Porch Plans Were Approved!
Repointing The Brick
The city has been sitting on the plans I submitted to get a permit to replace the little porch on the side of the house for 4 weeks. This is unfortunate, but not unexpected. To pass the time and get ready for the day when I may get the green light to demo the porch, I figured I'd start tackling some low-hanging fruit on either side of it.
There are 3 windows just north of the porch - the hexagonal-shaped bay at the rear of the house - that all have masonry issues. It's tough to say what's caused what, but the end result is stair step cracks both above and below the windows. Could be settling (doubtful), could be that somebody used to wrong mortar (likely), could be something where a very small crack went through enough freeze/thaw cycles that things were exacerbated to the they're at now. I'll need some scaffolding to deal with the area above the windows, but I can deal with the stuff below the windows with what I have on site.
After doing a little poking around, I was able to determine that somebody in the past did a little repointing. I don't think they covered the entire house but they repointed quite a bit, albeit with mortar that appears to be a little too hard and most of the repointing was relatively superficial in that the existing mortar wasn't raked out to any legit depth.
The original mortar is a lime-based product, not like modern mortars. It's almost white in appearance and, if exposed to water and weather over the course of 140+ years, it has a tendency to turn to dust if not periodically maintained. In the picture above, the little bits of exposed grey mortar, that's the stuff that was used to repoint the brick. I have to use an angle grinder to remove it but because everything's painted (I suspect the house was pointed to hide the multi-colored mortar) and the old school brick is sort of irregularly shaped, sometimes it's a little tricky to keep the grinder out of the brick. When I do hit brick, the dust cloud turns from white to red real, real fast, and that's when I know I need to back off and try a different location or angle. Unfortunately, the old brick is pretty soft so I only get things started with the grinder; I get in there with a little slag chipping hammer and a junky old flat blade screwdriver to dig out as much as I can by hand after the grinder has opened things up.
I'm not looking to reinvent any wheels or rebuild entire walls, and the original game plan was to just address the cracks and mortar joints near the cracks. One thing led to another...now it looks like I'm going to repoint the entire wall and deal with resetting a few bricks that were so loose on account of the mortar being dust that they more or less just fell out of the wall.
I didn't take a pic last night after I finished working, but the mortar joints between the main floor window and limestone foundation are now pretty well cleaned out. Also, another brick fell out of the wall, and there's probably a handful that I could sneeze on and they'd come tumbling out, but I'm doing my best to leave them where they are.
I think I'll restart repointing tomorrow, using type o mortar, and see how things go. I've never repointed brick so I'm sure I'll learn a few things relative to my experience with repointing the limestone. More pics to follow...
I Found Another Thing
I was all geared up to spend my 4-day weekend cleaning mortar and plaster dust out of the basement - I have quite a few piles going as a result of the repointing effort - but my preferred dumpster vendor didn't have any available dumpsters in the size I wanted. I really need to get that stuff out of the way, because it's getting difficult to work around the mess.
(Hopefully you don't confuse my work with the original stuff, or somebody's previous repointing efforts.)
But no dumpster availability meant finding other things to do, which is not at all a problem around here. So Friday, I spent the day doing miscellaneous yard work and then started exterior repointing work around the basement windows on the eastern side of the house, where mice are still getting in (I think). In a normal world, that's what I'd be writing about tonight, but alas...it's difficult to put a shovel in the ground on this property and not unearth some rad, mysterious thing.
Lemme back up a hair. Friday, this was the window I wanted to address:
I'll give ya the details in a future post, but in short, the area under the sill and, to a much lesser extent a couple spots along the sides of the sill, that's what needed to get buttoned up. I'm pretty sure that hole just above the right edge of the middle brick on the ground, that's one of the spots the mice have been getting in. I've addressed that window from the inside and was convinced I had the holes closed...but those walls are pretty thick and, around the windows, in BAD shape; it's plenty conceivable that I wasn't able to get mortar in all the voids from the inside.
Here's the thing: this work SUCKS. Not pointing, that's actually weirdly enjoyable. But this specific location (i.e. ground level), the logistics aren't good. Or fun. And because I started in the afternoon, I didn't get wrapped up until it was dark and the mosquitoes were swarming. Long story short, when I woke up on Saturday I really wasn't feelin' tryin' to tackle the window next to this one. So I didn't.
Instead, I had a few things left to clean up around the yard, so I did that. And I played "fetch" with Freckles. And by then it was all of like 11am and I was tempted to suck it up and go tackle that other window.
But there's this guy I follow on Instagram, SalvageArc. He digs up privies in Baltimore, MD (it's not his full-time gig, just a hobby, but man...he unearths some dope stuff), and he recently posted something about how he, following some research, actually pins down privy locations. His secret? Stick a metal pole in the ground and poke around, that's it. It's sort of 101-level stuff; undisturbed soil is generally packed pretty tightly whereas fill, let alone half-assed fill like somebody may do to fill in a deep, stinky hole, isn't. That's how he can tell when he's on top of a privy (that, and hitting underground brick).
Anyhow...I have a lot of steel laying around from various projects. And the no man's land section of the back yard has always had a little sinkhole-lookin' thing. And I needed something else to do besides laying on my belly all afternoon to repoint limestone.
