Saturday, November 11, 2017


This was taken from the Lovely County Citizen in the spring of '05. The only newspaper of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, made me stick to 350 words in my twice-a-month colulumn. It made me very concise. I had a picture and a byline, too. Nyaaahh.




 This picture has absolutely nothing to do with the colulumn. It was taken on a thankfully cold morning, otherwise I would not be here to write this. I just thought I'd relate the tale. This is MY blog, after all.
While on the tail end of an exterior restoration on Arch Street in Little Rock Arkansas, I had my lead carpenter out early to look at a set of stairs that led to an upstairs studio in the carriage house behind the main house. I got up on a ladder to point out the needed repairs to Jim Santini, who watched from six feet below as I pointed. "What's that by your head?" he asked, and when I turned, I saw this thing four inches from my face.
"I'm going to get off the ladder very, very slowly," I said, not drawing another breath until I was down. We were in the shadow of a thirteen story apartment complex, and the paper wasps, to which I am HIGHLY allergic, were sluggish on the cold morning.
We stood there and looked at them for some time. I told the homeowner to get rid of them before my crew would return. He did.
This is the article, er, colulumn. I wrote it three years after the picture was taken.
          I’ll try to make this brief. After all, it might be too late by the time you read this. You know what I’m talking about.

Ladybugs and wasps.

Five years ago, I moved from Little Rock into a new log cabin.

My first project was a 3-story addition to the Piedmont house, where I finished both new rooms’ interiors with tongue-in-groove siding. The owner was happy, the guests were treated to a fine view and a finer meal, and all seemed right with the world, if you don’t count the Gummint’s occasional bombing of a small Islamic country. The job started in August, was finished by December, and the next May, All Hell broke loose.

“You must have left a hole open somewhere,” the bellicose owner complained over the phone. “There’s red wasps everywhere!” I said I’d be right over.

Indeed, hundreds of red wasps were bobbing about the vaulted ceiling, banging their little waspy heads on the windows, and sluggishly emerging from cracks in the interior woodwork. But an outside inspection showed no holes at all.

They were gone in a day.

I puzzled about this until it happened again, this time at my house. I also have interior paneling from which hundreds of the sleepy wingstings emerged. My dogs eagerly ate them, crying from the stings. Maybe they’re like puppy jalapeƱos.

It was last year that I figured it out. In March, just as the weather warmed, tens of thousands of ladybugs began to infest the house, or so I thought. But when I found one of their behind-the-cupboard hiding places, where they were thousands deep, I got it.

Wasps and ladybugs begin looking for winter hiding places in October, and they hang around your doors, just waiting to come in and hole up one at a time. But they come out en masse. In the case of wasps, you just have to wait a day or two for them to leave. Ladybugs take longer.

So the next time they emerge, don’t call me. Especially if you’re the new owner of the Piedmont House or any other wood-paneled building.

This was originally published in The Emerald City of the South, a Little Rock paper that sometimes came out three or four times a year. It references some of the severe weather Little Rock experienced on the fateful night of January 21st, 1999. It also references local past weather that has no bearing on you, reality, or those twinkies you forgot you hid under the bed.


 Funnel cloud near Mayflower, Arkansas, the last one whut I ever tooked a pitcher of

Remember 2009? It was the coolest year on record, with the most rain ever recorded in central Arkansas. How about the summer of 2010? One of the hottest years to date. And though I haven’t seen the statistics, I’ll bet this winter was one of the coldest and snowiest.

My conclusion?

The weather is out to eat you alive, and you’d better be ready for spring.

Some of you may know that I am a stormchaser; this does not make me any money, but it does make me a weather-informed individual. You should be, too, because like it or not you live in Tornado Alley. Little Rock may not be Oklahoma City, but we certainly get our share of the severe stuff, and the season has already started. I will forgo my admonishments and normal tongue-clucking mock-superiority (mock? Surely you jest!) to give you a primer on severe weather.

