Sunday, June 23, 2013

A Wood House: Drama and Definition

The wooden part is the oldest part of the house. The concrete additions of a kitchen and bathroom were done later  in the early 1900's. It is the wooden section that needs the most repair. Next week I meet with my carpenter who will be assisting me to figure out how much we can save and what absolutely must be replaced. This dilemma between renovation vs restoration has been a struggle and you have to ask a lot of questions, because in my experience, most carpenters will tell you to take the whole thing down and start again. They will tell you it will look better, last longer, that they don't like mixing new with old, that it will be more work, more expensive, and they will look at you like you are crazy when you ask them the same thing four times sometimes in the same way, sometimes in different ways, to see if you will get a different answer. The funny thing is that older materials were of higher quality, so you definitely want to try to save as much of it as possible. So it's funny when a carpenter tells you to throw 100% out when it's really 10, 25 or maybe even 50% that is damaged. And also funny enough (hah, hah, do you hear me laughing?) the older materials are also made at different measurements. So the older 4x4 beams are not really 4x4 beams but 3 and 1/2  also making it difficult to match old with new.  
18B East St, Christiansted. The oldest part of the building, built in the late 1700's.

At this point however, it looks like most of the supporting vertical beams have been compromised. You can see this in the picture from all of the horizontal beams that have been placed in between to try to brace the building. Despite this effort, it's sinking in some areas, leaning in others and so we will have to take up the floors, jacked up the part that is sinking and check the other supporting floor boards. In this process I will be able to ascertain how much of the original floor I can keep, if any, it's in pretty bad shape. The ship lapped wood (horizontal in blue) is also rotting. However, I will go board by board and try to save as much of this as possible too.  

This will be the most costly part of the renovation. Wood although 100 years ago was cheap, today it's quite expensive and in the St. Croix, many people have moved away from building wooden homes because of the upkeep, pests and fear of hurricanes.  But more than that, I think that wood houses have also because become synonymous with poverty. They remind us of an era many would prefer to forget. Yet what I find interesting is that many of these houses were also usually built by the hands of its inhabitants. They are handcrafted, which in our modern world of manufacturing and prefab is becoming less and less common. 

I also find it interesting the words we use to describe wooden houses and how they denote different ideas. Shack, cottage, cabin, chattel house, board house, row house, beach house are all typically made of wood, but they all mean very different things. I'm not sure which one of these words best describes this house. It's obviously not a beach house or a cabin. I'm working on it to no longer be refereed to as a shack :). It's not a board house which typically means it was made with plywood. And although slaves lived there at different times in it's history, it's not really a chattel house either as it was owned by freed slaves in an area designated for freed slaves to live.  So...I suppose it's somewhere between a cottage and a row house. Looking forward to seeing how it feels and fits on this continuum when it's done.

My amazing and always helping mother, Claudia Belle, helping out in clearing up the yard. We are trying to make it a little safer for the kids to be around.