I've mentioned it before but there's no way to overstate it: when I bought the house, the yard was a jungle (and it still is, sort of). I'm very fortunate to have landed a place with a triple lot, but the downside is that believe it or not, an overgrown quarter acre is kind of a nightmare.
Initially, my goal for the yard was to simply make it safe for my dogs to run around in. I wanted to get limbs off the roofs, off the walls, off the ground, and pull anything that wasn't a legit plant or flower so I could see what I was dealing with. That was it, just enough to confirm that there wasn't anything in the yard that would hurt the dogs if they got into it.
But a funny thing happens once you start cutting limbs or pulling vegetation outta the ground...you start saying "OK, just one more"...except "one more" somehow turns into 84 more. I cut and I cut and I cut and I raked and I raked and I raked. I climbed up on the house's roof and cut anything I could reach. I climbed up on the garage's roof and cut anything I could reach. Mind you, I was armed only with a pole saw that extends maybe 20' and a pair of garden shears, but with this much vegetation and overgrowth they're adequate tools.
Before I knew it, I had multiple stacks of limbs and multiple piles of Japanese Knotwood, and I hadn't even put a dent in the yard. I was creating waste faster than I could make it go away in the city-provided yard waste alley dumpsters.
So I decided to rent a dumpster and get after it. Saturday, a 15 yard dumpster showed up and I spent the weekend filling it up. Goal #1 was to get everything already on the ground into the dumpster.
The work was pretty slow going, because to get to the street, where the dumpster was parked, two fences had to be navigated. The first fence has a gate that's easy enough to walk through, but then the options are limited to traversing stairs to walk through the second fence gate, or dragging things through a bunch of ivy and hopping the second fence. I chose the second option, but in either case, it's a lot of walking.
Goal #2 was to trim a few more branches, and basically do anything other than tackle the northeast corner of the property, the corner with an old metal shed, a massive oak tree filled with vines, a couple fences, some overhead power lines, and all kinds of stuff that weren't going to be fun to deal with.
Goal #3 was dealing with the northeast corner of the property.
I'd already done a little work in that area of the yard, just to clear a path to the big oak tree and shed so I could assess the situation, but there was plenty left to do and I knew that if I brought Freckles over, she'd get into whatever existed in that giant mass of nonsense. A couple hours of work later, including working my way around the entire shed - which was pretty gross with the ants and spiders and whatever else was making the thing a home - that corner was halfway cleaned up.
That was where I left off on Saturday, and on Sunday, Roscoe and Freckles got introduced to their new yard. Freckles, as always, enjoyed the ride there.
When we got to the rehab house, Roscoe and Freckles' reaction was about like I figured it'd be.
Roscoe's almost 11.5 yrs old, and he's got 20 lifetimes of mileage on his legs and about a million hikes under his belt; there isn't a whole lot of terrain, wildlife, nature, etc. that he hasn't seen, walked through, rolled in, or layed in. I assumed Roscoe would be relatively unimpressed.
Freckles, on the other hand, is a puppy. And energetic, even by puppy standards. She's about 8 months old and there isn't a whole lot she doesn't want to explore. Likewise, she views all wildlife as meals, and I thought she'd be pretty excited about the yard (where we've been living, the back yard is maybe .05 acres, not a whole lot of room for her to run, which she loves to do).
Their first few moments in their new backyard played out just like I thought they would.
Trying to work with Freckles in the yard was a bit of a challenge - she loves trying to "help" - but when it was all said and done...the dumpster is almost full and my entire body is sore. 23,000 steps between Saturday and Sunday, and I only had my phone in my pocket about 40% of the time. But a dent was made. There's plenty of work left to do, but the work put in over the weekend was a definite step in the right direction.
Needless to say, I'll go back over and put in a few more hours this afternoon; I have the dumpster until Friday and I want to fill that sucker to the absolute max.
While I let the dust settle from the commotion of getting ready for the occupancy inspection and all the craziness the pandemic has created in the world, let's talk about the house's first occupants.
The house was built in 1878 for police officer Thomas Harrington and his family, Thomas, born in Ireland in 1841, purchased the land the house was built on in 1877 in an auction style sale; the opening bid was $2 per linear foot of street frontage, Thomas wound up paying $9.80 per foot. At 135 ft. of street frontage, that comes out to $1,323 ($32,000+ in today's dollars).
