Archive for December, 2008

Industrialism resulted in the wide availability of architectural millwork that was once only available to wealthy clients building the best of homes. Late Victorian or “High Victorian” millwork was the most elaborate and suited popular Victorian revival styles of the time including Queen Anne and Eastlake. Hull (2003) refers to the period 1890-1910 as the “Golden Age” of American architectural millwork. During this period wood was plentiful and cheap and there existed the right mix of artisans, craftsmen, and manufacturers that produced styles that were ornate, elaborate and expressive. According to Hull, the end of this great period of millwork followed the Depression era, when wood was no longer affordable and modern options, such as hollow core doors, became widely used, marking the end of historic millwork.

Many of the early millwork companies started off as lumber yards and success and growth was the result of industrialization and proximately to the railroad (Hull, 2003). It is probably no coincidence that my old Vic was built in 1889 by a local lumber barron whose business was located near the railway in the emerging industrial city of West Toronto Junction.

The Victorians did not consider most softwoods to be noble enough to stain and hence most pine interior trim would have been painted or artistically grained to reproduce the look of solid English oak.

Wood mouldings were produced from various hardwoods and softwoods with hardwoods, such as Oak and Mahogany, limited to the public rooms in grander homes. Characteristic of Victorian domestic culture, there was a strong demarcation between public rooms, that received the most ornate moulding, and the private spaces of the house that received more modest treatment (Webb, 2002). The ornate, thick and deeply milled door and window casings made mitre work more challenging for carpenters. Corner blocks, while seen as added ornamentation to contemporary eyes, were used to increase the efficiency of building wood casings and avoided highly precise mitre work (Webb, 2002).

The Victorians did not consider most softwoods to be noble enough to stain and hence most pine interior trim would have been painted or artistically grained to reproduce the look of solid English oak. Frequently the original painted graining is preserved under subsequent layers of paint. Patient restorationists can use methyl hydrate on a cloth to rub down to the original painted grain that is protected with shellac (Nigel, 1997).

Hull, Brent. (2003). Historic Millwork: A Guide to Restoring and Re-creating Doors, Windows, and Moldings of the Late Nineteenth Through Mid-Twentieth Centuries. Wiley.

Hutchins, Nigel. (1997). Restoring Old Houses. Firefly Books.

Webb, Kit. (2002). The Victorian House. London: Aurem Press.

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Take a walk in any urban neighbourhood and you are going to find old houses that have been “destroyed” in any number of ways. Here is my list of some of the worst offences, that is not meant to offend, but will. Feel free to disagree or add your own old house atrocity. This list, if followed carefully, is guaranteed to make your home the biggest eyesore on the block! These are, in current and somewhat crass parlance, “F-ugly” things… Adding up your point total will give you some idea of how much headache you are going to face resurrecting your old house!

Oh how it pains me that there are more than 10 Old House atrocities..

  1. Vinyl siding (10 points). Off gases and looks horrendous, but of course you never have to get off the couch to actually paint it. Be cautious of any home product that appeals to the Homer Simpson market…
  2. Vinyl slider windows (15 points). You too can transform a vertical antique sash window into a new vinyl vertical slider! Double the ugly factor if you actually replace vertical sash windows with horizontal vinyl sliders or one pane casement windows. By all means ignore some decent research on windows showing that a properly maintained antique window with storm window gets pretty close to the efficiency of a “thermopaned” window and pour tons of money into shiny new (unpaintable) vinyl windows. And when the thermopane eventually “POPS” and your windows clouds up with condensation, you can reach into your wallet and REPLACE your REPLACEMENT windows again! Everyone wins! Off-gassing plastic windows… I must be in old house atrocities hell. Funny how vinyl windows look like cheap moulded plastic! That is, after all how they are made!
  3. Poured concrete walk paths (4 points). Really, what is more beautiful than poured concrete with cat paw prints in it! Just mix and pour! No backbreaking placement of antique brick or cobblestone for you!
    It is like the sidewalk never ends all the way to my front door… Oh, how I am looking forward to that weekend with a jackhammer! Time I will never get back. I am biting my lip not to mention “interlocking brick”…
  4. Cheap paint (2 points). When selling a house, smear all the walls with the cheapest vat of paint you can find. Lovely. More reasons to hate your previous owner…
  5. Stone cladding (10 points). Turn your century Victorian or Edwardian brick home into a medieval stone castle… Seriously, if there is ANYONE still doing this, it is your civic duty to stop them from shaving $40,000 dollars off the purchase price of their home. Lovely in the early 1970s, “Angel-brick”, as known in Toronto, now looks horrid.
  6. Wall-to-wall carpeting in the century home (5 points). Cover those antique wood floors with plush off-gassing Berber carpeting. Develop chemical sensitives in just 3-6 weeks! Some people seriously cannot give up suburbia…
  7. Replace antique front door (5 points). Get rid of that old door and replace it with a pre-hung big box store special… fake window mullions and all! Lets all work together to limit the mistakes of suburbia…
  8. Abode parged brick (10 points). Right… because repointed well maintained brick work never looks good… Colourful neutral parging, on the other hand, is a real winner!
  9. Popcorn ceiling (2 points). Smooth ceilings in plaster are so barren compared to the stippled magic of the popcorn ceiling. Double your f-ugly points if your popcorn ceiling has fabulous glitter mixed in with it! Yes, by all means, cover your ageing plaster with cottage cheese looking crap. This is another dumb ass lazy quick fix for cracking plaster that aesthetically rewards you for years to come…
  10. Plastic fences (10 points). Of course, cedar or pine is so last decade. Instead head to your nearest Home Depot and grab a plastic fence! I always wanted a fence made out of pop bottles and, hey, you never have to paint it! Have we identified a theme? If it does not need to be painted, it is probably f-ugly rubbish.
  11. Tearing down the walls (15 points). Yes, of course, what do you do when you want to live in a SOHO loft, but you own a century Victorian home? You tear down those walls and then find that you live in a main floor bowling alley and the pizza boy can see clear to the backyard! Not to mention the travel of noise, echoes and lack of any architectural interest in your new main floor hanger.
  12. Paint your house hardware (2 points). Great antique hardware looks even better under as many layers of paint as possible… Kinda like your great aunt that does not know when to stop with the Max Factor…
  13. Remove Stained Glass Windows (15 points). Why would anyone want a 100 year old antique stained glass window when they could have a thermopane vinyl window. It just makes sense…
  14. Rip out Original Woodwork (15 points). Original Arts & Craft, Victorian or Edwardian mill work in antique heart-pine, oak or mahogany makes no sense when you can replace it with off the shelf Medium Density Particleboard (MDF) mouldings from your local Big Box home “improvement” store! Do you have any idea what a house would look like if you only used building materials from home depot… Track Mansions anyone?
  15. “Flash It” (15 points). If you are redoing the roof and you have weather beaten brackets, corbels or barge boards simply FLASH IT! That’s right, cover it up with easy breezy aluminum flashing and be damned the loss of historic character on your house proud home! Tragically ugly. Outwardly, these ugly houses usually have a cheap purchase price and it  does not take much to make the old girl look good again.
  16. Post-modern Pastiche (15 points). Create unique ahistorical housing styles by putting Victorian turned porch spindles on a Arts and Craft Mission porch, Victorian ginger breading on an Edwardian gable, Mediterranean wrought iron on your Victorian stoop, poured concrete majestic lions marking the gates of your Grecco-Victorian masterpiece! If you don’t know you live in a century home, or know a grand Victorian from an stately Edwardian or a cozy Mission Bungalow, then just throw in the towel and put a deposit down on your “deluxe apartment in the sky”.

