WHAT’S YOUR BIG PICTURE?

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Renovations, remodels and rehabs must have a “big picture” to optimize on the opportunity. This can also be called a master plan. For some, the big picture is to quickly renovate and sell. Others look to remodel and create a family home.   Whatever your choice, just know that the built results frequently reflect the individual “big picture” by virtue of design, workmanship, materials used and fixtures chosen. Sure, no project has an endless budget, but it hurts to see projects that have taken corner-cutting and economizing to their illogical and messy ends. Historic preservation and home building take money and/or time. Rarely, neither.

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The Agnes Cotton House has undergone a significant amount of work over the past 3 years and is well on its way to being finished. As you can see from these weekend photos, the project looks like it’s firmly placed in the middle of our big picture / master plan goal: it’s tidied up but it’s still difficult for some to see where this is going.

This part of the project is what I call the “soft, chewy center” – Like a candy, it’s hidden by a harder opaque shell of expectations, sometimes oozes more than you thought possible, can have you chewing harder and longer than hoped, but ultimately, a very delectable part of the treat. The curb appeal beauty of the building and the initial energetic rehab plan (firm chocolate coating) of an historic rehab project coupled with an adventurous chewy center makes for a very satisfying, albeit exhausting project. (My jaws are starting to hurt).

While interior work is taking place, the front porch work is getting wrapped up. All that remains on the front porches is a little more trim work, paint touch up and porch deck painting.   Further exterior work will continue to occur and just as slowly for the rest of the year. Plaster needs to be patched and white washed, gable vent grills need replacing, and chimneys need stabilizing.

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The front and rear yards are all a big experiment too! Seriously, we know what it’ll be like once completed but gardening takes years to realize, and frankly, is never complete. The geological and botanical character of our little hill is proving to be very rich and chockfull of possibilities that we didn’t expect when we started 3 years ago. The front building set back is about 50’ so we have a very large area to create some beautiful vignettes. Right now Bermuda grass and black plastic are the predominant features but we’ll shake that up this fall. The small “test” garden seems to be doing pretty well and our true, mortal optimism is open for all to see in the very tiny trees planted in the front yard. We can’t wait for the temps to drop below 100 so we can put in an honest day’s work.

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“YOU HAVE THE AMANDA DIGNOWITY HOUSE!!”

“Oh, you have the Amanda Dignowity House!” says a neighbor.

“Oh, you have the Amanda Dignowity House!” says the City of San Antonio.

“Oh, you have the Amanda Dignowity House!”, says the Conservation Society.

And consistent with my skeptical nature, my response has always been something like, oh yea — how do you know it’s the Amanda Dignowity House?

The previous owner also believed the house to be the Amanda Dignowity House.  And why not?  During the mid to late 1800’s Amanda Dignowity was known to be quite the active businesswoman on the Eastside.  As old-fashioned habits tell us, our neighborhood is her husband’s namesake. More accurately it’s their namesake or even her namesake considering the extent of her business activity.

Scattered about so many places is this often published description or something very similar: “Dignowity Hill was San Antonio’s first exclusive residential suburb. The area was settled by Dr. Anthony Michael Dignowity, a physician and Czech immigrant, who built his family home on a hill to the east of town and called it Harmony House.”

My response now degrading to cynicism says good thing Mr. Dignowity was accompanied by his multi-talented wife and didn’t have to do that settling all alone!   I digress.  But what edited histories for public consumption do is present simplified situations and often with a “lone wolf” endeavor. We forget how very dependent people were on each other in the pre-auto, pre-telephone, pre-digital media and pre-credit card, paypal and amazon days. These pioneer journeys often required entire large families to relocate while simultaneously depending upon remaining family members who often provided financial assistance. Of all of the truncated 100± word Dignowity Hill histories that are scattered about, the short blurb at http://eastpointsa.org/listing/dignowity-park/ has the best value in terms of brevity and accuracy.

