Monday, August 25, 2014

House History: A Gift from the Past

Houses, I've always believed, are more than brick and lumber, shingles and windows. They are also spiritual. Now, if you don't believe in ghosts or presences or in places having souls, that's perfectly okay with me. And while I can't say I've ever seen a ghost, I do believe that places have....I don't know what to call it. Something that goes beyond the mere substance of its physical existence. 

I feel that way about this house, and have from the day I walked in the front door. It felt like home, immediately. It felt like it needed me. I felt like I needed it. And those feelings were beyond the financial considerations, the practicalities, and the smell of the funky old carpet. It was some intangible truth, and it grabbed me by the arm and dragged me into the rooms that I now occupy. My house even has a name: I call it Ruth. It always seemed to fit it, somehow. 

One of my goals this year was to delve more into the past of my house. I'd gotten some hints by reading the deed to the property when I first purchased it, but it was a lengthy document; I had a lot going on when we moved in (and still do), so I only skimmed: 

I also found this, most likely the lumber delivery label, at the bottom of a drawer in the upstairs linen closet: 

There were also some inadvertent clues from the man who inspected the house before purchase, who said after looking in the attic: "This house was framed by one person, perhaps with a helper or two. But it was clear the carpentry was planned and executed by one person, and he really knew what he was doing." 

It turns out he was right. Meet the builder of my house, Hans J. Hansen: 

This photo was taken in 1961, when he was almost 90 years old, and came to me courtesy of my local historical society. 

He was a master carpenter of barns and homes in the area, and was active in the community from about 1899. He was a Danish immigrant, at one time returning to his native country to attend a folks school to learn carpentry; then he returned. Between 1899 and 1940, he built over 50 barns and homes that have been attributed to him, perhaps more that are unknown. 

I found it astonishing that some of the homes he built in my hometown are ones that I have admired for a long time. When I was a teenager attending middle school, I often walked home past this Dutch Colonial and daydreamed about living in it. Mr. Hansen built it. 

He also built one of my favorite houses in my current neighborhood, just down the street and around the corner from my own. (These photos are courtesy of the county tax assessor). 

My house, the smaller and more modest Cape Cod, was built in 1939. It is possibly the last house he built. But it is also special for more reasons than just that.

He built my house for his daughter. Her name? It was Ruth.

Ruth Hansen Boast was married in 1936. Where she lived before she came to this crisp and tidy new little house in 1939 is unknown, but it is entirely possible that it was a wedding present from father to daughter and new son-in-law.

Of course, I already knew that there were children involved, and now I know more details, like their names: Richard, Charles, and Thomas. It seems no mistake that I, a mother of four boys, ended up with a house built by a grandfather to shelter his three grandsons.

It turns out that Ruth's name was always there, buried in the details of the lengthy deed (her husband's name was the only one on the purchase/transfer of property entry, and my eyes must have glossed over the rest). Did I internalize it somehow at the time I bought the house and read the deed, and that unconscious knowledge surfaced when I started calling the house Ruth? Entirely possible. Either way, I don't think it was an accident.

In the last three years, I've considered this house a gift in many ways. It was a place to find a future after my marriage failed. Room to create a home for myself and my sons. A challenge to meet. A part of my community's history for which to take responsibility. It's been the gift of a friend, in that intangible way that I spoke about houses having souls-- Ruth. Knowing that it may very well have been a gift from the very beginning makes it even more so. I only hope I'm able to live up to the grace it's shown me.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Exponential Tomatoes

It's late summer, which means tomatoes. I like how they start out small, like the two wee things above we "harvested" in late July.

Now this is our daily take, with more romas as the summer ripens into fall:

How's your garden this year?

Thursday, August 21, 2014

I Shutter To Think

Yes. I went there. I titled a blog post with an idiomatic phrase misspelling that drives me straight up the wall.

I'm annoyed enough as it is, so I might as well take it all the way.

In the previous seasons, you may have remembered that we found the old wood shutters for the house in the garage attic, scrubbed the wasp nests and bird poop off them, tightened them up a bit, sanded and painted them. While I didn't get them hung, I was loving the way they looked.

This year I got them out of their storage spot on the screen porch, ready to finally hang them, and get to work on another pair. But while I was at work for the week and before I could get the hardware to properly hang them, this happened.

I know. As the youngsters today say: I cannot even.


The exposure to a week's worth of sun, wind, and variables of moisture did this to the shutters. So obviously they weren't as tight as I thought. And all that time I spent cleaning them up? Poof. I try not to think about that part, or I swear a lot. A lot.

