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Oak Ridge Restoration

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Welcome to our ongoing project to restore this antebellum plantation home in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Oak Ridge was built between 1836 and 1840 by George and Justinia Adams. The architectural embelishments were likely manufactured by Thomas Day, of Milton North Carolina. Thos. Day was one of the leading cabinet makers in the area and his furniture is highly prized today. My wife and I bought Oak Ridge in 2006 and have slowly been restoring it, and we thought it would be interesting to others to follow our misadventures in this project. Elaine passed away in June, 2011, and I am trying to carry on with the help and support of some wonderful people.

!!! Update! Our son, Owen, and Elisabeth (nee Howard) were married on the front lawn on September 1, 1918!!!

After the vows

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Recognition!

Last summer Oak Ridge was accepted on the Virginia Registry of Historic Places as well as the National Registry of Historic Places by the National Park Service.

History of Oak Ridge

If you would like to learn about the history of this magnificent antebellum tobacco plantation in Southside Virginia, you might enjoy reading this site.

Peeling paint

Peeling paint

Restoration: Decaying Dignity

By 2006, much had changed

By the time Elaine and I purchased Oak Ridge, much had changed. The previous owner had tragically died in an automobile accident some 20 years before, and the house had not been well maintained for some time. Some of the peeling paint on the roof and columns can be seen in this photograph, taken from a distance, but it looked much worse up close. Oak Ridge, like the subject in a Gilbert and Sullivan song, looked best "in the dark with the light behind her."

When I was negotiating whether to proceed with the purchase I brought a friend and colleague from work, Dr. Ken Walker, to show him what I was considering. It was amusing to watch Ken trying to be polite, though he was clearly appalled by the decay and challenges. Finally, he said "Well I've got to admire you for having the energy to take on such an ambitious project." hoping that wouldn't offend me.

That aptly pointed to the tension between me, the dreamer who sees what Oak Ridge could become, and Elaine, who had to deal with the harsh realities that affected her daily life. That tension characterized our 41 years together, and each needed the other. I was startled to hear her say to a friend once "Just once I wish I could see what Bob sees when he looks at Oak Ridge." Though she enjoyed complaining about it, she also was very proud of the beauty that unfolded as we slowly righted the problems.

Boxwood maze ground level

Boxwood maze ground level

Restoration: Saving the Boxwoods

Century old boxwood garden inundated with vines

The gardens at Oak Ridge are magnificent. They include magnolia trees as big as a house and an intricate maze of English boxwoods that have been growing for 150 years. Sadly, the gardens had been overrun with volunteers who had taken over the during past few decades. The first order of business was to remove the canopy of honeysuckle, wisteria, poison ivy and grape vines that were blocking sunlight from the boxwoods. Standing on the ground, we literally could not tell there were boxwoods there, in places, and it took the whole summer to clear the vines. We would pick a spot, and just dive in, pulling off the vines and then clipping them as close to the ground as possible. In a day we would clear about ten feet. If you know anything about Virginia you are laughing right now, because this area is rife with an insidious little insect called a chigger, and we suffered terribly from chigger bites from one week til the next.

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Restoration: Balcony View of the Boxwoods

The boxwood gardens before they were cleared

This view, taken from the balcony, show the deteriorating condition of the boxwood gardens the farther you got from the house. It was a steamy, miserable summer spent diving into the hedges to remove the vines. At times we wondered whether we would ever finish.

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Restoration: Boxwoods Six months later

Revived

After a summer of scratching and swearing, the original shape of the gardens emerged. I am not sure whether this picture conveys the difference we could see, but the pattern of boxwood plantings became clear. On the right is an open rectangle 200 ft by 70 ft (70 m x 20 m). On the left of the path is a large square which was once marked by a double row of boxwoods. Inside the square was a diamond, also made with double rows, which provided footpaths around the geometric structures. Even though they are over 150 years old, these English boxwoods have not grown four feet tall, so one can see over them. Sadly, some did not survive the infestation of vines, but many did, and those are recovering. Meanwhile, we transplant others from time to time, to fill in the gaps.

The best summary of this exhausting effort came from a neighbor, Myrtle Shadrick, who has lived decades in Bachelor's Hall, another plantation a mile down the street. When I proudly told her that we had at last finished pulling the vines out of our boxwoods she caustically remarked "Young man, you will never be through pulling the vines out of your boxwoods." And she was absolutely correct.