Some of you may remember January 21st 1999; that was the night of the downtown tornado. It is reported that over seven hundred homes in the MacArthur Park and Governor’s Mansion Historic Districts were damaged (more if you look outside the Districts) and many hundreds were destroyed. It still amazes me that only three people died that night, but there had been a lot of warnings all afternoon, so I guess we were as ready as we could have been.

I am also not alone in my opinion that the tornado was, in some ways, good for the downtown. Those who lost loved ones or property will undoubtedly disagree, but I speak of the downtown as a whole. The trees that came down, magnificent as they were, were going to do so one at a time; old willow oaks are known for weakening as they hollow out. Everyone got new roofs, the streetlights increased threefold, and people learned to plant more willow oaks as opposed to Bradford Pears or silver maples, neither of which are good in the long run. Maple root systems heave sidewalks and foundations, and Bradford Pears, outside of a few weeks in the spring and fall, are rather dirty and boring trees. They are also weak, prone to splitting, and they don’t tend to live as long or give as much shade as the traditional white or red oaks.

There are several things I’d recommend to old-home dwellers regarding preparation for storms, much of it gleaned from what I saw that fateful night twelve years ago. Other things I have picked up along the Chasing / Restoration Road.

My backyard on Center Street was filled with record albums, furniture, and memorabilia that had been, minutes before the tornado, quietly residing in people’s attics. The attic is the most readily - damaged part of a house in a tornado; you should stash your most important documents, photos, and sentimental junk in closets on lower floors.

Windows were smashed and broken all over town, as flying debris is the number one cause of damage in a tornado. But many of the windows that didn’t get broken allowed water to flow under them in the sideways rain that pummeled us from the southwest. This is always a good reason to get up on my soapbox and tout the effectiveness, historic value, and “greenness” of covering your original windows with storm windows. I know you think that replacement windows are better, but they are not. Yes, they may have a slightly higher R-value, an  there might be tax credits available, but storm windows preserve your original fabric as well as protect it from anything short of missiles. If your home is on The National Register of Historic Places (or you hope it someday will be), you cannot always replace those windows. And if you really want to be green, think of what manufacturing replacements and disposing of the old windows takes. Go with storms. Be sure to properly glaze and paint your old windows first.

Go out in your yard and look for tree limbs that endanger your house. Not just the dead ones, either. Eighty per cent of the storms in The Rock come out of the northwest, west, or southwest, so think about how your tree might fall when they do. Remove dangerous limbs before the storm drops them through your roof, and pay particular attention to any limbs overhanging your main electrical line. I can’t tell you how many meter loops and breaker boxes I have to reattach to homes after storms  have detached them, and it almost always runs near a thousand dollars.

If your downspouts (you DO have gutters, don’t you? They are CLEAN during storm season, aren’t they??) drain to an underground conduit, make sure the drains are not clogged. Otherwise the water backs up to the gutters, overflows, and tears them right off your house. After flooding your eaves, of course.

Know where to go in your home during tornado warnings; if there is no basement, designate a central hallway or interior room in which to ride out the storm. Tiled bathrooms are often good choices due to the plumbing and reinforced walls. Keep flashlights handy and a weather radio with fresh batteries on hand. A local portable radio is also a good idea.

If you want to keep up with the weather via your computer, add these sites to your favorites list. Stormchasers and weather weenies alike use them.

This has the best radar with the most detail. Explore the site and learn to use the ‘pan and zoom’ feature.

This is The Storm Prediction Center, run by NOAA. It will tell you many days in advance of approaching systems and how dangerous they are. Meteorologists, chasers, and weenies live by their predictions. It updates every seven hours. Keep informed!

Unisys is the site I use for basic weather forecasting, and it must be pretty good, because pilots and other flying types depend on it for their flight plans.

So, keep informed, get a plan and a weather kit together, look at your trees and gutters, and consider storm windows. And if you get rain blown on your porch, sweep it off immediately, otherwise you’ll be calling me to fix it when it rots. And you don’t want that, now do you, precious?

Got a question, a gripe, or want to take me to dinner? I can be reached at


Wednesday, July 31, 2013


A question posed by a reader to the "Ask the Expert" column.

