What really goes on in the life of an Old House contractor
House Calls | Michael Good
When you meet a contractor at the annual South Park Old House Fair, you get a rather narrow exhibitor-booth-sized picture of who he is and what he does. But restoring historic homes isn’t all glossy photographs, smiles and handshakes.
There is dust involved, some stinky chemicals, and those saws can make some noise. At the risk of scaring everyone away from my booth this year, I thought I’d give homeowners a behind-the-scenes look at some of the projects I’ve been involved in this year.
Shutter madness: At last year’s Old House Fair I was pleased to see two familiar faces in the crowd flowing past my booth. Darryl White and David Stephens own a Spanish-style house on a canyon in Talmadge. Several years ago I restored the wooden trusses in the living room and refinished some of the wood trim.
The house has a Mills Act contract, which reduces the homeowner’s property taxes. That’s the good news. The bad news is that it has a Mills Act “contract,” which stipulates what repairs have to be made and when. According to the contract, it was time to replace the wood windows, which were literally falling apart, and restore the rusticated shutters, which were in rough shape. The windows were being replicated by Shawn Woolery of San Diego Sash (619-944-8283) and installed by Heath Farrell (619-787-5814). As for the shutters, I ended up volunteering to restore them.
The house was designed and constructed by Allen Hilton to look like an early California ranch house that had been built by Spanish soldiers from Andalusia. We think of 1920s Spanish style houses as being something original, but they in fact were reproductions of something that existed mostly in the imagination of novelists and filmmakers.
Hilton was a licensed contractor and architect, as well as a photographer, cinematographer and film director. The same skills used in Hollywood set-building were employed by the guy who made the shutters: at least that’s the theory I developed after researching the techniques employed by Hilton contemporary Harry Oliver, a Hollywood art director who also designed houses and commercial buildings.
Because the house was historic, I couldn’t just slap some paint on the shutters. I had to find a way to replicate their rustic appearance. So I peeled back the layers of paint to find the original finish – a semi-transparent stain – and the original distressing, which resembled what I’d previously uncovered on the living room beams. I hauled the shutters around to lumber yards and paint stores to get opinions on how they were made.
I bought some cedar and replicated the pieces that couldn’t be saved, including dozens of hand-whittled wooden pegs. I tried a bit of everything to make the new wood look old: I burned it, chiseled it, hacked it, attacked it, scraped it and scrubbed it with a wire brush. Then I epoxied it, glued it, painted it, stained it, clamped it and screwed it back together again. I did everything but drag it behind a horse. Finally, I returned the shutters – some parts new, some parts old – to Heath, who installed them.
Sometimes when I’m done with a project, all I see are the mistakes. In this case, there were plenty of mistakes all right; but the question was whether they were the right mistakes, in the right place. From across the street, they looked right.
New wine in old wine skins: While I was in the middle of trying to mind-meld with Allen Hilton, I got a call from a client in a crisis. Six months earlier, I’d tried to rescue his five-year-old reproduction door, which had lost its factory-applied finish due to the fact that it was stained a dark color, faced west, had panels that caught rainwater and wasn’t protected by an awning or screen door.
But the low-cost option (cleaning and recoating the door) hadn’t worked. The old finish under the new finish wasn’t sound, and both layers had peeled off.
So I stripped the door, stained it a lighter color, and applied four coats of marine varnish. But I still didn’t feel confident. A day after I was done, the new finish already had water spots on it. I pointed them out to the homeowner.
“It hasn’t rained for weeks,” he said, as if the spots were my fault.
I got down and crawled around, looking at it in glancing light. There were water spots on the left side of the door. “Maybe dew is coming off the roof,” I said.
“It’s been dry for weeks,” he said.
“Maybe someone has been watering that plant.” There was a plant about a foot from the left side of the door. The leaves were green. And wet.
The homeowner was quiet for a long time. “I’m not saying anyone got water on the door. But I’ll be sure that it doesn’t happen,” he said.
“Again,” I thought. “Doesn’t happen again.” Thought it. But didn’t say it.
Modern Problems: Failure haunts my dreams: especially finish failure. That’s why scientists invented paint, in particular paint with pigment mixed in. Once pre-mixed paint got into the hands of the masses in the 1920s, the party began. If they couldn’t have alcohol, at least they could have enamel.
By the 1940s, paint had muscled shellac off the hardware store shelves and covered most of the formerly clear-finished woodwork in America. But clear-finished wood had a last hurrah in the 1950s, when mid-century architects availed themselves of the last of the West’s once-vast Redwood and Douglas fir forests in their quest to do two contradictory things: build inexpensive, standardized houses for the masses, and make those houses enlightened, artistic and stylish.
Craig Ellwood was a champion of this idea. He liked to think he was using commonly available materials in creative and compelling ways, which he did. For his only San Diego house, in the College Area, he used inexpensive tongue-and-groove fir paneling for the ceiling and eaves, creating one continuous surface that pierces the glass exterior walls of the house and blends indoors and out. To emphasize that effect, Ellwood coated the ceiling and eaves with thinned paint, applied like stain with a rag.
The problem is there’s no way to recoat thinned, wiped-on paint without making it progressively more opaque. Eventually, it will just look like plain old gray paint. That’s why, some 60 years later, all the ceilings and eaves in Ellwood’s only house in San Diego need to be stripped and recoated. The question is, with what? It seems to me that there ought to be some kind of environmentally friendly, not-very-smelly stain that can be covered with a clear top coat, which in turn can be recoated whenever necessary, maintaining that unique, artistic warm-gray finish that hovers overhead like a cloud on a foggy June morning. Is that too much to ask?
An old house restorer’s dream: This year’s Old House Fair home tour in South Park on June 15 includes a house I helped restore. The project was managed by Charles Tiano (619-840-3791), a real estate broker and designer who bought and rehabbed the house without knowing whether he was going to live in it or sell it.
Tiano was a purist about some items; the shingles, for example, which he had custom milled in Oregon and installed in the original pattern. With others, like the kitchen, he was more pragmatic.
Tiano ended up putting the house on the market, and it was snapped up by Scott Lawry and John Rogers, veteran old-house restorers who were looking for a turnkey home, because the project they’d just finished was massive: a 3,000-square-foot abandoned historic house in St. Louis, Mo. that was destined for the wrecking ball.
Lawry and Rogers were planning to move back when Rogers retired from the Navy, but they’ve grown attached to San Diego and decided to stay. To commemorate their decision, they decided to do some remodeling.
“We enlarged the deck and added a built-in outdoor kitchen with a grill, refrigerator, sink and a gas fire pit,” Rogers said.
Any advice for fellow old-house owners?
“There’s always going to be something unexpected,” he said. “And it’s always going to cost more than you planned.”
—Michael Good is a contractor and freelance writer. His business, Craftsman Wood Refinishing, restores architectural millwork in historic houses in San Diego. He is a fourth-generation San Diegan and lives in North Park. You can reach him at email@example.com.