HARMONY HOUSE PHOTO copy

A J + A M Dignowity, Harmony House. 1921 photo

Texas was incredible complicated during the 1800’s and the Dignowity’s like so many other families had a complicated history. What we do know is that Anthony Michael Dignowity (1810-1875) married Amanda J. McCann (1820-1907) in 1843 in Little Rock, AR. The Dignowity’s came to San Antonio in 1846 when Mr. D volunteered as a surgeon in the Regiment of Arkansas Mounted Volunteers serving in the Mexican War. When Mr. D decided to stay in SA to serve as a town physician instead of heading to the war front, it was a matter of a few months before Mrs. D and their two young children traveled by water via the Mississippi River, New Orleans and arrived in Texas through Port Lavaca and joined Mr. D in SA.

Both Mrs. + Mr. D were very skilled and knowledgeable since they both had full medical educations and both had practiced medicine in Arkansas. Both were also very enterprising business people as they started businesses and invested in land soon after arriving in San Antonio.   To give you an idea of the quantity of dealing by the couple, according the Bexar County Clerk Archives, the number of grantor deeds listed for Anthony M and A M Dignowity exceeds 260. Grantor deeds for Amanda J and A J Dignowity number close to 1100!

1848 was a big year: The Mexican War finally ends with the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and the first women’s rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, NY. The importance is not lost on the Dignowity’s. The Dignowity’s took advantage of the Mexican War’s outcome by purchasing large parcels of land whenever they became available. Their original home was in a low lying area closer to downtown on Acequia Street.   In time, 2 large land grants were issued in Anthony’s name and by 1858 Amanda had power of attorney over all of their property dealings. In an era when women’s personal legal rights were limited, their property rights were relatively vast in that they could retain title to property acquired before the marriage and had community rights to property obtained during the marriage. However, the community property could only be managed by the male in a marriage and power of attorney was executed to allow both spouses to legally participate in the business. Ten years younger than Anthony, Amanda lived 32 years beyond the death of her husband, so her wheeling dealing years were rich and included much of the historic Eastside as well as other neighborhoods surrounding downtown San Antonio. Instead of following the Dignowity story, which in itself is exciting, let’s get back to the Crockett Street House story.

In the end, one could speculate that Amanda Dignowity had something to do with the Crockett Street House, but exactly what was the persistent question.  Eventually, I did find the Amanda Dignowity connection but it was not what I or anyone else expected.

In June 1881 Amanda Dignowity purchased the vacant lot (1120 E Crockett) as part of a larger parcel from James Jackson of New Orleans. By November 1882 she had sold approximately one acre to George W. Philips. The vacant lot was sold in February 1883 to Annie R. Smith for $750.  A reduced parcel of 1/3 acre was then sold on March 16, 1886 for $400 to Miss Agnes Cotton, a feme sole. The digital archive file that answered so many questions was a Contract and Mechanics and Builders Lien dated exactly 130 years ago today on March 25, 1886 between Miss Cotton and The Bexar Building and Loan Association. It’s in this handwritten five-page document that we learn that Miss Agnes Cotton borrowed $3400. Within this agreement, Miss Agnes Cotton refinanced the lot purchase costs, agreed “to erect, build and construct a one story Rock house on the property below described, according to the plans and specifications therefore marked Agnes Cotton’s Exhibits ‘A + B’. . . . .”, and financed the construction costs.

Miss Agnes Cotton : Bexar Building

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For better or for worse, she hired a contracting company that specialized in wood carpentry,  “Cotton + Hornung” to build her stone house!  Previously in partnership with Gus Kampmann, Clem Cotton was Agnes’ brother and was relatively young at the time (20’s or 30’s) while Louis A. Hornung was the master builder and much older.

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July, 14 1886, San Antonio Light.

What I’ve been able to learn about Miss Cotton has been only through archived publications. Luckily her professional activities were well documented and like so many social individuals during the 19th century, her comings and goings were often published in the local papers. Unlike the tradition that a proper woman would only be mentioned in the newspaper at birth, marriage and death, Miss Cotton was very well respected in town and her activities were sprinkled across decades of news notices.

