Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Was it or wasn't it...

...here in the 18th century?

That's the question we've been grappling with regarding a doorway between the original kitchen of the Amstel House and the second parlor - which functioned as a dining room during certain hours of the day in the 18th century. Here's a pic of the doorway (on the right) and the rest of the wall before we started our accessibility project. The original kitchen can be seen through the doorway beyond the hall:

On the near side of the doorway is some c. 1970 trim. On the far side of the doorway, there is no trim - instead the top of the opening is arched and finished in plaster. It reminds me of some arched doorways I've seen in local houses built in the 1920s and 30s. In my mind, this reinforces the idea that this wasn't an original doorway opening - at least not in its current configuration.

Here's some more background...

Here's a HABS drawing of the first floor of the Amstel House as it appears today. The doorway in question is the one with a red circle around it. It's also important to know that the two current windows that have green squares around them in the floorplan were doorways in the 18th century (we're confident of that!)
A few years ago we had an architectural historian examine the Amstel House, and he had insufficient evidence to be able to say for certain whether this doorway was original or not. If it was not original, there are pretty interesting implications for traffic flow between the kitchen and the rest of the house. Without this doorway, slaves or servants bringing food from the kitchen into the second parlor had to leave the kitchen through one green door and into the second parlor through the other green door, or go through the kitchen yard and enter the center hall through the rear door - either way, both they and the food are exposed to the elements. We offered this possibile scenario in our interpretation of the house though it has always been something that has bothered most of us here.

There are some clues in the nearby architecture that indicate that the wall that the doorway is part of was originally a paneled wall with built-in cabinets on either side of the fireplace. The clues include a break in the baseboard, change in floorboards, ghost lines in the adjacent plaster walls and ceiling, and a nagging sense that something just isn't right.

Here's some pics:

This pic shows the break in the baseboard. This wall is to the right of the doorway in question. There's a vertical line in the plaster directly above this break too, but you can't see it well in this small photo.

Here are two old floorboards still in place near the doorway. The joint toward the bottom of the picture lines up with the break in the baseboard above (you'll have to take my word for it).

Finally, there's a ghost line (more like a plaster crack!) in the plaster ceiling that lines up with the corner of the fireplace, the lines in the wall and baseboard and the joint from old to new flooring. All this evidence seems to support the idea that there was some type of cabinet in this location. The cornice, by the way, is 20th century - installed during an early restoration effort.

Similar evidence exists on the other side of the fireplace (remember Georgian symmetry):

So with all these things nagging at us, along comes our accessibility project this year. We decide that to give people that use wheelchairs full access to the first floor, we need to widen this doorway. Actually we just need to wide the c. 1970 visible frame of the doorway (no masonry involved). As we got underway removing the frame of the doorway we were able to see more of the masonry construction of the arch - and guess what...it looks like the arch was built in as part of the original masonry! No obvious change in the brick units and no change in the mortar - the arch matches the wall nicely.

Here are a few pics of what we found:

The first pic shows the full arch masonry exposed. Then closeup shots of the left and right sides of the arch.

Next we examined the plaster. It was applied directly to the brick of the arch. It looks like the plaster had an early black painted finish on it:

Here's a shot from underneath the arch look up toward the ceiling. The black finish is pretty wide across the bottom of the arch. It may continue underneath the modern finish - we can't tell:

This black finish continues down the side of the doorway opening:

It also continues behind the current baseboard - indicating that there may not have been a baseboard in this location. Instead, the wall was painted black to mimic a baseboard. I've certainly seen this treatment in other 18th century houses (Yes, I'm looking at you, John Chad!) If this area was inside a cabinet, I think this makes a great deal of sense - particularly given the break in the baseboard noted above:

One other thing to note is that the two old floor boards (see photo way above) extend through the current doorway. If the doorway was not there in the 18th century, and it was a wall instead, the floorboards would stop at the interior side of the wall (their ends being covered by baseboard).

So with all this new information coupled with our old, nagging clues, we have a new theory on the design of this wall. I believe that the wall was fully paneled in wood, with a built-in cabinet with shelves on the left of the fireplace and a false cabinet on the right side of the fireplace where this arched doorway is. With the door of the false cabinet closed, it would conceal the arched opening into the kitchen while allowing quick passage between the two rooms as needed. This concept of concealing doorways, stairs, and passages is certainly something that is used in other houses from this period. In fact, it is used on the second floor of the Amstel House - directly above these two rooms and above this very doorway! I like this theory better and better!

Based on this new information, here's a modified version of the HABS floorplan that I mocked up to reflect what I think the first floor of the Amstel House looked like in the 18th century:
So is this the last word on this subject?

I doubt it. More information will probably come to light in the future...possibly through paint analysis that will help establish with more certainty what the first finishes are on the plaster in this area.

Until something else comes to light, we'll be incorporating this "conjectural" floorplan in our interpretation of the house, always being careful to use the qualifying phrase "Based on current research, we believe..."

A New Post!

OK, so I've been a bit slow at posting lately...it's been relatively quiet on the construction front around here. So that means its time to catch up. Here a few photos of the finished brick accessibility ramp and dry well area that we worked on last summer. Truth be told we still need to install a mahogany threshhold at the door to allow people that use wheelchairs to enter the building. But that's coming soon! Also, next spring we'll plant some grass in the area. We contacted our lawn service to get the same blend of seeds that they used a couple of years ago when the whole lawn was re-seeded.

In the photo above you can just make out the slight incline of the brick ramp as it rises in elevation from right to left. It's very subtle and we are very happy that the overall impact on the landscape will be negligible once the grass is growing in the area again.

This second photo shows the are of the drywell and the pipe trenches leading to it from the house. These areas will be reseeded in the spring. Just off-center to the left in the photo you can see a small bit of PVC pipe protruding from the drywell. This is a temporary pipe that we installed to check the level of water and rate of drainage in the drywell. You'll recall that we hit a layer of clay about 6 fe
et down and we're concerned about the drainage rate from the well. So far, after several pretty heavy rains in a short mount of time, the well is performing nicely. Now we just need a big nor'easter to give it a final exam (just kidding!)

Here's a shot up the new ramp toward the back door. You get a good perspective of what the height of the new threshhold going into door will need to be. Also, since this walk was an existing part of the landscape, our masons mapped the location of every brick when they originally pulled this walk up. When they laid it back down, all the bricks were placed back in their same location to the walk has exactly the same appearance from above.

Next...the controversial doorway!