My husband and I just bought a Queen Anne Victorian house in a historic district and the exterior is in need a of new coat of paint. We want to paint it in historically accurate hues. What's the best resources to turn to to make this decision? Thanks in advance!

To which I replied:

Queen Anne style homes are sometimes referred to as “Painted Ladies,” as they’re original paint schemes were often multi-hued. We at CM Construction paint a lot of these, as they are quite numerous in downtown Little Rock’s Quapaw Quarter. The clapboard siding is often one color, window sashes another, and fishscale shingles a third. Accent colors are often used on window trim, corner medallions, and the fancier parts of porch column turnings. Keep in mind that this is a rather simplistic explanation, and that some homes have much more elaborate color schemes.

There are a number of ways to determine what is right for your own home. The first thing to do is to drive around your local historic district and see what other people have done to their Queen Annes. Treatments of these structures range from a simple monochrome to vivid multi-hues; your own tastes will determine the scope you want to use. The places for accents I mentioned above are the most common, and certain rules are universal.

Foundation brick, if unpainted, should remain unpainted. This is true of all brick; paint will cause brick to fail earlier than it would normally due to moisture retention. If the foundation brick is painted a strange color, it should either be stripped or be painted brick red.  Original sheet metal porch roofs are nearly always painted brick red (ironic, don’t you think?), though they are seldom visible from the street. Wood porch floors are usually a light gray and porch ceilings were often painted sky blue back in the day. This is said to deter wasps from building nests there.

There are several good books on the subject of painting Queen Anne homes, including an excellent pictorial series called “America’s Painted Ladies.” Perusing these will give you a great overview and will narrow your choices to what you want and what looks good versus what is too gaudy for your tastes. Keep in mind this rule; just because you can add more tiers to your paint schedule doesn’t mean you should.

We at CM Construction often do historic preservation as opposed to restoration, and that requires a lot of research into original structure, field archaeology, and investigation of original paint colors. There are high-priced companies that do this as well, but I learned to do it myself over twenty years ago.

My favorite method is to choose a number of places where differing colors might have been used (see the first paragraph for which components to test) and using sandpaper, bring spots on those components down to bare wood. It’s best to start with 80 grit and work to higher numbered, finer grits successively, ending with 220. Using an oscillating or ¼ sheet sander (not a belt sander) sand a circular spot about the size of a quarter, and once bare wood is reached, concentrate on hand-sanding the edges of the paint that surround that circle. You’ll want to feather those edges to create a slightly angled shallow divot; this will expose many tiny layers of old paint. The final step is to use a magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe to examine those layers up close. Wetting the spot will help to bring out the colors. You’ll be amazed at the information gleaned from examining these layers, and trust me, one of the middle levels of paint will undoubtedly be a light green, which was extremely popular in the 1950s. Everything was painted Institutional Green back then.


Once the colors have been decided upon, the slight divots can be skimmed and sanded and no one will know better. But if it was me, I’d varnish one of these sections and leave it as a window on the past.

Then you can paint. Keep in mind that painting is 70% preparation, 10% high quality paint, and 20% proper application.

CM Construction has been repainting Queen Annes as well as other historic structures in Arkansas for decades. Go to to learn more.

Then get some sandpaper and get to work on those components. I promise that you’ll learn as well as have fun.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Excerpt from Abandoned Arkansas
(Soon to not be published by a major publishing firm)
           I put one hundred tiny short stories together in 2008 after taking thousands of pictures for a book that was to become Abandoned Arkansas, I'll post a few of the stories here in the next year or two. This is one.

Oh, sure. That ol’ cabin out by the road was built by my great-grandfather before there was even a town down at the crossing.

No, there warn’t no stores around here. O’ course not. Whatever you wanted, you made or grew. Or did without.

People was too busy back then to care about what they didn’t have. A full belly and a dry head made more diff’runce than nice clothes or a fast buggy.

You’d think buildin’ the cabin was the hard part, but it wudn’t. Ever’body helped each other back then. And in this valley, they still do.

But my great-grandfather was Eli Crawford, and he knew ever’body in this valley and all the surroundin’ ones. If there was a barn needed buildin’, he’d be there, just like his neighbors were for him when it came time to raise that house.

