Thursday, October 15, 2009

Guest Blog - Eighteenth Century New Hampshire Farm House

I have a friend that lives in an amazing home.  It is over twice as old as the Tiny Bungalow and he has done a ton of work on the it.  Some would say that it has done quite a job on him as well.  Either way, I thought it would be interesting if he could write a bit about his place for the blog.  So here it is, the first "guest blog" at the Tiny Bungalow.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. 
Please let us know what you think.  - Chris

My wife Beth and I live in a house built some time between 1790 and 1809. According to local lore the original structure was built in 1790 and we suspect it was then renovated in 1809. We are pretty sure it was not renovated again, until 2006 when we bought it. Like any old New Englander the house is quirky, solid, and sometimes odd smelling. It is a grand old amalgamation of pine boards, chestnut joists, and hemlock beams with bark still intact. The old timber frame structure was built without nails originally though they were added throughout the years. We have pulled out many hand forged nails as well as many early machine made cut nails. Some of the walls are just massive planks of old growth pine, hard as a rock and nearly knot free. The floors are the same. Right angles in doorways are a rare thing in houses of this age and ours is no exception. Much of the window glass is original, with the bubbles an the swirl pattern still visible. It has a history.

Living in a house from this period takes some minor adjustments. Ok let’s be realistic, major adjustments. First of all when the house was built no accommodations were made for bathrooms, plumbing or electricity. Privacy was unusual and most bedrooms would contain as many people as would fit. Attics were intended as extra sleeping areas, not storage. Basements were minimal and used primarily to keep the house stable and secondly as a root cellar.

Long cold winters in New Hampshire could easily be lethal so houses were designed with survival, not comfort in mind. Ceiling height over seven feet was a liability. A fireplace only puts out so much heat and there is no point in heating the air above your head. Rooms are not large. Windows were small and only placed where they were needed. Generally speaking this means the southern and eastern sides of the house. This house is oriented to receive a lot of light in the winter but to be mostly in shade in the summer. The incredibly damp basement provides a wonderfully comfortable (but somewhat stinky) form of Colonial air conditioning in the summer.

In houses of this period most living was done around the hearth. Cooking was generally done from dawn to dusk in the fireplace or in smaller beehive ovens built in the side or back. These fires never went out. In the winter the hearth also provided heat but in the summer it could become very uncomfortable. The wealthy would relocate all cooking to a “summer kitchen” in another building but the average family had to just deal with it. Though the ambience of a fireplace is priceless, its efficiency as a source of heat was terrible. Cooking was uncomfortable and frequently dangerous so when the wood cookstove came into use in this area around the 1850’s most home owners happily dismantled their massive central chimneys in favor of something much smaller and better suited for a wood stove. Fireplaces became a sign of poverty and homeowners were embarrassed to have them in public rooms. And unfortunately my status obsessed predecessors removed the chimney from our house in favor of a small wood stove chimney. I have no idea when they did it but I keep finding piles of very old bricks scattered throughout the property. Evidence of a central chimney is still there. There is a massive stone arch in the basement designed to support the weight of the chimney and there was a large hole in the roof where the original chimney would have gone.

So how do we adapt this 18th century room into a modern kitchen? I’ll freely admit that I am a freak for this historical stuff. My wife and I are members at Sturbridge Village, an 1830’s historically accurate village in Eastern Massachusetts. And I am not ashamed to admit that I occasionally get the urge to don a tricornered hat, grab my musket, and groove, colonial style. I don’t actually do this, I just think about it. So again, how do we have a usable modern kitchen in a historical house? Well we need a fridge, not an icebox. Though open hearth cooking is really fun, I don’t want to do it every day. And besides the fireplace is unfortunately long gone. But I’d rather cook with gas anyway. In addition we heat with a wood stove and the thimble or attachment point is located in the kitchen. And oh yeah we like electrical light. We like it a lot.

 So here are a couple pictures of the kitchen when we bought the house.

