Soapstone is a traditional material that’s been in use for thousands of years and is often found in early Colonial American homes.  The soft, metamorphic stone material, favored for its ability to withstand and retain heat, was used for fireplaces, hearths, cooking slabs, and water basins.

It still is today, thanks to Bucks County Soapstone.

With a beginning in the cabinetmaking trade, Bucks County Soapstone now focuses solely on crafting custom soapstone sinks for kitchens, bathrooms, and laundry rooms, and a few other specialty products.

Soapstone can be found all over the world, including here in the United States. Bucks County Soapstone sources their material from Brazil where the families of some current soapstone harvesters have been quarrying soapstone for hundreds of years, as well as Virginia here in the U.S.

One distinct advantage Bucks County Soapstone can claim is the use of a highly accurate digital templating device called the Faro Arm.  This instrument uses a handheld imager to trace the backsplash a sink will be fit against to get a truly snug fit, even against stone, tile, and other uneven surfaces.  This digital template, along with other measurements, are then inputted into a computer system that guides the saws that cut the soapstone slabs to shape.  Once cut, the soapstone pieces are then finished by hand by Bucks County Soapstone’s artisan craftsmen.

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Along with the truly custom pieces they can make, one of Bucks County Soapstone’s particular specialties is their ability to replace modern sinks with apron-front traditional soapstone sinks common in historic homes without any major cabinet work.  While the sink may have been a common occurrence, this particular specialty is not.

For more information about Bucks County Soapstone, the products and services they offer, and general information about soapstone sourcing and product care, visit their website at bcsoapstone.com.

 

You hire Reserections.  If you want to have any hope of actually moving the castle a thousand miles (without the post office, the moving company, and the airlines losing a few packages and offering you a complimentary Starbucks to say “Sorry!”).
Based in Ohio, Reserections specializes in documenting, marketing, and disassembling architecturally unique historical homes.  Supporting the idea that “The Greenest Home is the One Already Built”, disassembly and relocation protects the embodied energy of structures (you know, the energy that can never, ever be regained – so it’s like taking throwing away a tank full of heating oil you already purchased just so you can fill it with new heating oil).
They carefully disassemble the homes, preserving all the key components, interior framing, exterior stone facades, roof slates, and any other recoverable materials.  (And they ship to anywhere in the world, so you could have a castle resurrected on that remote island you purchased last week.)
Currently they are offering five stone mansions, all built during the American “Gilded Age” of the Post-Civil War 1800’s, they all reflect the Richardsonian and early Beaux-Arts Classicism typically seen in the homes of the wealthy during that time.

But exactly how do they do it?

Here’s how they disassembled and relocated the 1885 Kemper Castle from Ohio to Texas.  Built by an Ohio Industrialist, the 6,200SF castle has 23 rooms, 7 bedrooms, 7 full baths, and 6 fireplaces.  (Just a bit bigger than your average beach house.)

First, all the interior components that could not be recovered were removed… plaster, drywall, etc. – leaving only the exterior walls, framing, joists, studs, and flooring.  Then the slate roof was removed and the slate recovered and packed in straw for shipping.  After 120+ years, the extremely valuable slates showed very little signs of wear.







Once the roof was gone, it was time to remove the peak of the turret.  The turret weighed 7,300 pounds.
With the peak removed, the house is ready for the removal of the stone facade.
The house must be rebuilt with each stone in the same position, so each stone is numbered.  Note the tags on each stone.  The stones are identified by an alpha designating the location of the wall and a numeric designating the location of the wall and a numeric indicating its position.  Every stone in the house is numbered.
As the stones are removed from the house, they are renumbered with permanent markings and packed in containers built on pallets for shipment.  
When originally built, the stone facade was layered over and interleaved with three courses of brick and mortar which constituted the main structure of the house walls.  In addition to the surface stones, there were many monolithic stone components that were carefully removed, some weighing over 4,000 pounds.
  

The Final Stones Coming Down

The stones are palletized and trucked to their destination in Texas where the Kemper Castle will find a new home.  This flatbed load weighed over 40,000 pounds.
Finally…. a half acre empty lot ready for development and the Kemper Castle finds a new home in Texas.
Since I put last month’s e-newsletter to bed (obligatory you can sign up here) yesterday morning (hey, that e-newsletter is one wild party animal on the weekends), I’ve started researching this month’s snail-mail newsletter (another obligatory you can sign up for that one here).  We’re delving into the history at Independence National Park in Philadelphia since it’s fresh on our minds from our recently completed project at the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial.

