The Farm House Journal

2004 Updates, Part 1

zubFebruary 3, 2004—I have just discovered an error in the elevations that has been staring all of us in the face since the start of work: the upstairs windows in the front bedrooms are one-over-one, not two-over-two as our architect indicated in his elevations. This I discovered while measuring the windows for new glass the other day. I immediately checked all the other windows, and discovered that the side windows in the bay downstairs are also one-over-one.

It's easy to understand how this error happened. The windows were all boarded up, and the interior was as dark as the inside of a double espresso, when our architect drew up the elevations. Since most of the windows were two-over-two, it was natural to assume that they all were.

It just goes to show that it's silly to get too worked up over minor details. The builders of the Farm House did not set out to build a Queen Anne farmhouse with Eastlake interior ornamentation; they set out to build a house, pure and simple, the nicest contemporary house they could manage within their budget.  Since larger panes were generally considered a sign of affluence in those days, it's concievable that the one-over-one windows were used where they were to lend a touch of class to the Farm House at a modest increase in cost. That, or stock windows in that size only came that way.

Whatever the reason, this little idiosyncracy in the Farm House's design serves to illustrate that a good house, like a good person, is hard to pigeonhole into a stock classification.

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NikFebruary 4, 2004—A tip of the Angels halo to my friend Nik, who has very thoughtfully lent me a digital camera. This will allow me to bring you pictures fresh from the oven without the expense and delay involved in developing film. Thanks once again, Nik, for providing an invaluable assist. Why, here he is now, standing in the master bedroom.

what the butler sawI have cleaned the years of dust, dirt and mineral deposits off of the tub in the upstairs bathroom, and am pleased to report that it will be returned to service. It is in unbelievably good condition for a tub that has to be at least a century old: no chips, no deep scratches, and no rust.  It is in fact still shiny. It just needs a good buffing to remove a slight haze that has accumulated over the years.

Moby PersimmonIt also needs new feet, its originals having been pilfered by felons unknown before we bought the house. According to a fellow at DEA Bathroom Machineries, who will be providing us with much of our bathrooom hardware, it is generally a simple matter to find ones that fit once one has a good picture of the foot mounting, so we took some closeup pictures of the tub's underbelly. Upon turning the tub on its side, we discovered that the outside of the tub was originally painted in pretty much the exact color we planned to paint it ourselves, the same color we will be painting the sash. I told you our colors are historically accurate. Or it could just be a primer coat, as Lydia suggests. It does rather look like a primer coat, come to think of it. Arrrrrrrrrrgh.

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yoFebruary 5, 2004—Peering in the window of the Farm House garage, Nik remarked to me the other day that he had "garage envy." This says a lot, coming from a guy who not only has his own fine garage, but two entire structures to use as studio and workshop space as well (I have envy issues myself). I too admire the Farm House garage, and I can say that without fear of being accused of tooting my own horn because it was entirely the brain child of our architect. The greatest virtue of the design is that it is has a great deal of useable floor space in addition to that needed for two cars while giving the strong impression that it is a small structure. It is also a very pleasant garage to look at and be in, with its high ceiling and dormers that function effectively as skylights. It's deep enough to accommodate a stretch limousine, so as a practical matter there is a lot of working room at the back of the garage in addition to the wings on each side.

alignmentI was in and around the garage today, sanding the door so that I can prime it, so that is why it's on my mind. It was a glorious day in Pasadena, and the house was as usual alive with activity. The plumber was pressure-testing his lines, the concrete man was pouring the slab for the rear entry, and the electrician was pulling cable. These are all very pleasant people to be around. I noticed that the electrician was wearing a zippered sweatshirt with a nicely-executed Sierra Nevada brewery logo on it, which led us to compare notes on the state's many fine microbrews.

Hershey'sGetting back to the concrete, one of the construction details about which I am the most persnickety is the appearance of the concrete walkways. Nothing would ruin the look of the Farm House more quickly than modern-looking walkways, so I specified exactly the pattern of the relief seams and the surface finish I wanted to match the well-crafted look of early concrete. One of the details I forgot to specify was the look of the rear slab, but there was no need: our concrete man did it exactly the way I would have instructed him to.  If you've ever worked with concrete, you know how difficult it is to get a nice surface finish with straight seams and no tooling marks, but when our man was done it looked as smooth as a chocolate bar (without almonds).
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March 11, 2004—
The past month has been my Spring Training at the Farm House, as I get my home improvement chops up, re-acquaint myself with rush-hour traffic patterns between Culver City and Pasadena, and figure out how to juggle my duties at home with the Farm House work. Now that the real Spring Training has begun, that of baseball, my spirit is greatly lifted by having a daily noontime Angels game to listen to as I work. Listening to an Angels game on the radio has long been one of my favorite pastimes.

Better buy Bird's-EyeI’ve been plugging away at priming the new windows and doors, a job greatly slowed by the series of rainstorms we had the last half of February. I’m getting caught up now, and my work speed is improving, but our foreman put me way behind again by building and hanging the four huge garage doors in about six days. Others look at that garage and say, “What a nice garage.” I look at it and say, “I have to paint every square inch of that thing except for the glass and the roof. Several times.” I do get punchy after a hard day of inhaling volatile organic compounds.