What you can see-
  • Very low ceilings
  • Excessive use of knotty pine
  • Weird wood stove chimney pipe angle
What you might see-
  • Awful 1950’s style (and not in a a good way) florescent tube lighting
  • Impressively ugly formica countertop
  • A relatively nice and new sink
What you probably can’t see-
  • Terrible little mustard yellow 1970’s (and not in a a good way) apartment sized range
  • A refrigerator

The kitchen, on the day we looked at the house

The kitchen- Beth & the realtor meet the previous occupants dog

And I had some rules. First of all, I do all the cooking so the kitchen is mine. MINE! And my wife completely agrees with this- she doesn’t want to have to cook. I’ve cooked in some awful kitchens on some awful stoves, and I’m done with that. I wanted to see what the good stuff was like but I’m not a gadget guy. I have a coffee grinder, an espresso maker and a 50 year old Hobart mixer. That’s all I need.

So rule number 1- no gadgets. Who needs an electric can opener? If the power goes off and you want beans then you are screwed. I don’t use microwaves because I remember hearing back in the 70’s that they make you sterile. Though I don’t plan on having children, I still don’t want to be sterile. Now I know you would probably have to be doing some lewd things with your microwave for it to make you sterile but that’s just the way I feel. I also don’t like lights or digital timers on stoves but I’m jumping ahead of myself here. Falling partially under this heading is the dishwasher, I don’t like them. There will be no dishwasher.

Rule number 2- no island. Sure an island may have been useful but it disrupts the flow of the room, essentially breaking it into two rooms. Besides an island creates more space to stash too much crap which leads into...

Rule number 3- minimal cabinets. I know, I know all kitchens are supposed to have cabinets covering all wall space so you can store everything you own in the kitchen. I just never liked the way that looked plus I want to have a more minimal kitchen. I don’t need endless amounts of storage because I don’t want endless amounts of stuff. Besides the walls in this house are bare planks of old growth pumpkin pine- they are beautiful and I don’t want to cover them up.

Rule number 4- Screw the classic triangular work space kitchen layout, you know the one where the sink, the range, and the fridge form corners of the triangle. I know, this is supposed to be more efficient but hey I’m not at work- maybe I don’t want to be efficient. I’m in no hurry. Besides when we purchased the house the refrigerator was in the pantry. To be honest the fridge is hideous and best hidden anyway. The pantry is unheated (as is any room in this house when the door is closed) so I keep telling myself that the fridge uses less energy in the winter. I know, that’s probably not true but so what. The pantry is still an excellent place to store food.

Ok so you think I’m a little freaky now, maybe a little obsessive? Well didn’t I already tell you that? Seriously, I can’t believe Chris is willing to post this. Thanks Chris, you’re the king.

So the first major purchase had to be something practical. We needed to buy a wood stove. Just like the previous occupants of this fine house, we didn’t want to freeze to death. And heating with wood is amazing. It just feels somehow different. Plus you get to see fire and smell smoke, safely. So after a lot of research we discovered a local company who makes soapstone wood stoves called The Woodstock Soapstone Stove Company. We went to take a look and we dug what we saw. They make stoves based on historic patterns from the 1860’s. In fact these original stoves were manufactured in New Hampshire. But these stoves are not the least bit old school- these are high efficiency catalytic stoves. That means that when operated correctly they produce a secondary combustion, burning the smoke. This means much less pollution plus more heat. Who wouldn’t love that? I know I do. And yeah that’s right I am a bit of a tree hugger, even if I do cut them down and burn them. I grow more to replace them. One thing about these stoves is that they are heavy, like boulder heavy. Before the stove was installed it was sitting in the kitchen. When my macho guy friends came over I would challenge them to try and budge that baby. Not a chance. Many a man’s delicate self esteem was shattered by a visit to my kitchen.

But back to visiting the Woodstock Soapstone Stove Company- when we were there the wonderful people who work there gave us a tour of the workshop. It was amazing to see how this things are made and we got to pick out the exact stove we wanted. Since they are all made of stone they have visible variations in texture, grain, color, etc. We found the one we wanted and made a deposit. Then they took us to see some new projects they were working on. They were starting to build soapstone sinks and countertops. Oh we got all excited and despite the reality that we couldn’t afford it we ordered a countertop as well. In reality it wasn’t that expensive and I’m glad we did it. It’s gorgeous. Come on over some time and check it out. Sometimes when no one else is around I find myself absentmindedly rubbing it, petting it, caressing it... whew. I once licked it but I don’t want to talk about that. I know, I’ve gone too far. I’ve heard that before.

