Tag Archives: historic masonry

4 Year Anniversary Tour – The Exterior

I haven’t done anything to the front yet, but the plan is to restore it as close as possible to its original appearance. I’ll restore the original brick and marble, eliminate the plague of aluminum siding and awnings, restore or replicate the original wood trim, install wood windows (new or old). You can read more about this process here, here, here, and here.

Let’s pretend this other house is my after, though I plan to 2-tone the cornice and not have white paint on the marble.

The back started off in this grim state. The big square bay was wood framed with very crudely applied modern stucco. The rest is load-bearing brick protected with a thin layer of older stucco. Plus, rusty plumbing stack, rusty downspout, and tangle of cables.

But it got worse quickly when I started enlarging the back bedroom window and discovered how poorly the stucco was installed on that bay. Under it were 3 layers of asphalt siding, and these were damp! If you look carefully at the closeup of the bay, they installed flashing like corner molding, so it channels water INTO the wall. Then below this was the original siding, some of it rotten, nailed right to the studs. So fun times, off it came.

So this was a nice sized extra project when I was already in the middle of that back bedroom. I got the rotten clapboards replaced with new plywood sheathing and all of it wrapped in tar paper and let it go. And then came the polar vortex, the downspout froze solid and I had icicles inside! What a pleasant surprise for the day insulation was supposed to get blown in.

So when it came time to side it we overdesigned it absurdly. Lots of tar paper, flashing, indestructible cellular PVC trim sealed to the brick with silicone (to be eventually embedded into new stucco), and a 3/4″ air gap behind the siding that’s vented so if water does get in, it should stay on the outside of the tar paper. The wood strips are marine grade for nailing the siding into.

Speaking of siding, I was too snobby for vinyl even on a barely visible spot on the rear second floor, so I used HardiPlank. This is almost as nice looking as wood and more durable. The wider siding is not period correct but I figured it was less to install and my parents might want to use my leftovers. I had already committed to white trim and painted the siding a color that I learned is Wedgwood blue, not navy. The beadboard underneath is light blue to try to make this closed in urban space look cheery.


And here’s what it looks like now. The original stucco was in lousy shape and I was on a budget, so where I altered old window openings we filled them with whatever and I’ll have it all stuccoed later. You can also see that the patio door job involved ripping off some of the beadboard. I’ve been lazy lately but maybe I can get it fixed this year. Also, sorry Ross, but yes my ceiling fan has a light.

When this is all done, the plan is to have trim around the patio doors just like the windows above, have the stucco white or very light grey to reflect as much light into the living room as possible, and most importantly, I want a texture that looks like it belongs on an old house. What texture I get doesn’t much matter. The back of this house has no architectural style to speak of. It just needs to look old. The idea of a McMansion stucco texture on my house is enough to give me night sweats.


2 Projects for the Fall

2 big life changes since the beer tour. First, I’ve been eating those vegetables for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day. And second, the joy of NOT working on the house isn’t strong enough to get me to shrug off certain glaringly unfinished pieces anymore. An aside, the Philly shrug is an important part of this city’s identity. I’m not sure if I can explain why it’s endearing at the same time when it also gives us trash strewn streets, a grand city hall with window unit air conditioners, and a robust transit system that still uses tokens. (Okay, that last one might also have something to do with rabidly anti-urban state legislators.)

So as for what I don’t want to shrug off anymore? Did you notice the marble I was ignoring just to the right of the steps? Yikes.


I let this go because the whole façade needs to be stripped and there’s only 7 ½ feet of sidewalk separating it from parked cars and I need to save up for somebody with liability insurance to do the deed. But now that the steps look so good and the rest of the marble base looks so bad… I went out for the masonry paint stripper the GSA recommends for historic masonry. So yeah, maybe my house (left) won’t look so gross anymore. (But remember, the brick to the right was not restored correctly.)


Yep, that goes against all of my old sensible plans. I decided that this is happening Saturday, and I’ll just have to find a way to protect the stranger’s car that will be parked right out front of my house. The idea of splashing harsh chemicals terrifies me. I’ll probably put a tarp over the cars.

I called the Irishman asking what to do about this. He told me, “Don’t worry about it. I put the most caustic things there are in the street just yesterday. If anyone gives you shit about it, come to me and I’ll take care of ’em.”

So wish me luck.

Then there are 2 pigtail lights in my house even though I’ve owned real light fixtures all along. Neither is usable right now but I’m eager to get them working. I’m having some work done to this pan light, so the next time you see it, it’ll be actually be safe to use and I’ll tell you more about it then.


Then, do you remember this chrome chandelier?


