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

I Got Very Little Foundation And A Case Of The Shingles

Of course the former owners put shingles all over the interior walls instead of over the holes in the roof. Why do you ask?

Please forgive me, but sometimes I lie a little, or play dumb to tell a joke, or point over there and say “look” if you’re watching your spoons too closely. But I’m not a bad person. I just act like one. I featured a video with a jolly fellow Mainer splitting granite into blocks to use for his house foundation on this site last week, and said I had a passing acquaintance with his Fred Flintstone foundation method. That’s a version of fibbing. I know a lot about it.

I’ve seen, and had to monkey around with, more foundations made out of big, granite blocks, big old granite boulders, and just plain rubble than you can shake a stick at. They were built by the low bidders of antiquity, most looking like they were organized by a government webmaster by the time I got a crack at them.  So there’s something I learned a long time ago: If your foundation is assembled in any way, instead of mixed out of four or five ingredients and dumped in a form, your foundation sucks. And my current foundation is no exception to that rule. It sucks. Or it would, if it were still there.

The Granite State is just a short drive from here, and God and Nature didn’t put those dotted lines on the maps, we did, so granite is just as common as earthworms in the ground here in Maine as it is over the border. The men that built my house tried to cadge a benefit from a drawback. They assembled big granite blocks into a foundation under my house. It was easier than hauling away all that granite when they were digging the foundation hole for my fourth-generation money pit in the first place. Strike one. Granite blocks seem really permanent, but they have to be joined together with mortar, and that sort of pointing requires maintenance. Strike Two. And late Victorian builders didn’t like exposing the granite blocks above ground level, so they’d often put courses of bricks on top of the stone for you to look at while you’re gardening. Strike Three, looking. Bricks sitting on rocks make a foundation that wanders from where you put it.

Civilians see a brick wall and see permanence. But brick walls, especially old ones, actually flex and move around quite a bit. The mortar they formerly used to assemble any masonry was made with much more lime than we use now, and was much less rigid than what you buy at Home Despot. You could rake out that mortar and re-point it much easier than modern mortars will allow, and the walls moved around more easily without popping the mortar joints first, or spalling the bricks. The old mortar also used to weather away more easily. In my basement, the one below the other basement, there’s three feet of bricks atop four feet of stone, and on the floor at the foot of the whole assembly, there’s a kind of sandy beachfront for about six inches along the wall. That’s the sand from the mortar that’s shuffled off its mortal coil, the brick wall, and fallen on the ground. On a sunny day, I can see through that brick wall here and there.

Well, in the back of the house, four storeys under the leaky roof, right next to the pavement behind the house, rainwater would splash and soak the bricks and spall the mortar out of the joints. The entire masonry wall that’s supposed to hold up the back of my house was entirely gone. It must have disappeared a tablespoon of mortar at a time at first, then a brick here and a brick there for a decade or three, and then eventually there was nothing. No one fixed it any where along the line, and eventually covered it up inexpertly. I didn’t bother inspecting what was walled up in there very closely before I bought the house, because, why bother? I knew whatever it was wasn’t any good.

That realization, that everything is bad, so no one’s going to try to charge you much for it, is the most appropriate attitude one can have when looking for a house for next-to-no money. You regular people do it all backwards. You ask home inspectors to go look at your prospective two-bedroom ranch in the ‘burbs, which costs a half-a-mil because it’s only an hour and fifteen minutes from your cubicle job, and ask them to find something wrong with it. Me? I go to a closing at the credit union and dare the banker to find anything right with the house he’s selling me. There was a realtor involved too, of course, who was from Central Casting for Realtors.  She tried, wanly at first, to wave her hands around in the house and inform us of all the possibilities the house had, and all its wonderful features, at least until I grunted and scowled a few times and then mentioned that every goddamned particle of this dump was bad and she should feel bad for trying to sell it to me. We got on famously after that. She just unlocked the door and stood like a plastic plant in the corner the second time we went to look at the place. She did make one more cack-handed attempt at realty, a half-hearted effort to convince us that there was a “handyman” interested  in the place, so don’t wait, act now, operators are standing by…

Lady, if you assembled a Prussian army regiment of Norm Abrams they couldn’t get the front door to hang straight in this place. Stop telling me about imaginary people. If I wanted to hear about imaginary people I’d ask you about an honest congressman. Put a sock in it, tell the bank to knock 25 percent off the price before I come to my senses, and I’ll consider it, and let us get back in the car where it’s above zero, will you?

(to be continued)

11 Responses

  1. "She just unlocked the door and stood like a plastic plant in the corner the second time we went to look at the place." Love it.

  2. Someone had made one part of the basement much nicer by putting stucco on the inside of the concrete block wall. They stopped after only one wall of one room. Some unknown number of years later my mom noticed that the wall was crumbling and gave me a call. At the time I was working as a painter and was currently (no,I was not doing it with electric bushes) doing a concrete block swimming pool bathhouse for the YWCA.

    My parents had done me the favor of raising me instead of just putting me down, so I came over and looked at the wall. Did not know about the high lime mortar but thought about something that could be done.

    We were doing the painting at the YWCA with a heavy duty epoxy paint that was mixed with two gallons of stuff and was impressive heavy duty. It had to be used within a certain time span after being mixed and one day my boss mixed up to much near the end of the day. Offered it to any of us that could use it within three hours (?)
    and I thought it worth a try.

    When I got to my parents homely house I was down to about two hours of work time. With a roller I slopped paint on the crumbling wall. Eight foot by about sixteen, that dark and dingy wall was now a bright and shiny Orange Hi Gloss that lit up that part of the cellar. My youngest brother let me know about a year later that the wall was impervious to a sixteen ounce hammer. I do not currently live in an old house but I still remember and love them.

  3. Mr. Sippi, if punishment were food, you'd be one of the fattest men alive.

    I'm guessing talking about it reduces the calorie intake.

  4. Sipp: your last paragraph, with Norm Abrams and the honest congressman, was a masterpiece. And a howler. Which is why it was a masterpiece.

    tmoore: an enlightening story, due to Orange Hi Gloss, which sounds like the Duct Tape of wall coverings.

  5. You need a sampler like the one my mother-in-law embroidered for us for the first of our three rehab jobs – "Dump Sweet Dump"

  6. I cringe whenever I pass any old brick structure that has been repointed using modern mortar material. Old lime putty mortar was meant to breathe and move while modern mortars trap moisture in the old wall and will ultimately cause more damage to the wall. Used to help contractors go thru the process of recreating (color, composition, strength, etc.) of original lime mortars.
    Really neat the way granite is used up in your neck of the woods. Here in the midwest, curbs are concrete whereas I've seen beautiful granite used for the same purpose in upstate NY and Maine. Granite would seem to be much more durable.

  7. Is it odd to have shingles on a wall? Perhaps, but I know a gentleman who worked in a plant that made hardwood flooring out of pieces of hard wood.

    He built his home himself, and put hardwood flooring on the floors, and walls, and ceiling.

    It is distinctive.

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