Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

A Dodo Writes About Dodos

The pictures are like deja vu all over again, I know. But I’ve defaced two of yesterday’s The Wellfleet Oysterman’s House with text to point out ten aspects of house construction that will likely disappear during our lifetimes. They are quite familiar; at least they are to me, who’s been poking around old New England houses my whole life. Your mileage may vary if you’re already living in a rammed earth ranch in Arizona. Click on the pictures to embiggen them, if you like.

1.An open, site-built masonry fireplace for burning wood
Already really expensive, with a massive shortage of skilled masons and plenty of onerous regulation. Illegal in some places over smoke or the danger of fire from sparks up the chimbley. Not to mention how few people have access to firewood, and access to the get-up-and-go it takes to make a fire with logs. Gas flames in a metal box is all you’ll see in a few years.

2. Single pane divided-lite windows
Energy use regulation is fascinated with exotic windows. A single pane window with a low-e glass panel fitted on the outside is practically as energy efficient as the most cutting edge ventana, but I’m probably going to be the last human extant that can set a pane of glass in a muntin window with putty. Modern windows got no soul, people

3. A wood shingle roof
Also now illegal in many places over fire regulation. Sawn wood shingles or rough split shakes are going to be as anachronistic as slate roofs are now in a few years. Notice even the Oysterman’s house has asphalt tab shingles on the (dreadful) enclosed porch addition. People are used to ugly roofs now. They don’t even notice how drab they are.

4. Shutters that operate
Just plastic slabs nailed to the faux colonials now. The fellows I first worked with called the hardware that real wood shutters swung on: “gudgeons and pintles,” just like the nomenclature used for the hanging hardware on boat rudders. Spell-check is freaking out about the words “gudgeons” and “pintles” as I type this. It’s a lonely thing to know more words than spell-check does, my friends.

5. A front door used as the main entry into a house
9 times out of 10 I’m looking at nothing but your garage door when I look at your house. If you do have a “front door,” it makes a mummy’s tomb sound when you open it every decade or so. But even an infrequently used ceremonial grand entry door beats a snouthouse design.

6. A masonry foundation
Poured concrete isn’t masonry, really. I’m referring to bricks and blocks and stone. When I was a kid, people were still assembling concrete blocks into masonry foundations. By “people,” I mean “me” helping “my uncle.” I’m not even sure people are going to go into the ground much anymore to make a basement, never mind building one one 35 pound chunk of concrete at a time. I know I’d pitch myself into volcano before I signed up to do another one. (Note: I put that “one” right after the other “one” to confuse and delight you)

7. Wooden gutters
I used to repair and install these all the time. Every fall I’d be hired to clean the leaves out of them and paint the inside with linseed oil. The fellow I worked for wasn’t too bright. We’d wait 2 weeks too long to get around to this, so the gutters were filled with ice already. He told me that taking a teaspoon of linseed oil was considered an old-fashioned health restorative in his family. It explained a lot. Raw linseed oil has many such uses among the homeopathic crowd. Unfortunately, all he had was Boiled linseed oil, which is a deadly brain-destroying poison if you eat it. Most alternative medicine type advice pans out like that; not wrong, exactly — off-topic.

8. Painted wood shingle sidewall
They used to use red cedar sidewall shingles for use under paint. “R and Rs,” we called them; resquared and rebutted. They cost more than space shuttle tiles now. Wood clapboards will hang in there for a while, but painting sidewall shingles is a doomed proposition. Jeez, I hate plastic ersatz anything on a house.

9. Unexposed timber-frame walls
People still think timber-framed houses are swell, and continue to build them now and again. They think the medieval method of making a barn to live in is so interesting that they leave it exposed on the interior to show it off. Colonial people would never leave the guts of the house exposed. No one will do it the insane hernia/black thumbnail way and then cover it up ever again.

10. Oil-based paint
The pigments and vehicle in water-based paint are almost all sorta plastic derived from petroleum, but that’s not what I’m referring to. The days of mineral spirits constituting the base for any paint are numbered. They contain Volatile Organic Compounds, ie: pollutants. If you’ve purchased a gallon of what is referred to in the vernacular as “oil-based’ paint recently, you’ve noticed that it has the consistency of block cheese. The manufacturer is assuming you –wink wink –understand that Home Depot is selling gallons of the ingredient they are forced to leave out to pass VOC regulations, right there on the shelf next to the paint. Since mineral spirits is used for–ahem… cleaning your brushes!– not for paint thinner, no sirree no way uh uh– they don’t mind that it’s 100% VOC, and this ingredient sold alone is not regulated somehow. You can buy all you want of it and splash it into the paste masquerading as $40-per-gallon alkyd paint, which can’t have hardly any mineral spirits in it anymore at all nosirree nada.

