Category Archives: Our House

It’s Greek to Me

Our house seems to be a hodgepodge of Greek Revival styles. It has the accentuated pediment of the earlier Greek Revival New England design but has the layout and window placement of the later ‘Midwestern Greek Revival farmhouse’. I don’t know if this means that our house was a a pre-courser to the midwest farm house (dating between the two) or a modified version after the Midwestern house became popular.

A book I really enjoyed using to look up specifics is Greek Revival Architecture in America by Talbot Hamlin. It isn’t a field guide, or a even a picture book (although it does have 322 black and white photos as illustrated on its cover) – but it does have very detailed descriptive passages about period details and I recommend the book to anyone who wants names and specifics of popular architects and their works of the era.

Below are two quotes that apply to our area of Upstate NY;

It was in the newer centers that the Greek Revival most clearly set the character – in the towns growing up in the Susquehanna and Delaware valleys, like Green, Unadilla, Otego, Oneonta and the Finger Lakes region… This triumphant Greek Revival work of the 1830’s in up-state New York was definite and polished, quite different from the tentative earlier approaches. It made much of the monumental types of house with a two-story central body fronted with a pedimented portico and flanked by one story wings, as well as of bolder and more original if less ostentatious types – cottages with nearly flat roofs and low frieze windows with decorative cast–iron grilles for the upper floors, or story –and a half gabled cottages. In all of these, freedom of planning and creative modifications of Greek precedent are outstanding and in many there is evidence of the use of the Lafever books. page-266

Western New York in those days was a country of experiment, of striving for the new – a restless, Utopian country. It was the home of religious cults of all kinds, the birthplace of Mormonism. It was a serious, idealistic, perhaps at times even a little ‘touched’ and something of this quality seems to have permeated its architecture, given it vitality, made it eager to seize and to use the new Greek forms and to use them and modify them in a new an experimental ways so that even in the experiments there seems to be little that is tentative – on the contrary they indicate a strong affirmation. There is an enormous variety of house types; many of the different schemes found further west in Ohio and Michigan had their seeds sown in New York State. page 269

Before and During

The problem with ‘Before and Afters’ is that we don’t really have any ‘Afters’ yet because everything is still being done, and most everything we have done so far is just temporary so we haven’t done any finish work that would make you say ‘wow that is an improvement’ its more like – wow that is still a mess!

This picture is a perfect example of what we have done – we removed the fake paneling, and strange wallpaper board, but are left with drywall with raised glue marks – and because I am not sure of the eventual layout of this bathroom we have just left it. We replaced the sink with the one we got on sale. Which really changes the scale of the room. Do You notice how low the windows are on the second floor – apparently this style of window is called a ‘pocket’ window because to open them they slip up into the wall. It is a disconcerting height to have windows but the dogs love looking out them – they are at the perfect level for them.

My favorite change though is the floor. The self-stick tiles were in fine condition but I couldn’t help but remove them – it was sticky sticky work because they were stuck directly onto the old floor. The funny thing is that I decided to remove them the week before my sisters boyfriend’s parents were coming to visit and it was a mad scramble to finish it before they arrived… It was a weird process involving crowbars, paint scrapers, hammers, crowbars and scary toxic goop-off to remove the left over adhesive but the result is really nice in person.

Mostly that has been our projects, removing out of date paneling and linoleum, floor tiles, basically just peeling back the aging cheap superficial layers. I promise we have a vision that will look better than this eventually.

Floor Plans

This is just a little ‘illustration’ I did of the house facade in Photoshop to help me envision what the house would look like without the extended enclosed porch. I just couldn’t help but post it along with the floor plans. The proportions read better right? as you can see there would still be the original ‘inverted’ porch which is a classic Greek Revival farmhouse element.
p.s this is the facade of the front of the house , from the top of the floor plans

This is the floor plan of the house when we got it – 3 separate apartments,each shaded in a different color. For a sense of scale you can see the 10′ square I included in the illustration

This is the house with the changes we have made in red – most of the changes we have made are the unsexy ones, like replacing the collapsed septic – patching the roof leaks, removing moldy drywall and insulation from said roof leaks, and just opening up old doorways that were turned into closets. I have pages and pages of lists of all the little annoying things we had to fix (some of them accomplished others not) but mostly we wanted to get a feel of what the house was like at different times of year, how it sat in the site etc, etc before we made any major permant changes.

