The early stages of this rehab have me working in circles; I feel like I've been bouncing back and forth between yard work and basement cleanup, both of which have to get balanced with my wallet, my available time, and regular homeowner/life responsibilities (and some golf, and hiking with the dogs). But for now, big picture, the basement is what I'm focused on.
Why? In short, mice. This house was loaded with 'em. Like, over a dozen dead ones in the basement ceiling. As not exciting as basement rehab can be, what's indescribably less exciting is spending an evening on the computer in the bedroom (joined by the dogs, of course, because we're sorta like Bert and Ernie levels of inseperable), walking to the front of the house to turn off the lights and TV because it's time to go to sleep, and seeing a little squirmy rodent mousing its way across the floor, heading from where it just took a big mouse dump under my bag of hockey gear to the hole in the wall near a fireplace so it can retreat back to its little mouse kingdom in the basement.
Yada yada yada, sealing up the basement - where the mice are entering the house - became priorities 1 through 842. Unfortunately, that meant doing a little more basement demo so I could get to all the spots the mice may be entering. That meant getting another dumpster, and that, subsequently, meant filling 'er up. On the docket for that were the last plaster ceiling in the rear of the basement and the goofy wood floor in the basement's front room.
The plaster ceiling demo was pretty uneventful. So was the basement floor demo.
I knew the plaster ceiling was original, based on the square cut nails used to hang the lath. I wasn't sure about the basement floor, but I knew that it was lauan on top of peel and stick tile on top of some sort of sheet good (linoleum, most likely) on top of tongue and groove pine on top of 2x4 flat framing on top of concrete. None of it came up without a fight.
As it turns out, the wood floor in the basement was NOT original (again, based on the nails used to fasten the boards). Why was it installed? My best guess is that the dentist that lived here in the 20s, who presumably used the basement's front room for his dental practice, did some remodeling and had the wood floor installed as a means of formalizing the space. Otherwise, it makes zero sense; the concrete underneath it is in perfect condition.
During the floor demo, I was hoping to find something of interest.
I didn't, really. But in the midst of randomly picking up a handful of crap that was in the way of my pry bar I noticed a super small sliver of what appeared to be newspaper. I don't know how in the world I spotted it among all the debris, but I guess if you do this sort of nonsense enough your eyes get decent at quickly identifying the trash from the non-trash. Likewise, I don't have any idea how the newspaper got there or where it came from, but it was definitely underneath the wood floor.
Anyhow, this is what I found:
No date. No newspaper title (after doing some homework, I'm not even sure it's newspaper; it may be more like an old school version of the junk mail that comes with all the little ads in it, or maybe a page of a catalog).
As far as finds go, this isn't too remarkable. It's inconsequential, really.
The little portion of the ad that's still intact is headlined "Men's $4.95 Leatherette Sheeplined Coats", and the verbiage beneath the headline says "Sheeplined Coat with heavy pelt. Wombatine collar. Four-pocket style. Storm wristlets. All-around belted. Sizes 36-46. Nugent's-Basement". Apparently, the store had some sorta sale day and on the sale day, the coat was knocked down to $3.90.
As far as local department stores go, I'd never heard of "Nugent's", and based on the prices of things, I figured it had to be pretty old; that was enough for me to want to do a little learnin'.
I did my best to look through old newspapers to see if I could find that exact ad in one of the local papers of the time, but the search was fruitless. That was disappointing, but similar ads indicate that this one dates to around 1930.
So...who or what was "Nugent's"?!
Nugent's was a dry goods store founded in 1869 in Mount Vernon, IL by a Canadian immigrant named Byron Nugent. He and the store moved to St. Louis in 1873. As the business grew, Byron relocated the store a couple times before settling on the southeast corner of Broadway and Washington - prime real estate back in the day - in 1889, although business demands required him to annex a few neighboring buildings in later years due to continued success.
