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March 2007
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May 2007

stuff you can't live without: Mag-o-Grip

I don't frequently recommend individual products here, but this is so incredibly useful for anyone who builds, repairs or otherwise tinkers that I had to mention it.

The Mag-o-grip (not sure about the hyphenation) is basically a magnetic wrist-wrap that lets you keep nails, screws, nuts, bolts, drill bits and other useful metal things on hand. That's it - so simple I'm amazed it hasn't been around for 100 years, but I guess truly useful things are often this simple - and not really obvious until you see them. It's available for about $15 from MDG Tools and various retailers. I don't know about you, but I'm tired of having forgotten nails, nuts and heavy staples shred my shirt pockets and clog up the dryer lint trap...

"Shelterporn" from Houstonist: big profits in Texas

Houstonist's every-Saturday Shelterporn section focused on a really pretty bungalow in last weekend's edition:

Longtime shelterporn readers will know that we're most partial to two kinds of houses: clean, contemporary designs and traditional bungalows. Frankly, though, it's the bungalow that really makes us think "home" — and so it's only natural that we fell in love with this Heights beauty at first sight.

At $599K, it's no bargain, whatever that means, but I can't speak to relative prices, not having much knowledge of Houston's current real estate climate. However, based on the last selling price and the square footage price of other homes in the neighborhood, Zillow estimates the home's value at $187,915, which certainly seems a bit more realistic.

Adam Wells, president of Clerestory Homes, says that the upgrades and renovations were extensive:

This project was definitely a labor of love for our company. It is an original 1920s bungalow that was extensively remodeled and renovated. We added ~1,900 sq.ft. to the original ~900 sq.ft. footprint.

You can see previous sales data here; looks like a flipper or the developer bought it for $160,656 last year - so a more than 300% increase in price. It's just too bad that people are priced out of neighborhoods they've lived in for years, and entire areas are ghettoized, by profiteering and personal greed. That said, the house itself is beautiful, inside and out, and apparently the buyer is very happy with her purchase.

3 easy-to-install green insulation options

GreenHomeGuide, one of the best general information sites for folks trying to maintain, restore or remodel their home in an environmentally conscious way, has a great article on three safe and renewable insulation products.

If you’ve ever struggled with huge, unwieldy bats of fiberglass insulation or forced your way through a crawlspace, wrestling with a hose and trying to blow fluffy white fibers into every corner — all the while wondering what those toxic chemicals and shards of fiberglass are doing to your body — you’ll be relieved to know that there are green alternatives. Here are three of our favorites for do-it-yourselfers.

Urban Archaeology: architectural salvage in New York City

Urban Archaeology, with showrooms in Manhattan, Bridgehampton, Boston and Chicago, has been in the business of saving urban architectural treasures since they opened their Manhattan store in 1978.

In addition to a large stock of salvaged materials, they have also developed their own line of lighting, bath accessories, washstands and medicine cabinets based on popular historic designs.

As far as salvage goes, though, this is no scrapyard, but rather the highest end of the collectible architectural antique sellers.

Rest & Restoration: Volunteer Vacations at Historic Sites in Need of Some TLC

Jamie Donahoe at the Heritage Conservation Network sends us the following note on their hands-on building conservation workshops. A number of photographs from recent workshops are available in a special Flickr set. Thanks, Jamie!

If you had driven by the Francis Mill in Waynesville, North Carolina in July 2003, you might have stopped to take a photo of the picturesque but dilapidated structure nestled in Francis Cove. If you were to pass by the mill this summer, you would see a structure that’s neat and square, strong and weathertight. The difference: volunteers who joined a series of summertime hands-on building conservation workshops organized by Heritage Conservation Network in partnership with the Francis Mill Preservation Society.

HCN, a Boulder, Colorado-based non-profit dedicated to the conservation of the world’s architectural heritage, specializes in recruiting volunteers to assist with hands-on preservation projects in association with local preservation partners. Volunteers spend a week or more at the site, working under the guidance of a technical expert.

Back in 2003, with the mill in danger of imminent collapse, Tanna Timbes, great granddaughter of the man who built it and founder of the FMPS, contacted HCN and asked for assistance in saving it. Over the course of three workshops at Francis Mill, a total of 48 volunteers contributed more than 3,700 hours of labor, and that made all the difference.

