Monday, May 23, 2011

Who built the ark....Noah, Noah...Who built the ark....Brother Noah built the ark

I don’t know about all of you but the staff here on The Hill have commenced with plans to build an ark to save us from the deluge of rain that has, well, rained down upon us like some biblical curse the past couple of days. Luckily the restoration workers have so many tools they can’t keep track of them so we’ve been secretly pilfering them and other building materials while we work on the ark. Of course stealing supplies from the restoration workers and building an ark has prevented me from writing a truly informative blog this week. No sill talk, no window talk. (Did I just hear somebody cheer?)

What I do have for you are two interesting finds that the staff has made as a result of the restoration work. The first find is not new to all of you. If you recall in an earlier post of mine, “An architect, an insulation guy and an insulation guy’s cousin walk into a museum…,” I mentioned that roman numeral numbers were visible on the wood beams at the attic ceiling level, however, when I tried to locate them I came up empty handed. Well I’ve got good news. Since #3 and #4 had to remove some of the planks of wood on the floor in the South Parlor to access the sill from the inside, they exposed the floor joists which run perpendicular to the sill. Lo and behold, there are roman numerals clearly visible, carved into the wood at the end of each joist.  Hopefully you won't get motion sickness when you watch this!

And now the second find – which in my opinion is awesome! As I hope I’ve made pretty obvious in this blog, window restoration is being carried out on every window in the house. A couple of weeks ago the staff made an exciting find in the bathroom. (Let me take a moment to be clear, we weren’t all in the bathroom together at the time of this discovery because that would be weird.) The window coverings have been removed from the window in the bathroom, fully exposing it from top to bottom with nothing to block the view outside (which, as you can imagine, is awkward as it is the only functioning bathroom for the staff to use and it is located on the first floor of the house). It drew our attention solely because the bathroom was so much brighter without the coverings in place. That would have been the end of the story if not for the curiosity of one Education Director. The window is original to the 1787 construction of the house, a 12 over 12 paned beauty tucked away behind our supply cabinet in the bathroom.

Just behind the cabinet with cleaning goods on top....

...lurks one of only two of the original windows of the house.  
The Education Director decided to take a closer look at the window itself and the yard beyond one day and we’re lucky that she did. Because she found a name scratched in the glass – “Eliza Van Renʃselaer.” Below the name is the failed attempt of said Van Rensselaer to write her name.  When you watch the video be warned - it is difficult to see the signature clearly and it was impossible for me to get a good still photo of it.

This finding blew us all away as not a single staffer had been aware of the existence of the name on the window (this includes two staffers who have 30 years and almost 20 years under their respective belts as HCH staff). We think it belonged to Elizabeth Van Rensselaer, born in 1770, daughter of Philip and Maria Van Rensselaer. She was married in 1793 to Peter Elmendorf with whom she had two daughters, Sarah and Maria before her untimely death in 1798, only weeks before her father Philip died. A narrow stairway it is unknown if this stairway was original to the house) leading to the second floor once passed through this space only to be transformed into a “water closet,” or bathroom in the second half of the 19th century.

Hidden behind the pipes is a thin door which used to lead to the back staircase that once upon a time stood in what is now the bathroom.
In an 1852 inventory of the house the room was listed as a pantry. Its exact use in the 18th century is unknown as is whether the back staircase was present at the time of the house’ construction or was added in the early 19th century. But if we imagine for a moment that the staircase did exist, or that it was a simple pantry out of the way from the eyes of all but family and servants - you can just imagine a 17-year old Elizabeth Van Rensselaer scratching her name into the glass, leaving her permanent mark behind perhaps in a fit of teenage rebellion.

Now – it could be that Elizabeth didn’t scratch her name into the glass at all. Maybe an older or younger sibling was ticked off with her and decided the best way to get her in trouble would be to mark up Dad’s brand new window in his brand new house with their sister’s full name so she would get the blame. That’s probably what my kids would do.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Let There Be Light!