For reference, here's Broadway & Washington today:
Many, many years ago, this was the Nugent's building that stood on the corner of the intersection.
Per the 1909 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, the image above shows the store's Broadway face.
One of the buildings that got annexed post-1909 was the 5-story structure south of the store, across St. Charles Street, which could be accessed both at street level and from the main store via a bridge across St. Charles.
What did the store's interior look like?
Believe it or not, at one time, St. Louis was a big deal in the mercantile and fashion industries; Byron Nugent's contribution was his forward-thinking business sense. In 1913, Nugent opened a branch store in "Uptown", which we now call "Midtown", at the time considered a suburban locale. This was, reportedly, the first instance in the entire United States of a downtown department store opening up a branch location. He would repeat the feat by opening a 3rd store in Wellston.
Byron Nugent must have done pretty well for himself; he lived in a mansion at 29 Westmoreland Place, a private street (whose neighboring street gained a little notoriety for some recent events, if you follow politics at all) in the city's Central West End neighborhood. He died in 1908 and is entombed in a mausoleum in Bellefontaine Cemetery, which is the final resting place of all sorts of famous St. Louisans.
The business would continue after his death, although it was purchased in 1923 by another department store and the doors were closed for good in 1933 thanks to The Great Depression. For the most part, the buildings that comprised his downtown department store, encompassing the better part of a full city block, are long gone as well.
So...a random find, that isn't directly connected to either myself or the house, other than perhaps being part of a catalog a previous owner looked through a time or two 90 years ago. I'd never heard of Nugents, and I suspect that it faded into obscurity because it closed its doors so long ago...but I kinda like being able to give the stories of these old, forgotten places a little bit of life. And who knows, maybe the Nugent's catalog is what people read when they hung out in the back yard dipping pool, or what sat out in the dentist's office while patients waited to get fitted for their wooden teeth...maybe it's more connected to the house than I'll ever know.
Been a slow few weeks at the rehab.
After digging up the pool, I took the following weekend off to lay low and do some yard work. One of the challenges of living in a rehab project is I can't just clock out at 4 or 5 pm every day and walk away from the place; it's where I live and, as such, a place I have to maintain. Sometimes, rehab work has to take a back seat to dealing with rogue tree limbs or ivy gone wild or planing grass, etc.
In the background, I've been trying - slowly - to get approval from the city to redo the porch. Unfortunately, it's a situation where one group, the CRO, holds pretty much all the decision-making power unless somebody wants to really make some noise and have a hearing in front of the preservation board. In short, I have to replicate, like, EXACTLY replicate, the original structure or whatever's left of it.
Problem #1: not all of the original structure (namely, the railing) is still in place and the CRO wants to me build some generic railing, with specs and dimensions they provide. I think their proposed railing is garbage, and not nearly detailed enough relative to what remains of the original porch.
Problem #2: their railing detail says that the bottom rail of the railing is to be the EXACT same width as the balusters. Their detail also says that the bottom rail of the railing is to be WIDER than the balusters. I've asked for clarification and received and garbage answer.
Problem #3: In general, I feel like their people just read from a script and don't actually know what they're talking about. For example, I was told that all wood needed to be painted AND stained.
Which is ridiculous; you don't paint AND stain, you paint OR stain.
And even then, we're talking about an exterior structure; paint will protect the wood, stain will not. At all. So what's the point? What's the CRO's desire or motivation? To protect the wood? Then stain is the wrong thing to mandate. To arbitrarily force somebody to make their wooden structure some color? Why? Can anybody prove that the thing was originally painted in 1878 (nope)?
Problem #4: per modern building codes, I can NOT replicate what was built in 1878. The building division won't give me a building permit for that. So who wins the battle between the building division and the CRO? No idea. I've asked, haven't gotten a response.
So it's been a frustrating process.
And then there's the mice. Holy hell.