At this point I'm too emotionally fragile for ill-timed advice, so I have generously composed a list to choose from:

1. Here, have a glass of wine.
2. You look like you need a nap.
3. ((Hugs))
4. Who needs shutters anyway?
5. Here, have a glass of wine.

If there are clamps out there, or some neat trick, or oh, they're so worth the work to save those cool old shutters, I don't want to know, please, because right now it will be "blah-blah-blah-blah-blah-blah can't hear you."

I will apply rational thought later. Right now I'll be working on 1-5.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Progress Report: Windows

The 75-year-old windows in this house are in a bit of rough shape on the outside, but still sturdy. Honestly, they are mostly weather-tight from the inside, which is more than I can say for the lousy and drafty 1970s era casement windows in my kitchen.

After Dad got the old storms pried off, I got to work sanding the face frames and sills. But there were some spots of dry rot on these; small enough that I didn't need to call a carpenter for a replacement, but big enough that trouble was going to continue without some intervention.

So that had to come first.

The wood stabilizer product I bought is made by Elmer's and looks and smells just like school glue. The price, unfortunately, was not just like school glue. In the montage above, I've brushed sawdust and dirt off the surface with a dry brush, and brushed on the stabilizer generously with a disposable chip brush.

In the lower right-hand corner is the sill, dry. It looks like nothing happened, but feeling the wood, it feels as though the fibers have become plasticized, or polymerized. It's encouraging to feel those soft spots firm up in just a few hours, but I left it overnight because it was a super humid day and I felt like I detected some tacky feel to it even after five hours of dry time. The overnight dry is definitely worth it. It may have been our humid weather, but there was a big difference in the result between the five hours it got the first day, and the next morning's results. It's slowing me down, but the step is going to be necessary to prevent these sills from going any further south.

After that I caulked the top of the faceframe, where a little piece of metal flashing runs. The flashing is supposed to run off water, but it seems that it is running the water off and then right under, causing some of the dry rot I'm seeing at the top of the window. I hope this fixes it.

And here is the faceframe and sill painted, with gratuitous hydrangea photobomb included:

And here is the same section of sill, painted with four coats:

The next step is going to be the glazing. Wish me luck. I'm nervous. Really, it might have made more sense to do the glazing first and handle the sills and faceframes last, working from inside out so to speak, but the bare wood and dry rot concerned me more, and I wanted to get them weatherproof as quickly as possible.

This is our end goal. This is the window to the left of the front door, which had a new storm window mounted last fall. The white enamel coating on the window makes it blend in with the window frame, unlike the old unfinished ones, and the newer ones have low-E glass, to make them that much better keeping out cold and heat.

And here's the beginning of the second window, all scraped, but before sanding.

By the next window update I should be able to share my experiences with window glazing. Send your prayers to the DIY goddess!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Late Summer Pleasures

It seems poignant to me that I'm writing this blog post on the night before the first day of the school year. Between making up quite a few snow days this spring and our school district dialing back the start date a whole week in the fall, summer seemed especially short. And now it's gone.

Because of that and a jam-packed schedule, we didn't go on the Big Summer Vacation. I had mixed feelings about it. Because time seems to be slipping away especially fast and my boys becoming men, it felt like a lost opportunity. On the other hand, having a week off at home (let's avoid the word "staycation," shall we?) to sleep in, wear pajama pants, go barefoot, pick tomatoes, and eat ice cream for supper because we felt like it was rare and precious down time for our family.

Which is not to say we did no traveling at all. We journeyed to the local parks. We hung out at the local community pool. We took walks around the neighborhood.

We also did a few short road trips. We visited a zoo. I also learned that uber-agricultural Iowa has six national wildlife refuges. Six. How had I not been to a single one?

So one day, we visited the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. One of the things I love about August in Iowa is the prairie. It is at its sunshine blazing glory-most-high, stretching up to a hot and pale blue heaven.

It smells grassy, dusty, and a little like baked bread. And then there are the flowers.

Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge has as a goal the preservation and reintroduction of native tallgrass prairie. It's a place where you can almost, almost squint your eyes and imagine the land before there was a single powerline, building, fencerow, or plowed field.

I am glad that in the decision not to travel far, we instead found a local gem. I know we'll be back.

But by the time you're reading this, the backpacks and lunchboxes will already have been out the door for the beginning of the school year, and I've got to think about what I can reasonably get accomplished before I have to wrap up outside work for the year. Last year it was Nov. 10, and I wonder how far I can push it this year. Last year it was too rainy the first half of the summer, and most of the work happened in the late summer and fall. It looks like that will be the case this year as well. The kids' summer may be over, but mine isn't yet. I'm actually glad that I've got a few more weeks to soak up the sun on my back, even if I'm up a ladder when it happens.

