Thursday, July 31, 2008

Poison Pill

The House of 42 Doors was built in 1921 by a financially successful, first-generation Dutch American. Bill (not his real name) made his fortune as a farmer, a banker and a small businessman. He ran a greenhouse adjacent to the House of 42 Doors and at one point had 27,000 square feet of greenhouses. By the time Bill built the House of 42 Doors, he was 57. He died sometime in the 1940's.

Upon his death, the house went to his oldest son, Eddie. I'm not clear what Eddie did for a living. He may have run the greenhouse business, or he may just have lived off of his dad's wealth. I know that he remained a bachelor and lived in the house with his youngest sister Marge. He was also an avid hunter and outdoorsman. From the 1940's up until the death of Eddie and Marge in the 1970's, the house and the grounds slid into serious decline.

Once Eddie and Marge died, the land that held the greenhouses was divided up into eight lots, varying in size from one quarter to three quarters of an acre. The greenhouses were bulldozed and the lots were placed up for sale. The House of 42 Doors was in such bad disrepair that the family talked about bulldozing it along with the greenhouses and just selling the land.

A nephew of Eddie, Dave, stepped forward and offered to buy the house. Dave is an architect and saw value in preserving the House of 42 Doors, not only because of its family history, but also for its architectural form. I don't know exactly how much work he put into the house. Based on one photo and close observation it looks like he completely rebuilt the porte cochiere, remodeled the sunroom, replaced the gutters, replaced the majority of the plumbing with copper pipes, removed the old coal boiler, installed a new natural gas boiler, built a new three car garage and put cement sidewalks around three quarters of the house to try and manage some of the water issues. He focused on keeping the house original as much as possible. And for all that he did do, he left a lot of things undone, like all the things we are having to deal with.

There is a factory that sits only a block and a half away from the house. The oldest part of it predates the house, having been built in 1889. It's been added on to several times and now covers an area of at least fifteen city blocks. It employs around 600 people. The entire town population is only 6500. The factory is a major contributor to the town economy. It is noisy, generating a constant hum and when the wind blows from the wrong direction, it smells unpleasant. The odor can vary from sauerkraut to sewage. Because of where we are located, we get an unpleasant smell a few times a month, but the steady hum is always present, day and night, except for Sundays when it lessens.

The factory has kept real estate prices in the area low. When the land around the House of 42 Doors was subdivided after Eddie's death, it created an opportunity to build new houses just north of Main Street on large, wooded lots within a stone's throw of a river. The factory was too close though to allow this land to be upper end real estate. The houses that were built on the new lots were nicer than the houses already in place though. They are currently appraised at about 30% to 50% more than the standard houses in town. The House of 42 Doors is appraised at the top end of the neighborhood.

Sometime in the early 90's the factory decided that they needed to expand again. To stay profitable, they needed cheaper energy and they needed to add facilities for further processing of raw materials. They worked together with a large local energy company to devise a plan that included additional facilities and a power co-generation plant for both the factory and the greater community. All they needed was a location.

Casting their eyes to the west, they saw a small neighborhood sandwiched between a river to the north, the factory to the east and a waste water treatment plant to the west. It seemed perfect. They bought up most of the houses, offering the people who lived there the "right to salvage" before their houses were knocked flat. Some people took out everything - light fixtures, doors, plants, trim and, in at least one case, even the topsoil.

Everybody sold out to the factory, except for one homeowner, Dave. I don't know all the tricks he used to hold off the big companies, but he did apply to have the house listed on the National and State Historical Registries. He succeeded, arguing that the house is architecturally distinct from all other houses in the town. One person I talked to said he won the fight against the companies only because the energy company and the factory didn't file a crucial document in time. The project died. The factory chose to do without additional facilities and instead relied on additional energy from a new natural gas pipeline. They put the houses back on the market and the neighborhood resettled. The House of 42 Doors narrowly missed the bulldozer for the second time.

David lived in the house until about 2005, when he and his wife moved to Australia. Eerily similar to our own experiences while we were in Ireland, David rented out the house for the first year that he and his wife were overseas. The renters were not good for the house and they did not rent for another year. I'm not sure if the lease was not renewed or if the renters opted to leave. In any case, the house sat empty for part of 2006 and 2007. We bought the House of 42 Doors on August 30th, 2007.