When I gutted the basement a month or two back, I had 11 mouse carcasses fall out of the ceiling. And when I bought the place and first moved in, I definitely noticed the insane amounts of mouse poison the previous owners had stocked up and left in the basement for me.
I figured, between the moving in, the demo, the commotion, and the dogs, the mice were dead and gone. For a while that seemed to be the case.
Then about a week ago I ran downstairs to do some laundry. It was kinda dark, as most of the lights have been demo'd. I had just enough light to find my way through the mess down there to get to the washing machine. On the way there, I saw a small dark spot on the basement floor move. Run, actually.
It was a mouse. A live one.
I figured it wasn't unreasonable to find a live one, given that I'd found 11 dead ones. I wasn't happy about it, but 1 lone basement mouse, that could be dealt with. No reason to get worked up.
I got a couple traps. Baited them. Nothin'.
Then a couple days ago, late one night, I was in the bedroom banging away on the computer. The dogs were in there with me. I finished whatever I was working on, got up to go turn the lights and TV off so we could go to sleep, and while walking through the big front room, a little mouse scampered across the floor.
Oh. Hell. No.
A lone basement mouse is one thing. One - or more - trying to cohabitate the main floor with me, nope. Not gonna happen.
Last weekend I moved everything and cleaned the entire first floor, doing whatever I could to lessen the chances of a mouse finding a good spot to call "home". I did the same down in the basement, getting about halfway through before having to call it a weekend.
And last night...SNAP. Disposed of a mouse and trap, and 10 minutes later, SNAP. Got another one.
So...minimal progress lately; this year has been so weird and stupid I'm not sure how crazy my expectations should be.
But I got a couple mice, and that counts for something.
I did NOT see this coming.
This past weekend, when I started excavating the location in the yard where I thought something was going on below the surface, I was fully expecting to find a cistern.
As it turns out, I was 100% correct in my thought that something - **something** - existed underground, but I was 100% wrong about it being a cistern; I (think I) uncovered a "dipping pool".
Like, a legit pool. Filled with water. That people sat in. And probably partied.
Let's back up a hair, lemme tell ya how I got to what you see in the above pic.
If you read the last post, you know that I stuck a shovel in the ground two weekends back and hit something mortarish a couple feet (turns out it was more like two and a half feet down) below the surface. Last weekend, armed with the knowledge that something was down there, I grabbed the shovels and got after it.
Except I didn't really "get after it". I didn't know what I was digging into. I didn't know if there was a structure I was going to run into or not. I didn't know what direction to dig. So, in fact, the digging progressed rather slowly for a little while as I gingerly poked and prodded my way below the surface.
I started by digging in the same spot I got into previously, found the horizontal mortar, and then worked my way west, with Freckles serving as the chief soil inspector. It seemed like the mortar was running uphill in that direction, which made me think I was on the top of a domed structure and heading towards its center.
Wrong. I was not on top of a domed anything; I was at the bottom of a big bowl. I didn't realize it, but I was on the verge of uncovering some sort of nearly vertical component of whatever was in the ground.
Finding the sloped, curved wall was pretty excited. As far as excavating a cistern and any old artifacts that may have been in the ground with it was concerned, the day had been a total failure. But, uncovering a giant, unknown buried thing, I dunno...any time you get to feel like Indiana Jones for a day or two, there isn't a whole lot that'll get ya down.
So I dug, and dug, and dug. Once I had a solid surface to run my shovels along, the digging went pretty fast. But I still didn't know what I was dealing with.
What I did know was this:
I knew the thing was bowl shaped.
I knew the thing was made of what appeared to be some kind of mortar, but no brick.
I knew the thing had been painted, several times (white, black, green, blue).
I knew the top of the thing's wall was at ground level, more or less.
I knew, to that point, I hadn't located any water inlet our outlet, or plumbing of any kind.
I didn't know what it was, but I was starting to lean towards "pool".
And then I discovered another thing, the inexplicable depression in the center.