How's the rest of your summer wrapping up?

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Paint Season 2014: Progress Report

To be honest, there hasn't been much progress around the doorstep these days. Up until the last couple of weeks, the problem has been rain. And then it has been schedule. Oddly enough, I don't feel frantic about it like I did last summer. Perhaps because I've given up on the idea of getting the entire house done in one season (a lunatic idea when you're working mostly alone on a project of this size, especially with an older and long-neglected house).

Right now, instead of siding, I'm focused on the front windows. I painted the front of the house last year, as you can see from the photo above. And it looks super. But I left the windows for a separate project. That's what's going on now, and progress happens on a far less grand scale.

My dad and I removed the old aluminum storm windows on his last visit. Recently I started scraping and sanding the face frames, so that we can mount the new storm windows on freshly painted and caulked surfaces.

The face frames are the least of my problems though. The window glazing is boiled to a 75-year-old crisp. Or is missing entirely.

So there's another thing I'll be teaching myself how to do. Many DIY sites advise removing the sashes to do this task, but I think they are quietly out of their minds to think that I will have the spare time to remove the sash, remove the old glazing, prime, re-glaze, allow to cure, and paint and re-install all in....what? Twenty-four hours? More? This seems nuts to me. I'll be doing it in place, a stage at a time.

Right now the face frames are sanded, and I'm waiting for some slightly damp wood to dry thoroughly before I caulk. To prevent the wood from getting moistened again in the rain they have forecast for the next few days, I rigged up some temporary sheeting.

Yes, those are clothespins. No, I don't want to hear about clamps working better. This is what I have without making a special trip to the hardware store. It'll do for the short term as long as we don't blow a gale.

I have as a goal to get these two or three east windows done so that they can get their new storms, and to complete one more side of the house, north or south, before snow flies. The north side should go quickly because the siding and paint are still in relatively good condition.

Progress is progress, I said at the beginning of the year. Hope it still feels like it at the end of the year!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Curbside Landscaping Progress (Sort Of)

Longtime readers may remember that a couple summers ago the gas company trenched up my yard (necessary) and then afterwards tried to "fix" my lawn by putting down half dead sod in the middle of a baking hot summer (totally unnecessary). The result was this lovely mess:

Last fall and this spring I got the main lawn back to some semblance of normal by peeling off the dead sod, raking and seeding, and patching healthy sod from other areas where I'd removed it. Then again, I live in an older neighborhood where there's no such thing as the golf-course perfect yard. Which is fine with me. I don't have the disposition or the desire to use the amount of chemicals it would take to maintain perfection. If it's green and I can mow it, I'm good.


There's not much I could do with the remainder of this crappy sod job, and that's where the curb-to-sidewalk easement was left. And it's been looking atrocious ever since: 

One thing I'm sure of: turf is a lot of damn work, and I don't like it. The work OR the grass. A second thing I was sure of: I don't like backing into my garbage can sitting on the driveway on garbage day.

Put those two things together, and it seemed to me that I needed to do at least part of my curb strip in hardscaping. I wanted a landing spot for my garbage can, and I wanted anything but grass along part of it too.

My city's ordinances don't allow one to pave the easement; they don't care if you landscape as long as you understand that trenching for utilities can happen, and that they won't move or do anything to save it if they do need to trench. 

In that case, anything I did would have to be something I wouldn't cry over, and would be relatively quick to move or easy and inexpensive to say goodbye to. Another thing I have in my favor is that it's been my experience that my municipality gives residents PLENTY of notice for this kind of work, which I really appreciate.

This is what we came up with. The labor was provided by my college student, who was desperate enough to make a few bucks that he was willing to do the grunt work on this one (and I was all too willing to pay him for it!). The materials were a few landscaping pavers, bags of river rock, mulch, edgers, and extra daylilies from other places in the yard. To the right is the driveway.

The daylilies look cranky because of transplant stress, but they'll come back next spring strong. You can't really kill them.

But this is still very much a "during" rather than an "after." Below is the "panoramic" view. Sigh. We still have several square yards of weedy and muddy easement to conquer. It will look horrible until cooler weather arrives, when we can seed and water the rest of it for new grass.

In the meantime I sorta want to stand out in my front yard and call to the neighbors, "Hey. No worries! It looks bad now, but we're working on it! Really we are! We've got plans--big plans! Honest!"

Conquering the crappy, one square yard at a time.