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Restoration: Roof condition

First step is sealing and painting the roof

This photograph shows the condition of the roof when we bought the property. Elaine called in a couple of roofing companies that specialize in old, standing seam, metal roof repair, and both estimates were in excess of $50,000. That was too stiff for our budget. As you can see, the roof on the main house is in better condition than the rear. That's probably because it is older.

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This view also shows that the house is actually two separate buildings that have been spliced together. There is a bridge filling in between the rear building, whose windows are lower than those of the main house, to the left. If you look carefully, you can see that the foundation of the basement drops four feet because the right hand building is lower than the main house. In between, starting at the chimney, a structure was built to span the gap and unite the two buildings. This splice currently houses the kitchen. Forty years ago the kitchen was located in the rear building, and a four foot stairway led to a breakfast room. The Boyers soon tired of the stairs, and the old breakfast room was converted into the kitchen. A new breakfast room was then appended to the new kitchen on the opposite side from this view.

The point of this picture is to show the condition of the metal roof. Especially in the rear, the rust and flaking look terrible, and we needed to seal the surface and paint the steel before the underwriter canceled our insurance policy.

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Restoration: Preparing the Standing Seam Metal Surface

How do you strip a rusting metal roof?

After trying several alternatives, we settled on power washing as the first step. Here is Mike Boyer, secured with his rock climbing gear, blasting away at the compromised surface. Chunks of built up paint and tar splattered everywhere. It took a weekend just to power wash the rear roof, but it came out well. We learned that the rusty color was deceptive. Someone had primed the roof with an iron oxide primer,like Rustoleum, several coats ago, which was a really bad idea. The reason the roof looked so rusty was because the paint separated at this primer coating. This caused large flakes of paint to come off like potato chips and exposed the rust colored paint, which looked from a distance like rusted bare metal. Happily, the metal was fine. We learned that the tin-plated steel used "back in the day" was in good condition under it all. After we were finished, we now had a relatively smooth surface for repainting. But what kind of paint should we use?

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Restoration: Surface Preparation

Why does paint flake off metal roofing?

A roof is exposed to direct sunlight as well as freezing ice and everything in between. Metal expands and contracts more than most materials and, importantly, it expands at a different rate than paint. That is a problem because paint is, essentially, a coating, and it cannot stay bound to a surface that is changing dimensions. Over time, the matrix (the stuff that binds the pigment grains together) hardens, and when it loses elasticity the paint starts to chip off. Oil-based paint or water-based latex paint are not much different.

Elaine did some research and discovered a product designed for commercial buildings that claims to solve this problem. It is a latex base with no pigment in it. You apply it using a one inch nap roller, and roll it on thickly. Then you cover that with a second layer, creating a coating that has the consistency of rubber cement. It is supposed to remain elastic for years. The idea is that the pigment layer sticks to this elastic layer so there is some stretching between the expanding metal and the stiffer paint layer.

The other attractive feature of this Polar Seal product is the way it handles blemishes, seams and other potential sources of leaking. Their solution is to cut out a flexible polyethylene fabric mesh, and glue the fabric over the seam or blemish by applying it on top of wet Polar Seal. An additional coat of primer over the fabric embeds the cloth in a rubbery sandwich, similar to the way you make fiberglass. We applied this fabric at all the chimney flashing and roof penetrations to try to form a watertight seal. On this photograph there is a patch near the roof line on the left. You can see the white fabric that covers the repair.

As you can see, the coating is clear. It was quite sticky after a few days of drying, and we then applied two coats of latex roof paint over this under layer.

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Restoration: Painted Roof

How did it turn out?

Well, we made our choice and invested in the Polar Seal system. Whether it works or not, or how long it lasts remans to be seen.

We applied this system to the main house, and six other outbuildings. However, as a scientist, I had to include a control. So the roof of the carport was painted without using the Polar Seal primer. This way we can see whether or not the Polar Seal made a difference.

So far it has been four years. As of today, the paint job is holding up very well, except the roof of the car port, which has started flaking badly. Since the car port roof was the only one that wasn't primed with Polar Seal AND it was the most recently painted, we conclude that the Polar Seal has helped. How long it lasts is anyone's guess.

While we were exploring different options we asked several farmers for their advice. We figure that farmers have a lot of buildings with metal roofs and word would spread quickly if any solution worked better than the others. The reply we got from the farmers was the same. They said, no matter what you try, you'll have to paint it again in five years.

We think farmers are pretty smart, so we felt it important to close this chapter on roof paint with their wisdom, while we hope otherwise.

