Sunday, November 13, 2016

Historic Design will donate free architecture research services for a local institution, business or individual in 2017.

People who choose a career in Historic Preservation and Cultural Resources Management do so for a variety of reasons.  One thing that is common to us all is a deep and abiding interest in preserving our built heritage. This certainly is the case for us at Historic Design Consulting.  In an effort to contribute to our community Historic Design Consulting will donate research services for a worthy project in the  Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area in 2017.

We will accept applicants through September of 2017.  This is not a contest and we do not have any formal eligibility requirements.  We will choose a project depending upon our schedule and the scope and type of the research project.  This could be a context study for a National Register nomination, property evaluation or a general research report for a home or business.  We do reserve the right to accept or deny project for any reason.

If you have any interest, please contact Historic Design Consulting and tell us a little about the project.  We'd like to know where the building is, what sort of building (house, business, ???), when it was built, and what you would like to learn about it.

We are looking forward to hearing how we can help our own community preserve its architectural heritage!!!

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Historic Plaster and Somebody's Horse

Plaster has served  as a durable coating for interior walls in both high style and common buildings for centuries. 19th century wall plaster was made from four ingredients: lime, sand aggregate, fiber and water.  The lime was the most important part of the mix as it cured and hardened much like concrete.  Sand was a filler that also added structure.  Water was the catalyst and the fiber held it all together while the plaster mix cured and hardened.   Gypsum replaced lime in the 20th century because it set more rapidly and provided a harder, more durable finish more quickly.  Since gypsum sets in minutes and cures in weeks (lime plaster required months to cure before it could be painted or papered), it made the addition of fiber unnecessary.

The lime was often produced in kilns from local limestone deposits.  The sand aggregate usually came from a nearby river or lake which could also provide fresh water for mixing. What was the source of the fiber?  More often than not, it also came from local source: an unsuspecting cow or horse from the barn out back.

I recently attended a workshop on repairing historic plaster organized by the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota.  Our leader for the day was Anders Christensen of TigerOx, a Twin Cities painting and plastering company that frequently works on historic buildings. Rather than spending the day in a classroom we had the privilege of  working on an actual historic site, the 1867 Andrew Peterson farmhouse in Waconia, MN.

In high style houses the plaster was applied in three coats over split or sawn lathe. The first two coats, called the scratch and brown coats, were thick, coarse and contained the animal fiber with lots of aggregate. This constituted the bulk of the wall plaster.  These two coats were finished with a thin layer of finish plaster. The finish coat had little aggregate and was troweled to a smooth finish.

However, when we looked at the walls in the Peterson house, we found something quite different. The Peterson house was built by Andrew himself, who was a farmer and not a professional carpenter or plasterer.  Rather than three coats, we found one, rather coarse coat of plaster.  This is not uncommon at all in vernacular buildings such as farmhouses or city buildings which weren't built by professional tradesmen.        

This is one of the holes we repaired in the Andrew Peterson farmhouse.  Notice
the single layer of plaster with a sand aggregate. 

What was also interesting was what you could see in a few chunks of loose plaster. The animal hair used to bind the plaster was quite obvious.  I'm not sure what sort of critter donated its hair in 1867, but it was chestnut brown and rather soft. A horse, perhaps? Whatever it was, it is long gone. That is, with the exception of its hair, which survives 150 years later in the walls of the Peterson farm house.

A piece of plaster with the animal hair fiber.

Something else that interested me were traces of paint on another piece of plaster.  I noticed a few remnants of a light, purplish-blue paint.  The color is a light pastel which was common in house interiors into the 20th century.  I suspect it is a calcimine or distemper paint. Calcimine paints were water based and fairly durable because the pigments were bound to the wall with size, or diluted animal glue.

Another piece of plaster with a few remnants of what appears to
 be a light, purplish- blue paint

The next time you find yourself in a 19th century home, take a look at the plaster walls.  Is it coarse with lots of sand or is it troweled smooth and flat?  If it is smooth, it probably was applied by a skilled tradesman.  If not, it might have been plastered by the homeowner himself.  In either case, it is likely some sort of quadruped also made its own, valuable contribution.  