Eli and his brother did most of the fellin’ and hewin’, but it was the other farmers that did a good deal o’ the raisin’. And when Eli’s first crop came in heavy, ever’body in the valley got a bushel o’corn, even them what didn’t help. Didn’t matter; they was all in it together.

No, I wouldn’t think o’ sellin’ it. Not for love or money. I know you want to reassemble it somewhere else and restore it. You already tole me.  That don’t matter. It’s a part o’ this land just like the grass or the trees. You think I’d sell them off? Well, I wouldn’t. And if it goes back to the land, well, that’s fine by me.

I look at it like this. That building is part of the land, and I work this land. My great-grandfather worked it, too. Cut it from the forest. He made these pastures. He dug the well out back. Dug it by hand! You know what that takes?

Eli Crawford is in this land. He’s in that house.

Hell, he is that house.
                                   Notes on the Stories
This may be the tether, the grounding rod, the foundation of the ideals in this book. So many ‘abandoned’ buildings are kept in their present conditions not because of opportunistic neglect, but because there is a very decided reverence for the fact that their present owners’ forbearers should have a temple for their descendents to gaze upon. Never mind that it cannot be used as a dwelling, or that it might want to be.
I can see the failing, barely-able-to-walk form of great-grandpa as he hobbles about the pasture, tightly holding the hand of his five-year-old thrice-removed scion.
“Do you know that I used to LIVE in this house?” he smiles.
The little boy looks up at him, eyes wide in wonder.
“This is a house?”
This is how history is passed down.
The cabin in Boone County.

Friday, May 10, 2013



Anyone dealing with old buildings automatically becomes a bit of historian, whether they own it or dig a ditch in the front yard. It goes with the territory. And anyone not interested in history is automatically expelled from owning an old building, or they’re just plain misguided.

It’s when history comes calling in the form of the physical and ethereal that my hackles rise in anticipation.

I personally believe in ghosts, but professionally do not. I’ve never seen or gotten a picture of one, and trust me, I’ve tried. I three times recorded a nonexistent string quartet in the Married Officers’ Quarters at MacArthur Park, now the Military Museum. Jim Eison, the past curator, would let me set up high-bias recording equipment in different areas of the building back in the eighties, when it was the Museum of Discovery. And that string quartet was there each time, no matter where we set up, with the same volume and clarity (neither which amounted to much). The music was the same piece each time as well. I got the same results recording just outside, on the porch. No radio was left on, and the building was quiet as a tomb. Go figure.

And in case anyone wonders, I do know where one of the tunnels is, though if it’s the fabled “tunnel to the river” that may or may not exist, I’ll never know. Park officials made the backhoe driver fill it in as soon as they got wind of it, but I saw it just after he broke through. Triangulated its location, as well, after dropping into it. Made of hard brick, it measured ten by ten feet high, with an arched top. Stretched twenty feet to the south before a collapse and disappeared into darkness to the north. The park officials scolded me and the backhoe operator, but I was the archaeological monitor on the park at the time, so I had business there. They told me not to talk about it. Statute of limitations are up, gentlemen. The State Archaeologist at the time was not interested in its existence. Go figure again.

But I’ve not seen any floating vapors. There is an apartment complex we restored a few years ago, and the manager swore it was haunted. He still does. I went so far as to do a nighttime photographic survey during demolition, but no images of Casper. But I felt something weird about number fifteen. Nobody liked to work in there. It felt creepy to all the guys, regardless of belief. We had been told about number fourteen as well, and when a stranger showed up six months into the project and asked whether fourteen was still haunted, we laughed and told him we didn’t know. We all kept up our guard after that.

But, while standing outside of number fifteen near the start of the project, I felt something cold and clammy move right past me. I spun around, thinking I was in someone’s way, but nothing was there.

“Did you see that?” one of my carpenters, to whom I had been talking, asked.

“No! Did you?!!”

“No, but I saw you see it!” We laughed nervously and changed the subject.

I personally think these things are extensions of our selves, but I still like the movie “Poltergeist.”