Come on, isn’t this pretty?

So without really trying we had a sort of design scheme for the kitchen- soapstone. It is a light grayish green with darker veining and flecks of more reflective stone. It has a truly seductive feel. But it wasn’t so much the color we wanted to run with it was the materiality. Stone, wood, and metal was all we wanted visible in the kitchen. No plastic, no formica or linoleum, nothing uhhh unnatural.

Soapstone countertop

The next move was to get rid of the apartment sized mustard yellow 1970’s gas stove. It was ugly and it was dirty. It seemed so dirty in fact that I swear our food tasted funny. And it barely put out enough heat to cook anything. So it had to go. And when it did we made an event of it. We dragged it out into the yard, we considered shooting it but fortunately good sense prevailed. We threw it in the truck and took it to the dump, an event fully documented in photographs.

So we needed a new stove. I went all crazy and decided I needed the best of the best. Like I said before I am a liberated modern man and I can cook. Oh yeah I can cook, I can saute just about anything, I can bake some fine bread, and I even know what braising is. So naturally I needed a professional stove with no less than six burners. I did a lot of research and found that Wolfs and Vikings are certainly pretty but don’t pump out the high BTU’s of a truly professional stove. The stoves that really rose to the top were Bluestars. These are the true work horses of the high BTU home cook stoves. Why do I need so many BTU’s you may ask? Well I didn’t know I did need that many. But after reading about them online I realized that I could not live with less than 19,000 BTU’s. Do you know what you can do with that many BTU’s? You could deep fry an avocado. You could incinerate a marshmallow in seconds. You can have a flame six inches above the grate. But more usefully you can sear foods to the point of developing a delicious crust, where the sugars in the food essentially crystalize on the surface. This is why your home made stir frys seem bland compared to those you’ve had at a restaurant. But let’s be realistic- we couldn’t afford one of these yuppie status symbols. Not even close. Besides once I realized I couldn’t swing the cost I realized that the stainless steel look was not right for our kitchen. Perhaps an antique stove? Yeah I could get behind that, they look awesome. Some have those sexy, long legs and exposed manifolds. So we checked out a few, read about the pro’s and con’s, and started thinking that maybe this isn’t the way to go. We don’t want to live in a museum. But one day when I was screwing around at work found our dream stove on craigslist. And it was within 30 miles of our house! And I just got my tax refund! Check it out and tell me this doesn’t make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

1917 Vulcan Commercial Stove

Am I right? Doesn’t that copper look gorgeous? And you haven’t even seen it all shined up yet. Personally I think it looks best a few days after a good polishing but that’s neither here nor there. We fell in love. This little vixen winked at me and I just lost it, we had to take her home.

Now I’m not going to bother telling you about how I miscalculated on the size of this monster and how we had to take apart the door jamb to get it inside the house but rest assured this stove can never leave this kitchen. Never.

So I did my research and found out that Vulcan makes some kick-ass commercial stoves. But I could not find any information on this model from 1917. If any of you know anything please drop me a line.

This baby was meant for our kitchen. The gleaming copper compliments the oiled pine boards without competing with the soapstone. And it is a purely functional stove, no timers, no bells & whistles, no digital readouts. And did I mention the BTU’s? I don’t know how many it puts out, I had to loosen up on all that. But I have singed the hairs off my arms a few times. In other words it was perfect.

So lets put it all together and think about color. The knotty pine had to go. I don’t like it. Aside from the fact that old growth pine is not knotty, it just didn’t suit the character of the house. Maybe if we were building a rec room in a 1970’s ranch... but no. So in the late 1700’s kitchens were considered work spaces, not public spaces. Early in the century they would have been unpainted but by 1790 they would have been painted with whatever was cheapest. Chances our this would have been a dark reddish brown color called Oxblood, made from cheap iron oxide pigments. We wanted to incorporate this color into the kitchen but we also wanted to bring more light into the room. We needed more light in the room, it gets dark in here in the winter. There was going to be some white. Now I lack the ability to imagine things different colors, plus I always feel like painting over wood grain is a dirty, sinful thing to do. And I don’t mean that in a good way- I have a hang up about painting over wood. So eventually we decided to paint over the newish wood, the wainscoting, the boards above the sink, etc. We also decided to paint the joists and the summer beam in the kitchen. In this case, the reason was that they were originally painted with white wash. In some cases the wooden planks on the walls were wallpapered but we didn’t want to try that.

