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.
In the last post, I talked about the stone foundation wall in the interior of the basement. I don't know why it's there, but even before I started the basement demo I knew of its existence. What I did NOT expect to find was a giant, galvanized-metal-covered, purposely-made hole in the stone wall.
The hole is the full depth of the wall, or about 20". The hole's diameter is about 24", and the whole thing is covered in galvanized metal.
Between my educational background, professional background, and personal interests, I usually feel like I can go toe-to-toe with just about anybody in terms of figuring out and/or understanding why or how something was built that way that it was built. But the wall, and to an even larger extent this hole, have me baffled. I suspect the hole was created to serve some sort of mechanical function, but I'd need a heating expert/historian to confirm this.
The only reason I think it had something to do with an old heating system is because the old flues, the ones I pulled newspapers out of a couple weeks back, are a few feet away. Those old flues existed as a means of exhausting whatever smoke/gas/funk was created by a long-gone boiler consuming fuel. Maybe this hole was a means of getting air or fuel from some other basement location to the boiler? Or maybe it was part of some type of old-school duct system? Other than that, I have no ideas.
One thing I noticed today - which both gives me some clues and adds to the mystery - is the labeling on the galvanized metal: "COP-R-LOY".
I did a little homework on COP-R-LOY and here's what I found out:
COP-R-LOY was a galvanized metal product trademarked in 1928 and made by the Wheeling Corrugating Company, which was established in 1890 by Alexander Glass in Wheeling, West Virginia. In its early days, the company made various light metal products including roofing, conductor pipes, metal ceilings and eaves, troughs, tin plate, and terneplate. In 1902 Wheeling Corrugating became a subsidiary of Wheeling Steel and Iron, which was then combined with LaBelle Iron Works and Whitaker-Glessner in 1920 to form Wheeling Steel Corp., of which Glass was the chairman until his death in 1941.
The hole is lined with this COP-R-LOY stuff, which didn't exist until 1928. The house was built in 1878. If we assume the interior stone wall is original to the house, and I think it is, then either the hole was added at least 50 years later, or if the hole was original to the wall and house, it wasn't cleaned up with the COP-R-LOY until 1928 at the very earliest.
So...what purpose did this hole serve, and when was it created?
I've taken a few days away from the basement demo because 1, I recently had to engage in a tree-trimming extravaganza, prompted by a sizable tree limb snapping off and getting hung up - directly over the garage - in one of the back yard oaks, 2, I wanted to button up a few spots on the roof that needed patching, and 3, I've still got some undetermined MCL issue; after hauling a legit 5+ tons of crap out of the yard and basement, the left knee isn't currently on friendly terms with the rest of my body.
The break in the action has given me a chance to inspect and think through what I've uncovered. So far, the basement demo has yielded quite a few interesting finds, albeit head-scratchers. For example, there's a spot by the rear wall, below what are now kitchen cabinets, where the framing indicates something heavy was going on above it; the mortise and tenon joints used to join the joists together are pretty rad, but what was the reason for beefing up or boxing around the framing in that area?! 1st floor radiator? Stove? Fireplace?
The biggest basement mystery, by far, and one that impacts my future plans for this house the most, is a wall. Why is it a mystery? Because it's a full-blown stone wall, with a brick wall above it on the first floor - the same as all the EXTERIOR walls - in the INTERIOR of the basement/house.
I've seen interior stone foundation walls in much larger, older homes than this, stuff that's 2 or 3 stories and thousands upon thousands of square feet. But in a house this size and shape, single story...never seen it before.
There are only a few quasi-reasonable explanations:
Looking at old maps, which almost always accurately portray the general building footprints, the 1883 map shows the house as being a different shape than the 1903 map. Is it possible that the interior stone foundation wall was originally, at least in part, the back side of the house and the angled, bumped-out section of the house was added at a later date?
Conversely, the door jamb and (removed) door in the stone wall do not appear to be of the exterior variety, nor was there any presence of wear and tear typical of exterior basement-level doors, which supports the idea that this was not originally the back end of the house. And the jamb wasn't added after the fact, the plaster and stone are too tight to it; the evidence of square cut nails tells me she's been there as long as that wall.
Is it possible that the basement was originally separated by the stone wall for a utilitarian purpose? The south section could have been accessed by the interior stairs, and the north section could have been accessed by the exterior/walkout stairs. The basement was originally given a plaster finish, and although the house was billed as a single-family, is it possible that the basement was always the shape shown in the 1903 map and the stone wall and doorway served to separate living quarters, or separate basement space from some type of root cellar?
Tough to say at this point. Maybe further demo and investigation will give me more clues to work with. Maybe the brick wall on the first floor, directly above the stone wall, will give me some information when I tear into it.
Then there's point #2, lateral stability. The house does make use of a few steel rods running across the building above the ceiling, which is common for this era of construction; if you ever see metal stars on the sides of old buildings, those are actually big, fancy washers on either end of the steel rods. My house has 3 rods, if I remember correctly, which provide lateral bracing at the points of the wall farthest from the foundation, where brick walls tend to get a little loosey-goosey if not supported laterally.
But to brace things laterally like that in the basement, and first floor of the house via masonry? Never seen it, not for that purpose anyhow. Walls get braced at points furthest from where they're most stable, not at the foundation level. I don't think the mystery wall's existence has anything to do with stability.
As for point #3, having moved several big foundation stones from random spots in the back yard (why they're there, I have no idea), I can tell you that those suckers are heavy. Stupid heavy. There is zero reason to use them for anything unless it's absolutely necessary, and if the mystery wall really didn't serve any purpose, then whoever called the construction shots wanted to make his people really, really earn their income. I can't imagine this was the case either.
So...no conclusive proof of point #1, no real likelihood that point #2 was the case, and no way point #3 is in play.
What am I missing? What options have I not thought through?
The truth is, the mysterious stone wall in the basement is sort of inconsequential...but the brick wall above it, cutting the house in half and also a total mystery...she presents a little bit of a design challenge.
If I can figure out why the stone wall exists, or existed, that may help me figure out what I can and can't do with the brick wall above it.