Needs T.L.C.

The Old House Web

By Nancy Platteborze

Editor's note: Nancy has found her "fixer-upper" and convinced the bank to loan her the money to buy this 18th century Colonial. She's closed on the sale. Now, she's at the point of no return.

Needing a "little" tender loving care

I'm yours...renovate me

I have to laugh looking back at the ad where I first saw my house:

"Cute starter home -- needs a little TLC."

Just a bit -- like sills, walls, ceilings, a kitchen.

The flavor of the ad reflects how this house had been perceived for a long time: A run down house, badly designed for modern people, its history forgotten under asbestos siding and bad renovations. A house that ought to be torn down.

A badly constructed 19th century summer kitchen

The selling point was, alas, "all new windows." All new windows, which I plan to replace in time with ones more faithful to the style of the house.

The house is a single-wide, two story 18th century colonial, specifically a New Englander, (also called a New England Large) in the historic seaport of Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Cellar and garden privileges for life

Shortly after buying the house, I went to the Essex County Register of Deeds office. There I found a sales transaction dated 1839 between William Gunnison, blacksmith, and his wife Hannah, and James Post, mariner, and his family.

The sale of the house carried the condition that Anne Gunnison would continue to live in the front chamber with cellar privileges for her wood and garden privileges for her vegetables for the rest of her natural life.

We've since dated the house to at least 1775, and continue to research its history.

I confess to being rather obsessed with Annie and cannot wait until our library, which is being renovated, is open again so that I can try and find out more about her.

A quirky version of a post and beam

Some of the 12 to 17" wide sheathing can be seen through some new framing

Excavated from the cellar, an old croquet set and an indoor privy.

The fireplace in "Annie's Room."

Nancy's son Jude removes the covering from the fireplace to reveal the original stove crane, still intact.

This house is small for a New Englander, with a central chimney and narrow winding staircase running alongside it. It's a quirky version of post and beam construction, clearly built from trees, obviously without power tools.

The walls were solid wood, 12-17" wide and at least an inch thick. It's on a stone foundation and has settled right down onto the ground -- well, the north side still has about a foot to go!

There's a basement with a dirt floor and an attic. The lean-to in the back was added as a summer kitchen in the 20th century.

A small landing sits at the bottom of the stairs opposite the front door. The parlor is to the left in the front, and the dining room is to the right. Originally this house had four rooms - one on each side of the chimney downstairs and up. Each had a fireplace.

Hardware marks in the rough wood which frames the doorways tells us there was a door to each of the two downstairs rooms. Possibly there was also a door at the bottom of the staircase, a sign of conservation of space and heat in the mind of the builder.

The front parlor that was Anne's living quarters after her family sold the house would have been the formal room for receiving guests. We found evidence of this in the fireplace and chimney cupboard that we uncovered behind the wall.

The cupboard door and mantle are gone, but in the firebox there is stucco-like material over the bricks. If you rub it, you can see that it was painted it a beautiful red.

The original stove crane is still intact.

We've found bits of four layers of flowered wallpaper and bright yellow wood trim that contribute to the feminine feel of this room. Markings on the wood to the left of each window tell us that interior shutters once slid on handmade waxed tracks between the horsehair plaster walls and the wood.

On the other side of the chimney is the dining room, which would have been where most of life got lived, and where the mariner and his family lived.

There's too much lumber stacked in that room for me to open up the wall where that fireplace would have been. I can't wait to see what's in there!

The exposed bricks in the dining room chimney.

Broken off bricks mark the side where there would have been a beehive oven for baking. When, if ever, I can afford it, I'm going to have it rebuilt. The fireplaces on both sides will be rebuilt. This means I have to do something about the oil burner that vents into the chimney.

This room had 17" wainscoting. Sadly, only pieces of it remain.

The cellar door is on one side of the chimney. It was clearly moved from somewhere else because the raised panel is on the cellar side and the flat panel is on the dining room side. The iron pull is cast, not hand forged.

Here we found three men's pipes -- one wooden and two corncob.

I can picture the mariner sitting in front of the fireplace smoking his pipe.

There is a definite masculine feel to this room, though I know he had a "wife and heirs." I wonder if that terminology meant no daughter. I also wonder if the Gunnison's leaving Anne behind had to do with her being an unmarried daughter.

Mountains of coal and dirt

The brick arch in the basement

The very steep and narrow main stairwell. The attic steps are even steeper and narrower.

The basement has a dirt floor and crumbly stone walls. There are telltale signs that the basement was used -- still some white paint in places, marbles, the beautiful brick arch.

From settling, the ceiling is now only five feet high, making it tough to work in here. I dug a mountain of coal out of the front and a mountain of dirt out of the back. I want to dig in one spot by the foundation to see how far down it goes. I'd like to bring it down enough to be able to stand up on a concrete floor -- and have a workshop.

If it doesn't go down very far, of course I won't compromise the foundation.

The attic

The attic stairs hold a clue that this house was built either by a shipbuilder or mariner. They are narrow (everything was built to maximize use of space) and very steep. And there are other clues -- the spiral staircase, wooden ship parts in the ceiling of the dining room.

The door is original tongue and groove, two boards wide with a layer of stucco-like paint over stain. On it is the original hand forged straight bar latch that tapers in thickness to a thin clover-like-shaped finial on one side and the indentation of a thumb latch with spade shaped finial on the top and kidney shape on the bottom.

Adorable, but four feet!

Twentieth Century inhabitants of this house cleverly squashed a bathroom between the chimney and two bedrooms upstairs with the tiniest clawfoot tub I have ever seen -- four-feet long.

Adorable, but four feet!

We enlarged the unusable bathroom just a little, encroaching on the back bedroom, my son's. The most recent inhabitants dealt with the lack of bathroom space by sticking a toilet in the front parlor, which they had turned into a bedroom.

The upstairs bedrooms are pretty straightforward. The front room (mine) has been renovated; the back room (my son's) still has plaster and an original thin door, raised panel on one side, flat on the other.

Fireplaces are blocked behind the walls.

Neighbors told me that the floor in the front bedroom collapsed. The previous owners replaced it, cutting out the original floor joists and doing an ugly job of putting a new floor in. Both rooms are carpeted wall-to-wall, and we can see from the gutted downstairs that the back bedroom has the only original floor left in the house.

Whatever that floor is, I will put in the rest of the house.

Index to all stories in this series

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