HCN volunteers are not necessarily experienced preservationists, with only half having experience in the field. Instruction and supervision are provided by the technical expert leading the hands-on work, and participants – of all ages – quickly find themselves replastering walls,
documenting decorative paintings, shaping adobe bricks, chiseling mortises and tenons, or chipping out old cement mortar to replace it with lime mortar. The focus is on the use of traditional techniques and materials – the prescription for keeping historic buildings sound for many generations to use and appreciate.

HCN has organized workshops at more than a dozen historic sites in the past four years. In Oplotnica, Slovenia, last year, volunteers worked painstakingly to discover the original decorative paint scheme of a 17th century chapel. The workshop, led by one of Slovenia’s foremost conservators, brought nationwide attention not only to the project but also to the need to safeguard Slovenia’s cultural heritage.

HCN will return to Slovenia in 2008, when volunteers will help restore the oldest known vintner’s cottage in the Šmarško-Virštanj wine district; it dates to the 16th century and is in poor condition, much like the Francis Mill was four years ago.

Volunteer opportunities this year include work at a Queen Anne style parsonage in Jonesboro, Illinois; the Old West town of Virginia City, Montana; and colonial and traditional buildings in Ghana. All still have space available and can also accommodate groups looking for a meaningful way to volunteer. Information about these and other opportunities to help build a future for the past can be found on HCN’s website or by calling HCN at +1 303 444 0128.

for sale: restored Horseheads NY home, $199,500

From Martha Horton's recent article in the Star-Gazette's Twin Tiers Homes section:

John Stevens, a Horseheads native, studied architecture at Cornell University, and his wife Rosemary, originally from Owego, is a Cornell graduate, but the two did not cross paths on campus. They met later, when Rosemary was employed with Corning Inc. and John, an independent electrician, was doing work there.

John had purchased a Craftsman-style house in the Village of Horseheads in 1993 from the Shappee estate. The original owner, who built the house in 1920, was James Shappee, a prominent citizen and foundry owner. His caricature by famed cartoonist Zim hangs in the Zim Center in Horseheads. James' wife Febe was a Horseheads school principal.

When Rosemary, an interior designer, first saw the house, she recognized its "good bones," and thought it was well worth preserving and updating. So the couple went to work on it, doing most of the labor themselves. "We worked on the house every day after work," Rosemary recalls, "and every weekend." They are still working on it.

John did extensive rewiring and updated the heating system. Rosemary, who now operates her own interior design firm under the name of "Designs by Rody," masterminded the aesthetics. "I wanted to keep the house in character and bring it forward as it would have evolved through the years," she explains. "Houses talk to you," Rosemary adds.

The 3+ bedroom, 4 full bath, almost 4000 square foot house is listed by Kristen Dininny, a real estate agent with Signature Properties. There's a map here.

Of course, where I live, a house like this would sell for well over $450,000, even with the market falling a bit in the past year. It's almost tempting to move to New York and try to make a living doing freelance work or by beefing up this site and trying to make some money from the advertising ... the $200,000 cash I'd walk away with from the sale of my own smaller home would cover expenses for several years.

Arts & Crafts sketches and doodles

Our friend Michael Joyce of the always-illuminating Historic Omaha website / blog is addicted to American Bungalow magazine. So much so that he takes extensive notes and doodles many things he sees & loves in that magazine. Take a look at his extensive Flickr set of these sketches, and some of my personal favorites:

off-topic: the new Google Maps and how to REALLY improve them

I posted this over at Urban Cartography, but thought some people here might be interested too, especially since my test use of this new technology will be to make a map showing the locations and some background data on all still-existing Greene & Greene properties here in California.

I was all excited to learn that Google is now allowing user-created data in custom maps. This is great! However, when I went to go play with it, I learned the current implementation - which in most ways is an alpha release - is missing 90% of what could make it useful. Such as:

  • the ability to import, not just export, addresses. I want to make a canonical map of all currently existing properties by the late great architects Greene & Greene; this is not very easy by hand-entering every single one. However, if I could import tab-delimited text, I could have the full list of 200 up in a few minutes!
  • the ability to display multiple maps at once - on top of each other (i.e., LAYERS). this would make google maps a useful tool for data analysis: you could display maps of different data layers at once, but what would make this feature REALLY shine would be...
  • the ability to pipe in data from online databases. if you combined #1 with the ability to bring data in from online databases, not just uploaded text files, you could use this with the ability to see different layers at once to see real causality - that is, you could see how income, for example, and property values, tax base, parks, etc. all interact. It would be a really democratic tool - the ability, for example, to see if public works projects actually happen in poor neighborhoods as they do in rich, or to see what zipcodes public university admissions come from (if that data were available), or to see what area codes had the most telemarketer calls originating, etc. In fact, this would turn Google Maps into the ultimate social researcher's dream tool - the killer app that sociologists, activists, criminologists and others have been waiting for.

