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If wishes were horses…

July 29, 2009

Anne housefront

In response to my post about windows, Anne Fontaine was kind enough to share photographs of the beloved house she grew up in, as well as recollections of the challenges her family faced when it came to finding someone capable of making specialized repairs to vintage surfaces and systems.   

You have really tapped into a very important issue. I’m sure I’m not the only person who had first-hand experience with the vaguaries of living in a historic home. It was definitely a privilege but one that could be very expensive to maintain. The roof is slate and taller than most people are comfortable climbing.

They definitely don’t make them like they used to but the upkeep is daunting. Anyway, your post really resonated because our culture is not accustomed to preserving anything. 

Anne frontdoor

It was my good fortune to grow up in a Queen Anne Victorian house which my parents have owned for the last 40 years. My room was called the ‘Round Room’, its curved windows and roof set above the wrap-around porch. The windows of my room were heavy plate glass and I was admonished repeatedly to never slam them as they were either irreplaceable or prohibitively expensive to replace (which is much the same thing).  This wasn’t always easy as they were also raised and lowered by a sometimes fickle rope system buried deep in the window’s frame.  Your observation that the people with the expertise to repair this type of window (or indeed any specialised architectural feature) are rare beings is more true than ever.  My mother managed to find one or two over the years and the difficulty underscored the unique challenges faced by the owner of a historic home, especially those like my mother who wanted to preserve the house’s turn-of-the-century integrity.

When most fix-it guys have no clue about the techniques or principles associated with historic house repair (and heaven help the cons who say they do when they don’t!), how does the average owner of a beloved vintage building figure out where to go for help?

You got me there.

I always figured it would be easy if one lived in New England.  Call those guys you see on “This Old House.”  

Or better yet, there’s the North Bennet Street School in Boston, which offers interested tradespeople “an education in craftsmanship,”  including professional training in preservation carpentry, cabinet making, traditional locksmithing and more.  There are also workshops to give short-term introductions to amateurs and interested professionals.

Historic New England (applause, applause because in my opinion they are doing so many things right) thinks in terms of “customer” needs and now offers a special membership category for owners of old homes.  Among the many benefits of this level is access to a professional who will answer technical questions about repair issues peculiar to buildings of a certain age.  The $500 fee is nothing to sneeze at, but I’d have gladly spent that to have gotten a real pro to tell me what to do about my complicated roof issue (a bad design with a poorly place chimeny and downspoput, antagonized by an aged roof and a squirrel hole).  To learn more about their Historic Homeowner membership category, click here.

There are also the wonderful technical briefs published by the National Park Service and made available online.  These cover a broad variety of subjects from window, paint and roofing issues to working with historic mortars (beware fixing that old wall with modern cement!) and lead paint abatement.  Great for a DIY project or to help you rule out idiotic workmen you don’t want to hire, but there just doesn’t seem to be a widely available resource to find the trained, preservation-savvy fix-it guy of your dreams.

Get out your tiny violins as I share my Roof Story, a tale of woe that I suspect is rather common and exactly the reason that houses get muddled, bad repairs make maintenance situations worse, etc.  It’s not for want of trying; it’s for lack of know-how on the part of the homeowner and/or the tradesperson.

My old house had a standing seam roof, and a badly designed roof merge when an addition was added to the Victorian part of the house in the early part of the 20th century.  The sellers hid water damage behind drop ceilings, but once uncovered, it was apparent something needed to be done.  I came up empty-handed when I tried to find someone with a clue about an old metal roof — not copper, but standing seam metal.  And even as I drove through New England looking at brand-spanking-new metal roofs going on houses, I couldn’t find anyone in the mid-Atlantic region who had a clue what I was talking about.

I contacted both local and national preservation agencies both and got vague nothingness in response.  The one person who was recommended did mostly slate roofs but claimed knowledge of metal (I was suspicious).  I responded to an ad in the back of a magazine targeted to old house owners.  I called the roofing company whose signs seemed to sprout like mushrooms in front yards around the countryside but their proposal to cover the roof with rubber just seemed wrong, especially when I looked at a nearby house that had a black rubber coating that all manner of plant material seemed to stick to.  

With each storm, new water damage would appear on the newly-repaired ceiling in my son’s room  Exterior wood began to rot and squirrels gamboled about in the attic.  I shrugged my shoulders and gave up, opting for shingles because I could find no one with the answers about metal.  The story doesn’t end there, but I can’t bear to go on.  (Idiot roofer.)  I hang my head and feel unworthy of the mantle of preservationist.  

Suddenly New England’s trendiness seems to have worked its way down the coast and the mid-Atlantic understands metal roofs again, as I see them going in here and there.

Sadly, it seems that liability issues prevent organizations that are best equipped to answer tricky old house questions from actually doing so.  

Isn’t this a business opportunity for someone? The Roving Preservationist will come to your door for a fee and tell you what TLC your old house needs?  Someone?  Anyone?  Start that new business plan immediately!

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