Week 5 Renovation

Down to the wire. We were aiming for December 6th and it would be close — finishing the project before I left or leaving some stuff hanging over. And how much?

Basically, it was a couple coats of paint. When I decided to refinish the kitchen and half-bath floors, that more or less needed to happen while we were traveling. So then we pushed back completion of the half-bath in order to do as complete a job as possible (getting under the sink and stool). That was already planned to be incomplete. What we mostly didn’t get done was the large amount of painting.

I was a bit worried earlier in the week. I had invited some friends over for dinner Saturday and expected to be able to do a nice job of hosting. But the plumbers had a problem with my old sink and all the workers were stepping over one another and I didn’t see how it would get done.
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Week 4 Renovation

Thanksgiving Week. A few short days then one full week to get it all done. But we’re putting things back together now, rather than pulling them apart. At the end of last week the plaster was finished and we were ready for cabinets in the kitchen and resurfacing everywhere else, then fixtures.

The shelving and cabinets are custom built. The shelving arrived last week and started to go up Monday and Tuesday. The whole kitchen project is idiosyncratic, so the cabinet design is equally idiosyncratic to suit our situation.

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Week 3 Renovation

Week 1 got us off to a good start. Week 2 was delays, catchup, and seemed overall to show a lack of progress. I was eager for things to get moving this week if we are to have any hope of meeting our project deadline. But these things don’t always go how you want, so Monday was not very active — just some preparation for the spray-in insulation on Tuesday, including laying the bathroom subfloor. When I first contacted the contractor, Shelter Alternatives, they also suggested I get an energy audit with their partner business, Energy Check. One of the upshots was that the basement was leaking heat, as was the pantry/half-bath. Spray-in foam insulation was recommended for the bathroom all around.

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Week 2 Renovation

The story of Week 2 was…not much happened. The discoveries of the end of week 1 (asbestos-y tile and an old plumbing/carpentry cockup) put the brakes on much of the work from this week and led to a series of rolling delays.

Monday was carpentry. The solution to the cut joist and overly aggressively notched joists in the bathroom was cross bracing, rather than sistering.

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Week 1, Reno/Rehab

The work: there are three things I’m having done on my new/old house. The first is re-converting the “pantry” off the kitchen back into a half bathroom. This is a little room, about 5′ x 7′, taking up part of the back porch space, that became a bathroom to serve the first owner, Henry Whitlock. Once he grew advanced in years he wanted a bathroom on the main floor so he didn’t have to use the stairs so much. The plumbing is “still there” but the codes have changed and the work may not have been the best quality in the first place, so it’s not an easy change. In addition, there was very little insulation to this room, so the energy audit showed it was really leaking heat.


The second thing is related to the first; since I’m moving the fridge out of the pantry, I’ve got to have a place for it. Thus, I’m moving a doorway a bit and putting the fridge in a new corner, along with some cabinets and shelving. Then I’m putting in new butcher block countertops to replace the older tile countertops that are there.

The third thing is updating the upstairs bathroom. This is mostly resurfacing (paint and flooring), shifting a bit of plumbing, and putting in a new tub/shower. This is the only photo I have of the bathroom pre-reno because no one ever wants to record its image for posterity.
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Foursquare Design

You probably know a foursquare when you see it — hipped roof with center dormer, fairly symmetrical facade, wide porch. On the inside, four rooms on each floor all roughly equally sized.

Lots of shade.

Lots of shade.

Yep, that’s the stuff.

But then what? How were these detailed and ornamented? Were there notable foursquares as there were for the bungalow, shingle style houses, or Victorians? I quickly reached the limit of my knowledge other than that it was a vernacular design popular at the turn of the century and into the 20s. The published record is EXTREMELY sparse regarding foursquares — hardly a commercial or academic book on them out there. Since foursquares featured prominently in Sears catalogs for mail-order homes, literature on Sears and other kit homes deal with them a bit. But that’s about it. It seems exceedingly difficult to find other sources on foursquare design, finishes, or restoration and rehabilitation. More to come.

Architectural Lighting and the Corner Lot

The lighting on the columns creates drama and shows off the house, rather than obscuring it.

My house is on a corner lot. I have always felt that this location, in a small town or large city, carries with it certain architectural obligations. To acknowledge the importance of that position with some additional detailing, to gesture out towards the street(s) somewhat grandly. There’s nothing worse than a house that doesn’t know it’s on a corner lot.

This foursquare has long had the problem of being hidden. Located in a neighborhood of many renters (and for about 12 years having been a rental), the house was recently obscured by trees, shrubs, vines, and all manner of vegetation to block the sight and deaden the sound of the neighbors. I don’t mind the neighbors and I like the neighborhood. I also like having sunlight come in my west windows. Thus, we’ve spent weeks trimming trees and cutting out shrubs to show off the house and engage the neighborhood rather than to hide from it.

This house was somewhat modestly designed and built. There are a few grander houses of this type on my street, and several grander foursquares in Blacksburg. The house lacks a cornice, for example, or operable shutters, but we’ve got some basics to work with. For me, the most striking and public design element is the three columns on the front porch. I’m not sure I approve of the stark, plain white in the long term, but for now the most striking play is to emphasize it. Thus the new LED lights illuminating my porch, announcing my presence and my house pride every evening from here on out, and emphasizing the design and work of the contractors who built this house.

Case Statement for NCPH New Deal Working Group

See this post for background on the NCPH Working Group.