Prior to his purchase, Thomas lived in north city. Perhaps he decided to move to the area near Shaw's Garden and Tower Grove Park to escape the congestion of Old North St. Louis?
Thomas' wife Lucy A. (nee Blanchard), originally from Dover, MO and an 1858 graduate of Christian College (now known as Columbia College) in Columbia, MO, was a teacher at Gardenville School, a small school in a rural area southwest of downtown known as "Gardenville". The school was located at Gravois and Kingshighway, and there's a strong chance Lucy had to ride a horse or take some kind of horse-drawn something or other to get there and back. In 1907, the building most people in St. Louis know of as Gardenville School was built to replace the school Lucy taught at.
Thomas and Lucy had several children: Edward, Bessie, and Albert, who lived in the house I'm rehabbing, and Dora, born after the Harringtons sold the house and moved in 1883. While living in the house, the Harrington's employed a 20-something servant named Josephine Clark to help with the kids.
As for the kids, Edward was born in 1873 and lived until 1951. He never married, made a living as a pullman conductor, and lived in Hillsboro, MO at the time of his death.
I have no idea what became of Bessie.
Albert was born in 1879 and lived until 1912. Albert was married to a woman named Nina M. (nee Maret), and they had some number of kids. Before his life was cut short by tuberculosis, Albert worked as a clerk for one of the railroads.
The same fate befell Dorothy ("Dora"), who was born in 1888 and like her mom, became a school teacher. Dorothy never married, and passed away from tuberculosis at the Missouri State Sanitorium in Mt. Vernon, MO in 1923 at the age of 35.
Thomas died in 1909. Lucy died in 1911.
Between their common names and existence during a time when a variety of records were first starting to be preserved, it was tough to find out a whole lot about the Harringtons in general, let alone during the 5 years they occupied the house.
However...I've been told that the house's front door is original, and it's probably impossible to determine the validity of this. When I first started going to the house regularly to work on the place, a little plaque on the front door caught my eye. I took a picture, googled the meaning of the phrase when I went back home, and didn't think much of it other than maybe it was some kitschy door accoutrement put there by one of the buildings many occupants over the years.
But if the original owner of the place came to America from Ireland, and the door is original to the house...what are the odds this Gaelic phrase meaning "a hundred thousand welcomes" was put there by Thomas 142 years ago?
Let's get this out of the way up front: today I passed the occupancy inspection, which is a big deal because it means I can move in and start making the house what I want it to be. It's going to be a slow process, but at least now I can officially start. So there's that.
Yesterday, in preparation for today's inspection, I removed a bunch of gross lay-in ceiling tiles in the basement. At first, all that revealed was what you'd expect: plumbing, electric, framing, etc. The highlight, initially, and it wasn't even really a highlight, was seeing plaster marks on the ceiling framing. This meant that the basement, at one time and maybe even originally, had been given a plaster finish.
After looking at the ceiling from a few different angles, I saw this:
See the 4 square things sticking through the 2 rectangular holes? That's a side-by-side, double, through mortise and tenon joint. Quite a mouthful, eh?
The "tenons" are the square things. The rectangular openings they're protruding through are "mortises". The joint is considered "through" because the tenons go all the way through their mating framing members, whereas with a standard mortise and tenon joint the mortise is more of a pocket. The "through" version is more difficult to craft because both the tenon and mortise are visible, and open to scrutiny that the standard version isn't. It's "side-by-side" because, obviously, there are 2 boards next to each other. And, it's a "double" because there are 2 mortises and 2 sets of tenons.
That makes it a side-by-side, double, through mortise and tenon joint, and an incredible example of old school craftsmanship. Today, a joist hanger would be used instead of this far more time-consuming work of art, and would in fact be required by code. But as the picture demonstrates, when not exposed to weather and the elements, this type of joint can last a very, very long time.
And, hopefully I'll find another set of these on the other ends of these joists when I get around to removing the rest of the basement ceiling.