I bought it early on and it’s been at my parents’ house until this week. I knew from the beginning that it needs a new chain and ceiling canopy and that the center wire is too short. At the lighting place I went to, the lady also straightened out the bent arms and sold me nice chain and the paper insulators it needs. This was great but I balked at the cost of having it rewired and took it home to do it myself. I felt a little bad not to give them the job after she was very nice and helpful, but decided that it’s good enough that I’m already spending good money on the other one.

And plus, I have a lingering fear that this chandelier will never be my style and will stick out like a sore thumb in my house. We’ll see though – I’ve played it safe with most of my decorating choices and maybe something jarringly blingy and modern will be fun.

Speaking of blingy, this piece used to have 30 crystals hanging from the arms that don’t have lights. What do you think about these?

chandelier crystal.jpg

So How’d That Beer Tour Go?

I bet you want to know how the tour/party went, but first one of the last things I did to clean for it. In contrast to what I talked about hearing from my steps last week, the steps themselves wasn’t white enough. It used to be a thing that everyone would scrub their marble steps every week. (This photo is Baltimore, whose rowhouses are an awful lot like Philly’s.)

Scrubbing Marble Steps.jpg

The plan was always to start this tradition back up after I was done lugging building materials in but… that never happened. Anyways, my mom had bought me Comet cleanser ages ago, but I wanted Bon Ami. Not because it’s any better or anything but remember that big photo of my great-great grandmother?


Well, she lived about 500 feet away and she used Bon Ami. But I went to 2 stores and neither had it, so Comet it is. So here’s what I started with:


And here it was after the Comet. Much better but some persistent black stains still ground in.


Then out comes the Irishman and he says, “I’ll get that off for you in 10 seconds.” And he sprayed them with muriatic acid. This is NOT one of the recommended techniques for restoring historic masonry. So it was scary, especially when the marble started fizzing. But here’s the result!


Then the Irishman did his own marble – not the original slabs like I have. This time I got a photo of the fizzing.


And, never a dull moment, he hosed off his car just in case. THANK GOD it was his parked right here in case anything had happened! Also note his signature lack of personal protective equipment when working with dangerous chemicals.


Then the inside prep. We took away most of the furniture. I said early on that I didn’t want my grandmother’s table because it has a leg in every spot you’d want a chair. I guess I forgot how great a gate leg table is for something like this. And the menu. My mom said that the things other people planned didn’t include enough vegetables so I made massive amounts of hummus, baba ganoush, red lentil balls, and crudités. And remember, it makes all the difference in the world to blanch your crudités. Quench them in an ice water bath so they stay crunchy. The colors are way brighter this way and I’d say the flavor is too.


The Indonesian place around the corner (One of the places that were indispensable when I was kitchenless) provided a platter of vegetable fritters. And of course the fried food is what went. Now I’m planning every way possible to use up half a shopping cart’s worth of vegetables. And then there was how the guests fit. Definitely pushing the limits of what the Crooked House can hold. Just don’t tell the fire marshal I did this.


Obligatory bottleneck in the kitchen. The keg was out back. Some people said my kitchen design was too closed in, but I don’t think it’ll ever matter this much again (Unless I’m a beer tour host next year).


But all this make ahead, room temperature food (and the help of my parents and aunt) let me go to every house. Even though our visits to the houses before (seen below) and after mine were cut short.


I should keep this entertaining thing now.




Facade Plans Post 3 – How NOT to Restore Historic Masonry

Then comes restoring the brick, and this job is scary. I’m going to take the paint off my brick. Many sources recommend avoiding this as it can damage the substrate, but you saw what the paint looks like on my house. For further reading, I suggest this piece from the National Park Service, the preservation guidelines for Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the New York and Philadelphia Rowhouse Manuals.

The problem is that traditional bricks have a durable outer layer from being kiln fired. Inside of that they’re much softer and it’s important  not to take that off. So…

What you really should never do is of course what everyone does. Scrub pointing, or covering over the mortar joints with new mortar without removing the old. This alters the look of the brick and it doesn’t hold up.


Don’t power wash the brick with high pressure. Traditional bricks were kiln fired and you could take off the outer later, which is the most durable part. And NEVER sandblast historic masonry. This can wear away the surface badly, altering its appearance and shortening its life. I encountered this poor facade on tony Spruce Street. I would have thought it was some kind of rustic 1920’s brick except for that little square that was once covered, revealing the same pressed brick as I have. Also pictured: scrub pointing, paint.


NEVER use dry heat like a heat gun. This can drive paint deeper into the masonry and make permanent stains. Plus, it doesn’t work well on masonry.

NEVER clean or strip masonry when there’s any risk of frost as any extra moisture that absorbed could freeze, expand, and cause the masonry to spall.

