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Where’s the Spiral Staircase?

October 31 – Recently we had a special visitor to the John D. Finch house – Mary Finch Fisher Tippett, a granddaughter of the original owner and frequent visitor to the home during the 30s and 40s while she was growing up. Mary Tippett lived three houses down the street on Horton and visited her grandparents several times every week.

Mary Tippett stands with MaryBeth before the house her grandfather built in 1911
Mary Tippett stands with MaryBeth before the house her grandfather built in 1911

She had not been inside the house in nearly 30 years and was delighted to hear we were repairing and preserving the home. With her husband Rex Tippett by her side, Mary moved through the first floor with memories of warm visits flooding back, and gave us clues to how the house looked 70 years ago. A breakfast nook used to be a full pantry with shelves from floor to ceiling. The back part of the house, now serving as a mudroom, used to be a covered porch with a well. What is now a laundry room used to be a back porch. Her grandfather used to sit in a chair in the dining room by a coal fed oven feeding into a fireplace, both of which have vanished (the oven and the fireplace). The family surprised John and his wife Sallie B. Strickland Finch with a 15-panel door connecting the front parlor with the dining room, cutting through a wall for the pass through. This surprise was revealed during their 50th wedding anniversary party in the house.

Upstairs rooms gave surprises to Mary also.
Mary was not a fan of the ’80s era décor in the house, calling the seashore mural and sand colored wall cloth in the entryway and upstairs hallway “a study in ugly.” An upstairs bathroom, large walk-in closet and two bedrooms were in the same place as she remembered but “where’s the spiral staircase?” she exclaimed, referring to a now missing spiral staircase to the attic. It vanished with a former owner’s renovation in the mid 1980s, along with three fireplaces and a chimney. A stairwell now occupies the chimney space and the attic has flooring and over 700 feet of living space. Mary climbed the steep and narrow steps to snap photos with her IPad to show her family, exclaiming, “I wonder what Papa would have thought of this?” A “bonus room” complete with wet bar also is adjacent to the second upstairs bedroom, in space which was simply empty air above the kitchen ceiling in the ‘40s. The “study in ugly” was confirmed with a bizarre paint application running halfway up the wall in the spiral staircase room, with red, blue and green paint in broad streaks stopping halfway up the walls.

Gone also are the orchards and gardens which surrounded the house from Horton back to Vance Street. Apple, plum, and pear trees made up an orchard, and the garden in back yard and adjoining lots teamed with vegetables and flowers. The additional land was sold and small homes were erected there in the 1950s. John D. was an early owner of many lots along Horton, Whitley and Vance streets, and as the Town of Zebulon grew, the family sold the plots. Mary was surprised to see a swimming pool in the back yard, and that a garage added by a subsequent owner was no longer standing.
Mary grew up on Horton Street, and was the daughter of Waylon Finch, the oldest son of John and Sallie. She remembers enjoying a swing on the front porch, Sunday dinners in the dining room, and music from a piano in the front parlor.
“You are just the sort of people that my grandparents would have hoped would buy and save this old house,” she complimented us. And as we face the years of work ahead in repairing this home, she makes us feel that we have done something right and noble. We reciprocate those feelings and couldn’t be more pleased to learn the house history from such a graceful lady and a wonderful couple.

Scott, Rex, Mary and MaryBeth
Scott, Rex, Mary and MaryBeth

Crowbar Sleuthing

October 29, 2015

Sleuthing with a crowbar – Discovering three windows and a door

Why the hell would anyone cover that up?” – Nicole Curtis, star of TV show Rehab Addict and Preservation expert, upon finding a spoked banister covered with drywall.
These last three weeks we’ve been working in the back part of the house, where a leaky roof and sagging laundry room have begged for repair. Before we can rip anything out, we want to find out where the original house was constructed, and why an awkward 6 x 20 foot laundry room was tacked onto the back of the house.  We want to understand the original house “footprint.”

So we set out to rip out the “dropped tile” ceilings in the back rooms to reveal the original rafters of the house and its outline. Scott took two crowbars and tore down brown paneling and a layer of drywall in the laundry room – to reveal two windows and intact green clapboard siding. We discover that this was originally the end of the house, and the current laundry room was formerly a porch. (See photo.)

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Again, in an adjacent room, Scott tore out old paneling with an autumn scene on it, (very 1970s in décor)  and we discover more intact green clapboard siding. This interior room which connects the back door with the house, used to be a courtyard, or some type of covered porch, that later had been enclosed. A large black coal burning stove sits at one end, with its venting pipe leading to a too-large window.

We can see a “ghost line” as our architect calls it, of where the 1911 roofline ended, and where a roof extension was built  several decades later.   We find it ironic that the back room additions’ roof is the one which failed and sprung several leaks. The original huge and thick beams from 100 years ago are still solid. What does that say about “modern construction?”