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

An Interesting Artifact for the Fan of Historic Homes

An important ritual for many American men during the 19th century was a weekly trip to the barber shop for a shave. The barbershop was a social hub in large cities and small towns alike as men congregated to gossip, do business, read the paper and get a professional shave. The shave was a multi-step process where barbers softened the beard with hot, moist towels and conditioned the skin with scented oils. They then used a porcelain shaving mug, badger hair brush and scented soap to create the lubricating lather needed for a close shave with a straight razor.  

Plain porcelain shaving mugs are quite common today (after all, every man had one) and aren't particularly interesting. However, there is one, less common type of shaving mug that is quite interesting and offers a glimpse into the life of a tradesman in the 19th century. 

The discovery of Germ Theory by Louis Pasteur in the 1860s led to the creation of sanitation laws that required a barber's clients to have their own shaving mugs which could not be shared with other patrons.  Blank shaving mugs were imported from France and Germany and personalized by painting the man's name in elegant, fraktur calligraphy.  Sometimes a scene was also painted on the mug which depicted the man's profession or trade.  These occupational shaving mugs were displayed in the barber shop and served as a type of advertising.  When someone went looking for a painter, carpenter or lawyer, they could stop by the barbershop and check out the shaving mugs to find the professional they needed. 

Pictured is a example of an occupational shaving mug for house painter.  Although detail is lacking, we can see wooden barrels which would contain linseed oil and white lead.  The painter is standing on a scaffold which appears to be supported by ropes and pulleys.   At his feet is a pail of paint. The other object is likely another pail which might hold his brushes or other things such as rags or a pumice stone for smoothing rough wood.  Interesting for the historian and colorist is the entrance door.  We can see that the door's rails and stiles are painted a lighter brown and the panels another, darker brown.  

Monday, May 30, 2016

When Something Just Doesn't Look Quite Right.

This house is one of my favorites in my hometown of Spencer, Iowa.  The ornament and detailing are classic examples of the Queen Anne.  Note the beaded spindle work on the porch, including the frieze across the top, turned porch posts and large newels.  This sort of elaborate spindle work is characteristic of the Eastlake sub-type of the Queen Anne.  Other features commonly found on examples of the Eastlake are the incised, geometric patterns between the second story corner windows and on the porch gable and the baroque-style scrollwork under the front eave.  
A beautiful home for sure.  But can you spot something that doesn't look quite right?
However, when you look at this house as a whole, something does not look quite right.  Here are a few things that stick out to me. On most buildings the rake angle of gables and the pitch of the roof are similar.  That isn't the case here as the gable on the porch roof has a much steeper angle than the very low-pitched roof.  Queen Anne houses are also known for their asymmetrical shape where bay windows, porches and wings are often capped with a complicated roof with hips, valleys, gables and dormers.  This roof is symmetrical and does not follow the irregular shape of the house below. 

What is going on?  This house is an example of how buildings can change through time.  Sometime around 1910 this ca.1890 Queen Anne had a fire which destroyed the roof.  Rather than rebuild the original roof, the owners built one typically found on Foursquare homes popular at that time.  It is unclear whether this decision was a stylistic one or due to expense, since rebuilding the more complicated Queen Anne roof would have been more expensive.   The results are not unpleasant, but do lead to a moment of pause as we try to reconcile the different parts into a stylistic whole.  

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Why choose Historic Design Consulting to help you select historic paint colors for your Victorian era home or business?

For more information about historic paint colors for your Victorian or Arts and Crafts era home or business, please visit the Historic Design Consulting Website today!

There is an abundance of colorists, consultants and other professionals who specialize in Victorian-era paint colors and ornament for historic homes.  This can make selecting a consultant who is right for you and your historic architecture difficult considering their varying levels of training, education and expertise.  Historic Design's color consultants, however, have a unique background which includes academic training in architectural history and building conservation as well as hands-on experience in restoration which distinguishes us from others in the field.  

Unlike colorists whose backgrounds are in decoration and design, Historic Design's consultants are grounded in a graduate level education in history and architectural history.  Like any good historian, we start our research with primary sources and period color palettes rather than rely on modern authors and paint manufacturers to tell us how people painted their homes and businesses.  We know which pigments painters used and when. We know how architectural styles and aesthetic ideals evolved during the 19th century and how color palettes reflected these changes. We know that colors used on an 1850s Italianate home might not be appropriate for a 1905 Colonial Revival or Shingle Style home.    

