Duct tape, fine carpentry and time

The Old House Web

Editor's note: The Michael D. Coffeen Mansion is one of the historic homesof Homer, Illinois, a small town west of Urbana. Also known locally as "TheHomer Castle," the house sat vacant for two years before it was purchasedby Ray and Christine Cunningham on December 31, 1998.

turret 1999
A 1999 photo of the turret, before restoration.

old turret
The turret in 1890, shortly after the house was built.

2001 turret
Lights once again shine from the Homer Castle turret in October 2001.

The turret is one of the most prominent features of a Queen Anne Victorian,and Ray and Christine's Cunningham's home was no exception. When they bought the1889 mansion, the turret was locked behind doors from the inside. Outside, theornate cedar shingles were covered with sheet metal. The finial was gone, thecone was coated with stucco, and the whole tower sagged noticeably. And everyonein town wanted to know when the Cunninghams were going to restore thetower.

Other major structural problems demanded immediate attention, but a year intotheir restoration project, the Cunninghams were ready to tackle the turret. Rayoften tells novice old-house owners that it's important to know the limits ofyour skill. With that in mind, the Cunninghams called in the help of RDI, alocal company experienced in restoration. Ray and a friend still did the bulk ofthe work, under the guidance of RDI.

The first task was to figure out why the turret was sinking and leaning.Measurements showed the floor was at least 5 inches lower than the farthestpoint of the adjacent room. The stucco and concrete cap had to come off beforethe turret could be jacked up. With a rented saw, Ray cut the stucco off,revealing the original shingles. These he says, gave a glimpse of the originalbeauty of the home.

cutting stucco
Sawing off the stucco reveals ornate shingling original to the turret (right).

Ray reveals that fanciful shingles are go straight up the roof.
Fishscale and diamond shingles were once painted red and gold.
building cone
Large sections of the cone were rotted away. Ray used duct tape, foam and ingenuity to rebuild the structure.
(Click on any picture for a larger view.)

With the stucco removed from the turret, Ray began peeling the concrete offthe cone top, again revealing original wooden shingles that were painted in anelaborate red and gold color scheme. The tower finial was long agoremoved.

There was no paper under the shingles, and without restoration, it wouldleak.

RDI pulled up the floor of the turret and began work. The turret was jackedlevel, using the supporting structure underneath. Now repairs to the turretcould begin.

One of the biggest challenges would be repairing the apex of the cone. About14 inches of the cone was rotted away, and Ray had to think of a way to carve orform a new cone. The solution came from another project -- fixing the porchpillars. Ray noticed that the foam he used to fill in the masonry holes in thepillars became rigid and could be carved after 48 hours.

He cut a round piece of plywood for the base and attached a 3/4-inch piece ofpipe the desired height centered to the round base. He then carved a one inchwood donut for the top, leaving the threads exposed so a finial could beattached later. This cone assembly was put on the turret, and strips of woodwere put from the base to the top and nailed to the donut.

Low-cost 20th century inventions -- spray foam and duct tape -- were used tocomplete the re-building of the cone. Ray wrapped the cone with duct tape andthen began filling it with foam. At the foam dried, it became tight andconformed to the desired shape Excess foam was carved off, and a rubberunderlayment was applied to seal the roof.

Here is Ray's diary of work on the turret over two years. Keep in mind thatthe tower was only one of several major projects being done simultaneously.

June 2000

5 June - Turret project begins with removal of steel sheets aroundturret. The condition of the turret is good with little wood rot found on thesills. The weights and ropes are intact. The bottom windows are removed. Theceiling of the turret is painted. The door and frame to the turret are removedand the entrance to the turret is restored to the full height, as it wasoriginally configured. The wallpaper is stripped from the wall.

10 June - Concrete cutter is rented. Vertical cuts are made in the(exterior) sides of the turret stucco. The crack is widened with a chisel andthe stucco is pried off the turret. The revealed underside shows that the stuccowas applied over the shingles with a metal lath stapled to the shingles. Anornate radiator is purchased for the turret room. The radiators in the originalhouse were removed in the 1960's or early 1970's. Because there are holes andhardware for radiators still in the home, several will be restored.

14 June - Door between upstairs kitchen and turret room is framed forclosing. Baseboard is cut. Drywall is cut for placement.

15 June - Framing is completed on door between upstairs kitchen andturret room. Second baseboard is cut and both baseboards are installed. Drywallis trimmed and installed.

25 June - Turret tear down day. (Contractor) requests that thecoverings and weight of the top of the turret be removed. In one of the mostdifficult projects to date, the concrete coating is removed from the top of theturret. Metal lathe and concrete were applied to the turret in the 1917renovation. The finial was removed at that time but parts of the flashing arefound. What is revealed under the concrete, lathe and tar paper is an ornateroof, once painted in red and gold. Layers of round, diamond, square and drilledshingles are revealed. On the front of the turret the ladder is lag bolted tothe front of the turret and more concrete is removed. The entire top is wrappedin a tarp and plastic covers the tarp. The covering is held down with boards andsheetrock screws. The weight is removed and the turret is lighter. Some movementis noted when the weight is removed and the top is climbed on.