Treasure is where you find it. And have I found it.

While cleaning out the leftover junk from a tiny apartment in a carriage house in the Quarter before restoring it, I discovered two French Foreign Legion bayonets with numbered scabbards.

While scanning a wall for metal pipes in a home in Connecticut, I got WAY too big a signal; opening the wall, I found an ancient apple peeler with so many gears and hinges that it must have been designed by Rube Goldberg. The owner let me keep it, and it sits proudly on a bookshelf at home today. But why was it in the wall?

Sometimes the treasure can’t be taken away, as it belongs to the house.

I cut my restoration teeth restoring an 1835 farmhouse in upstate South Carolina (it had some sort of presence in it, I assure you; tell you about it next time), and on one of my yearly updates to the property, I removed some deteriorated siding on the rear parlor wall, discovering a previously covered-up window opening. No casement or sash, just the framed opening.

“I always thought there should have been a window there,” Peggy, the owner told me when I called her with the news. “How hard would it be to put in a new window with the same dimensions as the old one?”

“About twelve hundred dollars should do it,” I said. There were matching sashes in the barn, possibly the same ones that had been removed. I milled the casements, sill and facings to match the original, and that room now has windows on three sides like it did in 1835.

While digging a garden in the front yard of the same farm early in the project, I hit brick. Thinking it was an errant remnant of past chimney building, I tossed it aside. Then I found another right next to the first. I tossed my shovel aside and went for my mason’s pointing trowel. This, to you whom have not been archaeologists, is the primary tool of that profession. I carefully cut the soil away from this structure until I had uncovered three feet by eighteen inches. The bricks were aligned end to end, with a depression in the middle.

I stood up and eyeballed the direction it seemed to lead away from the front porch, and walking away from the house towards the railroad cut in the front yard, I smiled when I reached that fifteen-foot drop. Because there, having been cut through many decades before, was the same brick structure. Five bricks wide, with the same depression in the center. I scraped this one, too, and after uncovering three feet of it, I stood up and looked towards the house.

Then I got it.

“Of course!” I laughed. “Of course! Why didn’t I see it before?”

I hadn’t seen it before because I didn’t have the house as a center point. And to get the best view of my find, I had to climb down into the railroad cut and up the other side.

I turned around, and there, perfectly profiled by the railroad cut, was the cross-section of the original driveway of the house, complete with its brick gutter on the left side. The gray sandy loam of the farm was interrupted by a foot-deep, twelve-foot wide berm of hard clay and gravel, compacted into this hidden driveway only revealed by mischance and cross-section. Further research showed that this driveway had been built in the 1840s and abandoned around 1900 when the tracks were built.

I photographed the excavations and reported my finds to Peggy, who couldn’t wait to see the exposed brick. Cordoned off like a museum exhibit, it can still be seen on the Cason Farm in Hodges, South Carolina.

But by far, my favorite offchance find during a restoration was what dropped into my hands while demolishing a plaster ceiling in an 1873 row house in Washington D.C. in 1988.

What dropped into my hands was a rat’s nest, complete with the rat.

Before you go running to the bathroom to wash out your eyes from having read such a thing, let me assure you that Brother Rat had been dead for long enough to mummify it. Or, with a nod to the Egyptians, long enough to desiccate it and allow it to be preserved in the exact form it had in life.

Now, people, I can assure you that I have iron testicles. I chase tornadoes, explore virgin caves, and have no problem singing in front of strangers. I can carry a musical show for four hours if my voice holds out. I spent years hitchhiking across this country. I’ve had a black widow for a pet for three years. I let her go when she got too big.

I was not freaked at this experience. I felt the plaster and lath give way, and knew I’d got a mouthful of black dust and spider eggs and splinters and godknowswhatelse.

And guess what? I did. In two seconds, I was covered with the hidden dirt of a century.

My exclamations (a little too colorful to print here, I assure you) were heard throughout the third and second floors, and my fellow craftsmen came running to see what was wrong, if they could help, or if there was a funny story to be gleaned from my discomfiture. And they all laffed and laffed and laffed upon seeing my face and hair and shoulders completely draped in black dust, spider webs, and tattered paper.

