Friday, March 2, 2012

Reference Book: Antique Houses: Their Construction and Restoration

I am always on the lookout for educational books regarding historical homes and their restoration.  I did a quick search on Amazon and found an out-of-print book with a horrible blurry photo.  The book is called Antique Houses:  Their Construction and Restoration.

A reviewer (the only one) wrote: 
I lived through the making of this book, demolished portions, moved and restored many of the homes depicted herein and even handled aspects of the legal to get this book publised.  My father is/was the author and lived a passionate life completely devoted to the 18th Century.  He even wore a tricorn hat!  I could write a book on that subject alone.  This book was originally slated for release in 1976 the Bi-Centennial year and contained current pricing - it was conceived as a DYI to empower others to save these old structures and preserve them properly - kind of the "This Old House" of its day.  Sadly, due to politics in publishing (which I won't rant about here) the project was shelved for over a decade.  Very few realize how visionary and purist Edward P. Friedland was regarding historic preservation and teh techniques and techicalities of moving and restoring 18th century houses.  It was a privilege to be part of this process.
With only one review, and a horrible photo of the book, I didn't think it was worth going after.  I learned that my local library had a copy and after checking it out, I was very impressed.  So impressed that I purchased the copy from!  The price was right around $30 plus shipping with other prices available from $8 to over $100 depending seller/condition. 

The book is not very large but is impressively filled with details going over different types of antique homes, their various non-secret construction (pun from a previous post:  Structural Repairs, Part II) as well as hints and suggestions from the author who rebuilt many antique homes like mine.  The author also cites anecdotes relating to discoveries he made while deconstructing and reconstructing these homes.

One of these stories in particular relates to the fireplace.  In our old kitchen fireplace, there's a small rectangular opening.  The previous owner placed bricks in it for what I can assume was to thwart her cats from climbing into it.  The opening is still there, the bricks are removable but for the life of me I could not figure out why it was built into the fireplace.  That is until I read this book.

From Pages 37 and 39 of Antique Houses:  Their Construction and Restoration:
In the base of many a chimney stack is a hole about 1 1/2 feet square leading into a large chamber within the base itself.  There is no door on this hole and no evidence of ashes at the bottom of the cavity.  On close examination, it will be found that there is a small flue  (about 8" x 8") leading from the top of the cavity and coming out in the back wall of the kitchen fireplace.  Often the small hole in the rear of the fireplace has been sealed by brick or stone, but originally it had a wood or sheet-iron slip-in door that could be removed.  What was the purpose of this elaborate system?  Almost invariably I have heard people talk of their ashpit.  But never an ash at the bottom can  be found.  Actually, I stumbled on the answer one cold day.  The three fireplaces of the John Palmer house had been restored and were ready to be tested for how well they drew the smoke.  All the doors and windows in the house were closed  when I lit all three fireplaces and the bake over.  I was astonished that in a few minutes all the fires began to throw smoke into the rooms - the chimneys were just not drawing at all.  I thought that the mason had done something wrong, although he had followed to the letter the original dimensions.
In the rear of the kitchen fireplace, about halfway up to the lintel height, I had noticed a small piece of charred wood, which upon opening had led to a small flue.  At the time of discovery I had made a note of the opening and had replaced the door, thinking that surely this was an ashpit of some sort.  Now, coughing and with eyes watering from the room full of smoke, I remembered the strange little door and opened it, not knowing what else to do to stop the billowing smoke.  As soon as the door had been removed, the fire sprang to life and smoke stopped pouring into the room.  The fires in the other rooms began to burn better almost at once.
In the winter, when the windows are closed and the fireplace is lit, there is not enough air in the home to sustain all the fireplaces.  That opening allows the large fireplace to draw air from the basement!  I'd hate to sound juvenile, but that's just awesome!

This book will find its way to my bookshelf, with information that I can constantly refer to over the years.  I recommend this book for the beginner, to learn how these homes were constructed and how they can be restored.  Though it is more of a general covering of every component of the home, it does cover everything.    Meaning, the information that you need to know to get started is there along with little details that make reading it worth while.