Another discovery that was made yesterday was of the exterior variety. I mopped the floor in the big front room right before lunch, and figuring it was still wet, when I returned to the rehab from getting some food and hanging out with the dogs for a minute, I planned on entering the house via the side door. So I walked up the front stairs, around the front of the house, and got ready to unlock the fence gate to allow me to enter the back yard when a giant mass in a nearby tree startled me. I took a step back to get a better look, and the giant mass turned out to be this:
Now I can add owls to the list of animals I've seen on the property, in addition to the seemingly stray cat I've seen multiple times, the dead mice in the ceiling yesterday, and all the usual critters (rabbits, birds, squirrels) that Freckles will surely enjoy chasing around the yard.
So...what started off yesterday with multiple dead mice raining down on my head and putting me in a foul mood, turned into the discovery of some super cool craftsmanship, finding a big, majestic owl hanging out in one of my trees, and then passing the occupancy inspection today. If all that is the trade off for a couple brushes with mice mummies...sign me up for more mice mummies.
Tomorrow Is A Big Day
Occupancy inspection. If I pass, I can start moving in and really start getting to work. If I don't pass, then I'll have a list of things that an inspector needs me to do before I can move in. I think I'll pass, or maybe conditionally pass, but there are some house situations that toe the line between "OK" and "not OK" pretty hard.
In preparation for tomorrow's inspection, I spent today buttoning some things up and then cleaning the floor, which still smells like dog urine.
Dog urine was not the only animal-related issue I dealt with today. Here's the story...
...I haven't spent much time in the house's basement. There are 2 reasons for this: 1, there's plenty to do on the main floor and 2, the basement is sorta creepy.
The basement in the house was "finished" some number of years (or decades) ago, but it's the kind of "finished" that looks to have been a DIY job done by somebody with modest skills. It's chopped up into a few different rooms, including a full bathroom that may or may not be to code, a room where some number of dogs were undoubtedly kept against their will, and then a big open area with a few small mechanical rooms off of it. The dog room has an elevated plywood floor, the rest of the floor is tile. Most of the basement has a suspended ceiling.
Yesterday I had a nightmare of a time trying to swap out a regular outlet for a GFCI outlet in the kitchen, which meant about 1,000 trips to the circuit breaker panel. On one of my many trips to the panel I noticed how gross many of ceiling tiles were in the big open area.
The big open area is underneath the kitchen and as is often the case in super old homes, there's no subfloor under the first floor flooring. There's floor joists and a tongue and groove pine floor, that's it. So, anytime something got spilled in the kitchen, or if a mess was made loading the dishwasher or doing dishes, etc., the liquid usually ended up on the ceiling tiles below. As a result, many of the tiles were stained and had turned to something, essentially, that was the consistency of applesauce.
I felt like they were something that would catch an inspector's eye, so I decided to remove the really nasty ceiling tiles with the big orange stains. I'd been down this road before, many times, so I sort of knew what I was getting into. Still, I was hoping for the best.
I tried pushing a tile upwards so I could remove it, and 2 bad things happened: I realized that the ceiling was basically right up against the floor joists above and there wasn't any wiggle room to remove the tiles like one typically might, and a shower of mouse poop rained down on me.
It's like somebody installed the tiles as they installed the grid, which is definitely not how it's supposed to be done and makes removing the tiles impossible without breaking them. That wouldn't be so bad except that breaking anything is sort of an uncontrolled activity, and when you're standing under who knows how much animal poop, it'd be nice to control things a bit.
I spent about 10 minutes trying to figure out a way - without dismantling the entire basement ceiling - to remove the few select tiles I wanted to remove without breaking everything, but there wasn't any way to do it. So I grabbed an already broken ceiling tile and yanked it to the floor.
With it came a ridiculous amount of acorns and mouse poop, about half of which caught me on the way to the ground. I sucked it up and kept going; this wasn't a job that could be stopped once it was started. Another tile came down, and with it, more of the same acorn and poop shower. Then, on ceiling tile #3, I got this:
Like I said before, I knew what I was getting into and I felt like, knowing the condition of the house and how the people before me lived, this was a possibility. I don't know how a house with 6-10 dogs also ended up being infested with mice, but it was.
