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.
In just about any whole-house rehab project there's inevitably going to be a space, or area, or room that is exponentially worse off than all the others. Usually, it's a case of a previous owner not wanting to do any real heavy lifting, and band-aiding major issues or covering them up.
In my house, I have found that room, and it's the front room in the basement. What a mess.
Before I get into some of the specifics, let's start on a lighter note: I started the day by taking the dogs to the Meramec River. Roscoe - he's the elder statesman - has been on a million hikes, seen it all, and done it all. But he's NEVER swam. Ever. He just wasn't blessed with the swimming gene (which is odd, given his makeup of lab, border collie, cattle dog, etc.). Make no mistake, he'll lay in water all day long, he'll walk through water so long as it isn't deep enough to get more than a couple inches up his chest, and if I had to pick any dog on the planet to lead the way on a 700 mile hike through every climate and across every terrain imaginable, he's my first pick 100 times out of 100, even at his age (11+). But he's not a swimmer.
And then there's Freckles, the puppy. She's a whole different can of worms and while being a relatively small dog, she's as fearless as the day is long. She hasn't met a body of water she didn't want to jump into, and as long as the river isn't too high and fast-moving, the spot we go to is pretty perfect for her to figure out how to swim. Actually, she swims pretty well...it's figuring out when it's OK to jump in vs. when discretion might the better part of valor that she's still working on. But man, it's pretty neat seeing her splash around and explore the river. She's tiny but she's fierce; I kinda dig that about her.
So that was yesterday's fun. Now let's talk about the basement, some of the past few days' discoveries, and some of the challenges the front room presents.
Let's start with structural stuff, since everything else is sort of moot if the structural integrity of a building is wonky. This house is old enough to make use of wooden 8x8 posts and beams, and the first set I uncovered in the back part of the basement appear to be in pretty solid shape.
The same cannot entirely be said for the front part of the house, the first sign of trouble being the discovery of this column:
It looks like about a 5 foot section of the 8x8 beam was in bad enough shape that, at some point, it got replaced with a bunch of slapped together 2x6s and a steel post was put in to support the splice. In addition, some of the joists have split where the new beam was put in, because it was either installed before the invention of joist hangers or because somebody didn't know what they were doing:
This area of the house is below the foyer. Today, the foyer has a modern (and gaudy) ceramic tile floor. It originally had a tile floor, or that's my suspicion anyhow, based on the basement framing. I'll cover it in another blog, but the joist in the pic above, it supported the mortar bed in which the original tile would have been set. That means it also supports the tile floor that's there now. A couple other nearby joists have split as well.
As for the beam that was left in place, she's got a pretty big split right down the middle. It's not the end of the world and the split isn't unexpected, but it's something that merits further investigation and possible replacement down the road:
Then there's the infrastructure, which is a big part of the reason demo has gone so slowly in this part of the house: there's a TON of electrical junction boxes and wires buried in places they shouldn't be buried, and the ductwork isn't supported the way it should be.
At least these boxes have covers; only about half of them do. But junction boxes should never be put in inaccessible locations - both shown in the pic were behind drywall - and with the amount of wiring running in all directions, I have to be fairly cautious with the tools I'm using to deconstruct the finished basement.
Here's a pic of the duct trunk line running along the basement wall, which provides conditioned air to the front room of the main floor of the house. See the lone 2x4 still (sort of) standing? If I remove it, the entire duct assembly will fall to the floor, which I discovered the hard way. I'll have to demo around the duct for now, as there's no good place to properly disassemble it - the nearest joint is in the bathroom, which I don't want to tear apart just yet - so I can remove the framing, drywall, and plaster that surrounds it.
What about water and gas supply lines, you're asking yourself? They're pretty dicey as well.
When I first saw it, I thought "there's no way this massive, 2" outside diameter gas supply line is still active, surely the supply line has been replaced with something that isn't this large and rusty". But I was wrong; the giant gas line is still very much in service, which bothers me a little bit. And then there's this mysterious water valve, which may or may not be in service. I know I can shut off the water to the house by way of a different valve - albeit one that appears to be of the same age - so I don't know if this thing is live, or why both ends of it disappear into floors/walls - but I definitely don't want to touch it.