As other members of the working group have noted, academic historians and popular audiences alike tend to recognize the importance of the New Deal and much of its legacy.1 In the course of my research, however, I have come to believe that both scholars and the public underestimate the extent and scope of the New Deal’s work relief and public works projects. The PWA, for example, provided grants and loans to public institutions of higher education for housing, administrative, instructional and maintenance facilities. In total, the PWA enabled the creation of 1286 college buildings worth $747 million2 through $83 million in grants and $29 million in loans.3 At my institution, Virginia Tech (then Virginia Polytechnic Institute), the PWA helped fund the construction or expansion of 14 buildings, including what is now the administration building, the student center, and several dormitories — Virginia Tech, in terms of its physical plant, is a New Deal institution.

Owing to this underestimation, I am interested in building out such a national inventory to help reinvigorate popular appreciation of the New Deal, making it publicly accessible through the web, and enriching it with historical data and media including photographs, oral histories, film, and audio, where possible. While a number of recent controversies and the broader conservative effort to roll back the New Deal have rallied defenders to the Roosevelt administration’s relief and infrastructure efforts, my experience indicates that a broader-based effort to reconnect the public with New Deal public and art works would be more effective in building public support than targeted defense of particular projects or the Roosevelt administration.

In pursuit of this project, I would like to suggest a mixed strategy of centralized and decentralized efforts including building a central inventory through National Archives research, but enriching it through state-level efforts or crowdsourced contributions led by working group participants. I could contribute my PWA higher ed database, for example, and lead groups in photographing or researching the history of individual VA sites. While such a strategy would lead to uneven enrichment, it would provide a central spine of information to build from, and would allow for school groups, college courses, or communities of interest at the public history grassroots to make a meaningful contribution to a national effort that also expressed local or regional pride.

  1. Jason Scott Smith, Building New Deal Liberalism; Robert Leighninger, Long-Range Public Investment
  2. Approx. $11.4B in 2011 dollars
  3. Records of Projects, 1933-1950; List of Alotted Non-Federal Projects as of May, 1942 RG 135 NARA II

Reconstructing the New Deal

NCPH Working Group:

10. Reconstructing the New Deal: Towards a National Inventory of New Deal Art and Public Works
Eileen Eagan, University of Southern Maine; eagan@usm.maine.edu
Gray Brechin, University of California at Berkeley; gbrechin@berkeley.edu
Sean Lent, Independent Scholar; sean.lent@maine.edu

This working group centers on interdisciplinary efforts to locate, collect, and bring to light the federally sponsored art and public works of the New Deal. We also plan to relate discussion of New Deal projects to recent controversies such as that over the labor history mural in Maine. This is public history in terms of locating and interpreting public sources and also doing so in relation to public policy. It also represents cultural democracy on the edge of capitalism, and its crash. This revival and renewal of New Deal history seems especially essential in light of recent debates over the impact of New Deal policy and efforts to forget or distort the legacy of those policies. A group at the University of California at Berkeley has developed the California Living New Deal project to map New Deal projects in California. Groups elsewhere, including Maine, have engaged students in similar projects in those areas. A new project could expand these efforts into a national inventory. This working group will bring together faculty and students involved in these efforts. We invite others from around the country to join us in this discussion and planning to pursue this project. Eileen Eagan and Sean Lent will discuss and present results from the activity in Maine. Gray Brechin, from the Geography department at UC Berkeley will discuss his experiences and plans based on the California project. He will also assert the urgent need for a national inventory of New Deal public works. Discussion by the people attending the working group will follow short presentations by Brechin, Eagan and Lent. This working group will take place at the Milwaukee Public Museum, a short two block walk from the Frontier Airlines Center.

Research Bits

One of the real joys of being a historian is the beginning of a project. The whole narrative, all of the discoveries stretch out before you, and it is one of pure potential. These past few busy weeks, I’ve had about an hour a week for the life of the mind, but really felt this exhiliration.

I have been poking around in the Virginia Tech Special Collections recently doing some scout work for my classes, especially a class I am focusing on Blacksburg in the 1930s. Recently I came across an extensive collection pertaining to a Roanoke architectural firm, Smithey & Boynton, and today I was looking at some from a Richmond firm, Carneal and Johnston — both of whom designed buildings in Blacksburg and on the VPI (VT) campus. In trying to learn a bit more about the firms I found some other collections as well as some digital materials.

No MA theses, though. The MA thesis is a product that seems to be in decline as programs focus either on seminar papers that could turn into articles or on pushing the dissertation and not worrying about the MA thesis along the way. Not quite the bite size of a seminar paper/article, and not quite big or original enough to create new scholarly frameworks, the MA thesis seems to be the red-headed stepchild of academic products.

It is a work of scholarship I have an increasing appreciation for. In that the intellectual ambitions are typically fairly modest, the scope of theses often really are manageable in size. In addition, since students are not trying to make their career based on it, they don’t often push the boundaries of theory or creativity. Instead, they are often solid exercises in demonstrating mastery over a broad topic and specific ability with a manageable set of sources. Just the kind of thing I’d like to see students do for a firm like Smithey & Boynton or Carneal & Johnston.

I’m in the early stages of a career and won’t have the opportunity to do much with these materials, much as I might like to get to know all about architecture in Virginia. But I got excited thinking about the possibilities of Virginia Tech students doing MA theses on firms like these — it really would be a great set of projects that could be valuable resources for scholars, researchers, and the public in years to come. Just reading the finding aids is not enough background on the firms, the principals, or their buildings. Digital catalogues don’t offer the appropriate context or analysis. Only an actual narrative piece of scholarship can both give the background information and make an argument about the trajectory of the firm over time. And an MA thesis would be just about right for one of these firms or another. So students: think about it.

Carneal & Johnston resources: Digital Library of Virginia (photos)

Carneal & Johnston papers

Smithey & Boynton papers

More Smithey & Boynton papers