Be careful what you wish for, they say.
(You may remember, the last time I decided to dig up a settling spot in the yard I unearthed a whole entire pool.)
So...I grabbed about an 8' piece of maybe 3/8" diameter round steel and headed to the section of the back yard that's a complete disaster.
This is an old pic, but I don't have many from this section of the property because it's a train wreck. The deck sucks, the back wall of the house gets zero sun so it's got a lot of green stuff growing on it, the fence is held up by not much more than hopes and dreams, and behind me in the pic is the garage - that I've still never been in - with a broken window.
Because the neighbors can't see this little chunk of real estate, it's become a dumping ground for things destined for a dumpster at some future date. Needless to say, it's not a real photogenic area. Anyhow, do you see the missing brick in the center of the pic? That's the little sinkhole-lookin' spot I mentioned earlier. It's not much, but unless somebody randomly and physically removed a handful of bricks, there's no good explanation for them to be - seemingly - missing.
But lemme back up a hair.
Almost 120 years ago, the property had a wooden, 1.5-story stable where the brick garage - built in the 1920s - now stands. Just south of that was a smaller wood-framed structure that could have been a little shed or outhouse. The house and small, angled porch are still the same as they were back then, although originally, there was a wooden porch across the back 2/3 of the house. That ugly ass red deck from the pic now sort of stands in its place.
In the 1920s the place was bought by a dentist, and he must have done pretty well or had a lot of money to begin with because he seemingly redid this place top to bottom, inside and out. It was the dentist that apparently added the cast iron fence across the front of the property and had the 2-car brick garage built where the stable had been originally. He also - I'm guessing it was him - added a LOT of brick-paved areas.
This is the most recent survey of the property, done a little over a year ago. There's a mysterious little concrete slab just south of the garage; the pic I shared with y'all earlier in this post is essentially taken, facing towards the back side of the house, from that spot. The missing brick that always caught my attention is a few feet south of there.
So like I said, I grabbed the 8' stick of 3/8" diameter steel and a little shovel and headed to the mystery spot. As it turns out the bricks were there, just underneath a few inches of soil. I dug out the soil and then removed a couple bricks so I could poke around with the steel.
I didn't sense or feel anything out of the ordinary, but the truth is, I really couldn't tell what the steel was poking into. There's a giant oak tree a few feet away and the area near the house is littered with little limestone chunks leftover from the construction of the house's foundation almost a century and a half ago, so hitting something solid wasn't unusual. Moving 2" away, trying again, and finding nothing but dirt, that wasn't unusual either. So I kept digging. When in doubt, just keep digging.
I was removing a lot of sand and gravel, not much else. That made sense, as that stuff is typically used as a base for modular pavers like the brick. And of course there's a few good-sized tree roots growing through that area so I was limited to using a little garden trowel, thingy, the kinda "shovel" you use for potting plants. The digging was progressing painfully slowly and I was getting nowhere fast, and then...a little clump of dirt just disappeared.
It fell down into some sort of little cavity. I pushed a little more dirt towards the cavity, it fell in too. What the hell? I got excited. I dug faster. I also became very, very aware that I was on top of something that may or may not be some sort of void, and voids are known to cave in sooner or later.
After a little more scraping and poking around, I found...more brick.
But this was bricked laid sort of vertically, and underneath the brick "patio", and mortared together. I kept digging.
Once I had removed enough dirt that I could stick something into the void, I grabbed the big steel poker I had out there with me and reached it in horizontally. I could stick the steel rod in 3 entire feet from the edge of the brick ring in all directions before I hit anything solid!
You know what I found, right? It's a cistern, which makes total sense.
The house was built before indoor plumbing was real prevalent, so the home's occupants would have had to capture or collect water on site, which is what a cistern did. And because the house's flat roof is pitched towards the back, a few feet off the back of the house - minimizing the required piping - would be the ideal spot to build a cistern.
I just didn't think, with all the more modern construction - deck, concrete retaining walls on either side of the walkout basement, etc. - a brick cistern would remain, let alone relatively undisturbed.
As it turns out, the sinking bricks were on top of the cistern's ground-level opening, which is 2' wide. The cistern itself is about 8' in diameter, depth is still TBD. And because the cistern was never properly filled in, the ground under the sinking bricks has been eroding and causing the bricks to slowly fall into the cistern.
Unfortunately, there are big tree roots running across the opening so access - even just a shovel - is borderline impossible. I haven't yet figure out how to attack the situation, but I am definitely going to excavate it because 1, I want to see what's on the bottom and 2, I need to fill the thing in properly so that it's safe.
To do that, I think I'm going to have to intentionally collapse the top, which will allow me to go in the thing, avoid the tree roots, and not have anything in danger of falling in on me while I dig. Then I'll have to dig it all out, see if anything cool was left behind on the bottom, and then fill it all back in. I hate the idea of purposely destroying something that was so integral to the way of life in the 19th century, as well as something that was so well built that it's held up, seemingly intact, all these years.
But I think that's how I'll have to deal with it. I just haven't yet developed the stomach for demolishing such a rad discovery.