While Scott and the guys we’ve hired to help us are tearing out insulation and drywall from the back two rooms, I’m peeling away coats of wallpaper and tearing out another “dropped tile” ceiling from the makeshift bathroom with the fireplace. The original beadboard ceiling is still there behind the false tile, and a leak has ruined part of the floor by the fireplace. Who puts a fireplace in the bathroom? Or rather, who makes a bathroom out of a room with a Victorian fireplace? The bathroom is early 80s décor, and though the geese and tiny hearts are down, the space is weird – just not configured right.

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I remove 70 nails from the ceiling (still 25 or so left to go) while Scott tears into the sheetrock . It’s paneling, and tearing it out reveals another layer of older wall paper. A late 1960s wallpaper, it’s navy blue with gold stars and cottages outlined in moonlight.  Another layer? It’s kind of funky cool, with a folk art feel, but clearly doesn’t fit in this house and will have to go.  I see my work cut out for me on a future weekend. But what could be behind it? Scott takes a strategic strike at a papered area above the pale yellow fiberglass shower/bath unit – and voila – a door is uncovered, with its bullseye molding peeping out from behind the yellow fiberglass  unit.  Who puts a shower in front of a door? Why would anyone cover that up?

We find that the former owners have added a wall that’s 4 inches to the left of a solid room support beam, and ripped out all the beadboard ceiling above it. Between the cut out ceiling and a few very soft floorboards, this room will take a good bit of work to restore.
And the leak in this room? It’s nothing but a bit of flashing around the fireplace that failed. One beam, discovered above the ceiling of this room, is sagging and shows water damage. Everything else looks solid. The mushrooms I wrote about last time growing from the floor – they have disintegrated. I feel our project is do-able, and feel a wave of relief.

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Proud of his crowbar sleuthing, Scott heads to a large, long interior closet upstairs in the middle of the hall. There he peels back a wall of hard board sheetrock to uncover another window – this one allowing light in from outside.  Again, why the heck was it covered up? The dark, long closet will now have natural light – hurrah!

There’s still plenty of work to be done in the back, and we haven’t even begun anything in the front – but now we know the original house’s outline. Our architect has drawn plans to turn the laundry room into a master bath, and the bathroom into the master bedroom. Now he’ll have more details for his plans and can begin work on his final drawings. We are hoping to do our tear out of the back space next month.  We wonder what other surprises will this house offer up as we uncover its history?

Snake in rafters, mushrooms growing on floor. Another day at the JD Finch House.

This week’s torrential rains brought specifics of where the roof is leaking. We knew when we bought the house that there was water damage in two of the back rooms. But we found drips in three separate rooms and our measly two buckets we brought with us weren’t up to the task. We ran out to the store to buy more, and metal pans to catch the leaks on the front porch as well. Glad to know where the roof is leaking, and relieved that there are no surprises here.

With water leaks comes mold, and we’ve hired two workers to clear it out and remediate it. They are bringing out all the gross stuff under the crawl space, cutting metal pipe, and scraping off the mold encapsulant Scott sprayed two weeks ago.

In the back entry room, we peeled back paneling and linoleum wall covering to find the original house boards – still intact, painted green, and original roofline of the 1911 house. Solid, in good shape.

We also found rotting boards from the addition which enclosed the porch and made it into a room. Ripped them out. While exploring the rafters, by the dim light of the window and one flashlight Scott spotted what he thought was a towel wrapped around a rafter board. He swatted it with a broom handle and down plopped a snake – coiled, dessicated, and long dead. It came down intact – a nice Halloween surprise for us.

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In the downstairs bathroom, right beside the only interior house leak, on the rotting floorboards were two mushrooms, stretching their white bulbous heads toward the mantel. Toward the mantel – in a bathroom? Yes, another oddity of this house.

Thankfully, we also just approved the plans of our architect, David Maurer, to change this odd bathroom into a downstairs master bedroom. He’s drawn plans to reconfigure the entire back area from a weird laundry room – mudroom, tremendously large bathroom, into a four room area with master bedroom, two bathrooms, laundry, pantry and walk in closet.

Though I loved the house before, I struggled to picture myself living in it. Now with Maurer’s plans, it will be perfect for us. Demolition of the back area is beginning.

While the guys were tearing out ceilings and old insulation, I kept busy by “undecorating” the entry way. Blonde wood paneling – gone. Ocean mural wallpaper – gone. Yes, I’ve done two days of stripping paper and paneling, and now only beadboard under the molding and plaster clear up to 12 foot ceilings show!

In the “mushroom bathroom” most of the country wallpaper is down too. Little hearts and geese are off the wall in the trash. Square mirror and wooden towel bars – gone. They weren’t original and now that I’ve gotten rid of the tacky 1980s décor, we’re ready to deconstruct this odd bathroom. I left the mushrooms for now. I wonder how big they’ll be next week?

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Leaky back room   

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Original house ended here

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Front entrance hall with mural & paneling

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 After – Wallpaper down, original beadboard

Ownership!

Our Zebulon house – first day of ownership Sept 2015

October 3 – We’ve owned the house a whole two weeks and worked on it the past three Saturdays. The house is new to us and we’ve approached this with a sense of all the possibilities that may await us under dropped ceilings and mid-century additions.