July 2000

18 July - RDI opens the floor of the turret and jacks up the turretstructure. The turret is stabilized. The floor is restored to within 1/16th ofan inch to level. We remove the nails from the birch flooring.

19 July - RDI restores the floor and removes the windows from theturret for restoration. The original birch flooring is restored to the originalconfiguration. Plans are made for copper to be used on the re-roofing of theturret.

29 July- First radiator is brought to the porch and old paint isstripped off. The radiator is painted white.

30 July-First radiator (white) ornamentation is highlighted in gold.This radiator will be put in the turret room.

old radiator
Radiator for turret, before...

restored radiator
...and after.

September 2000

2 September - Scaffold constructed in front of turret. This will beused for re-roofing the turret and afterward will be moved to the east side forpaint removal on the gable.

15 September - Copper roofing and copper nails purchased for turret.

17 September - More shingles are removed from turret. Nails areremoved from turret and the uneven top is cut with a jig saw. Trim board on thebottom of the turret is removed.

18 September - Turret roof is covered in plastic to protect it fromthe weather.

25 September - Finial copper is soldered. A peak is constructed ofplywood and 1/2 inch pipe.

26 September - Turret roof is uncovered and cleaned of nails. Eightwood strips are cut for the peak. The roofing around the turret is removed alongwith the old flashing.

27 September - The roof area around the turret is strengthened. Woodrot is removed and new wood is applied. Sheet steel is used next to the turretto strengthen valley. Peak is applied to the top.

28 September - Trim pieces are applied to the turret by building upthe curved area with 1/8 Masonite. Polyurethane foam is put into turret peak andis allowed to cure, peak is covered with duct tape.

29 September - Underlayment is applied to the turret. Foam cures andpeak is covered after carving expansion areas.

30 September - The last of the underlayment is applied to the turretroof. Peak pieces of underlayment are cut and applied. It is secured with ducttape until first of the red rosin paper and copper is applied.

May 2001

15 May - Peter Boll (carpenter) works on the turret windows. Theturret exterior is peeled away to view the inside. Bathroom renovationcontinues. Christine cleans up from the construction in the dining room.

re-roofing turret
With scaffolding in place, work progresses.
re-roofing turret
View from the top.
Work progresses on turret windows.
inside turret
Turret from inside.
turret detail
Rebuilt window frame. Design had to be modified later to include window stops.
Another view of window framing.

inside turret
Inside the turret, showing floor and window frames.

turret detail
Window construction detail

(Click on any picture for a larger view.)

June 2001

7 June - Peter Boll mounts the first window frame in the turret. Thefirst glass will be ordered for the frame. New turret window. The window will bedivided but a single piece of glass will be mounted. The piece at the top is forstability and will be removed after mounting the glass and installation.

9 June - Peter Boll continues work on the turret with more exteriorwork on window two.

12 June - The turret is taken apart. All facing boards are removed andthe window weights are removed. Ornamentation is applied to outside of facingboards as a test. Complete restructuring of the turret supports is done with2x4's trimmed and put inside the turret frame. Copper flashing will be put abovethe drip edge of the windows. Roofers are scheduled to begin in 2 weeks.

13 June - The first window frame is taken to glass manufacturer forsizing. Cotter Glass estimates the window glass will cost $300 for a largeframe. We plan to create one window in two sections, restoring an originalwindow. Ornamentation is applied to the exterior of the turret.

20 June - Heating vent boards cut and installed. Arrow glass has the34 inch radius glass needed for the turret windows. A visit to their shopreveals that curved glass the entire length of the window is not practical. Wewill manufacture a stop for the window.

23 June - Turret uncovered and shingles removed above windows.

24 June - Turret is stripped of all shingles. Tarpaper is applied toturret. Repairs are done to turret in the rotted areas. Caulk and insulationused on turret.

26 June - All turret window frames have center stops. Shingles for theturret are ordered.

27 June - Turret window is returned to Arrow glass for glassinstallation. Plaster is removed from the interior of the turret. The plaster isremoved because of the severe damage caused over the years. The cracks were asmuch as one inch wide. Lath will be removed and turret will be completelyinsulated.

October 2001

5 October - Ray drives to Olney, Illinois to Truvex glass for fourpanes of 34" radius curved glass. We put in two panes in the evening.

6 October - Another pane is installed but the window frame for thelast one does not fit. Pete Boll resizes the window.

8 October - The last curved glass window is installed. The turret nowhas windows and we light it up.

9 October - Turret exterior is caulked. Windows cleaned and interiorturret boards are evaluated.

10 October - Planning for the turret interior begins. The turretinterior will be restored to what it was in 1917. A few problems are presented:what to do with the ceiling/wall connection; what to do with the floor; how totreat the wall corners.

16 October - Turret is lit at night.

Other parts of this story: ~~ Buying a mansion ~~ Advice on tacklingrestoration projects ~~

All photos are courtesy of Ray and Christine Cunningham. For more detailson this project, visit the Cunninghams'Web site.

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