October 12, 2015

More Architectural Archaeology, Window Edition

After we moved in this spring, I was determined to put some flowers out to brighten up the landscaping, which for the most part consists of lots and lots of drab, overgrown evergreen shrubs. I got a couple of flats of impatiens because I didn't have time to get creative and there isn't a much more sure thing when you need bright, cheery, plant it and walk away for the rest of the summer. When I was planting up the little bed in front of the bay window, about where I have the mulch pushed back to in the photo, I struck concrete, going all the way across the bed. I wondered about it, but wasn't too inclined to investigate further at the time.
Early in the summer we had a couple of extremely heavy, sustained rains during which we found out just how not water tight our basement is. The ceramic block walls leak like a sieve and in places on the unfinished parts we witnessed water literally pouring in. The finished side has been waterproofed with a drain around the perimeter going to a sump, but on the unfinished side, the water just trickles across the floor at will. Bummer. (This robin followed me around the yard every time I went out to plant something. He had quickly caught on that I was good for serving up his dinner.)
We were checking up on things on the finished side of the basement when we heard a "drip, drip, drip" coming from behind a big mirror hung on the wall behind the bar. (It is worth noting here that all of the finishes on the finished side of the basement, like much of the decor in the rest of the house when we bought it, date back thirty years. And we currently have all of our yet unpacked boxes and unused furniture jammed willy nilly into this space. So when picturing, please include lots of knotty pine paneling finished an obnoxious orangey shade, the dingiest green no-pile carpeting and popcorn ceiling. These elements then packed full of chaos.) So we grabbed the ladder and a screwdriver, down came the mirror, and lo and behold, there was a window. The entire rest of the house besides the basement has the original leaded glass steel casement windows. The basement windows were all (we thought) replaced with glass block at some point. But nope, there behind the mirror was an original, same as above grade complete with oil-rubbed bronze hardware, but with steel muntins instead of leading. Outside of the window was completely dark, but the "drip, drip, drip" we were hearing had a hollow ring to it, so we guessed the window well had been covered over versus filled in. Eventually I made time to dig things up and see exactly what was going on on the outside. And sure enough, there below a bunch of dirt, plastic sheeting and chicken wire (ugh) was the iron grate, same as covers all of the other window wells, and below that the unfilled roughly five foot deep well.
Needless to say, after being covered up for the last probably quarter century, the whole thing was (is) in pretty bad shape. The window frame is extremely corroded on the outside which has resulted in a lack of support for the casements, which has resulted in their becoming misaligned, This along with disintegrating glazing has resulted in several of the beautiful frosted/textured panes of glass cracking. :( This all also means that it's been leaking for who knows how long which has resulted in all of the trim on the inside rotting away. 
The plaster above and below is also cracked and crumbling and the paint is peeling off the plaster walls to either side of the window behind the paneling. I tested for lead and while I got a negative for the outermost layer (a rusty red color) the residue left on the plaster from the innermost layer (a bright yellow), not surprisingly, tested positive. 
I consulted with a lead abatement professional who advised that we could safely clean up what was exposed ourselves and that as long as the rest stayed contained behind the paneling, there was no immediate concern. Our goal is eventually to tear out the paneling and see what condition the plaster behind it is in. If it is in good enough shape, we'd like to deal with abating the rest of the peeling lead paint (if there's a lot, with professional help), make necessary repairs, and leave it exposed. If it's in too bad of shape, we'll still abate the lead and then decide whether to go over it with drywall, paneling again, or some combination of the two. 
It is quite the conundrum to me why anyone would ever think it a good idea to cover up what amounts to a gaping hole in a basement wall with the scantest of materials and then just go on and pretend like it never existed. I have a couple of theories. That despite their plausibility honestly make no sense. 1. This window is directly across from where the television was mounted, so the window was covered up with the mirror to eliminate glare on the screen, and so there wasn't weird light shining out from behind the mirror during the day, the well was covered over too (one palm to face). 2. There was wiring run to install outdoor lights at some point, including two spotlights tucked into the dirt on top of the window well. So, the well was covered up in order to be able to place these lights and then the window was covered on the inside, because you know, who wants to look out at a big black hole? (gah, second palm to face). Like I mentioned, the other four windows were replaced with glass block. I am confident this was not a case of running out of cash to finish the job. I'm also confident the window must have been in pretty bad shape when it was covered up (as the others probably were, hence their being replaced). Thus my theories as to why it was just buried.

 So the bright side is, we have an original basement window! We are facing the fact that in the next five years ALL of the windows in the house need to be restored. The steel is rotting away at the bottoms of the casements and frames. And the leading is loose and cracked in places. When we had the aforementioned heavy rains, there was actually rain trickling in through the leading in spots. So it's easy to imagine how the cold winter air will do the same. As far as maintenance, there's been some patching at the joints of the lead cames, some glazing compound stuffed into the rotting bits, and a little paint applied to the inside and a LOT of paint to the outside (a good few of the windows are painted shut). So these beauties are in need of some tlc. I am starting to research companies and am having fun guesstimating what the price of this undertaking will be. 
In the meantime we had the iron grate over the well repainted.  I need to find some flower pots to stuff the lights in. And we have yet to figure out how to try to temporarily seal up the window. I excavated the concrete edge of the well (using an archaeology aka masonry trowel for a nice straight back wall of the flower bed) and stacked up some brick that was buried  holding the plastic sheeting in place to keep the dirt from the bed from washing back. Hopefully next spring we'll be tearing out those massive shrubs and doing some reworking of the front bed including some regrading.

And that concludes this edition of architectural archaeology. Whew. Let me tell you, this restoring old houses stuff, it's not for the faint of heart. I mean I love it, the glimpses into the past, the planning and problem solving, the dreaming of how it could be. But it entails quite a bit of stress too, that's for sure. Part of what's currently getting to me is the sheer quantity of work to be done and that both time and money are limiting factors at the moment. We don't have the time to diy things at a meaningful pace right now nor the money to contract very much of it out. And little fires keep popping up and needing to be put out that eat into the time and money we do have. And prioritizing what to spend these precious resources on can also be tricky, like trying to line up a whole bunch of moving targets. When I look around I can't help but see "the vision" and not being able to just execute it  at present can really bum me out if I let it. I am trying to keep perspective and remember that all this actually amounts to a whole lot to be thankful for, but I'll admit I've not been doing a great job at it. But we've just come off a very nice weekend with a good measure of both r and r and getting some things done. And we have family coming back in town this week to mind the little while we start to untangle the basement chaos. So onward and upward!