But when the dust began to clear and they saw that I held something remarkable in my hands, they gasped.

“Get me a piece of plywood or drywall!” I sputtered, spitting centuries of dirt from my face. I stood there on the stepladder, shaking the dirt from my hair, trying to make it possible to open my eyes without going blind. I held something airy and ancient and colorful in my hands, and it was so light that I thought it’d blow away with my next breath.

“What IS that?” more than one worker asked.

“Its history, boys,” I smiled, my mouth crusted with black dust. “And you’re the first to see it in decades.”

It was true; I had so much dust in my eyes that I could hardly see a thing. But I knew what I had from feel and from the first glimpse of what had dropped before the dark dust cloud took over.

One of the carpenters held out a scrap of drywall with shaking hands, and I placed my find onto it carefully.

“Take it into the front room and put it on the table with the plans,” I said, wiping blackness from my eyes. “Somebody bring me another scrap! There’s more!”

I had soon emptied the two-foot space above the third floor of its rat nest, and alighting from the ladder, walked to the front room with the second half of the treasure. Word had spread of the find, and within a minute, fifteen guys stood agape at the table.

“How old is it?”

“Is that a rat?”

“What’s all that stuff?”

The rat was ten inches from tip to butt, excluding the tail, and its tail measured that again; this appendage was wrapped tightly around its side, and its face was turned up slightly. It appeared to be looking at me, and its grin revealed more of its teeth than I wanted to see. Tan skin stretched tautly across a long skeleton, and by its size, I surmised that this particular rat lived rather well.

But the real treasure was its nest; a hundred years of history filled the sticks and straw that made up its bulk. Apparently this home had a sewing room on the third floor, because the third most prominent ingredient was thread. Thread of all colors, thread of all sheens. It looked as if it had just been taken from the spool, nevermind the black dirt. Then there was a plethora of fabric cuttings, some merely rag edges and some as fine as crinoline. The rat was apparently egalitarian in its tastes.

And buttons! Oh, my! I had heard that rats are attracted to shiny baubles, but this was the first proof I’d seen. It had a thing for silver buttons, and the gaudier or more embossed, the better it liked them.

I dated the nest to 1893 at the oldest, mainly because the rat also had a taste for paper. Scraps of personal notes, bits of newspaper, postcards, and box tops littered the nest. Most of the dates were in the early 1890’s, but it was the nearly intact playbill that excited me most. I forget what the play or venue was, but the date was 1893.

The crew debated and declaimed, discoursed and discussed. Until the foreman came and sent us all back to work. Then he added his three cent’s worth.

“Damn! It’s a rat’s nest from a hundred years ago!”

That’s why he was the boss. Sharp as a spoon, he was.

That night, I presented the nest, complete with Brother Rat, to Alan, the owner of the house. Being a corporate lawyer, he was not impressed.

It was his loss.

I kept the rat. Still have it somewhere, though it may have gone to dust by now.

History stands still only when kept in a dark, dry place. But it’s nice when it’s discovered.

Then we can learn and talk about it.

What time capsules are waiting for YOU?


Since this colulumn was writ, I have found something even more remarkable.

While restoring the 1820 Estevan Hall in Helena, Arkansas in 2012, one of the demo crew came running downstairs. Everyone on each crew had been given explicit instructions to bring me any found objects, no matter how young or old.

"What about this?" he asked, caked with rock wool dust. He'd been removing old insulation from an attic behind a four-foot kneewall, and had been crouched for hours. I'm sure the tiny paper dust mask he wore wasn't helping keep the fiberglass out of his lungs, either.

He presented me with a strange looking chain found in the attic. It had a round link on the end, oblong links in the middle, and an embossed plate in the center. The whole thing was hand-forged.


"Looks like it'll just fit around someone's neck," Tim, my demo guy, said with a smile. He was referring to the local rumors (all apocryphal)  of slaves kept in chains in the basement before the War of Northern Aggression. "Is that a name on the plate in the middle?"

It was, but I couldn't read it.