Avoid driving too much water into the masonry even in mild weather as it’s weaker when wet. Repointing before cleaning the surface is a good move, but you can also temporarily caulk the joints and repoint later.

Don’t sand or grind the surface.

Avoid strong acids (Hydrochloric/Muriatic) and alkaline (lye) products and only use in very limited applications.

Don’t use acidic cleaners on acid sensitive stone like marble. (That’s me!)

Don’t expect surfaces to look brand new. Some patina may be desirable and vigorous efforts to remove troublesome stains or residual paint can damage the substrate.

So what can you do? Use the gentlest means possible. Low pressure washing, hand scrubbing, washing with a non-ionic detergent, some mild acid and alkaline cleaners, steam cleaning, and dangerous chemical solvents can all be effective. Test in an inconspicuous area (which I don’t have) preferably a full year before proceeding, but at least a month.

And when I repoint I must not use modern masonry techniques. My house is made of traditional clay bricks with lime mortar. Modern mortars are harder than this kind of bricks, so if the wall shifts, the bricks fail instead of the joints. Some preservationists recommend only using lime while others specify a soft mortar made with lime and Portland cement.


My façade is pressed brick, which is very smooth and uniform with very thin mortar joints. The mortar is washed or colored red to match the bricks. Scrub pointing is putting a false wider mortar joint over the real ones. This kind of halfassed job eventually pops off and until it does, it fakes the look of inferior and historically incorrect masonry.

And what about that damaged area?


I think I should use a water resistant coating here. These are formulated to let water vapors out but prevent liquid water from getting in. Never use a waterproof coating that traps both. And even the best of these products can do more harm than good, but it sounds like treating the damaged areas only could help preserve it. Or if I pick the wrong one it could help destroy it.

So this will be fun right?

Planning the Facade Post 1 – Existing Conditions

I wouldn’t call my endeavors to get rid of junk and catch up with routine cleaning blog worthy, at least not yet. So now seems like a good time to get back to what I really like writing about – obsessively scrutinizing old details and making fairly technical restoration plans. So to start, here’s the most important job I’ll do in Phase 2, restoring the façade.


The house. Facade restoration to come.

The good news is I have all the original window and door openings, the marble steps, and the cornice. None of these things are in good condition but they’re all there. Stripping these houses of their character was a thing, especially in the 70’s it seems.

Here’s a good view of all the abuse these houses get. From right to left, vertical siding on a cornice, removing lintels and sills, patching with non-matching brick, punching through holes for air conditioners, replacing facades entirely with ugly brick, and leaving the original facade in place but covering it over with new brick, formstone, stucco, or siding.



And so I snapped up something with enough left that it can be great someday. So let’s look at some of the details. At the top I have  a pretty wooden cornice.


You don’t believe me? Under that siding I’m expecting to find this.


Of course I have no idea what condition it’s in. I’m hoping that most of it is restorable. What can’t be restored can be remade, some of it in stages.

Then there are the awnings. Some people told me that they’re charming, but I hate them. They cover half my windows, block my view of the sky, leave me with a dull yellowish light. Plus they are showing their age and they obscure the charming little scallops on the marble lintels. This is one of the only architectural frills the place has. (Also note the shiny lunch truck-style capping on this house.)


So why are the awnings still up 3 years later? Look down by my front door. There’s a fair bit of water damage and they’re chalking away. I don’t care about restoring the damage, but I need to seal this area with something appropriate to stop it from getting worse.


Things aren’t rosy for the rest of the brick either. It’s been painted red, the marble is painted white, and although the original mortar joints were red, they painted white lines onto the bricks! Usually over the mortar joints but not always.


Then there are the windows. I have some of the cheapest vinyl windows you can buy here, and they’re 15 years old – near the end of their lives – and so poorly installed I had to seal the top sashes shut with caulk. I bent out the aluminum capping in 2013 to see what’s behind it.


I peeked behind the capping to see what’s there, and 3 years later it’s still bent out like this. But I don’t care. Aluminum capping is so vile I don’t think this makes it any worse. I have the original trim around the windows, but under the white aluminum capping the sills are capped with lunch truck style chrome plated capping.


The basement windows are also poorly installed and missing their original security bars. (These are next door.)


The front door is relatively new. I wish it were old. It’s in a style that comes pretty close to Victorian but misses the mark slightly. But it’s solid mahogany so I don’t plan on replacing it. The glass, however, is not authentic and I’d like to replace it with something plainer before refinishing the door. And the latch that was on the door wore out. This interior door knob gets the job done but it’s not long for this world.


Next up, we’ll get into the nitty gritty with historic masonry.