You didn’t hear that from me

12 Responses

  1. The last house we owned (the only one we could afford in an expensive area) was a split level from 1978. Aluminum wiring and lots of brother-in-law “upgrades.” Made as cheaply and as ugly as possible – a nasty flat box with a door. It was an architectural abomination.

    Now we live in an attractive 45-year-old brick ranch. But the chimney is a metal insert and the Andersen windows are sheet glass with inserts. I’ve found a lovely 100-year-old Italianate home in the old town section, but I’m having trouble convincing my wife to move.

    “I’m probably going to be the last human extant that can set a pane of glass in a muntin window with putty.”

    I’m saving my points and glazier’s putty just in case.

  2. Ouch.

    I hate, hate, hate our gas fireplace that is such a selling point out here that the designers of our almost-new division put them in every single house in a huge focal-point eyesore in the main living room downstairs. Also they set it on a corner so that there’s no good way to set up your furniture to create a different focal point. We never use it; we turned the pilot off.

    I really miss woodburning fireplaces and there is one in my dream home. If they’re not allowed by the time I get to make it reality, no fireplace at all. How sad.

  3. You can still find a few real houses here and there, even some newer ones. After so much ticky-tacky I’m lucky to finally be in a solid little ranch with two decent brick fireplaces.

    And a cord and a half of firewood out back.

  4. My first house I owned was a 1910 Craftsman bungalo style built out of old growth redwood in Eureka, California. Even the shake siding was redwood. I had to replace the siding on the weathered side one year and it still had the square iron nails used to attach the shingles to the monstrous wood planks that make up the undersiding. I used redwood shakes for the repair. Some of the gutters were still wooden, too.

    The interior was lath and plaster and had been remodeled into a two story with a gable in the back. The roof had aleady been reshingled with those tar shingles, which had been laid over the original wood in about 4 layers over the years. We had it re-roofed as it leaked when we bought it and had to use tar shingles.

    The fireplace had a wood burning stove insert with a steel liner for the chimney, as it couldn’t take the heat the stove generated. I’ve had fireplaces before and the stove was much more efficient for heating.
    That was a cool old house.

  5. Sippican, the skills to build New England houses won’t vanish as completely as you predict, if only because somebody will need to know how to maintain and restore the vast existing stock of pre-modern buildings that adorn the region.

    Of course the craftsmen who practice these obsolete arts will be able to command fantastically high fees for their work, which is a good reason to believe that people will continue to take the trouble to learn them.

  6. Ah, so many pleasant people talking about so many interesting things.

    Pastor Jeff- I’m Italianate, and I feel about 100 years old after work today, too.

    Anwyn- I like the sort of ceremony of starting a fire in the fireplace. Paper, kindling, logs, one match, aah.

    Hello drill sgt- my father was a staff sargent and I always have a little affection for the title when I see it. It is a noble thing.

    Skook- I like the words “solid” and “decent” describing a house. I know right away what you mean when you say that. The firewood is money in the bank you can count every day.

    More sgts. Ted- Humbolt County CA has a fascinating architectural/wood history. I wrote about eureka here: Sticking With Stick Style.

    tjl- None of this will literally disappear, you’re correct. But only cranky weirdos like me will know anything about it. The average tradesman already knows absolutely nothing about any of this. I think the people that own the houses will become sort of experts about owning these places and caring for them. The owners used to ask me what the hell was going on about the houses. I suspect the owners will tell the contractors what the hell is going on with them in the future.

  7. England is still a place in which traditional skills can be practised quite happily.I cant imagine a house without a front door, humble or grand as main entrance.I want to build a home in California at some time..should be interesting to see what they let me do! i,m looking for a new home in uk at the moment and want something built around 1600 if possible.

  8. Thanks Sip.

    I was a Staff Sergeant, while a Drill Sergeant, one is a rank, the other a job.

    before that I was a private, and later an officer. Officer was better, the best rank = Captain.

  9. I am comforted. Here I thought I was being a weirdo for telling the developer to leave the gas-burning fireplace out. And I find there are other weirdos just like me out there.

    Greg, I’m more optimistic about front doors than you are. At least in this neck of the woods, developers have started building entire neighbourhoods with shallow front yards, houses with front verandahs, and back alleys for people to drive up to their garages in.

    There is hope.

  10. “..I’m probably going to be the last human extant that can set a pane of glass in a muntin window with putty.”

    Nope! I can do that, though I have yet to teach my kids. I’m fortunate to have been hired on to do restoration work, love old houses and your blog, too.

    P.S. I hope this doesn’t show as a double post; the comment widget doesn’t seem to like me right now.

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