Our Burlington house is a late Victorian eclectic built in 1899, originally a farmhouse on the railroad magnate Charles Perkins’ estate. For most of its life three families by the name of Nelson had owned it, although two of them were not related to the third. The family that sold it to us in 1988 had begun to restore it after several attempts at remodeling. Jan said, when she first entered the front hall, seeing the old varnished woodwork, that it wrapped its arms around her and said, “Welcome home.” That made me happy, since the other seven houses in our price range that I had previewed all had serious problems that would need a lot of attention right away. This one was almost “move-in ready.”
Walls were newly papered with tasteful period patterns. Ceilings were newly coated to cover the cracks and holes. New curtains were hung just about everywhere. Floors were sanded smooth and refinished. Only a few issues remained that would need resolution sooner or later.
The six basement windows provided the first challenge that I tackled. The casings had deteriorated past the point of repair, reglazing, or repainting. I tore them all out, stabilized the surrounding limestone rocks with mortar, and installed new windows that resolved some of the leaks and drafts in the cellar.
All the while I looked at that solid wide-board wooden wall that ran down the center of the cellar, lengthwise of the house, separating the cellar essentially into two large narrow rooms. Above that wall in the center of the house, the floors were noticeably uneven, and a wall crack had broken through the new wallpaper on the second floor. Something was going on behind that wall, I decided, exercising my powers of deduction.
The wall seemed so solid until I started to take it down. A little pushing on the heavy boards and they gave way at the bottom, so I proceeded to remove every board. At the top the boards attached to the main support beam of the house. At the bottom, everything seemed increasingly loose and mobile. The upright posts supporting the beam had obviously rotted at the bottom, so that the entire wall, about a ton of wood, was hanging from the main beam. When I finally reached the center of the wall, I found that the beam itself, was not one large hewn timber, but two butted end to end, with nothing supporting the center. The center was hanging from the rafters of the house. No wonder it had settled! The whole support system was hanging from the house, rather than holding up the house. It made no sense, but the house seemed to be lifting its support.
I quickly put several jacks in place under the two main beams, and dug footings under the concrete floor, that the owners had obviously poured years after the original rock footings had been put in place. Then new pressure-treated six by sixes were wedged into position, firmly attached at top and bottom. This house was not going to collapse or going flying off into the great beyond if I could help it.