Wednesday, September 28, 2011

This (*$%#ing) Old House - A DIY Story

View of house from the lawn
Last week, my wife and I did something that made us feel like adults. We bought a new washing machine and dryer. Normally, installing a gas dryer is straight-forward: just attach the gas line and vent and plug it in. This is only true if your house wasn’t build BEFORE the invention of indoor plumbing, gas heat and electricity. Our house was built in the 1830’s. As no surprise, this simple task of installing the modern appliances turned into a multi-day ordeal.

First question: Is there a gas line near the laundry room?
Answer: No! We had to find a gas line in the house and somehow tap into it. We eventually found one on the other side of the house, but it then took over an hour to find the shut-off valve for it. (It was located outside the house.) Time to go to Home Depot. We installed a T-joint, attached links of black pipe to where the dryer was, installed a new shut-off valve and bubble-tested the line for leaks. All good.

Second question: Is there a vent for the dryer?
Answer: No! For years, the old electric dryer had vented directly into the basement. It coated every beam and cobweb with a fine layer of purple fuzzy lint and sprouted forests of mold that smelled vaguely of fabric softener. The closest egress was a boarded up window. The natural conclusion was to knock out the top window pane (above the outside snow line), cut a hole in the board and install the vent. So, I duct-taped the window pane in order to catch the glass, took a swing with a hammer and…whump! Nothing happened. I tried again. Nothing. The next tool in my arsenal was a crowbar. I took a hard swing and, Whack! No break, not even a crack. Was this a joke? I hit that window hard, three times before it finally shattered. My ancestors had installed 1/3 inch thick glass in the basement windows. It was practically bullet proof! After that, cutting a hole in the board, adding insulation and installing the vent were straight-forward.

Third question: Are the electrical outlets grounded?
Answer: No! They were three-pronged outlets. However, under the faceplate, the wires had no ground. Great, another trip to Home Depot for grounding wire and a clamp to attach it to a copper water pipe. With the necessary parts in-hand, the next step was to cut the power to the laundry area so I wouldn’t electrocute myself while installing the grounding wire. With 22 rooms in this house, you would think that someone would have labeled the 40+ circuits. They did not. I had to plug a lamp into the outlet and systematically trip each of the circuits in the house until my father-in-law yelled that the light was off. After that, installing the grounding wire was easy.

New dryer works, now for paint
We moved into this historic family home 25 days ago and are nurturing our budding love-hate relationship. The dryer is now humming nicely. We’ve conquered countless other repairs. Before I curse how easy Bob Vila made old home repairs look on TV, I remind myself that the conveniences of modern living (plumbing, electricity, telephones, forced-air furnaces, alarm systems and even cable TV) are modifications to the original structure. Unlike new homes where floor-plans seamlessly incorporate and hide the infrastructure, old houses have been forced to ingest wires, pipes and appliances that were never imagined by the original designers. The results are often convoluted attempts at modernization that have me banging my head against the wall. On the bright side, I’ve found that banging my head against the wall turns on the washing machine.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Rebuilding the Past

Back in April we wrote about a powerful freak windstorm hit Lockport, NY with wind speeds recorded at 83 mph. Dozens of trees fell, knocking down power lines and blocking traffic. The most notable casualty was a grand century-old Locust tree that shaded our quiet neighborhood street. When it fell, it left an 8-foot deep crater in the road. It also crushed an old iron fence and a section of a historic fieldstone wall that my ancestors built back in the 1830’s.

The fallen tree lay there for a few weeks (during which neighbors and passerby stopped to take photos) until the City hauled it away. The crew had to bulldoze a wider span of the old stone wall to drag it off our property. Just what I needed: another project.

Back in the day, horse- and ox-drawn plows crisscrossed the farm, tilling the ground. Rocks that were plowed up were carted to the sides of the fields where they were used to build stone walls that marked plots and property lines. Several generations of farming had produced a sizable wall of stacked rock. It stretches through the fields, in neighbors’ yards and even pops up on the other side of the street.

Project Rebuild waited until the end of the summer, after planting and the weather cooled off and when my brother-in-law, a former Russian body-builder, happened to be visiting. The first step was actually to clear the jumble of rocks and dismantle more wall so I could see how it was originally constructed. It brought me back to my days working as an archaeologist.

It was a double-wall construction, where two lines of large flat-faced rocks were placed on either side, and small rocks were piled in the middle trough. Thin stones where then used as shims to stabilize the layers. This back-breaking process was repeated until the wall was about 4.5 feet high, then a large capstone was set on top to hold everything in place.

Putting the wall back together was like finishing a large, very heavy jigsaw puzzle. The biggest boulders weighed over 300 pounds. And we have no oxen. It took pick axes, pry bars, perseverance and a lot of brute strength. But, we repaired the wall. Then, we even moved on to rebuild some other sections that had crumbled and collapsed over the decades. When we were finally finished, we’d added 20 feet of new wall with stones that we had collected during this growing season.

Repairing that wall made me appreciate the amount of labor that went into building this farm over the generations. It’s the kind of work that has to be done by hand. Sure, a machine could move the rocks, but only a person can construct that complex wall. Rebuilding the wall was like rebuilding a connection to my ancestors who did the same project on the same spot 180 years ago.

Next time you drive through the countryside and see an old stone wall in the woods, take a second to think of the family who toiled in the fields and built that wall in their attempt to clear the land and make a life for themselves. Until the day comes when no more stones surface in the fields, the wall on our property will be, as it’s always been, a work in progress.