Just a few (big) suggestions for the Google Maps folks to think about...

installing Romex & receptacles in a plaster-on-brick wall

Our friend Matt Wyczalkowski with the St. Louis Rehabbers Club has a new set of photographs up on Flickr, detailing two different projects in the same room: running new Romex inside a wall from the basement and across a ceiling to a light fixture, going around a few corners on the way (something that many old-house owners have either had to do or SHOULD be doing soon - before our houses burn down, at least), and installing a receptacle in a plaster-on-brick wall (no easy task).

Stickley museum opens in Fayetteville / Manlius, New York

A few articles on the grand opening of the Stickley museum on the third floor of the Stickley-Audi factory in Manlius, New York.

video, video and, what's this? more video

Lots of folks have put great videos up in the last few weeks on Google Video / YouTube / GooTube / whatever you want to call it.

how to live within history – not on top of it

This is one of the most delightful things I've read in a newspaper since long before the current war began, and it's almost enough to distract me for a few minutes from Kurt Vonnegut's death, the rising toll of wounded and killed overseas and the idiocracy we seem to have saddled ourselves with in Washington.

For today's Los Angeles Times, William Deverell, a history professor at USC, has written a quiet and beautifully moving paean to his home, his neighborhood and how he has learned to "live amid history:"

Houses and neighborhoods seduce us. They always have. What starts with limitations — cost and location — often blossoms into habits of living and cherished memories. Our love affair began in Pasadena eight years ago.

It was the fall of 1999. We knew we wanted to be close to Caltech, where I was teaching at the time, and near the Huntington Library, where my wife, Jenny, works. So we drew an imaginary rectangle on a map of Pasadena, hoping that somewhere inside this space we would find our perfect home and our perfect neighborhood.

When we first saw it, the house hid behind 20 years of benign neglect. It was a Mission Revival with old wooden awnings sagging atop wrought iron braces. In the yard, worn-out grass fought a losing battle with brown spots and weeds. Here and there, a few succulents hung on.

Built in 1923, the house was tired. The bathrooms needed work — a lot of work. Every window had heavy iron bars on it. An apartment attached to the garage was decrepit, and a freestanding building out back, with an incinerator plunked down in a corner, was a mess.

The owner had been in the leather business in downtown Los Angeles. He had retired years earlier and brought his inventory home with him. Bolts of leather stood stacked in rooms and corners of the house: raw leather, finished leather and leather in some stage in-between. A couple of rooms were off-limits because we couldn't open the doors; leather was in the way.

Our real estate agent apologized to us on the sidewalk as we left.

"I really like it," Jenny whispered to me.

Gladding, McBean

The firm of Gladding, McBean has produced materials for hundreds - and probably thousands - of beautiful historic homes here in California. The Greene brothers used their stuccoed planters at the Gamble House, and Bernard Maybeck used their roof tiles, chimney tops, planters and more in both his residential, civic and commercial projects. While it is now a division of Pacific Coast Building Products and no longer independently-owned, they are still making the clay and terra cotta items they've become known for since 1874. Today they are the only remaining maker of ornamental hand-made terra cotta in this country.

The company is still going strong today, producing those items and all sorts of architectural terra cotta work, fire flashed clay floor tiles, and a whole range of garden pottery. Their website has a number of photo galleries; their garden pottery, especially the big oil jars, are beautiful, as are the tiles and decorative chimney tops, the perfect finishing touch to any A & C home.

Cole Pottery in Sanford, North Carolina

Booth Mountain Retreat is a family blog "about establishing a family homestead outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina." They "started with a two-story timber frame coach house and later will build an attached 1909 Gustav Stickley-designed main house." I enjoy their articles on various aspects of timber frame construction, but was especially struck by something last week - an account of the family's visit to Cole Pottery in Sanford NC.

