Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Digging"For" China

The next project on the docket at the Amstel House is our drainage and accessibility project. The project includes two things:

1) Regrade the area at the back door of the building to create an
accessible entrance to the museum; and

2) Provide a drainage system to get the water fro
m the roof away from the building without impacting the landscape in the long term.

To accomplish the drainage goal we will be installing a dry well in the backyard. water from gutters will travel vis two downspouts to an underground pipe that will carry the water to the dry well. The water flows into the buried dry well and disburses underground where it will not infiltrate the building and will not damage the landscape.

The hole for the drywell is 6' x 6' x 8' (w x l x d ). before we start the project we need to investigate the site of the dry well with the help of a professional archaeologist to determine if there are any archaeological resources in the ground there.

We put a call out for volunteers to assist and this past weekend we started our archaeological dig. On Saturday we had two professional archaeologists and 7 volunteers here, and on Sunday we had one archaeologist and 4 volunteers here. Here's a photo of our progress excavating by mid-Saturday afternoon.

Some of our volunteers have worked on archaeology sites before, but some of us (like me) are newbies. Tim, our lead archaeologist, kept us all straight though. I spent most of my time sifting through buckets of soil looking for the elusive great find. We had two sifting tables working all day:

So far, we've found a variety of artifacts spanning about 200 years of site history (going back to about the turnof the 19th century - we think). Everything from building materials to broken ceramics. We'll continue the dig this coming Saturday, as we hope to reach the 17th century. The Amstel House site was owned by Roeloff de Haes, one of New Castle's early Dutch settlers, so anything we find will add to our knowledge of how the site was used during the second half of the 17th century. Of course to get to the 17th century, well need to dig through the 18th century, and that will yield information about the first century of the Amstel House's existance - our primary period of interpretation in the house.

Before Saturday though, my project is to get rid of the big pile of dirt that is now sitting on the back patio - a result of our sifting process. I've already saved some topsoil for future garden use - now I just need to get the rest of the dirt out of here!

Roof Finished

The roofers pretty much finished work at the Amstel House on July 18th and everything looks good. We will have a meeting this coming Friday with our architect and the general contractor to review a punch list of items to be finished at both the Amstel and Dutch Houses - primarily gutter work and the installation of a diverter over the Dutch House cellar doors - then the roofers will be finsihed with us.

Here's a couple pics of the finished roof and flashing at the Amstel House:

You may have noticed in thelast photo that the flashing covers the drip course on the chimney. We debated about this treatment after it was done, and discussed whethere that was the best way to handle it. Ideally, the flashing should have been installed beneath the drip course (with a reglet cut in the mortar joint just under the drip course), but with our layered roofing system there realy was not enough room to do that effectively - so we are going with what we have here.

All in all the roof looks great! And everything is dry inside!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Back To Our Regularly Scheduled Programming...

The roofers have been at the Amstel House for three days now working on the roof of the kitchen wing and the small pent roof on the Fourth Street side of the house. They may wrap up late this afternoon.

The did one side of the roof each day beginning with the east sid
e. Here's a pic of the roof on the kitchen wing late Wednesday afternoon:

On Thursday they worked on the west side of the roof. they had to stop briefly mid-day for a pretty heavy shower, but were back on the roof shortly thereafter. Here's another late-day pic:

They arrived this morning and immediately started on the pent roof on the front of the house. It's basically three courses of shingles to protect the big cove cornice that runs between the second and third stories of the house. I took the opportunity to take a few pics once the shingles were removed from the pent roof since we don't generally get a chance to see the construction of this area. In the following pick you can see the sheathing that exists under the shingles of the pent roof. No flashing is used in this situation because the shingles tuck up under the projecting bricks of the belt course (you can just see this to the left of the man's arm in the photo). No plywood or cedar breather will be used either.

While some of the crew worked on the pent roof, on roofer was working on the flashing around the kitchen chimney. You may recall that the roofer decided to go with traditional step flashing instead of the lower-profile flashing option recommended by the masons. This is how the chimney looked at about noon today.

Since the roofers were working above each entrance to the building we closed the Amstel House today. I had hoped we would re-open it late this afternoon but as of now (3:10 pm) they are still cleaning up the area under the pent roof and working on the kitchen roof. We'll be back to business tomorrow!

Civil War Battlefield Threatened

Please forgive this side trip to Virginia discuss an out-of-state preservation issue. Normally the mantra of preservation is think globally and act locally but I think this is an issue that has national significance and warrants stepping outside New Castle for a bit.

It's been dubbed the "Wilderness Walmart" after the Civil War's Wilderness Battlefield which is threatened by a proposed Walmart across the street. More specifically, Orange County, Virginia is considering a proposal to build a 138,000 sq. foot Walmart SuperCenter in a 51.6 acre development within 1/4 mile of Fredricksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park (which includes the Wilderness and Chancellorsville battlefields in addition to Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania).

For a brief history of the Battle of the Wilderness click here.

The County is in favor of the development because it will provide jobs and tax revenue. Preservationists argue that the development will hurt the long term preservation of the battlefield, and alternative sites are available that are more appropriate for the WM Supercenter. Building at a different location will still provide the jobs and tax benefits that the County desires.