Independence National Historic Park

The park captures quite well the beauty, freedom, wide open spaces, breathing room found in our country.

In my reading about the history of the park and its founding, I discovered that in the early 1900’s when the park was first proposed, the architects decided that the actual setting of Independence Hall wasn’t good enough and set about creating what they determined to be a “fitting setting” by clearing the half-block between Chestnut Street and Ludlow Street in front of the Hall.
So what’s so terribly notable about making it better when we preserve it?  Don’t we do that all the time?  It’s nothing new….
And that is the very point that struck me.  We do it all the time.  We set out to preserve a piece of our history, and along the way we make changes and judgment calls based on our aesthetic preferences.  We don’t always preserve the way something actually looked.  Sometimes what we are actually preserving is our own nostalgic idea of what it would have, should have, could have looked like.
In the case of Independence Hall, early proponents of its preservation recognized that the architecture that surrounded the traditional brick building stood in stark contrast to the iconic structure, what it represented, and what the public’s expectations were regarding its preservation.  So they tore them all down to “beautify” the area and set a proper stage for the feeling they wanted to create.
If we aren’t preserving the way it actually was, is it still historical preservation?  Or is it revisionist history?  What if we we preserve the way the building actually was originally, but disregard what it became over the years? And then I wondered…..if simply expanding historical preservation to include the experiences and perspectives of all the people who lived it (i.e., minority groups like African-Americans, Polish-Americans, and women) is often met with cries of “revisionist history!”, why wouldn’t an actual revision of history be met with such resistance? Is it so important to us to maintain the “reality” of history we have formed in our culture’s collective mind’s eye that we are willing to overlook inaccuracies in one area while we actively seek to create inaccuracies in another?  
And perhaps most importantly, what are we losing in our attempts to hold on?  
With the creation of a “fitting setting” for Independence Hall, we may have quite adeptly captured the “historical context and character” of the nearly 250-year-old hall that helped give birth to our nation – and there isn’t much of an argument against this, the awe that even mere pictures of the Hall inspire is tremendous something that is without doubt worth every attempt to hold onto.
But what did we lose?  When we cleared away the surrounding “buildings whose diversity is only surpassed by their ugliness” (as an architect noted in the early 1900’s) it is possible we lost a golden opportunity to  showcase the very point of our nation – embracing and valuing diversity without holding any single one as “higher”, “better”, “more desirable” than another?
“You can’t have your cake and eat it, too” might apply in the kitchen, but when you’re building houses, you sometimes can have both.  If you like timber-frame houses but can’t afford one, consider a hybrid.  Although a complete timber frame usually costs 10% to 20% more than a comparable stick frame, a small timber-frame structure integrated into a stick-frame house adds only a fraction of that cost.  Hybrids also are less complicated to build than full timber frames, yet they retain the dramatic look of timber-frame structures in visible areas.  These timber-frame parts can range in scale and complexity from a simple covered entry to an entire two-story addition.  In a typical situation, a timber-frame company such as mine is used as a subcontractor and provides the materials and installation; we also have supplied materials and/or assembled components for builders.  The following are some examples of projects we’ve built.
Entries and porches: A little timber goes a long way
A home’s entrance serves as a transition between outside and inside; it should be protecting and inviting.  A timber-frame entrance (see photo) satisfies these requirements and is relatively easy to build.  Typically composed of two trusses and connecting girts, the structure is lag-bolted to wall studs through the sheathing; the posts are anchored to a masonry pad or footings with noncorrosive standoffs and 1-in. dia. Galvanized-steel pins (see drawing).
Building a flat-ceilings timber-frame porch is also fairly easy (see photo).  The porch is built with a series of posts, girts and braces that support a simple stick-frame roof, which in turn ties the timber frame to the house.
Any number of styles is possible.  Entrances can be as simple as a single bent with a ridge, purlins and side girts that die into the exterior wall.  A large entrance can be even more elaborate.  Railings can be integrated into the posts, or the posts can be doubled up.  Whether on a porch or a deck, posts that look too feeble to support even themselves are the one thing that most diminishes the presence and personality of a house.  We always recommend that substantial posts and girts be used – say, 8x8s and 6x10s, respectively.  If these dimensions look too heavy, the beams’ edges can be chamfered or beaded for a lighter look.
Sprucing up the ceiling with a floor system
A timber-frame floor/ceiling system usually consists of a massive central, or summer, beam that supports the smaller joists (see photo).  The drywall then can be placed on top of the timbers, and a sound-deadening floor (usually layers of plywood) or a conventional 2x-joist floor can be built above, especially if ductwork is an issue.  For a wood ceiling, tongue-and-groove boards are usually the materials of choice, followed by a built-up floor or 2x joists.  Some builders may opt for a single layer of tongue-and-groove boards, but sound transmitted between floors can be irritating.
Opening a space with trusses
The most popular hybrid form is the timber-frame truss system (see photo).  Most often, trusses are placed in a large open space, such as a great room.  Heavy trusses generally can be spaced 16ft. apart if they’re connected with purlins (see drawings) spaced 4ft. o.c.  If the purlins don’t fit in the design, more trusses with closer spacing do the trick.  In such a scenario, tongue-and-groove ceiling boards run perpendicular to the trusses rather than parallel as they do with purlin connections.  It’s usually more economical to go with the purlins because fewer trusses are used.
Other considerations include roof pitch and span-loading requirements.  In terms of structural effectiveness as well as aesthetics, scissors, hammer-beam, and tied-rafter systems work better with steep pitches (12-in-12 or greater) and shorter spans (24ft. or less).  Whatever the choice, review  any design with a licensed structural engineer.
Incidentally, for whatever type of project that we’re working on, we have drawings sealed by a registered engineer because loading requirements can dictate not only the shape but also timber size and spacing.  The relatively low cost of an engineer’s time is money well spent.
Truss design can make a space feel contemporary and light, medieval and heavy, or just about anything in between, depending on configuration (see drawings), timber species, surface, and finish.  Ceiling materials also has an impact.  White drywall or pickled tongue-and-groove boards can help a tight area to feel larger; dark painted drywall or clear-finished tongue and groove can make a high ceiling feel lower or make a large room feel more inviting.
This article originally appeared in Fine Homebuilding Magazine and was reprinted with permission from Anthony Zaya of Lancaster County Timber Framers, Inc.