Another tile or two later, another mouse fell from the sky. When it was all said and done, I ended up borderline needing a scoop shovel to clean up the mess that was made on the floor, but the grossest of the ceiling tiles are gone and the ceiling is still otherwise intact.
The silver lining in all of this is that I made a pretty cool discovery in the basement ceiling; I'll tell y'all about that next time...
The Big Room
The house, as it's currently laid out, makes horrible use of its space. One of the contributors to its poor layout is the front/main room, which takes up 1/3 of the entire square footage of the house. When factoring in hallways and closets and other dead areas, it eats up something more like 1/2 the house's living space.
It's an interesting room, and undoubtedly deviates from what the original layout was. It has 11' ceilings, 2 fireplaces with marble fireplace surrounds (though only 1 original - or very, very old - fireplace cover), and 4 massive, original windows that are about 7' tall.
The space is cavernous and for better or worse, I think I'm going to leave its walls right where they are. I'll use the space as a living/dining room combo.
But like I said previously, there's no way the original structure had a big open room like this. Way back when, houses were discussed in terms of rooms - the more, the better - unlike today, when square footage is a more commonly used measuring stick of a home's size or desirability. Per an 1892 newspaper ad listing this home for sale, at one time the place had 8 rooms, which means this space was probably 2 or 3 separate rooms, maybe even 4.
Remind me to tell you about the years when the home was used as a temple of some sort (true story); I have a feeling its temple days are what led to the creation of this big, open room.
Anyhow, the ceiling in the room is not original. Neither is the crown for that matter. I think the ceiling is either several layers of plaster top coating the original plaster ceiling, or plaster on top of drywall on top of the original plaster ceiling. A roof leak some years ago left two giant water marks on the ceiling, and caused some of the sand-finish top coats to delaminate; they weren't doing sand-finish anything back in the 1870s and 1880s, so I know that's not original. And from being up close to repair some of the damage, I've seen a lot of places where the ceiling dips and sags, which leads me to believe that the original plaster ceiling started falling apart for one reason or another, and somebody came along and put **something** on top of it. Some day, I'll figure out that riddle.
The more pressing issue is the floor. It's not original, although I believe it's covering the original wood floor, which is pine. Regardless, the floor that's there now needs to go because it's ugly, and because it stinks. The previous owners had somewhere between 6 and 10 dogs (per multiple neighbors), and it's painfully clear that aside from trying to eat the house, the dogs used the floors as a restroom. The previous owners, apparently, didn't mind. I do.
Unfortunately, as much as I'd love to tear up the current floor to both replace it and hopefully discover some clues about the space's original layout (original floors almost always indicate where long-gone walls had been), it's on the back burner. I just need to de-funk it for now.
Unfortunately, sweeping the floor didn't change anything. Neither did vacuuming.
I thought about mopping the floor, but the google machine said I should try some baking soda first, so I went to the grocery store and bought almost every box of baking soda they had on the shelf. Then I dumped all the boxes on the floor, swept the baking soda all around and tried to work it into the floor as best I could, and let it sit for a couple days.
That actually seemed to help get rid of the odor, considerably. I vacuumed all of it up after a couple days of absorbing the urine funk, and then I mopped the floor with a Pine-Sol concoction that was pretty much a 50/50 mix with hot water. That made things 80% better, but the remaining 20% was still pretty nasty.
Since I wanted to paint the ceiling - just a quick Kilz job - anyhow to cover up the water marks, I figured maybe painting the walls would help with the smell. If the previous owners had 6 to 10 dogs, surely some of them were males, and when male dogs pee - if they're anything like my dog Roscoe - they tend to find objects to pee on. Vertical objects. Like walls, if one were so inclined to allow their male dog(s) to pee inside a house. Maybe the walls had some dog pee funk as well?
The painting definitely helped with the remaining stench. I don't know if it's gone, or if I just got used to it, or if it's being masked by the air fresheners and joint compound/plaster work I have going on in a nearby room, but it doesn't hit me like a punch in the face the minute I walk in the front door anymore, so at the very least, it's a step in the right direction.
5 gallons of Kilz disappeared pretty quickly between the kitchen and this big room; tomorrow I'll go pick up another 5 gallons and hopefully run through enough of it to help the occupancy inspection next week go my way...