‘Unmodeling’ Old Buildings

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After two years of enduring our search for an old building in Covington, our real estate agent showed us something a bit different. It was a large and beautiful unit in an old commercial building. There was a storefront on the bottom. Living space up above. But here’s what was different than every other place we’d seen:

The entire building had been gutted and redone with new everything – mechanicals, plaster, flooring, windows. It even had off-street parking. All we had to do was pick the paint colors. The price was a bit higher than we wanted to pay. But to that the agent said:

“By the time you fix up a place in your price range, you’ll have spent way more than this place costs.”

She was absolutely right. I knew it the moment she said it. But still we said, no thanks.

For me, fixing up an old building is about uncovering the original intent of the builder, removing as much of the modern “improvements” as possible and gently restoring the place back to its original appearance.

During the restoration of the storefront area at 837 Willard Street, we’ve removed thousands of feet of wiring, lots of plumbing and significant amounts of silly ductwork. From the building’s floor, I think we’ve pulled up almost 3” of old floor. The plaster walls had been layer caked in plywood, wainscotting, then stud walls, drywall and then ridiculous moulding.

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Justin is the muscle in our demolition efforts. He removed this section of wall with his bare hands.

On Saturday we turned our attention to the garage out back, which will become my machine room. It’s a circa 1905 cinderblock structure that was listed on the city’s fire insurance maps as a stable. So we call it the “horse garage.”

Most of the advice from my friends and neighbors has been along the lines of, “Tear it down and build what you want. It will look better and be cheaper.”

They’re probably right. But that thought won’t enter my head. Once you tear down an old building, it’s gone forever. You can’t bring it back. If a structure can be saved, I think it should be saved.

I may someday regret this attitude. And that day may come this week.

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Megan hauls out an early layer crap from the horse garage. She is wicked with a recip saw.

Megan Fitzpatrick, Justin Leib and Brendan Gaffney all pitched Saturday in for a full day of demolition, which filled a 20-yard roll-away dumpster. (I’ll probably have to fill it twice more as I remove the modern gabled roof this week.)

As in the main structure, the stable was layers and layers of crap on the walls and ceilings. The most interesting find from the day was evidence that the stable had been used as a small apartment or house, probably in the 1960s. One of the stable doors had been altered to have a window surrounded by plaster. The other stable door had been converted into an entryway door. And a good deal of abandoned plumbing pointed out where a bathroom and kitchen had been.

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In addition to gutting the horse garage, we also removed some modern drywall in the main structure. Here Brendan uses some of his training from the College of the Redwoods (now the Krenov School) to vacuum away what we hope is some blow-in insulation.

Despite all the dust, bugs and debris, we did have one good omen on Saturday: We didn’t find any glitter.

And now to the roof.

— Christopher Schwarz, editor, Lost Art Press
Personal site: christophermschwarz.com

About Lost Art Press

Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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13 Responses to ‘Unmodeling’ Old Buildings

  1. nrhiller says:

    Love the remark about Brendan and the “insultation.” Was that spelling intentional, or just serendipitous?

    • Richard Mahler says:

      I caught that, too! Liked it so much I screen-saved it for posterity. Personally, I tend to “blow off” insults!

  2. nrhiller says:

    You already changed it! It was so funny!

    • flatironjoe says:

      I thought the joke in the caption was the fact that there is yet to be an article about or by Brendan that fails to mention his woodworking alma mater. Glad to see you are getting some good use out of his training, Chris!

      • In our group of friends, if you aren’t getting teased then you probably aren’t in our group of friends. Brendan gets teased for his alma mater and white tennis shoes, Megan for her language use (both high and low) and how long it’s been since she’s gone out on a date (won’t someone PLEASE date Megan?).

        I get teased for a long list of stuff, from setting a router on fire, wearing a tube top at a book release party (I was sober), my journalism credentials, all the times my appearance seems to change….

      • Well, Krenov (who founded the College of the Redwoods, now the Krenov School) vacuumed.

  3. Rob Hoffman says:

    I just graduated from NBSS’ Preservation Carpentry program. Your staked furniture is my old house. I’ve really enjoyed following your restoration journey. Now that I’m in the real world with a job and not doing projects that only make financial sense if you have the kind of free labor that comes with getting a school to help, a lot of the job is explaining to the client why it is better to restore than build new. Sometimes you can’t get them to see the value in original and historical work. And either old buildings aren’t right for them or they aren’t right for us as a client.

    My favorite part is the taking apart. Each building is a mystery waiting to be unraveled. The project I’m on now had two different size children’s shoes, part of a gas lantern, cat gut violin string still in its wrapper, and many other prizes that had fallen into an internal wall we took down. The most interesting find was part of a letter written by a sister to her brother to tell him how angry she was. She said he was “lower than a snake’s belly.” Burn.

    At the end of a hard day’s work, the raking light highlights the marks of the hand hewn timbers, with layout marks and marriage marks still visible. You can’t help but think of the carpenter who first put them there and wonder what he was thinking about at the end of his day.

    Probably the same thing: who’s buying the first round.

  4. Martin Green says:

    Best of luck Chris hope all goes well with it. You may find our shifty eyed friend in the loft

  5. Richard Mahler says:

    Sounds like classic structure archaeology uncovering layers of culture and use! That has its satisfactions, mysteries and frustrations – and gallons of sweat equity.

  6. jarvilaluban says:

    I see Justin brought his giant clever again. He takes that thing everywhere.

  7. Patrick says:

    That’s going to be a nice space. Are you hoping to get the exterior painted before winter or has the fleshy color grown on you?

  8. Lyle says:

    All this is fine and dandy but I hope you are protecting your lungs. Old buildings had all sort of nasty stuff especially asbestos. Stay safe.

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