 We are fast approaching the “rough inspection”, the inspection of the rough electrical, plumbing, and all the other things that will subsequently be hidden behind drywall and the like. Thus, while our foreman and the subcontractors rush around putting the finishing touches on things, I rush around making sure I haven’t forgotten any details. Just yesterday I realized I had forgotten to include a doorbell circuit in the electrical diagrams, and had to talk to the electrician about adding one. I also had to make some changes to the phone jacks to reflect the fleet of old phones we have recently acquired.

potrzebieA more involved change involves the fireplaces. After a great deal of difficulty, Lydia and I finally found a prefabricated fireplace small enough to fit within the existing mantles. Happily, it will also work with the original fireplace inserts, with slight and non-destructive modification. As a result, we will be able to bring all four fireplaces back into operation, with an appearance virtually identical to the original, as gas-burning units with ceramic coals. We will have to fabricate one new mantle to replace the one pilfered by some unknown aficionado of architectural details.

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March 18, 2004
—I’ve put aside the window-painting in order to remove the remaining plaster from the walls in advance of the drywall work. Putting it as delicately as I can, this is a lousy job: dirty, tiring, high in particulates and seemingly endless. It’s a perfect job for Lent.

When faced with a job of this nature, I find it best to plunge right into it so I can get it behind me as quickly as possible. So I donned my goggles, hood, cap and Resp-O-Rator and started whacking away. After a few hours of standing in a self-made shower of century-old lime plaster, dust and God knows what else, my mind in an act of self-defense began to cogitate about the tasks just beyond the one at hand. After a while, it occurred to me that when the house is all done, I’ll know every detail of it inside and out: the framing, the plumbing, the wiring, the hardware.

I owned a VW Bug in my younger days, and back then the bible for all Bug owners was a book called, as I recall, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: An Owner’s Manual for The Compleat Idiot. It was an inspired and useful book, full of practical knowledge and pithy observations, and lavishly illustrated with cartoons in the style of R. Crumb. My favorite cartoon was the frontispiece, which pictured a husband and wife (presumably) in bed at night. The wife slept peacefully; over her head floated a thought balloon with a big Z in it. On the husband’s bedside table sat a still-smoking pipe in an ashtray. The husband himself sat bolt upright in bed, his eyes bugged out; over his head floated a thought balloon containing an exploded view of the VW engine in full detail.

I found myself in that situation (the bolt-upright part, that is) whenever I was in the middle of a big repair job on that Bug: rebuilding the carburetor, replacing the clutch, installing a rebuilt engine. These were all tasks that required the full exercise of my limited mechanical ability, so my brain found it impossible to put it aside until it was completed successfully.

I bring this up here because the same thing is happening now, only it’s an exploded view of the Farm House appearing in the thought balloon over my head, complete with every board, pipe, wire and piece of hardware.

Especially the hardware. Finding replacements for missing and broken hardware in the original construction has proven to be far more difficult than we had anticipated. As I have mentioned, most of the interior locksets are missing, as are the tub feet. I’ve found at least one broken door hinge, and I have yet to take a complete hinge inventory.

niftyswellOne complete interior lockset remains, thank goodness. It is a Niles set, which is something of an historical oddity. Virtually all mortise locksets (the type of lockset used from about the 1870s to 1930s, which is installed in a long slot (the mortise) in the door) use a spindle to connect the knobs to the latch mechanism, but Niles sets have knobs with thick shafts that hook directly into the latch mechanism. On the left is a picture of a Niles mechanism to the left of a spindle mechanism; on the right is a picture of the Niles knob with its escutcheon. The projection at the end of the knob hooks into the lever that can be seen through the large hole in the Niles mechanism.

These unique features make Niles hardware quieter and more dependable in operation. It also makes it incompatible with most spindle hardware, so we’re more or less compelled to find Niles hardware to replace what’s missing. While Niles hardware is not exactly rare, it is a lot harder to find than spindle hardware. According to a sales representative at Liz’s Antique Hardware, it is only found in homes in two cities: Chicago and Pasadena. We have not found independent verification for this curious piece of information, but Liz herself is considered the most knowledgeable person around on such matters, and there is a distinct historical connection between the two cities (the Niles company was in Chicago, by the way).

Liz’s in fact has all the Niles hardware we need in stock, but with all due respect to that fine establishment, the cost of buying the dozen or so sets we need from them is bone-chilling. We have thus been trying to assemble as many pieces as we can from less costly sources. Lydia has searched nearly every salvage yard within striking distance, with some success, and my brother Bill (conveniently located in Chicago) located a complete set with escutcheons (the plate that goes on each side of the door behind the knobs) in perfect condition. We are going to use one of these escutcheons as a model to cast our own escutcheons in brass, with the able help of our friend Gary; this will save us a great deal. So we are slowly climbing this mountain.

But wait! There is a complication. The two existing interior doors leading into the kitchen have spindle hardware with a non-standard backset (distance from center of knob to edge of door). Getting these to match the Niles sets visually will be quite a challenge. By the bye, this fact does add further intrigue to the previously-discussed kitchen mystery, but who’s got time to ponder that now?

Finding the door hinges is another challenge, but the really hard nut to crack is finding tub feet that fit our tub. Evidently, there was no standardization in the way the feet were attached to the tub, so we’re just going to have to keep trying feet until one fits.

Most of the hardware that is still there is made of iron; while we have determined that most of it originally had a faux-bronze painted finish, after the many decades all the pieces carry a finish of rust and grime. I’ll have to clean, refinish and lubricate each piece.

The selection of hardware and fixtures (sinks, faucets, etc.) for the new construction is a lot more fun, because we can bring our own tastes to bear on the choices, rather than those of the Farm House’s builders. Still, we must be careful to enhance the house’s character, rather than alter it. We have thus given each item from sash locks to cabinet knobs painstaking consideration, with emphasis on pain.

The net effect of all these factors is an unrelenting obsession that induces those exploded views I was talking about. Forget sweat equity—this is stress equity. But I’m not kvetching. This is good stress, for it motivates me to work diligently, and it affords us the joy of seeing our (unexploded) vision become real.

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