So today, exactly 130 years to the day that Miss Cotton signed an agreement to borrow what was a hefty amount of money for a single woman to build her own rock house, I can begin the story of this remarkable woman. A future post will be about Agnes, but let’s just start by saying the naming of the SAISD Agnes Cotton Elementary School on Blanco Road in Beacon Hill is a minor honor for an educator that was a life-long advocate for nurturing curiosity and learning.

To set the record straight, what some call the Amanda Dignowity House, and I’ve been calling the Crockett Street House and The Rock is really the Agnes Cotton House of 1886.  Whew – that was easy!

 

cites:
A Twentieth Century History of Southwest Texas, Illustrated, Volume 1 (Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. The Lewis Publishing Company, 1907).
Clinton Machann and James W. Mendl, Krásná Amerika: A Study of the Texas Czechs, 1851–1939 (Austin: Eakin Press, 1983).
A Forgotten Past/A Nebulous Future, John E. Castaneda, 1979. City of San Antonio, Office of Historic Preservation.
UTSA / Institute of Texan Cultures; Digital Collection, General Photography Collection.
Estelle Hudson and Henry R. Maresh, Czech Pioneers of the Southwest (Dallas: South-West, 1934).
Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide, A Biographical Dictionary, 1839-1865, Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn
San Antonio Light, July 14, 1886

PORCHES – ARE BACK!

NORTH ELEV

If you grew up without a front porch, you just didn’t know what you were missing until you move into a house with one!  My childhood home was a neo-eclectic, American Colonial suburban house built in 1966 with a stoop-like entry.  Barely 40″ x 40″, it was large enough to hold 3 young children for trick-or-treat or maybe two adults for a photograph – but not much more.  With 1″ deep trim inserts flanking the front door that implied “pilaster”, this was a decorated front entry and not a porch.

The myriad of reasons of why porches disappeared on houses of the 1950’s forward might include, the proliferation of an automobile culture which resulted in private homes with clear delineation of indoor and outdoor spaces; the popularity of private indoor activities such as TV watching and record spinning; and the love of air conditioning in the summertime.  Why sit on the porch when all the good gadgets were inside the house?

Our front porches in an earlier era of traditional houses did so many things – might it be called the hardest working room of the house?  Essentially, a front porch extends the private home to the public – it’s the first covered place you arrive to when you visit or return home.  Spatially it surrounds and embraces while our mind hears, “welcome.”  Porches are also a place where you can share your space with visitors without being obligated to enter the main, enclosed house, the private realm.  “The place is a mess”, “The cat is sick”, “The weather is lovely”, or “I don’t know you well enough” are all sufficient reasons to visit on the porch.

Our recently completed front porches, yes, more than one, are very functional 250 square feet of additional living space.  For a house with only 810 SF of livable area, 250 extra SF will go a long way.  Packages and muddy shoes can be left on the porch, cigar smokers can sit on the porch and it’s the perfect place for me to eat unshelled peanuts.  Porches also serve a function for the house as it protects the building face and windows from the wearing effects of sunlight and rain.

This quick bit of reading is a good introduction to the porch on American houses:  http://www.nps.gov/tps/how-to-preserve/briefs/45-wooden-porches.htm

If you recall from a while back, the wood porches rebuilt in the 1990’s didn’t wear so well. The west porch roof and decking had rotted and was pulling away from the house while the east porch roof was in almost complete failure.

PORCH 3

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To make matters more critical, the east porch was still sitting on the 1950’s-60’s concrete slab which was pulling away from the house and damaging the limestone foundation.  An earlier post, Porches – Gone! from April 2014 depict the chore of removing the modern work.

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Today, The Rock porches are about 95% finished with only the post caps, bottom skirting and paint remaining.

PORCHES

As a vehicle for architectural expression the porch form alone, without the consideration of materials and details, says plenty about the program of the house, the habits of its owners and the traditions of its place.  In our case, we recreated the porch forms that were original to the house.  Evidence in the stone informed us of the locations and sizes of all three porches while the other physical evidence, research on the general style and elevations of the house hinted at the roof type.  In this regard historically the house is correct, however, as far as actual construction is concerned, we clearly “invented” the details.  And this is not entirely bad.  The photo record we have dates only to the 1950’s and it appears that since that time the porches have been rebuilt 3 times, not including this fourth version of ours.  Each version expressed something about its time whether it was the metal scroll work supports that were sold throughout the neighborhood during the late 1950’s, the modern, 2x handrails of the 1970’s and 1980’s or the post modern red “dots” on the roof beams from the 1990’s (more about those on a later post).  In our rebuilding, we wanted to show the basic elements of what might have been original but without copying the ornate Queen Ann center canopy bracket which just might be original to the house or the classically inspired gable trims most likely from the 1920’s.

