Latest Restoration Work – Peeling Back the Layers


Here’s some of the guy’s recent historic restoration handiwork.  The first is a picture of the “remodeled” western side of the house addition at 98 13th Street.  Previous owners added aluminum siding sometime in the 70s.  They replaced that along with windows during the peak of the energy crisis.  In trying to save money on fuel bills the historic character of the house was destroyed.  Restoration was the least of concerns when cars were in line for gas, and fuel bills skyrocketing.


Westside elevation of the addition was covered in aluminum siding

















Restoration – Found

Underneath it was the mid-19th Century addition door, but we also found a beautiful glass transom.  They are part of the one and a half-story shed addition that was there previously.  When you visit you can see what that looked like on the house across the street.

The same wall and doorway.  The siding was repair and painted. A corner board will be added, the door stripped and painted and the transom reglazed.


In our preservation plan, we chose to retain the 1905 wood siding.  Back then, someone removed the hand-made Harmonist weatherboards.  That siding, though beautiful, was thin and wide and the carpenters had a habit of incorrectly nailing it causing it to split.  So, unless the new owners were willing to hand make siding, placing it with siding picked from a catalog was the thing to do. This was part of creating a whole new second floor and adding the huge gable roof.

We thought in doing this it would be a testament to the transition period between the Harmonists and the new town of Ambridge.

Imagine a rural German village that virtually stood still for 80 years while the surrounding communities continued to grow.  Those communities were attracting immigrant populations seeking a work in gritty industrial towns while Economy was sleeping in a pastoral era.  We hope we do them both justice.

Five Reasons to Restore a Historic House

So you’re looking for a place to buy and you have a foggy idea where you want to live and equally foggy reasons why you want to live there.  You look at school districts, house values and prices, transportation, quality of life, lifestyle, and proximity to work.  And then you start house hunting.  The more little blocks you check off your list the higher the prices seem to get till you’re in so much sticker shock that you have to decide what little blocks to uncheck.  You’re just following all the guidelines and advice you’ve been told you need to follow in choosing a house, but it’s just so darn expensive and the neighborhood just doesn’t seem worth it.

But what if you use different factors?  What if there were reasons to choose a house and a community other than financial ones?  What if you chose a house based on values of a different kind?  We all talk about quality of life, but today we are culturally poor compared to previous generations.  We give value to a house made out of sheets of chips of scrappy wood and formaldahyde glue, wrapped in polyvinyl chloride on the outside and sheets of wall board made of gypsum and waste fly ash from a power plant on the inside.  The community is a once productive farm field laid out by a designer to maximize the most housing units.  To further entice you to buy there they offer a tennis court and community building convenient to shopping in the, well er, the plan.  Buildings are designed to mimic the best of styles that actually exist in nearby older towns.

If the land of make believe isn’t for you and you’re looking for something different, something better, something historic, then I offer the following alternative.  Here are five reasons why you should consider something totally different – restoring a house in a culturally rich historic district for your home – in the Economy Landmark District, aka Old Economy Village:

  1. Reason one.  They’re not making them any more.  You would be hard pressed to find any pre-Civil War Houses in the Pittsburgh area, let alone houses built in the 1820’s.  Houses are historic for many reasons.  Age is of course one.  What little early efforts to save older buildings there were was focused on high-style buildings like banks, libraries, or governmental buildings, not lowly home spun houses of the time – vernacular architecture.   In 1898 architectural William Ware, commenting about the rapid loss of vernacular buildings said, “the losses are irreplaceable, because those early builders will never come again.”  So older houses are rare, very rare.
  2. Reason two. They’re hand made of natural sustainable materials.  A typical Harmonist house, one built by the Harmony Society, was hewn of virgin timber into hand sawn beams, flooring, and siding, fitted together by mortise and tendons, or nailed with hand forged square nails; or made with hand thrown bricks of local clay and sand and laid with locally kiln fired lime mortar. You can’t get more sustainable than that.
  3. Reason three.  They’re professionally designed by an architect.  Few today live in a house designed by an architect.  Starting in 1824, Frederick Rapp designed the architecture of “Old” Economy Village, both high style and low.  He followed a rhythm, scale, and proportion that is pleasing to the eye.  Yet there’s more to the style than looks.  Practicality was worked into every aspect of the typical house plan – something house restorers discover on their own.
  4. Reason four.  A Harmonist house is of a one-of-a-kind style found no where else in the world.  His style was one of adaptation, where he melded earlier German features into a new Early American Republic so as to blend into the local landscape but yet be separate and apart.
  5. Reason five.  They’re relatively simple and easy to restore (as opposed to a more complicated style like a high Victorian house).  They are of a simple three or five bay plan, of smaller dimension with simpler architectural features and trim, so tend to be a more straight forward restoration than other more ornate and complicated styles.  Consider the Eastlake or Gothic style in comparison.

There are of course many more reasons, and of course down sides to restoring a historic house.  But that’ll be left for future blogs.

Visit the state historic site of Old Economy Village.  See the museum exhibits, tour the historic buildings, view the fine arts gallery or natural history exhibits and consider attending one of the cultural events.  Then walk around the surrounding historic district and if you have vision you’ll get it.

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.

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 […]