Historic Restoration at Old Economy


1827 – The date scribed in the eave of the house

Thanks for visiting with us.  I would assume in reading this you are at least curious of what’s going on in Old Economy, or that you may have a more serious interest in rehabbing a house or how that differs from a historic restoration, or the neighborhood around Old Economy.

No matter your level of interest we started this series of articles to tell you about all the exciting things happening in the Ambridge Historic District and about historic preservation.  We hope to explain why one would go to the effort of doing a historic restoration (returning a building back to a state or condition from an earlier era), but also how it is personally and possibly financially rewarding, a means of energizing a community or yourself, and a way of leaving your mark in this world.

Along with the philosophical reasoning we will also share some technical aspects of restoration, and along the way dispel any misconceptions about restoration, methods, sustainability, and even the skill level needed to do a historic restoration.  You’ll also meet some interesting people, and learn about a growing historic community.

So look for that and more.  Call or email a question and we’ll answer it in a future article.

Old Restorer

TribLive News Article

Many thanks to the TribLIVE.com – Pittsburgh’s News Source / Sewickley Herald for their piece on our historic landmark!

See the article here: http://triblive.com/news/neighborhoods/sewickley/10429000-74/heslet-lapic-ambridge

Harvest and the Garden Gate

Well, we’re finished with the restoration of the Samual A Heslet House.  No, not really.  But it feels good to know that we’re down to just fine tuning our log house.  This week we worked on the garden fence and gate, some interior storage and plumbing and or course, gardening.

The garden is beautiful right now.  We’re picking fruit and vegetables now, but we’re also letting select herbs go to seed for replanting or for the kitchen.  We’re harvesting coriander of all things.  I didn’t know that cilantro that went to seed yielded coriander.  Not sure what Rose Mary is going to do with it but I am enjoying harvesting it.  We also have a variety of peppers ripening that we’re going to freeze, stuff or sauté in olive oil and garlic to enjoy over fresh Italian bread.  But now she’s telling me she’s going to pickle them.  Let’s just make a decision, because I’m getting really hungry.  Our heirloom tomatoes are also coming on strong just now because we planted them so late.  We discovered that basil does really keep bugs off of tomato plants (except for one huge tomato worm that went on a one-way trip to worm heaven).  I’d tell you the varieties but the plant markers are buried deep in tomato vines.

All of this along with Sugar Baby watermelons, yellow squash, dill, French tarragon, Russian sage, and other herbs and mints on a plot about 20 by 20 feet.  Oh, and don’t forget the grapes, and the fig tree we’re going to espalier on the fence.

When I designed the outdoor spaces I wanted to strike a balance between a green, a garden, and a vista.  The green wasn’t actually my idea, but my good friend Norm, owner of Pittsburgh Restorations and Construction.  He felt the flagstone patio area I had planned would be too hot in this South facing sunny area, and I found I had to agree.

The area provides a welcome natural area that I bisected with a red brick sidewalk.  I also wanted to create a vegetable garden reminiscent of the Harmonist family gardens that were located between the houses that were laid out along the perimeter of the city block.  In the historic drawings and art of the village, some of this is depicted.  Street scenes in archival photos show gardens enclosed in picket fences.  There’s a photo taken from the church tower sometime in the late 1800’s where you can see part of our yard with a small outbuilding and of course a garden.  In the photo, the fence is there, but a bit cruder and realistic than our interpretation.  There are rows of corn (no room) and instead of an outhouse and washtub, we chose en-suite bathrooms.

As the first house at Old Economy, Heslet House was reconstructed on the newly laid out street corner in 1824.  At some time fruit trees were planted along the streets making efficient use of the land – a trademark of the Eckonomie philosophy – so that helped me decide what I would plant in lieu of the stumps and dying maples.  I chose a selection of pear trees for a variety of reasons.  Because of all the utilities I needed a more compact tree with a shorter mature height than traditional shade trees.  But in choosing a fruit tree I wanted a fruit that was disease and pest resistant to eliminate any need for spraying.  We’re picking three varieties of pears right now, but the plan is to graft other fruits onto the trees early next spring.  I think Father Rapp would have approved.

The Harmonists had a particular architectural style that isn’t easily discernible.  When you mention architecture, visitors think of the large buildings and make note of roof lines, facades, and other prominent features.  But what really reveals their style are the little details.  Even in their fence posts, they had a style I hope we captured.

Jason replicated a quarter round quarked trim for under the fence post caps that act as an entablature to a crown moulding that in this case is the fence post cap.  This is a detail usually only seen on prominent buildings.  Who would go to all that effort just for a fence post? Someone doing it to the glory of God would.