RAILING DETAIL

Without a record of the original house style, our aim is to let the form of the house be the primary historic record and keep the wood details to a minimum distraction.  More historic research on the circumstances around the house’s construction may allow us to one day rip off the guardrails, add doodads or other architectural elements, but for the time being, the porches’ simplicity and clarity is refreshing.
Lastly, we had a very special angel help us rebuild these essential porches – The San Antonio Conservation Society knows well the importance of porches on this house and very generously provided a grant to pay for a large portion of the work.  We can’t say enough how grateful we are to the Society for their support which ranged from the financial to technical and encouragement.  They are the preservation treasure in this town and the heroes for The Rock.  https://www.saconservation.org/

 

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A WINDOW TO OUR WORLD

RICHARD ruwhereur@yahoo.com   Scott City, KS

copyright  RICHARD ruwhereur@yahoo.com

In addition to the form and roof, original windows are the next most distinguishing features of a structure. For this reason, preservationists are in agreement that the windows are incredibly important when rehabilitating a building. Preservationists, among others – people from other countries, parks and recreation, writers and other clever types often say, “the windows are the eyes to the house”.
I suppose as metaphor, that’s not too far off, however I do think it’s a take-off of an older saying that, the eyes are the windows to the soul. So what’s keeping us from switching up a couple of words here and there? Alec Guiness’s gangster character in Ladykillers (1955) actually uses these two different phrases in one sentence when chatting up the unsuspecting Louisa Wilberforce played by award winning Katie Johnson. Prof. Marcus: I always think the windows are the eyes of a house, and didn’t someone say the eyes are the windows of the soul?

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copyright ENOKO123

Ones eyes can be the first things we observe when meeting someone and can make a great impression. Similarly, original windows tell us about the history of the building by revealing the material from which they’re made. They tell us about the intended style through size, proportions and arrangement. From the interior, the window / eye allows the occupant to view the outside world.

I like the fact that windows so readily reveal functional facts. For example, in our semi-tropical region, tall windows are paired with tall ceilings for optimum venting during the summers. Crockett Street like many other stone houses in San Antonio have windows whose sills are at the finish floor for more venting and access to adjacent porches! Windows can also tell us about the building structure. For example since a wood structure typically has a wall depth of no more than 7” and the window jamb, trims and sashes will be pretty compact. The walls of a wood structure with stone or brick veneer can be slightly thicker, but rarely as thick as a structural rock wall.

The Crockett Street exterior walls are approximately 12”, which provides generous depth for the wood frame windows. The layering of sashes, stops, casings + trims are extensive and Mark’s been leading the charge to strip paint from these beauties. Overall, the windows are in OK shape and are large. All doors and windows have the same rough opening width at approximately 42”-48” resulting in a 36” clear opening for either. And to provide a sense of scale: the height of window clear openings on the exterior walls is approximately 9’-6”!

FOR SCALE

The 3 interior doorways and the 3 rear exterior doorways have a clear opening of 7’-0” x 3’-0” which was considered a standard proportion in a finished 1880’s cottage. In the 1990’s the previous owner repaired the pulleys, replaced glass and replaced a couple of window frames. However, the remaining window sashes and trims are still covered with paint, soot from fires and grime over original shellac finish.

BEFORE WEST  BEFORE SILL

BEFORE CASING

We spot tested approximately 6-8 locations for lead in the paint and luckily, found only trace amounts, which is normal. Every window is being disassembled, scraped, sanded, oiled and re-puttied.

MARK WORKING

Broken panes will be re-glazed. Considering these are the original windows, they’re in incredible shape! After the prep, we’ll prime, paint, weather strip and install new hardware.