"I doubt they made metal nameplates for slaves," I quipped, examining the thing closely. I still don't know what it was. Tim, newly energized from this find, went back up to finish.

"Keep your eyes open!" I yelled after him.

I hadn't been organizing the plans on the construction table for two minutes before he came down the stairs again. This time he was out of breath.

"I found some pictures," he panted.

"Well, bring 'em here!"

He shook his head.

"You'd better come up."

I followed him to the crawl door in the second floor wall. This part of the house had been added in the early 20th century, and the room had four-foot kneewalls. He pointed to an area about thirty feet from the door, then disappeared into the hole.

"Damn," I said, following with my point-and-shoot camera. I HATE crawling. I had hated it since a disastrous run-in with a deer on my Triumph motorcycle six months before, and my broken ribs creaked and complained as I got on my knees. I also began to hack and cough, what with the fiberglass dust in the air.

"This better be good for me to do all this," I sputtered to Tim. I figured he had found a few desiccated photographs with water spots and curled edges.

But at the end of the crawl, I was amply rewarded.

"Holy mother of God," I said. "Hold that one forward a little. Yeah, like that. Now move back...that's it."

I took only one picture. I could hardly breathe in all the dust.

"Stay here," I said. "I'm going to knock a hole in the wall so we can get them out." I crawled back to the door and looked around the room to figure where the pictures were; they were behind the back wall to the closet. Luckily, this room was sheathed with unsaturated Celotex (????), so knocking a hole in the wall was easy, and Tim passed the two framed portraits through with none of the bumping and scratching they would have endured if we used the crawl. There were five more small pictures in frames as well.

Once the whole collection was downstairs, the black dust and fiberglass was wiped from them. The two big portraits looked to be about 1840s vintage, as judged by the clothing, hair styles, and artistic execution. I immediately called the architect, who called the owner, and then I got the person in charge of building services for the Delta Cultural Center. SHE had the climate-controlled storage where the portraits would be kept safe until they were carefully cleaned.


It turns out that the portraits were of the builder's son and daughter-in-law, and I was pretty close in my rudimentary dating as mid-1840s. The others were framed photographs that were taken in the first part of the 20th century, and featured a number of familial scenes, but unfortunately nothing from the outside of the house, which is what we really needed for architectural verification of facades. They had probably been put behind the kneewall when the addition was built around 1919, but why they had been forgotten is a mystery.

The most interesting of the small pictures was one of the same man in the big portrait. Only in this picture he was fully white-headed. It was unmistakably the same man.

When the restoration of Estevan Hall is finished, it will become the Helena Civil War Parks Visitors Center. The two portraits are slated to hang prominently in the main room, but I hope they'll include the picture of Tim and his very-evident grin behind that dust mask. I think the way they were found was as interesting as the pictures themselves.


Wednesday, May 1, 2013



Dear Old House Doctor,

   While digging under my kitchen sink for some  very unsavory household chemicals, I noticed that the particle board floor to the cabinet was wet and sagging. Where in the world is this moisture coming from, and more importantly, am I doomed?

Sagging in Hillcrest

Dear Sagging,

   There’s no doubt about it: you’re doomed.

   Whether you believe in God or The Big Bubble, Allah or Murray The Kinky Monkey, medical science has proved that we’re all doomed. Sure, with a program of healthy eating and exercise, you might live to be ninety or a hundred. But if that involves nursing homes, Ensure cocktails and colostomy bags, wouldn’t it be better to burn out at sixty while experimenting with trendy chemical amusements and younger lovers while bowling with explosives?

   I know that’s the way I intend to go.

   As to your sink base, most moisture problems are caused by leaking drains. Don’t knock into them while digging around for the roach spray; drains are sensitive and easily offended.

   Here’s what you do.

   Fill your sink with an inch of water after you empty the space below. Have towels ready to soak up what leaks (don’t use good towels). Then pull the basket and watch where the water comes out. Chances are, you need to hand-tighten (I said HAND tighten; no wrenches) the compression nuts on your P-trap (the s-shaped drain tube under your sink). Do this GENTLY until no water comes from the drain.