Why all the back story? Because yesterday the factory released a statement that as of the end of August, they are going to shut down. They cited a glut of product in the market, high energy costs (natural gas prices have gone through the roof) and insufficient facilities to process raw materials. Shipping in semi-processed materials is too expensive. This ties back to the desire of David to save the House of 42 Doors. I'm torn. On the one hand I love the House of 42 Doors. On the other hand, it's existence is caught up in the loss of jobs for around 500 people. And in a town of 6500, that is substantial. I feel like I've been fed a sugar-coated poison pill.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Chedder Cheez

We have started frequenting a small cheese shop near us. It's on the way to/from the pick up point for our CSA. It's not much of a shop yet as they have just opened. They are trying to focus on Wisconsin only cheeses. I'm glad that they are trying to keep a local flavor to the business.

The problem is that the cheese industry in Wisconsin is very big, but not very diverse and not very imaginative. Our eldest daughter asked for Camembert and of course they had none. It is after all a French cheese. We suggested they look into carrying the Crave Brothers Les Frères cheese. It's from Wisconsin and the closest we've found to a soft, continental cheese.

The person working there recommended a five year, aged cheddar, which we decided to get. After all, it's cheddar, the world's single most popular cheese. I didn't know until last night that it is possible to screw up cheddar. It is so bad, I had to blog about it. The texture is awful. I expect an old cheddar to be dry, crumbly and have a nice "break apart in your mouth" texture. I expect it to have a strong, nutty flavor. Really good cheddar also wouldn't be dyed orange. It might be yellow-orange from aging, but not bright orange.

This has none of that. It seems like they took their wheels of cheese and dumped them in an extruder with a little bit of food coloring and oil. Then when the cheese was extruded into blocks on the other end, they whacked the cheese into packageable sizes, shrink wrapped them and sent them out the door. The cheese has an overly smooth, almost slimy texture and the flavor is just that of a too strong cheddar. It almost reminded me of Velveeta. Horrible.

It's too bad because the folks who make it (Weyauwega Star Dairy) make really good cheese curds. My suggestion to them is to stick with what they do well. Or at least do a little more research on what aged cheddar is supposed to taste like. Because this cheddar should never have been given the name of cheddar.

P.S. from Ms. Huis Herself - it also makes horrible grilled cheese sandwiches. I know cheddar's not an especially good melty-cheese necessarily, but even Pumpkin, who LOVES grilled cheese, said, "This isn't a very good sandwich. I don't yike the cheese."

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Touchy, touchy

I'm overly sensitive about the House of 42 Doors. I try not to be, but I know I am. Mostly because I worry about whether or not it was a wise choice to buy it. The opportunity cost for this house is high, and will remain so for years to come. So since I worry about it so much, I obsess about the wisdom of my actions. And when other people question my actions, I get defensive. Two instances come to mind.

When Ms. Huis gave our neighbors to the south a tour of the place, the wife (who lacks a bit in the areas of social graces) said "Wow. You have a lot of work to do there. Sure am glad I'm not you." The retort that almost came off of my lips was "Well, I can assure you the feeling is mutual." Fortunately, I bit back the replay, laughed a polite little laugh and made some non-committal, inoffensive reply. They are our neighbors after all, and until I get the ten foot hedge in place, we need to be civil.

When the plaster master was visiting the house the other day, Ms. Huis gave him the tour. They were in the middle of the tour when I caught up with them in the attic. He set me off the wrong way with the first thing out of his mouth. "I like looking at old houses, but I'd never want to own one." And then he continued with stories of his daughter and son-in-law who are now on their third old house. Seeing an opportunity for something in common and a chance to build some rapport between the two of us, I responded with something encouraging like "Really? They like old houses?"

And then he continued to alarm me. "Absolutely. The first thing they do to each old house they buy is gut it and redo it. Wiring, plumbing and of course plaster. We come in and plaster it...for free!" Polite laughter followed. At this point, I just tried to get the information out of him that I needed to fix the ceiling. I wanted to ask him, "What about the moldings? The old growth wood they ripped out? Did they keep the light fixtures? Or the doors? Maybe the old locks? How much unnecessary stuff was sent to the landfill?" But there was no point in the time that we were there.