SILL AFTER    IN PROGRESS

REAR AFTER

This great little house has had over 5 different doorways to the exterior which leaves me amazed to see how flexible and functional the house has been over the years as it accommodated individuals, small and large families. And here we are to impose our ideas of where doorways need to be.
We’re assuming since we still have no documentation on the original intent, that the original house most likely had 2 or 3 doorways: front, side and rear to kitchen and toilet structures. The front door might’ve been either at the very front of the house under the center canopy as a door with sidelights or it might’ve been more modest and located to one side as it we found it. This is where the lack of documentation is a determent since I would expect the front door to be in the front center. Alas, those two windows look to be in their original location.

We’ve swapped the current west facing front door to the east to better accommodate a modern entry sequence via the front walk and driveway.

FRONT DR OPENING  BUILDING THE WALL

In place of the two 1920’s rear doors that accessed a wood structure, we reduced the openings and installed in each respective opening new wood casement windows whose framing and mullions are compatible with the original windows.

And this is what we need to “button up” the building envelope and make it possible for us to inhabit.
And to think . . . . several decades ago, the structural failure on this house was sufficient to request a demolition. I’m so glad the previous owners knew that wasn’t the correct path for this house.

1990s rear house

But back to the design detective work and how we might find who originally provided the plans and specifications for the house – we did get some useful information when researching some of the only original woodwork in the house. One part of the original casing trim has a reference that we found with the good and helpful people at Alamo Hardwoods here in San Antonio.

CASING TRIM SKETCH  ALAMO HDWDS

We’ll save this for another day.

PAINT COLORS or NEW CLOTHES FOR THE HOUSE

The city’s OHP reviews colors for historic structures and those in historic districts, but their approach is a very generous one.  Since paint is one of the most ephemeral aspects of a building (other than most of its occupants), the latitude for color is great.

Taking cues from the white of the natural lime stucco, our palette will be one of grays with what I’ll call, “determined” accents.  The yellowy green is historic per Bicknell’s Victorian Village Builder ca. 1872.  The Harrison Brothers Color Card ca 1880’s shows the  color as No. 40 as Pale Greenish Yellow – it’s pretty darn close too.

We’ll team this palette with blooming native plantings that will flourish on our hilltop.

color HARRISON BROS COLORS

How Do You Straighten Stone Walls?

This is a trick question because you can’t really straighten these walls; we can only hope to stabilize them and minimize any future movement.  Theoretically, a stone house should last for centuries and they often do in varying states of being level and square.  Foundations settle, walls tip inward and walls tip outward and the Crockett Street House has all of the above.  In areas that show visible cracking and shifting, the unsecured roof structure has put point loads and thrust on the stone walls.  The southeast corner still has slight twisting and separation from a wall failure that occurred 30 years ago.  The failed wall and the area immediately adjacent to it were repaired but a wall intersection about 2’-4’ beyond need reinforcing.  Earlier this fall we reinforced and tied together the wood framing systems including the roof and now we’re taking care of the tops of the caliche limestone walls.

It’s common here in Central Texas and the Hill Country to see high ceiling buildings with steel tie rods spanning from one end of the building interior to the other end.  They’re held in place with steel plates on the exterior wall – and in these parts, it’s been a source of pride to use the “lone” star.  When you see a star or plate on the outside of an historic brick or stone building (turn of the previous century and before), there’s a 99% chance that it’s connected to a steel tie rod on the inside of the building holding the walls inward.  One of the original tie rod plates that was put into place during the house’s original construction can be seen on the south elevation.  If you look closely below, you’ll see the star about 18” from the corner of the wall that secures a tie rod along the north-south wall in that location.  The grayish plates are the new ones we’ve just installed.

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Because caliche is so soft, using tie rods throughout for stability would not be the ideal method of tying together this house, therefore, we chose to use a solid and continuous steel plates on the interior walls and they’re secured in key locations.  Each of the 3 rooms gets a plate assembly and the 3 rooms are then tied to each other.  It works sort of like dental braces, but the banding is on the inside of the room rather than the outside of the house.