19th century card with paint chips from Lion Brand.  Historic Design
 Consulting has a collection of primary sources like period color
samples which we use to select our period-correct color palettes.

In short, we use the same materials and literature that painters used in the 19th century to write custom color reports for our clients.

John W. Masury's 1881 book on house painting.  Period literature offers
an instructive account of 19th century painting practice and theory.

Our expertise in architectural history is complimented by our training in building conservation. Building conservation is the discipline of preserving and restoring historic architecture. This includes a thorough knowledge of historic building materials and construction methods as well as the best practices to preserve them. 19th and early 20th buildings present challenges that are unique to historic architecture and a background in building conservation is necessary to preserve these building's distinguishing characteristics.  

Historic Design Consulting has a library of period photos which we use to determine correct
color placement. 

Historic Design Consulting also benefits from hands-on experience in building maintenance and restoration.   Although academic training is important, there is no substitute for actual experience in paint preparation, window restoration and building repair.  Our expertise in modern maintenance methods as well as 19th century carpentry and house joinery using Civil War era tools and techniques makes Historic Design Consulting stand apart from other consultants and colorists.  

To get your own historic paint color report for your Victorian era house or business, visit our web page at and click on the Paint Colors button in the Our Services Menu.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Second Empire Style

Many 19th century building styles, including the Federal, Greek Revival, Gothic Revival and Italianate, were inspired by historic precedents and featured antique details such as lancet arches, brackets and classical architraves.  Around the middle of the century, however, some Americans opted for a more “modern” style which emulated fashionable designs current in Paris.  This modern style, called the Second Empire, proved to be especially popular in the Midwest and Northeast following the Civil War and many examples remain in small towns and large cities alike.

One outstanding example is the Early Mansion, a 1875 house built by D. Carr Early in Sac City, IA.  A native of Freeburg, OH, Early pre-empted a quarter section of land near Sac City in 1857 and prospered due to his investments in a local bank and railroad.   He built a grand home in the fashionable Second Empire style and had its furnishings delivered via ox cart from Fort Dodge, IA, which was 60 miles distant across the open prairie.  

The 1875 Early Mansion in Sac City, IA.
   What distinguishes the Second Empire?  First and foremost is the mansard roof.  This dual-pitched roof design, named after the 17th century French architect François Mansart (1598-1666), allowed more efficient use of attic space.  The design proved so practical that many existing buildings with traditional roofs were remodeled with the mansard.  High style examples of the Second Empire often feature towers, elaborate molded hoods over windows and brackets along the cornice. Despite being considered a “modern” style, its detailing (apart from the mansard roof) closely resembles the picturesque Italianate style popular since the 1840s.  

Closeup showing the elaborate porch, brackets and window hoods.

Another fine Iowa example of the Second Empire style is the Harker House in Storm Lake, IA.  This cottage was built by 1875 by J. M. Russell for $500 dollars.  Although smaller than the Early Mansion, the Harker House features many of the same design elements.  The Harker House has been preserved as a house museum with many of its original furnishings thanks to efforts of Russell's granddaughter Nora Harker.  

The 1875 Harker House in Storm Lake, IA. 

You might ask "What exactly does the name Second Empire mean?"  The Second Empire refers to the regime of Napoleon III who ruled France between 1852 and 1870 (the First Empire was, of course, the regime of his uncle Napoleon Bonaparte).  One major project of Napoleon III was the modernization of medieval Paris into a modern capital city capable of supporting its burgeoning population.   Napoleon III tasked Baron Haussmann with renovating the old city and, over the following decades, virtually all of medieval Paris was demolished and replaced with the grand boulevards and buildings we recognize today. The design for many of the buildings built in Haussmann's new Paris was based on Renaissance precedents and incorporated the Mansard roof. The Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855 and the International Exhibition in London in 1867 popularized the new style and it was to become popular in style books in the United States.

To visit the Harken House, check out their web page  or visit their Facebook page.