One of the most rewarding things about historic restoration and preservation is constantly learning about new things and new places.  Last week, we learned that we have a National Postal Museum in a former Post Office building in Washington D.C.

The National Postal Museum is a Smithsonian museum in Washinton, D.C.
residing in the old Post Office building next to Union Square.
Beautiful isn’t she?  Built in 1914, she served as the city’s Post Office for 72 years.  Now she houses the Postal Museum’s exhibition spaces, research library, and store in order to achieve their goal of  “preservation, study, and presentation of postal history and philately” with “exhibits, public programs, and research”.
And she’s every bit as beautiful on the inside as she is on the outside.
But the fact that our country has an entire Smithsonian museum dedicated to preserving our philately heritage wasn’t even the most mind-boggling thing we contemplated on our walk-through of this historic building.  The thought we kept getting stuck on (and have been ever since) is:

How did we go from features like the ornate, hand-crafted ceilings commonly seen in historic buildings like the Post Office building to fiberboard drop
ceilings customary in modern buildings in just a little over 50-60 years?

               
3. Replacing Original Wood Windows.
      Technology and architectural styles have shaped the design of windows throughout history. The windows are one of the few parts of a building that serves as both an interior and exterior feature, and they usually make up 20-30% of the surface area of a historic building. It is for these reasons that windows are an important part of the character of a building, so removing or radically changing them has a drastic impact on the building’s character.
      Conduct an in-depth survey of the conditions of windows early in the process so that options to retain and preserve windows can be fully explored. Many make the mistake of replacing windows solely due to peeling paint, broken glass, stuck sash or high air infiltration. These are not indications that the window is beyond repair.
      In fact, weatherizing and repairing doors and windows is often the most practical and economic maintenance plan. Also, repair window frames and sash by patching, splicing, consolidating or otherwise reinforcing. Repair may include replacement in-kind of parts that are missing or deteriorated. Do not obscure historic trim with metal or other material, strip windows through inappropriate designs,change the number, location, size or glazing pattern of windows.
      Windows that are too deteriorated to repair should be replace in-kind using the same sash and pane configuration. If this is not technically or economically possible, then use a compatible substitute material. Use historical, pictorial and physical documentation to replace windows with an accurate restoration window.
      Protect and maintain existing windows with cleaning, rust removal, limited paint removal and protective coasting on a regular basis to prevent deterioration.