And then there's the plaster on the ceiling. It comes down easily enough and the old joists and floor above it look pretty cool when they're exposed, but carrying the mess out to the dumpster 200' away is a pretty time-consuming process.
That's where things stand. This is definitely one of those little chunks of a project where the amount of work invested yields frustratingly slow results, but progress is still being made.
I have another 30 yard dumpster coming out today, and whatever's left to gut in the basement is going in it. There's not a whole lot left to deal with in terms of square footage, but there's a fair amount plaster to drag out, which is a painfully slow process.
Because of that, I've been trying to get as much drywall off the basement walls and ceilings and onto the ground as I can, so that when the dumpster shows up I can start filling it up right away. A little demo here, a little demo there...now I've got some piles; I'm ready for the dumpster.
Yesterday's demo yielded another thing in the basement I wasn't expecting to find:
This is the northern wall in the southernmost room (front of the house) in the basement, which appeared to have - recently - been both a bedroom and a relatively (my $.02) inhumane dog captivity area. I didn't think this particular wall was original to the basement, but the discovery of plaster meant that it was. I'm not gonna lie, I wasn't real happy about finding more plaster under drywall.
As I peeled the drywall away, working left to right in the pic, I noticed two drastically different paint colors: the beige enamel stuff and the green. I proceeded carefully with the drywall removal, trying my best to leave the plaster instact so I could see the green shape in its entirety.
Once I cleared all the drywall, my first thought was that the bowl shape indicated some sort of sink, but the thing is like 4' off the ground, making it too high to be a kitchen or bathroom sink. And then I realized...maybe this was where Herman Saxenmeyer ran his dental practice.
Dr. Herman Saxenmeyer, who I don't know much about, was born in 1864 in Red Bud, IL. At some point he moved to St. Louis and became a dentist, running his dental practice from a 4th floor office in the Commercial Building, located downtown at 6th and Olive, now the site of One Metropolitan Square.
Side note: the Commercial Building was built between 1887 and 1889, and it was such a prominent building that its tenants didn't use a street address to identify their location; their ads simply stated "(office #) Commercial Building".
In 1910 Herman began renting the house I'm currently rehabbing, and in 1918 he purchased it. He lived in the home until 1932, during which time he ran his dental practice out of some part of the house. I still don't know for sure where in the house he worked on people's teeth, but I'm starting to think it was in the basement's front room.
Further examination of the green shape indicates that this was almost certainly where a cast iron sink hung on the wall. If you've ever seen the old school cast iron sinks, you know they almost always had big round corners, which this shape has. The wood in the wall served as blocking for something, and a heavy cast iron wink would definitely be helped by some blocking.
The bottom right corner of the wood is missing, but it looks like there was a circular hole, at one time, at the left end of the void, and a similar circular hole about 8" to the left. Those could very well have been hot and cold water lines, and if you look at the very first pic you'll see a large hole beneath the green shape's "bowl"; if this was indeed a big sink, that hole is about the right size and location for a drain pipe to run into the wall.
Additionally, there appears to be multiple layers of paint on top of the green, meaning somebody had to paint around something many times, presumably for many years.
So...it's the right shape to be a cast iron sink, it's got evidence of plumbing which supports the idea that the shape was a sink, its height would have made it unsuitable for use as a kitchen or bathroom sink, and the paint means the thing was there forever ago...like 100 years ago, when somebody would have potentially needed a big sink as part of their dental practice.
Here's the wall with a little more context. I got into the rest of the wall post-pics; the doorway to the right, which now leads into a bathroom, appears to be original (the original jamb is there, but it was covered by drywall and a newer door jamb. No exciting finds, just more plaster under drywall.
I still have the ceiling to uncover, which is more drywall covering plaster. If the plaster is still halfway intact, maybe it'll give me some clues about what this space was used for. Likewise, the floor in this room is plywood, elevated a couple inches above whatever's underneath it. I assume the floor was built up so that, if this was a bedroom in more recent times, insulation could be placed between the plywood floor and the concrete floor. But maybe it was done for a different reason...I'll find out soon enough.