I've been following the story for quite a while, but since the Historical Society visited Gettysburg last month it has risen higher on my radar screen (you may have heard about the proposal to build a casino in Gettysburg which was defeated).

Click here for a map of the battlefield and proposed Walmart location.

I decided to post this because earlier this week the Virginia governor Tim Kaine (D) and House of Delegates Speaker William Howell (R) sent a letter to the Orange County Board of Supervisors urging them to reconsider plans to build the Walmart on land adjacent to the battlefield, and look for an alternative site. Kudos to these state officials for reinforcing Virginia's long record of historic preservation throughout the state.

National preservation organizations have also weighed in. You can read their positions on the controversy here:

Civil War Preservation Trust

National Trust For Historic Preservation (NTHP)

If you want to voice your support for the protection of the Wilderness Battlefield and finding an alternative site for the Walmart there are a few things you can do:

Sign the NTHP's online petition here.

Send an email message to Orange County officials here.

To keep up with the story, I recently added another blog to my blogroll here. If you scroll down the screen you'll see it on the right side listed as "NO WILDERNESS WALMART." It's a blog opposing the construction of a Walmart Supercenter across the road from the Wilderness Battlefield in Orange County, Virginia.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Be Nice To Your Historic Brick!

One of the members of our historical society missed our June fireplace/chimney workshop and contacted me via email with a follow-up question about the best way to clean mildew/algae/moss from historic bricks (a common problem around New Castle). It affects a wall of her house that borders a shady alleyway. She also asked if using a sealer on brick might be a good way to keep water from driving rains from penetrating her home’s brick walls.

She suggested that I add my response to the blog - a great idea! So…here’s a summary of my response to her:

In general, for historic brick it is always best to use the gentlest means possible for cleaning. That usually means just water and a natural bristle brush. You can try that if you haven't yet, but sometimes staining doesn't respond to that so here are a few solutions that our mason recommends (listed from gentlest to harshest – though all should be safe for historic masonry):

Vinegar and water – though he didn't give me a ratio for this - I'd start with one part vinegar to one part water and increase the vinegar as necessary.

Bleach and water - start with one cup of bleach to one gallon of water. Increase bleach slowly if necessary.

Muriatic acid and water - one part muriatic acid to 10 parts water (Remember when mixing these together to add the acid to the water. Don't add the water to the acid or else it might boil and spit acid on you. Ouch!) FYI...The masons used this solution to wash down our chimney at the Amstel House to remove excess lime from the bricks and mortar, and also to clean the salvaged bricks before using them.

Whichever of these solutions you try, its a good idea to test it first on a small section of the wall and let it weather for a while before going on with the whole project. Always better safe than sorry!

Whenever a discussion of cleaning brick comes up It’s worth noting that there are two cleaning methods that should always be avoided - powerwashing and sandblasting (which is about the worst thing). These methods are generally too harsh for historic brick, and will destroy the hard outer surface of the brick. Don’t let anyone talk you into using these methods on your historic brick (or any other historic materials for that matter!).

Regarding the second question…It's almost always a bad idea to apply any type of exterior sealer or coating (including paint) to historic masonry. Historic masonry - particularly if it was built with lime mortar, needs to breathe to allow water vapor to pass through the masonry to the exterior of the house. Water gets inside walls from a variety of sources including driving rain, condensation, rising damp, etc. I should mention that an exterior sealer will keep driving rain out - but it won't do anything about water in the walls from condensation or rising damp - it just makes those issues worse.

Any water in the wall needs to get out of the wall somehow - normally that's through the exterior mortar joints. If you seal up the exterior surface the water will escape through the next easiest path - usually that is through your interior wall surface which is typically plaster or drywall. So you'll eventually start to see plaster failure on walls that have an exterior sealer. The same thing can happen if you re-point your historic brick with a portland cement mortar instead of a lime mortar since portland cement is so hard (it also will cause your historic bricks, which are softer than the portland cement, to fail).

In looking around the web, you may find that there are some sealers that claim to be breathable (usually these are siloxane-based sealers). They look promising, but don't have a long enough track record to recommend them on historic buildings yet. One of these was actually applied to the garden house at the Amstel House and I'm pretty nervous about it - I'll let you know how it's going in about 10 years. One problem with all sealers is that once they are on the brick they are not reversible. Any sealer that is silicone-based is one that should be avoided at all costs.

If you have any painted woodwork on the wall that has been affected by mildew, a safe cleaning mixture is one cup bleach to one gallon of water. That's very diluted so if it doesn't work right away you can add more bleach a little at a time. Again use a natural bristle brush to do the cleaning. I've used this on the windows at the Amstel House with good results - though I need to do it again (ugh!).

If there is any way that you can trim branches to allow more sunlight into the area or increase the airflow to the alley that might help retard future growth. Also, it might be helpful if during the next heavy rain you take a look outside to see how the water is draining away from the area, if you are getting any splash up onto the walls from roof or gutter water, of if the gutters are working correctly.

