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Posts Tagged ‘Old house’

A few year’s back MacLean‘s magazine published a cover titled, “Lawyers are Rats” that had the brotherhood of the bar up in arms and denying that the erosion of civil society occurred as a consequence of their handiwork. Recently, Chistopher Hume, of the Toronto Star, has directed his attention towards the conduct of developers who, among lawyers, share a special place in the imagination of a damning public.

Toronto’s record of historical preservation is shoddy, spotty and replete with many missed opportunities. According to Hume, Toronto’s weak historical preservation laws are open to exploitation by inviting nefarious developers to behave like barbarians that broke through our gates.

Sentiments build and are invested in spaces and buildings and this is what the buyer of a historical home or an authentic industrial loft sees as value. Destroying a house with that value for the sake of domino townhouses means, as a buyer, your new digs have a dirty secret – and in Toronto, the neighbours talk.

John Todd, president of 1626829 Ontario Ltd (not a snappy corporate acronym meant to be remembered) has deliberately destroyed the historical features of Toronto’s 7 Austin Terrace – designed by John Lyle who is also responsible for Toronto’s Union Station and Royal Alexander Theatre. As the home’s current steward, to little surprise, John Todd seeks to demolish the historic house and throw up some townhouses.

Original Windows Being Ripped Out, Along with Portico Torn Off. From Macleans Magazine: http://macleans.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/december162009.jpg

Apparently, destroying the architectural features of your home is enough to duck a historical designation in this city. According to Hume, the laws of civilization could not anticipate the actions of Barbarians.

“Todd may be an embarrassment to the city, but clearly this doesn’t concern him. Why should it? Eventually, he will build his townhouses and people will buy them blissfully unaware of their shameful history. As long as his actions are not illegal, it doesn’t matter if they’re wrong.”

If only the objectionable professions did not share such close quarters…

There is probably more stigma to living in a townhouse built on the ruins of an important historical structure than Hume accedes. Cultures and meanings people have of their built environments endure once the destruction is done. Sentiments build and are invested in spaces and buildings and this is what the buyer of a historical home or an authentic industrial loft sees as value. Destroying a house with that value for the sake of domino townhouses means, as a buyer, your new digs have a dirty secret – and in Toronto, the neighbours talk.

Stepping foot inside a 120 year old  Victorian in Toronto’s Rosedale or Annex neighbourhood with anticipation only to find MDF mouldings, prefinished flooring, ripped out walls and ubiquitous pot lighting is a bit like being witness to a crime scene.

That being the case, most Rosedale and Forest Hill century home “renos” approximate barbarianism, if only the actions of the owners were more willful. Stepping foot inside a 120 year old Victorian in Toronto’s Rosedale or Annex neighbourhood with anticipation only to find MDF mouldings, prefinished flooring, ripped out walls and ubiquitous pot lighting is a bit like being witness to a crime scene. Toronto’s historic preservation laws have nothing to say about how one can best protect the interior features of a historic property. Newly gained professional salaries, an HGTV habit, precious little knowledge and big ideas combine to create interior designs that will  soon be abandoned as a signifier of pop cultural capital.

Perhaps, we are content with surfaces in this city, as the numerous “preserved” historic building facades would suggest. Eerie architectural artifacts lingering on a PoMo streetscape reminiscent of an old western sound stage or a New Urbanist “Main Street”. Though I suppose seeing at least some old brick in place is better than the alternatives.

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West Toronto Junction, or just “The Junction“, is unique in stade Toronto “The Good”. The Junction, named for the crossing of the Canadian National (CNR) and the Canadian Pacific (CPR) railways, was a booming prosperous late 1890s town with businesses breaking the bulk of the railway, lumber yards, stock yards, a flour mill, a foundry, and included factories that manufactured Nordheiner and Hienztman pianos, in addition to the Canadian Cycle Manufacturing company. Founded in 1884, the Junction later amalgamated with Toronto in 1909 and is currently celebrating the centennial since becoming part of Toronto.

Up until 1997, the Junction exercised local option in being a dry community after prohibition in 1904 (Fancher). At the turn of the century the area had the reputation for heavy drinking, street fights and prostitution that came with many young men migrating into the city for jobs in the new industrial factories.

The active West Toronto Junction Historical Society maintains an archive of Junction historical documents and photos, in addition to producing publications and historical tours of the Junction.

Some of oldest houses in West Toronto Junction date to the 1880s. Many Victorian Bay-and-Gables, identifiable by their tall narrow stance, octagonal or square bays, and steeply pitched peaks can be found closer to the heart of the original town. Larger commercial buildings line the central strip of the Junction along Dundas Street along with many church steeples, library and Mason’s Lodge that were and are a part of the City of West Toronto Junction. Later Edwardian homes were built as part of the expansion of Toronto suburbs located farther away from the “main strip” of the town.

THE LEADER & RECORDER’S: History of the Junction. Diana Fancher, Editor. ISBN 0-9686636-1-3

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Old windows are so worth saving and so much a part of a house’s style and character.

Unfortunately, many old houses have lost their windows after manufacturers claimed thermopaned windows offered such superior

Wood planing the bottom edge of the storm window

Wood planing the bottom edge of the storm window

energy effeciency. Civil engineers from the University of Vermont, The Vermont Energy Investment Corp., and the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (James et. al, 1996) presented evidence that the savings of removing old windows and replacing with thermopanes is so small, that it may take over 80 years to recoup the investment – longer if the original windows are properly maintained. A well-maintained original wood sash or casement window with storm window offers many other advantages, including the ability to abate a larger amount of ambient and street noise due to the larger distance between each pane. Original windows will also last a lifetime if properly maintained. This justifies repairing the existing window when needed. Sedovic and Gottheif’s report (at traditional-building.com) addresses many of the overblown claims made by replacement window manufacturers and the advantages of well maintained historic windows.

