You and Me, Baby...

The Old House Web

By Nancy Platteborze

Editor's Note: Nancy Platteborze has just begun work on her 18th Century New England Colonial. She is sharing her thoughts and experiences with The Old House Web.


The dark days, literally. Note nailed to wall reads: "Nancy, I put some lighting in the kit., dining and 1st fl. bath. That should make 'camping' a little better. Dave."

After her first contractor left her in the lurch, a new contractor raced to provide electricity, heat and a weather-tight shell before the onset of the harsh New England winter.

Accordion lath, like that pictured above, helps date Nancy's house. The lath was formed by splitting a wide board from one end and then the other. It was then pulled open like an accordion. This late was used until 1840, when sawn wood lath, a real time and labor saver, became widely available.

In an attempt to rid the air of noxious smells, Nancy placed plants in all the rooms.

The first thing I did to my house was to have the old oil tank and the contaminated soil around it removed, and a new tank put in. As a condition of the sale, an exterminator sprayed borax on all the exposed wood to combat the powder post beetles.

I shoveled a mountain of coal out of the basement, hauling it upstairs one bucket at a time. A dirt mound in the back of the basement is where I found the original toilet, a red box.

I thought I would die either from fumes, or the weight of the buckets I was hauling, or massive head injuries from banging into the treacherous pipes every time I forgot not to stand up straight.

At the same time, my son, Jude, was taking down the little bit of plaster remaining in the stairway. It had been bashed in beyond patching.

This could've been done in anger, but the stairs are so narrow, most likely the damage was done by furniture being brought downstairs when the previous owners moved out. That was a shame because the plaster had been smoothly curved to hug the spiral staircase.

I don't know who would be able to do that kind of work today.

We filled the rooms with plants, to counter the residual oil smell. But this took a while, and the plaster dust was unbearable. I thought I was going to die.

Jude and I planned to live upstairs while renovating the downstairs, and then switch. The plumber spoiled that plan, but that's another story for another time.

Incompetent contractor or competent crook?

Cooking, at least in the winter, was done in the front fireplace. This fireplace still contains its original stove crane, used to swing simmering pots over the fire.

Like most houses of the period, it probably also had a summer kitchen. This was most likely a dirt-floored shed where cooking could be done in warmer months without heating up the main house.

The latest incantation of the summer kitchen was a poorly build shed, which we wanted removed and replaced. At the same time, we would replace the rotted sills supporting the back part of the house.

That seemed fairly straight-forward. But not for the incompetent contractor -- or competent crook -- I hired initially.

Old meets new: The foundation and framing for the new summer kitchen take shape. The walls to the main house get new -- weather tight -- sheathing.

He demolished the downstairs and summer kitchen. We were left with a gaping hole to the outside where the kitchen used to be, live wires on the ground, leaking pipes, a gutted downstairs (wainscoting, mantle, fireplace cupboard doors, pocket shutters -- all gone), and no electricity or heat downstairs.

He had pulled off one (long) side of the house's asbestos shingles and original clapboards, leaving holes big enough for the neighborhood cats to jump through.

And it was late October. In northern New England. Where it gets cold -- very cold. And wet -- very wet.

I fired the contractor.

From then on, my house and I were in the same boat. We'd stay afloat or go down together. These were very, very dark days.

Index to all stories in this series

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