   If, on the other hand, your drain isn’t leaking, turn on the faucet at full force and crawl further into the base with your flashlight. Be careful not to go too far! There’s a huge gulf back there, and if you fall into it, you’ll be trapped in the lacteenth dimention with large-breasted women with no sex drive. Don’t want to go there!

   Look up below the faucet and see if that’s what’s leaking. If it is, you’ll have to buy a ‘faucet wrench,’ a device you’ll not be able to use for anything else but tightening your faucet compression nuts (oh my! Don’t tighten MINE!).

   Check all connections with the appliances on: dishwasher, disposal, bong-water isomerization co-conversion unit, if you have one, you stoner. If you don’t find the leak do it all again. Put six inches of water into your sink before you drain it. Sometimes your underground drains are so constricted that it takes a larger amount of water to cause the backup.

   Okay, you found the leak and tightened the connections. What do you do about the mass of wet particle board?

   Knock it out and remove it. Use a dust mask; that crap is nasty and likely loaded with mold and formeldahyde. If the framing below is intact, use ¼´plywood to replace it, but be warned!


   You must use two pieces, as one cannot be put in the cabinet retroactively. It just won’t fit. Make sure to match the two pieces where a piece of framework fall below it.

   See how simple all that was? God, I don’t know how your species survives.

   I need a drink.


So you want to live in a historic house. There are considerations both physical and cultural to keep in mind.

First, if it's in a designated historic district, there may be local guidelines as to what you can do to alter it. People that put a lot of time and money into their homes' authenticity don't necessarily want a neighbor with modern fabric or design changes that might degrade the historic aspect of the neighborhood. That doesn't mean you can't put up gutters or replace your windows; it just means that alterations should look like what was there before.

Older neighborhoods are more  integral; privacy fences are few, and neighbors often interact with each other more than in suburbia, looking after each others' property as well as the whole neighborhood. It's a fairly hip crowd that takes on the responsibility of keeping up a historic house.

And older homes take more upkeep. If you have wood siding, it will need to be painted every ten years or so. Interior "box" gutters need to be maintained, or they'll leak and your eaves will disintegrate. Wood porches need a lot of attention; homeowners used to sweep the water off them right after a rain to preserve them. Older homes are more expensive to roof, as they are often taller and have a more intricate roof design or steeper pitch. Interior plaster is easily repaired, but a cracked plaster ceiling should be removed and replaced with drywall.

Older homes, however, can be made much more energy efficient with newer technologies. Most were built without insulation and seem quite drafty until insulation is added above, below, and blown into the walls. Replacement windows are sometimes installed, but a properly caulked original window casement with a new storm window will be nearly as efficient. Taller ceilings cry out for ceiling fans with downrods, and almost all older homes were built with outside-to-inside air circulation in mind. Modern homes do not circulate air nearly as well.

Older homes were often built with superior lumber that withstands stresses and termite attack better than newer wood, and as most were built with pier-and-beam foundations, they have crawlspaces instead of concrete slabs. This allows for systems to be inspected and updated easily. Lead paint is almost always present in older homes, but if it is encapsulated with new paint and not made airborne through sanding, it is not a hazard. The soils near the foundation should be tested for lead that came off the house in past years. Asbestos is sometimes a concern, but much more so in commercial construction. The binders in residential plaster were usually jute fibers and horsehair, not asbestos, and the most common places to find the nasty stuff is in old 12" square rigid tiles or in the thick [plaster that encasulates old boilers.

If you buy an older home, have it inspected by someone who knows old houses. Original electrical and plumbing systems are outdated and dangerous, but updating them is easier because of access in the attic and crawlspace. Most updated older homes have already had their knob-and-tube electrical wires and galvanized iron pipes replaced.

If there are wood floors, you will need carpets. Older homes often require more furniture, as they have larger spaces, and living in one sounds completely different than in a newer home, as sound seems to carry and reverberate more.

Older homes may take more attention, but they give back such charm that those who live in one often find it hard to go back to modern homes. It is also a fact that those in older homes tend to live there much longer than those in newer homes.

This might sound biased, but after all, I am The Old House Doctor.