There is always a fine line between preserving something old and replacing it with something new. On that continuum I tend towards the preserve something old. The country as a whole though tends to lean far towards "Replace it with something new." New is not always better, even if it might be cheaper. Of course old is not always better either.

I had a discussion with a co-worker last summer about the dangers of buying an old house, specifically around the health hazards - lead, asbestos, faulty wiring, etc. He was adamant against buying an old house due to these risks. My reply was to look at new houses and some of their issues - mold, petrochemicals, VOCs, etc. I think he saw my point.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sweet or Sour?

I really like sweet cherries. I always have. And I always thought it would be neat to have a cherry tree, especially after having seen the cherry trees in bloom on the east coast. So I was very excited when we bought the House of 42 Doors. We now live in Zone 5. I've never been thrilled with growing pie cherries. There was always something appealing to me in growing my own Bing cherries, and now finally we can.

But I may have had a change of heart. Our wonderful neighbors to the north have a pie cherry tree and a few weeks ago they offered some to us, with the stipulation that we had to pick them. No problem there. Ms. Huis went over one evening and picked three or four pounds. I didn't know what to do with them, so I did what I always do when I have a cooking question. I went to the Joy of Cooking.

I love that cookbook. It has everything in it, from trivial things like what kind of butter is good to complicated things like how to make beef wellington to bizarre things like how to fix muskrat. Pie cherries were a piece of cake (no pun intended).

I washed, stemmed and pitted the cherries. Then pound for pound, I placed alternate layers of cherries and sugar in a pan. I let it sit for 24 hours covered and then cooked it down and sealed it in jars.

The resulting sauce was exactly like the canned cherries available in the store. But the cherries are wonderfully tart and sweet at the same time. They have tons more flavor than the cherries from the store.

And now I'm torn. Pie cherries or sweet cherries? It's probably good that we don't have more land. I'd want to plant too many fruit trees. After all, why not plant pie cherries AND sweet cherries?

Also we got the quote back for the ceiling. To fix the entire ceiling with a two coat plaster job is $875. With the $300 cash out that the insurance company is offering us and the $60 cost paid to the plumber, that leaves us with a total out of pocket cost of $635 for our little soil pipe issue. I'm still pondering the plaster job though. I'm not sure if I want to spend that much on it.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

It's a Big House...In the Summer

I found myself thinking the other day that the House of 42 Doors is a lot like a giant heart that beats with the each season. In the winter it contracts and we live in as few rooms as possible, with the house buttoned up tightly. It starts to expand in the spring, as we use the back entry and the sunroom. In the summer it expands to include the sunroom and the outdoor porches. When fall rolls around, it starts contracting. We shut off the sunroom, stop using the outside porches and get ready for the winter.

We haven't been in the house a year and yet I already can see that living here has changed the way that I look at houses and architecture. Most houses today have spaces that are 100% conditioned. Porches became enclosed porches, which became three season porches, which are now year round, four season enclosed spaces. Heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer mean that there isn't a need to open the windows in a house. Opening a window is a choice, not a necessity. To better provide for people's comfort (and their wallets), the walls that separate them from the outside have gotten tighter and climate control is available twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, all year. These are the types of houses that I've mostly lived in my whole life. It's not the House of 42 Doors.

I feel more connected to the outside right now, as the house extends onto the porches and beyond into the lawn. The line of where I live doesn't just stop at the brick walls of the house. They are fuzzier than that. And I know that in the winter, we'll huddle around the hearth as the snow and dark winter nights push the line of where I live to somewhere inside our brick walls. This is not something I had considered when we looked at the house.

The big hole in the ceiling is still there. We had a call from the Home Warranty folks last week offering us to cash out for the plaster repair. They didn't have a plasterer that they could recommend, so they are offering us $300 and then it will be our responsibility to get the hole fixed. I've got a plasterer coming out today to give us a quote. The hole is ugly, but at least the plumbing is functioning 100%.

I should be signing a contract this week with the roofer and putting money down. He's waiting on the final quote from the shipping company and the shingle company. I am also supposed to be getting the final quote from the gutter guy today, at which point I can sign a contract with them. The only bit left is to get a commitment from the carpenter to do any repairs to the fascia, the supporting wood under the gutters and the trim.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Moving Right Along...