Finding that got me even more excited - because what the hell was it?! - and despite it being pretty late in the day, I made a fire (not sure if you've noticed or not, but I've got a LOT of wood to burn), drank a beer, and kept digging.
By the time I was ready to call it quits, I'd uncovered 2/3 of the giant bowl-shaped thing and was pretty confident that it was some sort of pool. The following day, Sunday, with some of the excitement of discovering an unknown thing in the yard having worn off, I delayed finishing the digging to take the dogs out to one of the local rivers so they could have some fun.
Then it was back to the digging. When it was all said and done this is what I had:
In terms of dimensions the bowl structure looks about like this:
I did a little math, and a structure that shape has a volume of almost 3 cubic yards or 600 gallons. So...I removed almost 3 cubic yards of dirt by hand, and the pool would have held about 600 gallons of water.
Check out the pic below. If you pretend like everything in the pic, aside from the dog and the fire pit, isn't a giant pile of sh!t, can you see this thing being used as a place to cool off long before central air, and possibly even indoor plumbing, were a thing? I can.
I've had people suggest that it may have been a fish pond, or a fountain...but I can't imagine it being anything other than a pool, especially given its location off the side porch and under a big tree.
Now the question becomes...what do I do with it? Part of me feels like I should let that sleeping dog lie and just fill it back in. But there's another part of me that feels like it's here, it's been uncovered, and even though she's cracked in a bunch of places, and even though there's a big, ugly tree trying to send roots through the thing, maybe I should come up with some way to reuse or rebuild the structure...
This morning, after taking the dogs to Wilmore Park and eating breakfast I decided to putz around the backyard. I didn't work on the house too much this week -- the basement demo took a lot outta me last week -- and yesterday was a golf + beers + pizza day, so today, Sunday, I was looking for some low key, inconsequential work to get into.
I ended up trimming some tree limbs and pulling some invasive ivy outta the little bit of invasive Japanese Knotwood I have left in the yard, and then...boredom and curiosity got the best of me. I grabbed some shovels and started digging.
Early on, during the initial stages of de-jungling the backyard, I discovered a pipe sticking up out of the ground. If it was part of some water or gas infrastructure, it was clearly no longer in service. It seemed too small to have been a gas line, and the threaded connections indicated that it wasn't any kind of legit, modern water line. The pipe was only a foot or so above ground, which wouldn't have made any sense for somebody to use as a fence post or something like that. I was stumped.
But there's more to the story. A short distance from this pipe, and a little closer to my house, the yard has a low spot.
That gradually keeps getting lower every time it rains.
Now, it's rained a TON this summer, and the argument could be made that the low spot is just a natural spot between my house and my neighbor's house that happens to collect water. There has to be a low spot **somewhere**, right? That's fair. This spot always stays wet longer than the rest of the yard, although the case could be made that because it's fully shaded, that may be the cause. However, I've added dirt to this spot on a couple occasions and still...it seems to sink.
Anyhow...long story short, my thought was that maybe the low, sinking spot was the location of an old cistern, and maybe this pipe sticking up out of the yard was connected to it somehow. In fact, that's really what I was hoping for; I think excavating an old cistern would be pretty rad.
For context, the above left pic is from a 1903 map, when the house was already 25 years old. The way the lots are divided, what I currently own is (3) lots; the main part of my house eats up 1 lot, the bumped-out, angled sections starts getting into a 2nd lot, and then there's the 3rd lot, closest to my neighbor's property, which has never, ever been built on.
The above right pic is from the property survey I had done when I bought the place; I added the red "X" to show the location of the mystery pipe, and the red "O" to show the location of the sinking area.
I wasn't really looking to make a day of the project, I just wanted to see where the pipe went. I was hoping I would find that it ran over to the sinking area, which would more or less confirm that some sort of underground water storage system had existed there at some time.