This is the floor plan drawn up by the previous, previous owners who actually did the renovations in the 60’s. I almost cried when my realtor dug it out of her papers – the things I learned about how the house was orignally constructed and used is invaluable. As you can probably tell I am a bit of a historic nut – and there are lots of details here I just wouldn’t have been able to know without this plan.

One of the most interesting details in this plan is how part of the house used to be a woodshed – the back el of this house actually has huge hand hewn beams – which I cant wait to uncover. This summer during a particularly grueling demo day I was rewarded by realizing that the ceiling is hung off on (rather new) 2x4s running parallel to the length of the structure – which means structurally that they aren’t holding up the roof. The roof Which I have a feeling is also pretty new (the proportions feel kind prefab / mobile home-ish) is being held up by a few massive and barn-like beams. So the hope is to strip down this back area to the barn-like core and have it as a great room for the eventual kitchen, dining and living and studio area. You can sort of see the beams in this picture of the converted wood shed below- they are hidden by the dropped ceiling in the rest of the building.

p.s -Ignore the Bavarian beer hall decor of this back room – we will be making it a far simpler and more appropriate choices – although every guy I have shown this house LOVES this room in particular. I personally love the scale – but think the decor is insane. The ‘chandelier’ is actually an old yoke with red glass lanterns. The creepy red light it throws totally freaks me out.

Ode to Vinyl – a very long post

So our house is completely covered in vinyl siding. To me vinyl siding is sad to see on older homes – I think it is sort of like demanding that your 80 year old grandmother wear a tube top -it just isn’t an appropriate solution. I understand the reasons people install vinyl siding, no upkeep, ease of installation, affordable, and because it vaguely resembles historic wooden siding. I have even installed vinyl siding myself on a habitat for humanity project- and I think it is a total viable option on new construction and that it can even look quite elegant – as in Twilight Fields; but on an old structure? I am not sold; and here are my reasons.

1) When your eye sees a facade you read it much like a face – the windows as the eyes – the door as the mouth etc – there are rules of symmetry and proportion that makes us regard a facade as either a George Clooney or well er… not. One of my favorite studios in school was when we had to design a building and render it by hand with shaded drawings; we had to consider how light and shadows would bring out details like line and texture. No other studio had actually challenged us as architecture students to consider shadows or depth on the facade before – we were taught very much under Adolf Loos creed ‘ornament is crime’. But ANYWAYS… When vinyl siding is added to an old building they use horrible stock plastic moldings to skim around the window trim and because of that you lose all that interesting (and unique!) details like texture, shadows and proportions. The result just looks like a bad face lift – yes it is tighter – and cleaner looking but it is also weird and false. In the picture above you can see how the classic Greek revival column corner trim is no longer there in our facade – it totally ruins the proportions of the front (I really hope they are intact underneath!!!)

2) Respect your elders – because you just can’t ever recreate an old house. What I love about old houses is that their elements tell a combined and layered history about local techniques, materials, and inform us about our history both as people and architecturally. It is the original details that I love about our house; wherever possible I plan to save those elements. If I wanted or was inspired by a new house I would buy or build one – but the reason I fell in love with this house is all the details (and the natural materials) that could never affordably be made now. p.s- we also have the luxury/ sadness of already having a lot of the original details removed so we are not hampered too much by having to work around period details.

3) Vinyl is not a natural material – every well to do farmhouse at one point had Asbestos tiles because they were the ‘new and improved’ modern alternative to clapboard siding. I’m just saying… time will tell us how healthy vinyl is and already there are a lot of signs that the gases produced by degrading vinyl is not so good for you or the planet. Just because a corporation says its better doesn’t mean it always is.

4) Vinyl siding can mask, fester and incubate real problems that a wood siding would show you. George Nash’s Book ‘Renovating Old Houses Bringing new life to Vintage homes’ talks about this and how this synthetic material can often times even cause, (due to faulty installation) water to leak into your house behind the siding which as we all know is not good. btw – This book is one of my favorites because George Nash not only takes my side on vinyl siding but also has a really practical and informed tone that he brings to the subject of old houses – I have learned a lot from this book and I really recommend it to anyone who has or is thinking of buying an old house.

5) I also dislike that the most common design mimics wood siding; a new material calls for a new aesthetic treatment . I do realize many a decorative art tradition has been spawned by trying to trompe l’oeil an old and expensive technique. The problem is that the faintly etched wood grain versions of vinyl siding is so rarely used artfully on old structures, it usually just dumbs them down.