Decline of McMansions

This weekend I read about the decline of McMansions – the average house size has begun to decline with the crash of the housing market. (The new home builders have really been hurt by the current housing market – they built and promoted the McMansion “lifestyle”).

I was reading about the housing trends and thinking about how this could help or benefit the preservation/restoration niche of the building industry when I started to read the comments section. I was glad to read about people making smaller spaces work when I read a comment from someone who had been sadly misinformed about older homes and energy efficiency. The comment is copied here:

Listed: MSN Real Estate’s daily blog – MSN Real Estate: “p.s. The modern McMansions actually use about the same amount of energy to heat and cool as our tiny premodern depression era house. Oh I can’t wait to update the horsehair board insulation and large *original* windows. We’ve learned our lesson about buying older unimproved houses, let me tell you….”

The preservation/restoration community has a lot of information about the truth of older building energy efficiency in print and on the Internet – but obviously we are missing a large number of older building owners.

The argument that a 900 sq. ft. house (referenced in her first post) uses less energy than a McMansion at 7,000 plus square feet doesn’t even make sense from a logic stand point and goes to show the marketing for the new building products is working.

A few facts (based on her comment):

  • Buildings built from 1950 through 1970 are the least energy efficient (actually the federal government has done studies on their older buildings and they consistently use less energy than their newer buildings).
  • Heat rises – it makes more sense to insulate the roof than the walls in an older home
  • Plaster is not insulation – it is a wall finish
  • It has been scientifically proven that well maintained wood windows with a storm window (either interior or exterior) are as energy efficient as replacement windows. The energy savings is $0.60 per year – the replacement windows will last at the most 30 years. Will the money saved balance with the amount the windows cost?

Last Saturday, Chuck and Lois went to lunch at the Preservation League of Staten Island to receive an ‘Encouragement Award’. Recognizing the work underway (but not yet completed) at the George W. Curtis house – we have completed the front facade restoration including the front porch, missing architectural details (aluminum siding installers love straight edges to work toward), and working louvered shutters. There will be a final award once the work is completed.

The Preservation League of Staten Island works to preserve Staten Island’s historic architecture. More information about their work can be found at: preservesi.org/plsi.htm.

The Hancock House

Historic Restorations recently built the ‘tavern’ door for the 1734 Hancock House for the New Jersey State Park Service. The Hancock House is one of just a few houses left in Southern New Jersey with the date in a decorative pattern on the gable end. Besides the architectural importance the house was the site of the March 20, 1778 massacre by the British troops to punish the local militia (stationed within the Hancock House) for not supporting the British Army when they came for supplies. Everyone within the house was bayoneted – Judge William Hancock died several days after the attack.

Williamsburg

Danielle and Jonathan spent three days in Colonial Williamsburg with Jonathan’s parents Donald and Diane. The picture shows Jonathan and his dad in the stocks next to the courthouse – they quickly learned that public punishment was not very comfortable. A lot has changed in Williamsburg since Danielle and Jonathan visited Thanksgiving 2001. They are in the process of building a new plantation close to the Colonial Capital of Virginia to show how the majority of people lived during this time period – they have a few buildings built (the smaller outbuildings) and they will have to wait until the coffeehouse next to the Capital building is finished being built (next fall) for the carpenters (using only 18th century tools) to build the main house at the plantation.

Jonathan also had a new appreciation for the hand forged rosehead nails that we purchase after watching the blacksmith make them one at a time. Having the time to step back in history appreciating the colonial architecture (noticing the similarities and differences depending on the region of the country) and learning more about the people that lived during our colonial period was a relaxing way to spend a warm fall weekend.