I was distracted at work last Wednesday – distracted I tell you! It wasn’t because the Curator was drooling coffee out of the side of her mouth during morning coffee time (she blames the coffee drool on the lasting effects of Novocain from an early morning dental procedure but I have my doubts). And it wasn’t because of the numerous nameless, faceless painters constantly ringing the bell and marching (two by two, hurrah! hurrah!) through the house on their way to paint the windows and exterior storms. I was distracted by a strange light I noticed flooding into the South Kitchen just outside my office door. The strange, unexplainable light was everywhere. Was it some ghostly manifestation of Philip Van Rensselaer? Was I about to be touched by an angel? Was an alien trying to make contact with me? Or was it something much more fantastical and unbelievable. I got up to investigate and could not believe my eyes. The strange light was not celestial, supernatural or extraterrestrial in nature – it was plain old sunlight flooding into the room.  For many, many moons now this particular window in the South Kitchen has been blocked by sheets of cardboard and a window shade for added measure. No light dared to push its way through. Walking through the South Kitchen is impossible unless every over head light is switched on or one runs the risk of disappearing under heaps of packing material never to be heard from again. But there that window stood, bare as the day it was born, nothing to stop the bright spring sun from shining on in.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the...outside world.

I was drawn to it like an insect to a death by electrical zapping. I stood in the warm rays of the sun, soaking up my quota of Vitamin D for the year. I felt an absurd desire to stretch my back and curl up with my tail wrapped around me in the rectangle of sun cast on the wood floor, but I couldn’t do that, A) because we were open for public tours that day and people might stare and B) I’m not a cat. For the rest of the day, every time I stepped out of my office, I took a moment to enjoy the light and warmth. But as I was leaving at the end of the work day (with big plans to get a tan in the South Kitchen the next day), I found that the window was boarded over. Goodbye sunshine, hello rickets.

Hey!  Where'd my sunshine go?!

Why did this happen? I wanted answers. Luckily I was able to “take” #3 aside (I tied a loop in a nylon rope, whirled it over my head a couple of times and let it fly – lassoing #3 around his neck when he was getting out of his car and dragging him in through the door I had the foresight to remember to leave open), and ask for an explanation. Once I removed the rope from around his neck, #3 proved to be very cooperative in answering my questions.

Answering those questions involved an inspection of #3’s sill work outside…on the scaffolding, which is about 8 feet off the ground. Not high enough to kill or seriously maim one who falls off the scaffolding – but high enough to really hurt and humiliate a person. I played it cool, stepped from the relative security of the floating front staircase over a gap that could rival the Grand Canyon in width and onto the relative instability of the metal scaffolding. In stark contrast to my awkward movements, #3 scurried across the scaffolding, as lithe and mobile as a monkey in a tree. He was practically hanging upside down from his tail and working on the sill in the time it took me to put one foot on the scaffolding. Once I reached #3, (patiently eating a banana while he waited for me) I crouched down, trying to get my center of gravity as close to the ground as possible.

Sure, it doesn't look that high but wait till you're the one standing on top of it.
This is where I almost lost my life stepping from the floating staircase on the right to the scaffolding on the left.  I'm not exaggerating!
The sight that met my eyes made me want to lay flat down and cry. That dirty rotten sill! Literally! #3 launched into a discussion of the sill which eventually lead to a (sort of) explanation of the South Kitchen window light. #3 has been very busy. In addition to fitting exterior storms to the windows in preparation for the safety glass to be installed back at the shop, he has been working steadily on the sill. The first thing I saw was the middle section of the sill on the southern half of the house. I could see the epoxy that #3 used to fill in the parts of the sill where he had cleared away the rotted wood.

You can see the layer of epoxy on the sill.

This is the epoxy that #3 uses in the sill repair.