I made and hung the garden gate complete with hand forged Suffolk latch set from that period.

Suffolk latches came from all places, Suffolk, England.  Like any particular hardware that becomes popular, blacksmiths reproduced what people were used to thus what people bought.  So though these latches were originally imported, most from this period were mass produced in the area for general consumption.  I used forged square nails to not only give the gate an authentic look but clinched the nails over to lock the gate together.  Rose asked what the heck that means, so maybe I should explain.  Back in the day before screw guns and construction adhesive, there weren’t a lot of ways of connecting things together.  The Harmonists used traditional techniques such as mortise and tenons, wood dowels or pins, and wrought iron clamps and nails to hold things together in the house, furniture or in this case a gate construction.  Nails were precious up to this point in time because not only did it take a lot to make nails, but they cost money. Parts of the gate and fence weren’t just dimensional lumber, but little detailed parts and pieces and mouldings such as fluting, beading and other details that they felt they had to add.  Once the parts were planed, moulded, cut and laid out, the square nails were driven into the assembled parts.  The nails were longer than the wood they were piercing, so they then protruded out the other side.  When all the nails were pounded into the gate it would have been most likely stood up and the ends pounded over or clinched.  What a cinch.  Same thing.

There will never be an end to the work.  That’s not a complaint, but a hope.  Gardeners understand this, and restorers too.  I’m looking forward to making pasta sauce or a batch of red paint for the cellar doors and a couple thresholds.  Same thing.  There’ll be another coat of house paint too now that the house is done, but that’s for another blog.  Overall we’re very pleased with the garden.  We enjoy seeing people admiring what we’ve done –  and that’s our reward.  My hope is that visitors would get a feel for the way it was as they walk past to the museum grounds.  If you have a chance come by and I’ll show you some of the Harmonist details.

A simple question

Usually, the conversation starts like this, “I want to do my house just like you did, so how do you…?”, and on they go from there asking what appears to be a reasonable question, but not knowing the real cost to the answer.

Over 30 years of acquired knowledge in restoring Harmonist structures should be worth something, but what’s the use of hoarding knowledge?  Yes, it would be nice to be paid for the consulting once in a while, but with knowledge comes responsibility.

I believe their motivation to the inquiry is that after answering they can look it up on the internet and somehow do it cheaper.  I imagine folks thinking we took too long, spent way too much on our project, or they can do it better, but cheaper should never be a motivation.

So I usually ask a few questions in return to see what they really want to know.  Often they’re just curious.  But after a while you get to know the folks doing real work in the neighborhood – it’s not that big of a district.  Sometimes I think I give out too much info overwhelming them as the happy smile turns to a frown.  I’m not too sure why they ask me, but as my friend, Jason would say, ‘you make it look easy’.

Time was when you wanted to build a house you looked not only at the suitability of the land for crops, but whether you were in Indian country. Then you looked at transportation, available raw materials, and distance to markets.  Before 1784 (before Old Economy) this side of the Ohio was the lands of Native Americans.  They then became Depreciation Lands that the Harmonists bought in 1824.

It’s amazing to me that when you look at the beautiful brick Harmonist houses built while Jefferson and Adams were still alive, no building materials were available, save an occasional keelboat of lumber going down river.  Wood was far easier to work, making it into planks or logs squared for timber frames or log houses than was stone or brick.  The Harmonists were building for the thousand-year reign of Christ, so they favored brick.

Like other settlers, they had to locate clay, cut trees into dimensional timber, make wood molds, crush the clay, add aggregate, make it into a slurry, throw the wet clay into the wooden molds that were coated in either sand or just wetted, (thus the term sand struck or water struck brick), and the damp bricks stacked to dry (green brick).  Then you had to cut firewood, stack it into a tight mound, stack the green brick in a pile around the wood, cover it over with brick or just damp materials to contain the fire in the kiln, light the fire, then as the fire burned, control it, or tend it, so it smoldered, rather than burned – never leaving it till the burn was complete.  This allowed the brick to slowly bake.  After, the fire burned out the hot brick mound was dismantled.  The bricks closest to the fire were the hardest with some so hard they melted creating clinkers.  Others on the inside had a shine to them where the sand vitrified creating a glaze.  Today you can see the glazing on the bricks glistening throughout on the outside of an unpainted Harmonist brick house (another reason not to paint a historic house).  The further away from the fire, the softer the brick was.  The bricks just beyond the clinkers were good for coursework (in laying courses of brick), but the bricks to the outside of the kiln were the orange bricks – soft and crumbly.  You did not expose these to weather but used them on the inside course of the walls.  They made a great substrate to receive lime plaster.  Being less dense, thus porous, they also acted as insulation.