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The tall gable walls that support the 12:12 roof will get 2 tie rods each.  They’re doing a different job than the plate banding and will be anchored in the attic space.   I’ll just say, I’m not particularly fond of the star plate so we chose to use a functional rectangular plate as the terminal for the stainless steel pins.  This shape will be easily covered or camouflaged with stucco or a paint finish at the end of the project.

Our mason is incredibly experienced in limestone buildings and as a result is fluent in the structural system including how it interfaces with steel and wood structures.  Baltazar Espinosa has been doing this type of work for decades and I would use no one else.

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Espinosa knows that this soft stone requires a careful hand and trusts his apprenticing son Rick to machine and install the steel plates.

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On the inside of the house we’ll leave the heavy duty steel and use it as part of the cornice trim or picture rail – it’s way too cool to cover up!

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Once this work is completed, we’ll be moving to the outside of the house to completely rehabilitate the 2 wooden porches and parts of the roof!  Spring 2014 will be a great time for the Crockett Street House!

“Science applicable to domestic life . . . .”

. . . . was one of the premises of The American Woman’s Home, 1869, co-authored by Catherine Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe.  Some of the topics the sisters sought to address included how to raise healthy families, operate the efficient and modern home and define the woman’s domain to a quantified and qualified setting away from the public business world.  Here we can read about the importance of modern indoor plumbing, indoor heating sources and fully operational indoor kitchens with ample storage.  Also, the home was the place that finds its beauty in the arts and was the primary setting for learning and participating in the arts!

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Here’s a close up of the house on the front cover of the book – almost archetypal while the floor plan exhibits a high level of functionality for “home living” and socializing.  Notice the fresh air plenum and the stove connections.  Bedrooms and chambers were on the 2nd floor.

 

 

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And here’s the Crockett Street House:

1120 NORTH ELEV

Working the Site

The first step of stabilizing the structure has been done!  It doesn’t look like it though – just looks like we made a huge mess.

BEFOREAFTER

Working from the ground up, as would seem logical, we started with what’s occurring below grade and with good input from our structural engineer, the SACS and others with experience, we determined that moisture, rain run-off and tree roots were causing more foundation settlement issues than is desirable for the house.

Sometime after 1950 a good amount of concrete was poured on the site as a way to lessen the issues with rain and mud sheet flows coming from the hillside on the east.  It must’ve worked pretty well for a while, but 60 years later we found that the concrete driveway pad and sidewalks trapped a lot of the rain and mud flows keeping the building base moist and perfect for, you guessed it, trees and shrubs!  And mildew and movement.

CREPEMYRTLE WTR DAMAGE

 I figured that the house originally didn’t have these concrete pads near the foundation as there was probably no horse-less buggy to accommodate.   It’s a funny thing to note that the house was built in the year that one of the first gas powered horse-less buggy chugged down a rural road in Germany:  1886.

But that doesn’t mean that concrete wasn’t available when the Crockett Street house was built.  An 1886 San Antonio City Directory shows that H.H. Alvord was manufacturing “artificial stone” for use in sidewalks, curbing and doorsteps among other uses.

artificial stone

The industrious Mr. Alvord, listed in the 1887-88 City Directory in a new category called, “Architects and  Superintendents” along with local notable architects Alfred Giles and Wahrenberger + Beckmann, was in the business of providing custom “building stone” which by the 1880’s was a newly economical material sweeping the building industry.   Most likely the product was modular or was available as units rather than as the poured product we know now.  If you find odd, super heavy blocks and bricks of concrete in unusual dimensions, and especially if they have unusual patterns or textures embossed on the surface, they could be pretty old.  Unlike today’s poured and cast concrete products, the older units are incredibly hard and durable – no wonder they’ve survived for so long!

The poured concrete pads and sidewalks as the Crockett Street house are pretty heavy duty but didn’t appear until after the 1950’s.  Our landscape guy did a great job demolishing the pads and creating positive drainage away from the house.  He cut the pieces in large, blocky chunks so that we can use them for dry-stack, planting bed and retaining walls that will better control that pesky rain and mud flow from the east side of the hill.

DRAINAGE