Finally, here’s a link to an article from the National Park Service on cleaning historic masonry ( It should help with the basics though I don't think it covers mildew/algae specifically. The Park Service has a whole series of these articles about various maintenance topics for owners of historic houses. You can see and download them all for free at

Always remember...Be Nice To Your Historic Brick!

Catch Up Time

It's been a while since we've had a post - mostly because it's been pretty quiet around here. But I still need to catch you all up with what has been done.

Before and after the Fourth of July weekend, the masons completed their work on the west chimney. They replaced around 50 bricks, dismantled and relaid the crown of the chimney, and re-pointed the whole thing down to below the shingles.

They also parged the inside of the flues from the top down as far as they could reach - about 3 feet.

Like the kitchen chimney, this one had a void in the masonry between flues - posing a fire hazard if the fireplaces were ever used.

Since the void was visible, we decided to fill the cavity with the same vericulite/cement mixture that we used on the kitchen chimney. Again, our thought process was to incure the long-term survival of the building. We found a problem so we addressed it rather than cover it up. If the house ever has a different owner that tries to use the fireplace, we don't want them to have a bad experience!

Finally, they capped the chimney with metal that slopes from the center down toward each side to shed rain (it's shaped like an upside-down "V", except much flatter). They installed temporary flashing that will be removed once the roofers are ready to build a cricket to protect the chimney.

The chimney was out of level by 2.75" across the width at the top - pretty bad considering it's only about 5 feet wide. They were able to correct it by using some slightly thicker bricks and increasing the size of the mortar joints slightly. The trick was to do this in a manner that would be imperceptible from the ground. In the following pic you can see that the courses of brick rise from the left side of the chimney to the right side:

The results are great - the chimney looks excellent with the chimney mortar matching the adjacent gable end mortar perfectly.

So the next project is the roof on the Amstel House kitchen wing. The roofers arrived today, and the tear off process has started. As I write this, they have removed all the shingles from one side of the house and are in the process of installing plywood over top of the lath.

We're using the same installation process that was used at the Dutch House, so I won't rehash that again here.

The wood shingles will be standard "royals" with a normal thickness - no tapered butt like we did at the Dutch House. We are matching the shingles that are in place on the roof of the main block (that roof is not being replaced since it has several years of life left in it).

In addition to the roof, we'll also be correcting some gutter issues and completing some minor repairs to the metal roof that is on the 1905 rear addition. the roofers should be on-site for about a week - barring any weather-related delays.

Gotta run - I'm expecting our architect to arrive any minute to inspect the Dutch House and check out the progress thus far at the Amstel House.

More tomorrow!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Sharing What We've Learned

June 29

Tonight is our NCCHAP workshop on fireplace and chimney preservation. But before the workshop, I will meet with our architect and mason to discuss our current progress.

The masons were not on site today, pending the outcome of the
meeting above. The roofers were at the Dutch House though and were making progress on the roof. The owner of the roofing company came out mid-day to take a look at the progress.

Later in the afternoon, our architect had a look at the roof and was generally pleased with the progress though needed to address some flashing installation issues with the roofers. It seems that they cut a reglet into the brick rather than into the mortar. This weakens the brick so the architect told them to re-cut the reglet in the mortar, making sure that their previous reglet was fully covered by the flashing. Unfortunately, we now have some cuts in the chimney brick that are unnecessary. However, at least they will not be visible once the flashing is correctly installed - though the flashing itself may be slightly higher t
han it would have been if done correctly initially.

The evening workshop went well with 25 people in attendance (SRO). Here's a couple of pics from the workshop:

I've received nothing but positive comments about the workshop with several people mentioning that it will help them with their own projects. We'll be hosting more of these types of workshops as we begin to tackle other projects that face many historic homeowners. Keep an eye on our website's calendar of events page for more information about these workshops.


June 26

The roofers returned on Friday to begin the rear side of the Dutch House roof, but the weather didn't cooperate. So they'll be back on Saturday to begin.

A couple things about the front side of the roof...All in all it is a pretty straightforward roof on the front side with the only flashing required at the central chimney and where the roof meets the neighbors wall (we're attached on one side).

Since we don't want to disturb the counterflashing or the stucc
o on the neighbors house, the roofers are taking care to leave the counterflashing in place. They will gently bend it up, install the flashing on our roof, then bend it down, back into place. Here's a pic of the installed flashing - you can just see our new flashing glinting in the sun beneath the tan-painted counterflashing:

For a good general discussion of roofing on historic buildings check out this Preservation Brief from the National Park Service:

The masons were also here on Friday to work on the west chimney of the Amstel House. As I mentioned in a previous post the chimney is need of more work than we thought. We'll be building a cricket to prevent water infiltration at the upper base of the chimney from rain and melting snow. That job will be completed by the roofing company. So we'll need to coordinate the work of the masons and the roofer. Hopefully, we'll tackle that next week sometime.

June 27, Saturday

The roofers came back on Saturday to complete the tear off on the rear side of the Dutch House. I was traveling with the Society's annual bus trip to Gettysburg, PA so will see the results on Monday.

Monday is our NCCHAP workshop that discusses historic fireplaces and chimneys. We'll limit the size of the audience to 25 people to allow everyone to see the kitchen fireplace.

Until next week...