I'm happy to report that we have a functional bathroom again, tub, shower, sink and toilet. Yesterday I worked at home to be on hand in case the plumber ran into any difficulties. I was available to see all of the ugly details. Ms. Huis took the kids and the car and wandered around town, staying out of harm's way.

Erick the plumber showed up at 9:45 yesterday morning, clean, friendly and quiet. I showed him around the house and pointed out the two problem areas - the broken hot water valve I broke off trying to close and the dripping ceiling. Fortunately the ceiling had stopped dripping by this time.

He opted to repair the basement valve first, which took about an hour. In the process, I did learn something I hadn't known. The valve that failed was a stem valve that looks like this.

Most of the valves in the basement are of this type, although a few of the newer ones are a ball valve with a lever. Some of the valves in the house are installed sideways, like in the picture, while others are installed with the handle facing down. Erick made the observation that the lifespan of the valves installed upside down is significantly less than those installed sideways or upright because small drips of water leak on the stem, rusting it. Which is exactly what happened to the one that broke off in my hand. Erick installed a new ball valve on the hot water and that should last my lifetime.

Then Erick headed up to the kitchen, climbed his ladder and started measuring where to cut. I left the kitchen. I did not want to be there when the lathe and plaster came tumbling down. I knew just how filthy the job was going to be based on the ceiling I took out in the basement and also on how dirty the water was that came leaking from the ceiling.

I asked Erick how long it was going to take to fix the problem, to which he replied that often what takes the longest is finding the leak. Here's a picture of the pipe he pulled out. See if you can find the leak.

Those holes were at the top of the cast iron. Evidently, cast iron always leaks from the top down. What happened, and why it started leaking "all of a sudden" was that there was a small blockage in the pipe. It was big enough that it acted as a dam, raised the level of water up to the spill over point and then leaked. Now that Erick finished the work, it looks like this.

He had to cut and replace the elbow too, which is why there is a cut into the wall. Erick was cleaned up, out the door and driving away by 3:00 pm. I spent the next two hours cleaning up the coal dust that had been in the ceiling. If there is anything worse than concrete dust, it's coal dust.

The next step is to get the plaster guys in. We'll let the the ceiling air out for a few weeks though before we look at getting that done. It's still a bit wet up there.

So all in all, functionally everything is working great. It's the cosmetic part next that I'm most worried about.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

When it Rains it Pours

Wow. So where to start? I didn't post on Friday as I usually try to do because we were out of the state visiting relatives back in the homeland. Also things had been a bit slow lately. Prepping for a big project (the roof replacement) is no different than most projects. Most of the work is planning, fact checking, researching, crossing t's and dotting i's. And then suddenly at the end, everything is done in one big whoosh! It's the whoosh part that is exciting and fun (expensive too), and the part that people most like to read about. Nothing has changed on the roof front, and I don't expect work to start until sometime at the end of August.

But I digress. The weekend was fantastic. While back in Minnesota, we saw both sides of the family (including all siblings), visited with old high school friends of mine that I haven't seen in a while, and saw college friends, many of whom I also haven't seen in some time. There was fireworks, water skiing and cook outs. The weather was fantastic - sunny and low eighties. It was absolutely perfect for sitting in the shade and relaxing or sitting in the lake and swimming. I only mention how wonderful the weekend was so that its clear how relaxed I was when we returned to the House of 42 Doors.

We pulled up to the house and I was relieved to see that all looked well. A few weeks ago, I trimmed back the huge honeysuckle bushes at the south end of the property and I noticed when driving up that they had sprouted new growth. This is a very good thing, because right now they look awful. I got out of the car and started walking the length of the honeysuckle to see where else sprouts where appearing when I noticed that one of the honeysuckles was about three feet longer than I had trimmed. Looking closer, I realized that the honeysuckle hadn't magically grown three feet in five days. A 60' box elder tree in the neighbors "woods" fell over the weekend and a branch had fallen over onto our honeysuckle.

While I'm sad to see a tree of that age and size fall over, it does mean more light in our yard and gives us a great opportunity to put in a hedge. I'm also hoping Joe will take the opportunity to remove some of the buckthorn in the "woods" now that they are visible. As to any damage done to the honey suckle, they are technically Joe's honeysuckle. They just happen to be growing on my land, barring the first foot or so.