 He explained that after the initial layer of epoxy, he would sand down the surface and then go over the whole section again with a clear coat of epoxy, after which he will take long timbers to sandwich against the sill. Following this, more epoxy will be added and final white oak facings will be placed against the sill to ensure that the sill’s width is built back out to where it originally was once upon a time before dry rot set in. Also long bolts will be screwed into the wood layers for extra reinforcement. The long pieces of timber used for this part of the work are the infamous white oak featured in a post last fall. This white oak, as all of you avid readers may recall, has to have a low moisture content. The white oak to be used at HCH has a moisture content below 15%. #3 explained that one cannot epoxy wood with a moisture content above 18%.

The wood pieces shown here above the stone foundation (and in between the clampy thing) are the subsequent layers of wood added to epoxy layers over the repaired sill. 
This large piece of timber shown here will be another layer in the epoxy sandwich that will build out the sill to where it is supposed to be.

This is one of the bolts that will be used to stabilize the sill.

The section of sill located closest to the southeast corner of the house was mostly gone. #3 was clearing out the area located directly above the stone foundation as a mason was due to arrive the next day to create a level foundation surface upon which the sill could be built back up.

Just beyond #3's leg you can see the southeast corner where most of the original sill is gone.
A close up of the southeast corner.  #3 was to clean out the debris to prepare for the arrival of a mason who would level off the top of the stone foundation.

This left us with the section of sill located in between the two aforementioned sections. This section of sill was much worse than previously believed. On the surface, the sill appears to be in good shape. It seems viable and solid. It was only when #3 took some core samples of said viable, solid sill that the truth became known. When #3 drilled into the sill, he discovered that certain sections were completely rotten deep inside. The rot is much further in the wood than was expected. #3 will have to chisel out the rot in the wood, then dutchman repair it with epoxy, and add newer pieces of wood in the manner described above
Drill baby, drill!  #3 drills for core samples.
This is a piece of the sill that #3 picked up for a little demonstration.  Now you see it (kind of, I know, I know, it's blurry)...
...Now you don't!  Ta-daaaa!  No, #3 does not have Superhero powers. He just has the ability to crumble rotted wood with his fingers.   (Or does he have superhero powers?  He's like any old "Clark Kent Restoration Worker" with his hard hat and glasses on, but when he removes them he seems like a completely different person, doesn't that make him a superhero by default?) 

While this sill work is being carried out – the weight of the nogging and posts rest upon a stabilized wind brace which is attached to the c-beam anchored parallel along the front façade of the house. A tension rod is affixed to the wind brace and is holding up the weight of a ton of bricks while sill work is carried out.
This is the wind brace that is helping to keep the nogging, etc. from falling on #3's head.

All of these repairs to the sill are done with the expected outcome of stabilizing the sill and making it viable to bear the weight of the post and beam structure once more. Up to this point, as you may recall, the interior posts have been carrying the weight as the sill has withered away from rot. Viewing the sill from inside the South Parlor is particularly fascinating as #3 and #4 have removed the floor boards that abut the front wall of the house. You can see almost an inch of separation between the floor joists (which run perpendicular to the sill) and the sill. Because of the sills deterioration, it started to turn out and pull away from the joists. #3 explained that the effort to bring the sill flush against the floor joists again would involve a LOT of work, invasive work, and instead the gap will be left as is.

The gap between the joist and the sill is almost an inch in length!

But what does this all have to do with the window and the sunlight? In order for #3 to access the middle section of sill I just described, he had to remove the top frame of this particular basement window. With that wood removed, I got a very good look at the condition of the window. There was a whole lot of rotting going on. The same for the bottom frame under the window. That brief afternoon of sunshine was only while the window was removed and the space was boarded up to protect the interior of the house. It doesn’t seem fair that my moment in the sun was all too brief. But I guess if I was really feeling sun deprived I could always walk outside to get my solar fix or convince the Director to purchase me a sun lamp for my office.

You were my sunshine, my only sunshine, you made me happy, for about a day....

Monday, May 2, 2011

Stop Pulleying My Leg....