6) I think whenever you use a stock material on an old house you should also pause to think as well. Stock items are made to be affordable and accessible (which is great) to many people – but it is also designed as a common denominator of many architectural styles – and usually if you are replacing an old unique item – you just end up losing a lot or character and history. I know there are reasons to ‘upgrade’ but it is good to be cautious; what is in style today may not be in 10 years and it is good be aware of what you are giving up – and to remember that once removed you can never get that original history back. When I renovated a house in buffalo I changed the original craftsman 3 panel beveled glass wood front door – to an affordable fiberglass stock version. Was it safer? yes. Did it close nicer, yes. Did it afford us a lot of privacy, yes. Do I regret that I removed an original period detail? Every time I think about it I do. There could have been so many other ways to make that door feel safer and private. I just didn’t try hard enough.

Ok that’s my ode to vinyl siding. I hope it doesn’t sound to judgmental- because I really believe that a house that is taken care of and loved (even if i don’t agree with the renovation choices) is always better than a collapsed and abandoned one!

Here is another post on vinyl siding written much better than mine by The Devil Queen – Blue Vinyl

Also The Devil Queen recommends George Nash’s book too!

Stone Walls

images from house and garden

image from Country Gardens

One detail I love is stacked rock walls – in our area there are a lot of crumbling low rock walls running along old fields – and some fancy flat stone stacked walls enclosing area cemeteries and fancy houses. Below is the rock wall I started this summer, the winter shot is before we had bought the house, and the summer shot is late august, the rock wall is a bit taller now, I wish I had a better photos of it.

This project is one of my favorites (I still plan on making it taller and running the wall further along – I just ran out of rocks at the moment, once the ground thaws and my father can do more earth work I can claim more :) – It was physical work that I could do outside when I got frustrated with the messy (never ending ) projects inside, and it had dramatic results after just a few hours of work. My mother actually came over and helped me with moving quite a bit of the rocks and we spent the time chatting and laughing about our upper arm workout – although from the highway we must have looked like two crazy women slinging rocks in mud boots and sun hats.

I know that the rock wall might well fall apart because I didn’t use any kind of cement or bonding agent but I figure that will just make them look old – which was my hope anyway :). Supposedly you can spray diluted yogurt on rocks to make the moss and lichen grow, which I may do eventually as well.

Our Backyard

Our Property is a little under 4 acres and stretches up a hillside behind us. It has some marshy spots and also some nice pasture. We plan to do some heavy landscaping around the house to minimize some draining problems, and make a level playing field for games, and to also hide the traffic from the house – we live on a milk plant route and often have huge milk trucks barreling around the corner – that and tractors with hay bales – I love the country! We also hope to get a nice pond by enlarging a couple of the ditches that are filled with canary grass (a good sign!) … these photos of course don’t show the landscape that well but you can see that the elevation rises up behind us. Also the picnic table has to be repainted (another freebie from the parents) – i am considering colors … white so it looks modern? turquoise? green? yellow? purple? the options are endless – black or navy would be sexy as well … hmmm

The Start

Here is just another renovation blog.

Here is the story – I grew up on a farm in upstate NY and when I am in city I invariably miss the country. So my siblings and I often end up back at our parents farm – so much so that during the summer it is a bit like living at home again (that is, if your version of home involves a working farm). So my sisters and I bought a dilapidated little farmhouse in the town over from our parents place and we are hoping to fix it up into an elegant little number.

This is the Greek revival farmhouse that we bought. My photographer sister took this series of photos the day after the closing when we hadn’t touched anything. It looks a lot cleaner in these pictures than it is right now – plaster, sawdust and moldy drywall have a way of working themselves everywhere.

The original house was probably built in the 1850’s- 1870’s and has expanded along the kitchen el to incorporate what used to be a woodshed. In the 60’s the new owners built a new house to the north of the property and converted our house into three apartments. Eventually the land was subdivided leaving 4 acres with our house.

There are three extremely small outdated kitchens, three small bathrooms, three mudrooms and when we bought the house there were 4 small bedrooms. In order to turn the three units into one unit we had to remove two of the bedrooms so that we could access the back apartment. Being that the house is about 150 or so years old – and has had three separate units for almost 50 years there have been various ‘updates’ in each apartment over time that have signs of each era. One of my favorite touches is the brick floor linoleum in the back apartments dining area. An upside to renovating an apartment house is that most of the changes were cosmetic, and because the layout isn’t original, it gives us the opportunity to choose a modern floor plan without being afraid to ruin any historical details. Let us hope the process proves interesting and not disastrous! And now to work.