The pipe dig was a bust. I dug down about 2 feet and either the pipe rusted through and I just didn't want to dig any further, or I reached the end of the pipe and that was that. Either way, 2 feet of excavation and she came right outta the ground. It didn't appear to be connected to anything, wasn't set in concrete, and I didn't uncover much other than dirt while digging. Maybe the pipe was there for some goofy reason and I'll never know why.
Not wanting to be defeated, I turned my attention to the sinking spot. The ground is super soft right now, the digging is easy, and I was disappointed with the pipe dig. I wanted some redemption.
I picked a spot close to dead center of the sinking area and started digging. I hit some tree roots early on, and that made me hesitate a bit; I didn't want to dig some fruitless hole and kill the nearby pine tree - which is pretty massive - in the process. On the other hand, of all the trees in the yard it's the one I - and my neighbor, especially - really wouldn't mind losing, so I kept digging.
About a foot down I started finding weird stuff...like bits of broken clay flower pots. They seemed to be modern, so I wasn't too excited. If anything, I wondered why modern trash was buried a foot down in the yard. But I kept digging.
I kept finding more stuff, albeit none of it real noteworthy or indicative of a cistern. There were rusted pieces of metal, which I think may have been old nails or hinge pins, stuff that was long, and skinny. There was glass, but single-pane stuff, like from an old window. Again, why all the trash 18 inches underground?
And then...the dirt I pulled out of the hole started getting sandy. Some of the sandy stuff came out in chunks. It was mortar, like the kind used in the masonry of these old houses. Mortar was a good sign. I dug further, and widened the hole a bit.
I got about as far down as I felt like going, which was close to 2 feet, and not having found anything other than a small pile of trash and some sandy soil, I was almost ready to call it a day. And then I heard it...the clink of a metal shovel on something that wasn't dirt or tree roots. I couldn't see very well into the bottom of the hole, but everywhere I banged the shovel...CLINK. I had either hit a giant rock, or...I'd found a cistern.
I laid down on my belly, reached as far into the hole as I could, removed dirt by hand, felt around, and tried to brush off whatever I'd hit.
It wasn't stone. It was mortar. Covering the entire bottom of the hole, which by that point was about 12" by 12". And it was sloped, like a domed top of something.
That's when I called it a day and filled in the hole. Truth is, I don't know what I found. But it's 2 feet deep on an undeveloped lot, I ran across garbage on the way down, if it's some kind of structure, it's held in place, at least in part, by mortar, and the earth above it is slowly sinking. What's beneath the mortar? Brick? Is it hollow? How expansive is the mortar layer? Is it a cistern, or something else? If it's a cistern, does the evidence of trash indicate that somebody may have filled it in or excavated in this spot? Is this really where dirt is disappearing to?
I don't know, but **something** is down there, and on an upcoming weekend when I'm a little better prepared, I'm gonna find out what it is.
I don't have any good pics of the basement as it currently sits, because 1, the dust down there is sort of unbearable at times (yes, I have lots of plastic up, and yes, I wear a respirator) and 2, the more stuff I rip out, the less lighting I have.
But...today was a good day. I'm not gonna lie, I was dragging this morning. Piles of busted up plaster were scattered all over, I still had a plaster wall to contend with, and I knew that no matter how hard I worked, I was going to run out of clock before the goal was accomplished. Around lunchtime I switched up the music - The Interrupters and MxPx Pandora stations were the choices - and that put a little pep in my step.
When it was all said and done, I had gotten more done than I thought I was going to. I definitely uncovered more structural things that will need to be addressed, but the front room is down to a quick, final cleaning. I got the hallway at the bottom of the stairs pretty well cleared out as well, which leaves the furnace/laundry room - which is pretty small - and the ceiling in the back room...which is also plaster underneath drywall...as the only major things left on the demo agenda. I may get to them tomorrow, I may not. I'll cross that bridge when I get to it.
Either way, I'm a little closer to getting to build - instead of unbuild - tonight than I was this morning, and that's kinda all that counts.