So up to this point coming home was interesting and generally good. I unpacked the car and when finished ran upstairs to use the single bathroom in the house. After finishing my business, I flushed and headed back downstairs, where my wife and I were treated to a rain shower in the kitchen, which happens to be directly beneath the bathroom. Not good. This isn't the first time that water has leaked downstairs into the kitchen. The one other time was when a guest showered and didn't close the shower curtain tightly enough. Water dripped onto the bathroom floor and found its way through the floor boards and a crack in the ceiling.

I ran into the basement, located the cold and hot water shut off valves for the upstairs bathroom and turned off the cold water valve. No problem. Then I shut off the hot water valve, which once closed, busted off in my hand and started to drip. So I ran to the main and shut the water off to the house. Meanwhile, water continued to drip from the kitchen ceiling onto the floor. By the time I got back to the kitchen, the drips had slowed down, so as an experiment, I ran back up to the toilet and flushed it again. The dripping continued.

When we bought the House of 42 Doors, it came with a Home Warranty, paid for by the seller. Basically for $400 a year, the warranty covers repairs to major home systems - electrical, stove, refrigerator, water heater, boiler, plumbing, etc. We already used the service once when our heat went out last January. It probably saved us over $3000 on that job. So being savvy in the ways of Home Warranties, I called AHS and reported the leak via their automated system.

Their automated system leaves a bit to be desired. The first time I called them in January, without heat, the nice automated message informed me that the heating technician would call us in one to three days (at which point we would have frozen to death). When I called them this time (with water going splat, splat in the next room) the automated message informed me that a plumber would call me tomorrow to schedule a visit (at which point we would have drowned). In both cases, they did provide the contractor they had assigned the job to, so I was able to put a call in to speed things up.

By six o'clock, our plumber (who I will call Tim), showed up. After a few tests and even more leaking into the kitchen, he made the educated guess that the original 1921 cast iron waste pipe that drains all water from the bathroom (toilet, sink, shower and tub) was cracked. The fix is to rip out the ceiling in the kitchen and replumb the line. He's coming today at 3:00 to open up the ceiling and do some exploratory work. Gulp.

I know this all sounds like horrible news, but I'm hoping it won't be that bad. First off, the kitchen ceiling is the worst in the house. It's cracked and previous plaster patching jobs were poorly done by amateurs. Then whoever patched it decided to paint over their patch job with a different shade of white [MHH - and a different gloss] than the rest of the ceiling. This is an opportunity to get it fixed. Secondly, the light in the kitchen ceiling still has knob and tube wiring. If we are opening up the ceiling to replace the plumbing, we might be able to replace the wiring. Third, the only cast iron piping left in the house is what runs from the bathroom, through the kitchen ceiling and then down to the basement ceiling. We had all the rest of the original cast iron removed when we replaced the sewer line. If all of this gets replaced, the drain lines in the house should be good for another 100 years. And best of all, this work is covered by the Home Warranty, which means it's going to cost me $60. That's it.

Now of course there's some not so pleasant things while we deal with this. The only working toilet is in the basement and it's a bit rustic. We have no working shower or tub in the house, and the mess this is going to make is going to be a nightmare. When the water started dripping down from the ceiling, it was full of coal dust. [MHH - Black. It was black. Yuck.] Once the plumber cuts into the ceiling, there is going to be dust, plaster, lathe and heaven only knows what else falling into our kitchen. Yuck. The good news is that I'm hoping that everything will be functional by Thursday or so, although I suspect the cosmetic work will take a bit longer.

I'm also a bit concerned about the final product. First of all, the plumber works for AHS, not us. That means that AHS makes the call about what gets fixed and how. They will push for the cheapest functional solution. That may not be what I want. I know that PVC piping lasts forever and is the cheapest, but it's also the noisiest. I don't really want to hear guests flushing the toilet upstairs when I'm sitting in the kitchen or dining room. Cast iron is great for stopping sound transmission, but I know that AHS would never authorize that. It's a "premium" material. I'd like lathe and plaster put back from where they tear it out, but they'll push for sheet rock. Lathe and plaster is more durable and soundproof. If contractors will go for it, I'll be happy to pay the extra for what I want.

I guess it's just another chapter in our grand little adventure. Pictures will be forthcoming.