Saturday, August 23, 2003

'Patients' receive old-home remedies

Preservation specialists could prescribe treatment for what ails your house

By Joy Kraft
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] Debbie and Rick McDermott found an inspector for their 1903 home.
(Michael E. Keating photos)
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Mike Walsh had bubbling plaster.

Diane Curfiss was stumped by a mystery wall.

Debbie and Rick McDermott had "trees" in their basement and cracks in their plaster.

All were past patients at the Building Doctor Clinic, a program of the Ohio Historic Preservation Office in Columbus that helps owners of old structures (public or private, pre-1950) make smart decisions about repairs and improvements.

Cincinnati's two-day house-call this year from the "doctors" is scheduled Thursday and Friday at Sharon Woods Visitors Centre Auditorium.

"Doctors" on call for the 7 p.m. Thursday session will be preservation specialists who will commiserate about old-house problems, give restoration prescriptions and answer questions. They will schedule several "patient" site visits Friday. (Anyone interested must call 800-499-2470 to register for the seminar or a site visit).

"It was so comforting to have experts who knew their business about restoring old homes. We could identify with so many of the problems they talked about," says Debbie McDermott, who attended the experts' last visit to Cincinnati with her husband and mother.

What: Building Doctor Clinic seminar and site visits for pre-1950 public and private buildings by the Ohio Historic Preservation Office of Columbus, co-sponsored by Historic Southwest Ohio and the Hamilton Country Park District.

When: Seminar, 7 p.m. Thursday. Site visits 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Friday.

Where: Sharon Woods Visitors Centre Auditorium.

Cost: Free.

Reservations: (800) 499-2470. (Site visits could be booked by now).

She and Rick have been working on their 1903 home near Milford, purchased by her grandparents in the 1940s. It has housed three generations of her family.

The McDermotts' salvage efforts began in 1994 with roof repairs and rebuilding box gutters to stop water damage, replacing the porch and repainting the home the original color after discovering it under layers of gunk. So intent were they on an accurate restoration, they sent away for new plaster moldings to match those left on one viable porch column.

"We had so many things we needed to fix. And we were novices at it and really needed someone who was honest and could tell it like it was," says Debbie.

Worried about the foundation and hesitant to proceed with interior work until their fears were calmed, they attended the seminar and consulted with the "doctors" during a basement-to-attic tour. To their relief, the basement and foundation, with its creek rock walls and supports that are 4-inch-diameter trees from the property, passed muster.

[IMAGE] Mike Walsh has water damage at Clovernook Center's Cary Cottage.
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(The experts did admit they never had seen tree-beams before.

"We felt so much better" after the consultation, Debbie says. "I thought, 'Oh man, here is someone not in it for the money ... just a professional restoration person who can honestly tell us what shape the house is in.'

"It wasn't like a fly-by-night company coming in. These people had nothing to gain. We knew he was honest, and that meant the world to us," she says.

The seminar gave the couple valuable tips on stripping paint and replacing woodwork, which they are using now, as well as repairing plaster, preserving fixtures and using tried-and-true restoration techniques.

They got a little history lesson to boot.

"In the attic there's an old wire running from one end to another," says Debbie. "Apparently, at the turn of the century, that's where the lady of the house would hang clothes to dry. I had suspicions about what it was from talking to the three granddaughters of the original builder years ago. The building doctor said it was very common."

No history lesson required

Mike Walsh didn't need a history lesson.

The trail of Cary Cottage at Clovernook Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired in College Hill is well documented, from its beginnings as an 1832 farmhouse and home of poets Alice and Phoebe Cary to its reincarnation as a home for Cincinnati blind women by Florence and Georgia Trader, a project bankrolled by William Procter of Procter & Gamble in 1903. Since then, it has been a gift shop, and now a museum restored with 1830s furnishings on Clovernook's grounds.

Water was bugging Walsh, the vice president of human resources in charge of facilities.

The two-story farmhouse, built from bricks made on site, had been restored in the 1970s, when the structure was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

But the building continued its decline. The stone and mortar foundation showed signs of water damage and deterioration of the brick, "mostly noticeable right above the stone foundation and under the brick in the basement," according to Walsh.

"We checked a lot of things we could do, caulked windows, checked gutters, downspouts and the part-metal, part-wood shingled roof."

Nothing helped.

A visit by the building doctor fingered the turn-of-the-century paint job as the culprit.

"Some time in its history, they suggested, it had been painted with some kind of paint that water could not pass through, instead of the common whitewash," Walsh says. "The paint sealed in the moisture, and the building couldn't breathe. The only place the moisture could go was into the interior walls, and that's why we were seeing the plaster bubbling up."

