tradesmen, relators and other professionals, are, through the natural inclinations of their hearts and minds, preserving a lot of historic homes.

I’m glad to be a part of this crowd.