Breakfast room

Breakfast room

Restoration: First demolition

The breakfast room has to go

This photograph shows the breakfast room which was installed by a previous owner. A kitchen window was converted to a door and a new addition was tacked on, perched atop cinderblock pillars four feet tall. Perhaps it was the anomalous jalousie windows, perhaps it was the fiberboard siding, but Elaine and I decided this admittedly useful room had to go away.

This view is from the back of the house, looking North, opposite to the driveway. The shed roof attachment to the right contains the downstairs bathroom. Upstairs, note that the Master bedroom is partially obscured by a hanging bathroom, which is the next target for deconstruction.

Hanging Bath

Hanging Bath

Restoration: Second Demolition

Master bathroom

It is always a problem to find a place for bathrooms in homes that were built a century before indoor plumbing. People convert closets, or insert bathrooms inside bigger rooms. But whoever installed this gem was definitely thinking outside the box. This view shows the protuberance which was literally tacked onto the upstairs bedroom. The addition sticks out from the house and is completely unsupported. There are no posts, cantilevers, cables or other means to hold the weight of a full bath. How the craftsmen of the day could imagine that nails would hold a bathtub full of water mystified everyone. They were wrong. By the time we showed up there was an eight inch gap at the top, and the whole structure was tilting.

This photo also provides a better picture of the state of the external paint and the roof. You can see what Elaine and Ken Walker saw, and share with them the amazement that anyone would tackle such a daunting project.

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Restoration: Replacing the Fascia Boards

Behind the rusted-out gutters we ran into a problem

Once the roof was repainted, the next step was replacing the gutters. We quickly learned that the fascia boards were in bad shape. The rotting boards provided convenient access into the attic for the local squirrels, raccoons and opossum to enjoy shelter in winter.

For those who don't know, fascia boards cover the ends of the rafters that support the roof. On Oak Ridge they were installed at a 45 degree angle, running from the crown molding to the roof overhang. Like all the wood in Oak Ridge, they were actual size. Meaning that they are one full inch thick and six full inches wide, unlike a 1 X 6 available in a lumberyard today. They were enhanced with lovely fluting,

This photograph shows the roofline with the fascia board removed, exposing the rafter ends.

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Restoration: New Fascia Boards

Fortunately for us we had Chris Roberts and his crew working on the problem. Chris was able to purchase some old heartwood pine from a tobacco warehouse in Greensboro, NC. We then took it to RC Tate woodworks, in Danville to mill the boards and replicate the fluting present in the originals.

This photograph shows the new fascia boards, just after painting.

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Restoration: Installed New Fascia Boards

This photograph shows the same view as above, after the new fascia boards were installed. It probably doesn't look like much in these pictures, but it was very impressive on the ground.

If you look closely, you will notice that there are vented soffits on this old house. Under the eaves Mr.Day had installed squares which were honeycombed with hand drilled holes. On the crown are spaced vertical features which have a unique crown carved in them. Over the years, these vent holes had become clogged up, but Chris Roberts and his team drilled out each one of them and repainted. All said and done, he did a great job for us.

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Restoration: Columns

How long can they last?

Once the roof was painted, we next turned to the columns. Locally, the pronunciation is "call-yumes," we quickly learned. This photograph may not show sufficient detail, but they were in sorry shape, with paint peeling and seams letting in water.

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Restoration: Columns During

No alligators

Elaine insisted that the old paint had to go. She loathed the "alligator" effect that happens to thick coats of paint. We eventually chose P.L. Anderson to strip, repair and paint the columns. The good news is that there was no significant rot. They set up scaffolding and sweated it out for weeks to get them down to the bare wood before painting.

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Restoration: Columns After

Looking good

You decide for yourself how they look. Thank you, Tom Leggett, and your team. Of course the bad news is that the rest of the house looks shabby compared to the brazen new finish, but we will get around to that in time.

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Restoration: Pink Siding

After the bathroom disappears

Here is a photograph taken during the removal of the upstairs bathroom. You can see, in the corner, the two perpendicular stairwell windows are, for the first time in 70 years, open to the lighting which they were designed to channel into the stairwells. Our architect, Richard Morris, was absolutely correct that the house was situated to achieve specific lighting effects, and once we saw how lovely the morning light is, illuminating the stairwells, we realized we could not do any construction that would block them.

The interior bathroom door is visible. Notice the weatherboard beneath the door is a dusky pink color. It has turned brown with time, but this shows a sample of the pink color by which Oak Ridge was once known, prior to the restoration in 1940.

You can also see that we had to replace some of the standing seam on the shed roof, due to damage as the bathroom slowly separated from the house. Hunt Construction company, in Cascade, VA did a great roofing job for us.