There are also security issues with “vinyl” windows, since they are not as strong as wood frames. Vinyl framed windows cannot normally be painted

Brass fastener

Brass fastener

either, further detracting from the original character of your home. This is to say nothing of the fact that once you are on the “replacement window” schedule, you can expect to have to replace the thermopanes once the gas escapes and the moisture infiltrates the unit resulting in a lovely “fogged window”.

I guess it is really not necessary for me to directly state my abhorence for vinyl windows, especially since the POs installed a couple of them. I can’t wait for a few of them to start “popping” so I have a reason beyond aesthetics to get rid of them and have custom antique sash windows installed.

Anyways, instead of replacing a wonderful old Queen Anne divided-top window with stained glass, I decided to repair it and have a custom milled storm window made by Hoffmeyer Mills located in Sebringville Ontario. The mill still uses the original machinery dating back to the 1870s. They told me that the storm was one of the largest made in recent memory at the mill and

Installed and in keeping with the look of the original windows

Installed and in keeping with the look of the original windows

their work, using traditional mortise and tenoned joinery, was excellent. Given the ambient noise of urban life, I requested that the window be glazed with 4 or 5 mm glass. The mill requested specific measurements and it only took a small number of runs with the hand planer to get a perfect fit. I used a simple compressible foam weatherstripping and antique styled brass fasteners and interior latch locks to hold the window in place. The result is no drafts whatsoever and I cannot even hear a delivery truck rolling by while reading the paper. Well worth it.

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I caught a bit of luck in that the POs (Previous Owners) did not remove the antique pine front door and replace it with a Big Box pre-hung door. Of course the door was layered in paint and the original antique mortise lock was replaced with a typical off-the shelf lock for a bored-door.  This is the modern way in which locks are fitted to doors, while antique houses would largely have had their doors fitted with mortise or rim locks.

The not completely unattractive, but completely inappropriate new lock

The not completely unattractive, but completely inappropriate track mansion lock

While the new lock was not completely unattractive (relatively speaking I suppose), it unfortunately meant that one of the POs bored a hole in the door, right through the mortise so that a modern lock could be installed. This meant that a antique mortise lock could not just be fitted into the door without repairing the hole that was made for the lock. Minor headaches, but not an impossible fix.

To fix the hole in the door, I had a local carpenter fix a “plug” to the diameter and width of the door. A bit of sanding, carpenters glue and wood epoxy and I had restored the door. Some chisel work removed wood from

Wood plug to fill bored door hole

Wood plug to fill bored door hole

the plug to restore the space for the mortise.

The inner workings of the lock are fascinating and it still has a solid and clean working mechanism.

The reason for all this was because I love house hardware and really wanted to make use of the antique bronze Eastlake styled mortise lock I picked up. It is a great piece of hardware made by Corbin in 1878 and matches some existing Eastlake hardware within the home.

Corbin apparently still manufactures door “furniture” (a UK and rarer Canadian usage) or hardware at a factory in Berlin Connecticut. The company started off as  Corbin Russwin in 1839 manufacturing plate locks.

The escutcheon plate has a swing key hole cover that is meant to prevent outside drafts. The inner workings of the lock are fascinating and it still has a solid and clean working mechanism. Of course, a deadbolt should be used for real “security”.

The anatomy of a mortise lock

The anatomy of a mortise lock

Luckily, the mortise lock’s face plate fit my mortise well. It is important to get the “back-space”, that is the distance from your door’s edge to the centre of the door knob accurate if you are fitting a lock into an existing mortise. Since the door was bored, I could re-drill the appropriate length backspace into the new wood plug, meaning I did not have to endlessly search for the perfect mortise lock with the right backspace for my door.

Eastlake Corbin bronze hardware

Eastlake Corbin bronze hardware

Now I just have to get rid of that Big Box storm door...

Now I just have to get rid of that Big Box storm door...

After fiddling with repairing the door, it was simple to install the mortise lock, the escutcheon plate, attaching the door knobs to the spindle, securing the set screws on the spindle and enjoying a moment of amazement that a downtown Toronto dude once living in a concrete box on the 22nd floor of “apartmentopia” could somehow pull it off! Houses are fun that way. It was amazing how easy it was once the door was repaired. It just worked the way it was intended to. No headaches trying to force new hardware or materials that were not intended to be a part of an old house.

And done.

And done.

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Knowing the style of the house and how to keep that character is not easy for someone making the transition from apartment or condo living.

Assuming they care, people with old houses are forced onto a learning curve that can be very confusing. It is easy to tell which neighbours care about getting an old house right. Knowing the style of the house and how to keep that character is not easy for someone making the transition from apartment or condo living. Not knowing a Victorian from an Edwardian house and coming to expect “maintenance” after a call placed to the property management company means, like most idiots, I did not have a clue.

So the point of the occasional post is to put out some answers to frequent questions, share some experience from other old house geeks and, hopefully, be of some help to the new home owner who feels completely overwhelmed by their 120 year old pile of bricks. Posts are mostly meant to organize info and resources for work done on our house and hopefully others may find it useful.

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