Summer Beam with 1809 carved into it. We suspect this was the last time the house had been renovated.

So finally we painted, we painted the floors oxblood red and painted the newer knotty pine cabinets and the newer wood on the walls white. The ceiling and exposed beams were also painted white. After living with it for a couple years we feel that though we love the color of the floor but wonder if a lighter color wouldn’t bring more light into a relatively dark kitchen, perhaps a sage grey/green? Not this year that’s for damn sure.

So that is it for a rough summary of some of my experience renovating this kitchen. I didn’t mention tearing out an absurdly low drop ceiling because it was just too nasty. You don’t want to know what we found up there. I also didn’t mention the plumbing and electrical problems we found or the insect damage we found in one of the structural beams. I didn’t mention a lot of things because frankly I don’t want to remember them. But rest assured we took care of them. This really is our dream house and Beth and I often speak about how lucky we were to find it. The work is not nearly done but we have time.


Bryan said...

Love Love Love the post! Thanks for sharing this great story - sounds like the house was as lucky to get such sympathetic owners as they were lucky to find such a treasure. Living in the South, where almost all historic house designs were meant to maximize cooling, its very interesting to hear the rationale that directed building to maximize heat. I also greatly admire (and try to follow myself) the owners' commitment to "gently rehab" the house - and I'm in awe over that woood-burning stove! Great read - thanks again for sharing it!

Brian said...

Thanks Bryan.
There is a great book called "Where We Lived" by Jack Larkin that goes into detail about differences in approach to design as well as overall building philosophy in different parts of the country. It is a fascinating read.

Anonymous said...

love your setting the boundaries on cabinets and islands. they suck. your stove really is a winner, congrats, i LOVE it. said...

I'm biased, yes--but I absolutely loved reading about the house!! (and learned a couple of things too)
Next chapter please... (Brian and I found original stenciling in the room above the kitchen.)

Beth (co-owner) said...

I'm biased, but I loved reading about the house!! (and learned a thing or two as well),
Next chapter please.....(Brian and I discovered original stenciling in the room above the kitchen.)

Beth (co-owner)

BNSKI said...

Do you have any photographs of the hearth support? I am researching this for our own home, we have something similar in the basement, (photo here,

Thanks! Def. have to follow this blog. Ours is at

Brian said...

BNSKI- I just checked out your site. Very cool, I wish we had documented our renovation like that. I do not currently have any photos of our heart support. But I can get one & send it to you. It is similar to yours but made with a combination of old bricks& field stones. It is solid. Interestingly I built the hearth pad under the woodstove out of old bricks I found in piles on the property. I only used the oldest, most irregular ones which I assume were from the original chimney.

Tiny Oak Park Bungalow said...

I like the comment about letting go of the notion that you have to have a magic "work triangle" in the kitchen design. It is a common misunderstanding about kitchen work as it relates to layout and it seems to be something that many people think the "have to do". The notion is an old one, when 3 meals a day plus breads, desserts, and canning were being prepared, from scratch, by a housewife. It was determined to make her life more efficient in the kitchen. I don't know of any home where this lifestyle actually occurs so the slight inconvenience of walking an extra step or two between sink, stove or storage shouldn't really matter and surely shouldn't be the thing that guides your kitchen design. This is a re-education that I wish K&B and HGTV professionals would do a better job at imparting on folks.

Laura said...

Hello Author
You have really nice work in your blog, like quality images and content.
Keep it up.
I will like to hear more from you.

Many BTU said...

I like all of the wood in that room. I'm a big fan of wood over drywall and other types of materials.

Gas Installer In Salisbury said...

Thanks for this nice post & pics man. I cant believe that someone can still leave in this very old house. You said that there is a foul smell in your house. I think there is any sort of gas leak in your house. You can take the help of any good gas installers to locate & fix this problem.