The Damages

0-20 Points: Congratulations, your house rocks and it is in nearly original condition! You or the previous owners actually had a clue!

21-50 Points: You got some work to do, but it could be worse. With a little work, you can undo the deeds of idiots.

51-75 Points: You got a project on your hands, but it will be worth the effort and you will love the house in a way you could never look at a suburban track mansion…

76-100 Points: You are an old house champion taking on the idiotic crimes against your old house.

101-150 Points: You are an old house saint. Some years of work and investment will bring back your old house from its F-ugly abyss.

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Three-light Antique Pan Light

Frosted shades on Pan Light

Frosted shades on Pan Light

Perhaps the best part of bringing back an old house is cleaning up the antique lighting and finding good reproductions to replace bad looking newer light fixtures. Rewiring is best done by a qualified expert. Early fixtures would have been gas and many of these fixtures were electrified once a house was wired for electrical service. When electrical service was being introduced, some lights were made with electrical and gas fixtures since electrical service was not highly reliable at the time.

If you  have plaster ceiling medallions, you generally want to make sure that the light is either 2-3 inches wider or smaller than the medallion.

“Pan lights” are a common light choice that work well in bedrooms, while more ornate varieties do appear in the more formal rooms within the house. If you  have plaster ceiling medallions, you generally want to make sure that the light is either 2-3 inches wider or smaller than the medallion. This produces a triangulated field of view that is more interesting then when both the medallion and light are the same size. Usually made from stamped brass, pan lights are typically lacquered with brass highlights. Higher quality pans will have more ornate brass castings and details. Pans can vary from either two to even six light configurations and there is a wide variety of reproduction shades available in clear, etched, amber and art glass from antique lighting specialty suppliers. The balance of the shades on the pan looks great and very period within an old house.

Many companies are offering reproduction barn lighting that is a great way to get rid of boring big box outdoor fixtures in the backyard or around car parks with something unique.

Barn Lighting

Barn Lighting

A good collection of antique lighting within Toronto can be found at Eclectic Revival lighting located on Dundas Avenue in the Junction.

Art Nouveau Light with Faded Chromatic Highlights

Art Nouveau Light with Faded Chromatic Highlights

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It is always exciting finding old hardware in your house that has been forgotten under layers of paint. Intricate Victorian designs in cast iron, brass and bronze give a house an incredible sense of character and it takes very little effort to refinish these antique pieces of your home.

Paint strippers can be used to quickly remove layers of paint. Make sure that you are familiar with the recommended precautions when removing old paint with a high likelihood of containing lead. Consult Health Canada and the Canadian Housing and Mortgage Company (CHMC) for recommended ways to remove lead paint in your home. Trisodium phosphate (TSP) dissolved in water can also be used to soften paint on larger items, such as heating grates, if left to soak overnight. Heating hardware in a utility pot of hot water to loosen paint is, perhaps, the safest, and most environmentally friendly, way to remove paint. Small tools can be used to remove paint from intricate detail.

Choosing the right antique or reproduction hardware will depend on the style and era of your home.

Strippers will not alter the aged patina on the metal and, in keeping with an old house look, items should not be highly polished when remounted. Some people may choose to highly polish items and lacquer them to maintain a bright finish. Lacquer may also be useful to prevent oxidization on cast iron items that are subject to a great deal of moisture, such as hinges on bathroom doors.

Antique hardware is often not any more expensive than good quality Victorian reproductions. Lost-wax cast reproductions of original designs can faithfully reproduce the intricate details and designs of Victorian hardware. Reproductions, however, lack the patina and soft finish of hardware that has been in service throughout the life of a century home. Reproductions can be matched with antique hardware that may have been damaged or has unfortunately been removed.

Choosing the right antique or reproduction hardware will depend on the style and era of your home. The final look will be far preferable to what passes for house hardware at the big box stores…

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