As for mortar to build the brick walls you need sand and lime.  But what if lime is limited in the area?  You could mine it, but in the early days, there were lime outcroppings.  Look at old maps and you’ll see mention of lime cliffs, lime shoals in the rivers, or lime deposits etc.  You could also gather limestone gravel from the river that was already naturally washed.  Before the day of navigation dams, limestone was exposed along the shoreline.  Lime mortar and plaster are all made from limestone.  You can make it yourself from crushed limestone from your driveway.  In a similar manner as brick kilns, you layered fuel and limestone.  Charcoal (from your charcoal kilns silly) and gravel were layered over and over till the kiln was full.  The kiln was fired and tended to control the burn.  In the morning or so there was found fired hot gravel.  The hot rocks were raked out of the ashes and put in a pit (a lime pit).  Water was poured on the hot rocks and they’d pop like popcorn, white and hot and powdery.  What happened is the fire drove out the hydrogen and oxygen (water) and the carbon (dioxide) leaving pure calcium (quicklime).  This would soak in the water to form a putty – the longer the better.  It was kept in water not only to be readily available for mortar but dry it was dangerous -explosively so – in that water splashed on it would cause it to erupt as the previously expelled hydrogen from the water tried to bond to the calcium.

When the mason was ready to build, he dug a footer 1 foot deep, laid in fieldstone – the stone dressed on the outside for looks and uniformity – and built it up one foot above the ground forming a level bed for the brick.  Then on this two-foot high foundation came the brick.  Pressed for time, the Harmonists laid the inside courses with clay and sand mortar saving the lime/sand mortar for the outside course.  This allowed the soon-to-be-hard lime mortar to act as a supporting moisture barrier protecting the soluble clay mortar from the weather.  As the lime set it absorbed carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere combining with the hydrogen from the water in the putty, slowly turning back to limestone.  So the mortar joints to the outside of the Harmonist houses are limestone with clay mortar to the inside.

But we have the luxury of buying most building materials read-made.  Sometimes it’s worth the cost, but imagine all the fun you’ll miss.

Hey, whatcha doing up there?

No matter your approach to restoring a historic house, whether you take a do-it-yourself, or a contract-it-out, time-versus-money decision, you are going to end up on a ladder.  Just accept it, ladders are in your future.  Yes, there are exceptions.  All of us have some sort of limitation, whether imagined or real, that we have […]

Welcome to Heslet House lodging

Welcome to Heslet House! We hope you like what you see here.  We have put many years of hard work into the authentic restoration of the house for you to enjoy.

Through the many years we worked on this and other historic buildings in the Economy National Historic Landmark we’ve come to a new appreciation of history in its many forms. We hope to share what we’ve learned and to be a source of inspiration and encouragement to anyone considering restoring a house, or moving to what is known as Old Economy Village.

It may be bad English to use the third person “we” in writing this blog, but to make matters worse I’ll probably liberally interchange it with the singular “I”, because the Heslet House restoration was an individual effort that could not have happened without the help of good friends and some skilled trades.  So I will tend to use we talking of our collective efforts when credit is due and I for where I should probably limit blame to myself in order to protect the innocent.

That being said, the one thing I want everyone to know is that you don’t have to be a professional to restore a house.  I believe everyone has the inate ability to restore something historic, whether it’s a structure such as a house, or storefront;  or an object such as a document, furniture or monument; or even a historic garden.  But what you do need is to gain the necessary understanding of your subject before you lunge head first into a restoration creating irreversible damage to what you’re trying to save.

Almost all of my restoration work has been in one neighborhood – Old Economy Village – in the river town of Ambridge, Pennsylvania.  Ekonomie, as it was spelled by the original Nineteenth Century inhabitants, was the precursor to Twentieth Century Ambridge.  It’s a place that you can only see with your eyes wide open.  There are the obvious prominent state-owned buildings, but outside the museum grounds lies the bulk of the unrestored old village patiently waiting for the right person to restore it.

So, I hope to share more thoughts on historic building restoration in the future and I invite you to come visit for a day and take a look around and join us for a stay in Old Economy Village in Ambridge, PA.

Check back often as we share more information on the area’s history and restoration information.

If there is something in particular you would like to know about, drop Dennis a note here.