Unfortunately, the solution was not easy: Let the paint wear off or remove it chemically without damaging the brick. Sandblasting was out because of the softness of the homemade bricks.

Since the "doctors visit" a few years ago, the building has new windows and rebuilt gutters, and owners are in the process of gathering prices for the suggested exterior treatment.

They've made a follow-up appointment this year.

"We are going to give them a lot of background and confirm that we are on the right track and get advice on what to put on it after the treatment," Walsh says.

A wall of mystery

The experts at the Ohio Historic Preservation Office are good at diagnosis, but some old homes carry mysteries even they can't explain.

Diane Curfiss started as an amateur in restoration and became so intrigued she returned to school to earn a certificate in historic preservation at the University of Cincinnati.

Her Loveland home, which she describes as a "two-over-two" frame farmhouse, was built in 1860 by a doctor. They knew there were add-ons in 1899 and the 1950s, but Curfiss and her husband, Tom, remained intrigued by the house they bought in 1999.

"The pieces just didn't fit," she says.

"There's something different on the stairway from the first to second floor. The wall is narrower than it should be for the period. There was some dead, unaccounted for space we couldn't figure out," even after dipping into the dining room wall and discovering a fireplace.

"Something had been altered, my guess was in 1899. I was stumped," says Diane.

So was the building doctor.

"I was hoping she'd have a different take on it than mine. But she didn't.

"She couldn't figure out what happened either, so we talked about restoring the downstairs bathroom."

Nevertheless, Curfiss remains a fan of the program.

"The seminar, especially, is useful for anybody with a house, and not necessarily an old one. Some problems addressed would be useful for people with a home five years old."

Resource and camaraderie

Just finding other people in the same situation makes the program worthwhile, says Susan Cruse, former director of the historic Promont House Museum in Milford, another program alum.

"It was extremely helpful to us. We couldn't rush right out and do the work. We needed money. But they gave us the right questions to ask," she says.

The building doctors say ...

Judith L. Kitchen gives these tips in her book, Building Inspection Guide and the Old Building Owner's Manual:

 Check roof, attic, upper stories every six months for leaks, looking for separations, bulges, signs of moisture.

Inspect gutters and downspouts during a hard rain to make sure they are working properly. Make sure water is running away from foundation.

Open basement windows in dry season and let air circulate. Feel walls for dampness.

Look for loose or damaged siding, paint failure, gaps between boards bigger than 1/4 inch.

Caulk windows and doors to prevent water from entering cavities.

Check painted surfaces for peeling, cracking, alligatoring. Look for clues to original techniques and color.

Assess condition of exterior features, especially porches, brackets and other decorative trim.

Don't use abrasive or high-pressure techniques to clean brick or masonry. Sandblasting, for example, removes the hard outer surface of the brick, exposing the softer core to the elements.

Don't use water-repellent masonry coatings. They can trap moisture inside.

Don't seal basement windows. You'll trap moist air inside and prevent proper circulation, leading to a damp basement.

Don't plant bushes or vegetation close to the foundation. They prevent sunlight from reaching the ground, thus allowing moisture to accumulate.

Don't use blown-in insulation unless you install a vapor barrier, because moisture can accumulate, saturating the insulation and damaging walls.

Don't leave unused gas pipes connected or live ends uncapped. Have gas lines professionally inspected.

Don't allow bare wires to remain exposed. Have old wire inspected.

Read up on restoration

Caring for Your Old House: A Guide for Owners and Residents (John Wiley & Sons; $19.95) by Judith L. Kitchen. Advice on research, repair and maintaining older homes with a checklist and tips.

Houses and Homes: Exploring Their History (Altamira Press; $19.95) by Barbara J. Howe, Dolores A. Fleming, Emorly L. Kemp and Ruth Ann Overbeck. A guide to researching the history of a house through written, oral and visual resources.

How to Complete the Ohio Historic Inventory (Ohio Historic Preservation Office; $29.95) by Steven C. Gordon. A guide to Ohio architectural styles and building types with a visual glossary of architectural and building terms and detailed information on conducting historic property surveys and recording properties on Ohio Historic Inventory forms.

Old-Building Owner's Manual (Ohio Historic Preservation Office; $9.95) also by Kitchen. Care, repair and improvement guide with pull-out building inspection guide.

The Secretary of the Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation and Illustrated Guidelines for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings (National Park Service; $16.50) by W. Brown Morton III, Gary L. Hume, Kay D. Weeks and H. Ward Jandl. Discusses standards with illustrated examples of recommended and non-recommended treatments for older buildings.

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