The past couple of weeks I have been a lady of leisure, traveling around this great country to see how the little people live. That might be stretching the truth just a bit. I haven’t traveled all around the country just to Western New York and then to the Gulf Coast of Florida. However if you count all the states I flew over between Newark Airport and Tampa Airport then you can see why I made the claim that I did. It’s not important where I traveled or why I traveled. What’s important is what was constantly on my mind while I traveled. Some of you may have just hazarded a guess - ‘Freedom from the four kids.’ You will be surprised to find out that, no, that wasn’t the thought constantly on my mind. No more guesses? Boy, you’re really going to kick yourself when I tell you the answer...window pulleys.

The secret is out. While I have not posted anything in the past few weeks, I have been thinking constantly about window pulleys which are the topic of this week’s post. As you are all aware, the restoration workers, #3 and #4, have been steadily working on reinstalling restored windows in the house and thus far, almost all of the windows in the house are back where they are supposed to be. As of last week, they were preparing the exterior storms for installation. Lots of wonderful window work going on. So what’s the big deal with window pulleys? Nothing much I have to admit, except that the window restoration work has allowed all and sundry to take a look at the existing pulleys before they are covered back up with the windows, not to be seen again until the next time the museum undertakes a restoration project. Which will hopefully be a lifetime or two from now. This post is just to take a moment and smell the roses, or, more appropriately, view the pulleys, before I dive into exterior storm installation and sill work for my blog post next week.

#3 and #4 have come across three different types of window pulleys in use in the windows at Cherry Hill. The first type is a wood pulley. The pulley mechanism which the cord for the sash weight winds around is made of wood. The wooden pulleys are the oldest found in any of the windows at the museum and are most likely the original pulleys.

Okay - so this is not a picture of a wooden pulley.  It is a picture of a string attached to a wooden pulley that is no longer visible now that the restored window has been reinstalled.

Another type of pulley found in the HCH windows is iron. This is probably stating the obvious but the pulley mechanism is made of…wait for it….iron.

An example of iron pulleys.

The third type of pulley is the strap pulley. #3, in trying to help my simple mind understand, compared this pulley to a measuring tape. The strap is pulled out from the pulley mechanism like measuring tape is pulled out. And while it might not snap back into place as fast as a measuring tape can, the strap does retract back into the pulley.
The small hinge for the strap is just visible in this picture.
A more easily recognizable stra.p pulley
This is a window in the dining room.  The original pulleys were removed and replaced with "newer" salvaged pulleys.

This is one of the pulleys removed from the dining room window.  You can just make out that the label notes this pulley is "For Upper Sash."
The other pulley removed from the dining room window with its strap pulled out.  Note the resemblance to a tape measure.  What you can't see are the grease marks these pulleys leave in the acid free tissue wrap.  There is a distinct odor of some sort of mechanical grease.
One of the dining room window pulleys.  As you can see - it's patent date of October 30, 1888 gives us a rough estimate of when this pulley was probably installed by the family. 

#3 and #4 will be using whichever pulley system is already in place when they reinstall the restored windows.

And when you’re talking about window pulleys, you can’t forget about the sash weights. (Actually I did, until just now.) Basic window mechanics work on a weight and pulley system – you just never get to see the objects themselves. #3 showed me one of the older sash weights used in the windows. When I asked him, (with stars in my eyes, impressed with his seemingly magical knowledge), how he knew its relative age, he explained that he could guess the age of the lead sash weight given its crudely shaped, rough edged appearance. No machinery used to produce that weight my friends!

Lead sash weight

Obviously the different pulley systems represent different points in the house’s history when window work was undertaken by the family. It’s neat to see, for instance, the window in the Director’s office which has the iron pulley system as well as the strap pulley system in place.

It's a little difficult to make out but in addition to the strap pulley, there is also an iron pulley towards the top of the picture.

When I was looking at that particular window it reminded me of my husband's home improvement projects at my own house. He occasionally comes across something that makes him pause, scratch his head and ask, “Why did they do that?” For a moment looking at the window in the Director’s office, I wished that I could part the veil of time that separates the present from the past and ask those ghosts of Cherry Hill past the really important questions like, “Why didn’t you remove the old pulley system before putting in a new one?” And of course, “Where did you bury the money, the Director really wants to know.”