Thursday, March 23, 2006

The Back Stairs Inside Out

You can learn a lot by observing what others have done before you. Since I have no formal training in construction I always pay close attention to the way the house is put together. I tend not to be real aggressive when I’m doing demolition work. Instead it is a slow and methodical process. Although I’m not always successful, I always try and get each board off in one piece.

Today was a treat because I got to see the back side of the back stairs. These stairs lead from the back end of upstairs hall to the kitchen. The first time I looked at the house it was still cut up in to apartments and it was a little confusing at times trying to figure out where you were exactly in the house. It is a big house and it was just room after room after room. I remember I ran home and tried to draw a floor plan of the house from memory and the backstairs seemed to lead to no where on my floor plan.

Back in the teens or 20s when the place was cut-up they built a small wall in the kitchen to isolate the back door from the rest of the kitchen and then removed the back door. The back stairs that used to egress in to the kitchen now emptied out on to the “back porch”. Back porch is in parenthesis because it was still the kitchen but because of the wall and the missing back door is seemed like an alcove on the porch. It allowed upstairs tenants to have a door that lead directly outside.

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Anyway, when I looked at the house it was in really bad shape. The backdoor at the bottom of the back stairs had been nailed shut. There was no light in the stairwell, and the light in the upstairs hallway was not working. The back stairs where a dark pit that seemed to lead….maybe in to the gates of hell. They where really spooky. The realtor would not go down the stairs so I ventured down by myself. I got about half way down and as I descended in to darkness the ripe smell of dog poop became stronger and stronger. As I approached what I thought was the bottom I thought I heard something move. I never made it to the bottom. It would be about 2 years before I was able to re-enclose the kitchen and pry open that door.

Now I love the back stairs. I use them all the time and the cats use them more than I do. They are still kind of dingy but they are somewhat clean and don’t smell. That’s a real plus. It was under these back stairs that I found all the items that turned out to be the tattered remains of Mrs. Petch’s last few years in the house. They are now part of the Museum of Petch. Because of the work I’m doing in the butler’s pantry I opened up the rest of the wall back there. I find it interesting.

To give you context, here is a shot of the stairs from the bottom, as they exit in to the kitchen, and from the top of the hall. Notice how the bead board goes up at an angle and then angles up again after completing the turn.

Now here is the back side of the wall. You can see the vertical bead board at the bottom, and the nailer that matches those angles on the front side. Above the bead board is the horizontal T&G redwood boards that make up the plaster wall. You can also see the cavity under the stairs where I found Mrs. Petch’s things that were abandoned around 1919.

When they plastered the walls in the house they did not use the traditional lath strips. Instead they used 8-inch T&G redwood boards that had a series of dove-tail grooves milled in to the boards. Her is a shot of one of the boards.

You can see the tongue and one end and the groove at the other, and then there are a series of dove-tail grooves that run the length of the board. They covered the walls with these boards and then smeared plaster over them. The plaster filled the dove-tail grooves and formed the “keys” that held the plaster to the walls. Very cool. That also means there is enough freakin' wood in this house to build two houses. Because the second story is shingled. This means there is wood sheathing on the inside, for plaster, wood sheathing on the outside under the shingles, and the shingles themselves. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. It always amazes me just how much wood goes in to making a house.


John said...

Like you, we had very little construction experience before we started this project. We helped demolish an old house for the salvaged materials a couple years ago. It was a real educational experience. Since we wanted everything intact, we had to take it appart in the exact reverse order it was installed. I learned a lot about old home construction from this experience.

I've never seen tongue-in-groove boards used as a plaster backing like that, very ingenious. That has got to be a lot more solid than lathe too. Thanks for the pictures.

Anonymous said...

I have stairs sorta just like that. Mine have two built in hand rails and the turn is at the top. Only thing is mine are not back stairs they are the main ones in the wall. Norma