Whenever I head into Sanford I need to stop at Cole Pottery. It is just before you get to Sanford and it is a great place. It is run by Neolia and Celia Cole and Neolia's grandson Kenneth George. Today Neolia and Kenneth were there. It is an old building with dirt floors covered with tar paper. The exterior is cover in vinyl siding and it is not showy. They have a back room that they are usually throwing pots. Neolia will usually have a cigarette going and Kenneth is quietly working.

Cole Pottery and its family owners was also the subject of New Life, a 55-minute documentary made by Jim Sharkey and distributed by

old homes make way for strip malls in Lubbock TX (and everywhere)

Lubbock's North Overton neighborhood - once sparsely populated with sprawling ranch-era Craftsman bungalows - is slowly being reseeded with strip malls, tract developments and other signs of the coming apocalypse. One such home is being picked up and moved to make way for that harbinger of class, culture and the real building block of a modern neighborhood, the strip mall.

"This was called a craftsman-bungalow house, it was built in 1911. It's one of the oldest houses in Lubbock, it's also one of the most historic because of the people lived here the first 75 years," said former resident, Frank Potts.

In 1924 A.B. Davis moved to Lubbock. Soon after moving into the home. A.B. served as the manager of the Chamber of Commerce and later as Lubbock's City Manager. His family called 1724 Main their home for 60 years.

Frank Potts is A.B.'s grandson, he said, "lots of memories here, there really are. As a child it was a big world out there, World War II was going on when I first moved here and I just remember everything just seemed, the house seemed like a huge mansion and I was just a little bitty guy and wondering what happens next."

The original plans for the home show a 4,500 square foot house with wide overhanging eaves, deep porches with large square brick posts and beautiful wood paneling, all adding to the charm of this old home. With the vision and financial help of Lubbock attorney Ted Hogan, this old house will be able to stand for another hundred years. He said, "a lot of heavy lifting (will go into moving the house)! and quite frankly the fellas that the credit goes to are the movers because they're the guys that have the technical knowledge."

With the development in the North Overton area, this old houses days were numbered as a strip mall is slated to go here. But in 5 weeks, 1724 Main will get a new address on the corner of 16th and Avenue R after it's moved, piece by piece, down Avenue R.

Hogan said, "we have about 5 weeks to get it done, we have a May 1st deadline. There's new development coming in here. If the weather permits and if it doesn't rain, we should be good to go at the end of April." Giving this old Lubbock home a new lease on life.

It should be noted that Lubbock's Overton Park project is currently the largest private residential development in the state. Questions regarding the number of homes destroyed or moved directed to the McDougal Company, the firm tasked with making rubble of old homes in the way and clearing it, were not answered

Tokyo's Nihon Mingeikan & Mingei's relationship to Arts & Crafts

Japan's Daily Yomiuri includes an English-language edition, and a recent issue includes a short article by Robert Reed on Tokyo's Nihon Mingeikan, a small museum celebrating Mingei crafts and the life and work of Soetsu Yanagi, the founder of the Mingei movement. Mingei is sometimes associated with the Arts & Crafts movement by art historians who note both its chronological proximity to European A&C and its similar philosophical underpinnings (the recent International Arts & Crafts show, which originated at the Victoria & Albert and was at San Francisco's De Young Museum in the middle of 2006, included a model room based on Mingei crafts and made a strong case for that movement's inclusion as part of the 'International Arts & Crafts' milieu).

From the museum's website:

Located in Tokyo, the Mingeikan Museum is housed in a beautiful traditional Japanese building completed in 1936. Founded in the same year, the Mingeikan has over 17,000 items in its collection made by anonymous crafts people mainly from Japan, but also from China, Korea, England, Africa, and elsewhere.

Yanagi Soetsu (1889-1961), the first director and founder of the Museum, coined the term Mingei (folk art) in 1926 to refer to common crafts that had been brushed aside by the industrial revolution. Yanagi and his lifelong companions, the potters Bernard Leach, Hamada Shoji, and Kawai Kanjiro, sought to counteract the desire for cheap mass-produced products by pointing to the works of ordinary crafts people that spoke to the spiritual and practical needs of life. The Mingei Movement is responsible for keeping alive many traditions.