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Restoration: Close Up of the Pink Weatherboard

This gives a little better idea of the original color

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Restoration: Exterior Paint

Before painting, we stripped the surface down the the wood

It took weeks to scrape all the layers of paint off the clapboards. Jamie Hunt and the crew from Hunt Construction Co. worked very hard to strip the paint. This was during what turned out to be Elaine's last few weeks. It was very gratifying to her to at last see the exterior painted before she died.

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Restoration: View From the Road After Painting

Restored to her splendor

This is the view from the road. With her new coat of paint the old girl looks magnificent once again, at least for a few years. We chose to use Duration exterior paint, by Sherwin Williams. We are starting to see Oak Ridge return to the state of grace she enjoyed for so many years.

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Restoration: East Side After Painting

Oak Ridge in her Sunday finery

Here is a view of the east elevation after she had her new face lift. The shutters are still in storage, awaiting repair before we rehang them, but the old girl looks splendid in her new paint job.

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Interior: Ladies Parlor

Check out the ceiling in the parlor

On the left as you walk in the front doors is the fancy room. The Lady's parlor was the showplace, and has the fanciest plasterwork on the ceiling, and the clearest window lights. The mantle has columns that are signatures of Mr. Day. Notice the floor boards, which were milled from the heartwood of the native pines, run the entire length of the room. In the basement you can see that each floorboard is hand fitted to each joist. One of many examples of the craftsmanship that went into the construction.

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Interior: Thomas Day Mantle in Parlor

Corinne studying her next shot

This photograph gives a better picture of the pillars on the fireplace mantle in the Lady's Parlor

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Interior Features: Foyer Ceiling

Foyer rosette

The front foyer was designed to make a great first impression. This is the plaster rosette in the ceiling. Some have said this plaster work was added later, but we have seen other Thos. Day homes with similar plaster decorations. Not sure which is true, but we enjoy the elegance it imparts to the room.

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Interior: Foyer Ceiling

Discovering the paint underneath the wallpaper

After discovering the faux marble on the stair, we tried to find out what is painted underneath the wall paper. When we peeled the paper off the ceiling in the foyer we discovered this green paint with a stencil trim. The plaster repairs are obvious, but the stenciling was a delightful surprise. Our decorator and architect believe this stenciling is not original, but was added during the Victorian era, so we will probably bury it again under wallpaper, for someone else to discover later.

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Interior: Stairway

Different angle of front stairs

Here is a different view, showing the way the stairs looked when we acquired the property. Note the risers are painted the same "sea foam" as the walls. The only exception is the faux mahogany painted railing above the wainscoting.

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Restoration of the faux marble painting on the risers

Imagine our delight when we uncovered this!

The baseboards in the foyer were painted with faux marble. Thos. Day was know to have craftsmen in his shop who specialized in painting pine to look like mahogany and faux marble painting was very popular in his day. The faux marble was probably painted by Samuel Shelton. On a hunch, we tried taking some Strypeeze to the paint on the risers, and behold!

Ed and Gloria Burkett did a wonderful job of gently loosening the outer paint to show the original faux marble underneath. It is especially meaningful to Bob that this wonderful effect was possible using Strypeeze, because his father was the long time President of Savogran, the company that makes Strypeeze.

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Interior: Spandrel

Paneling on the side of the front stairwell

This view shows the panels that Thos. Day built along the side of the stairway. Here, they are highlighted with a cream color. Notice, also the hand carved scrolling at the risers. Too much Sea Foam color for our taste, but that will be remedied with the help of Terry Lowdermilk, our decorator. http://www.tlinterior.com/

For those who are familiar with Thos. Day's work, the newel post in Oak Ridge is comparatively plain. We are not sure whether that is due to the insistence of the owners or because Oak Ridge was a relatively early project for Mr. Day, and he had not evolved the more elaborate style for which he is known.

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Restoration of spandrel

We had the good sense to engage Lowdermilk Interiors to select colors for the front foyer, and this is how it looks after the restoration. The rich cream of the damask wallpaper may not be apparent from this photograph, but the luscious colors of the wood panels and the refreshed floor are apparent. Notice the original faux mahogany of the closet door is still stunning, 175 years later.

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Restoration of the foyer

Here is an oblique angle, showing the stairs after the restoration. The risers now expose the original faux marble milk paint, and the panel colors are more subtle. The ghost railing highlights the break between the wainscoting and the wallpaper. A rich and lustrous entryway.

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Restoration: foyer wallpaper

This picture shows the damask wallpaper pattern in the hallway above the foyer.

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Interior: Box Locks

Period hardware for interior doors

This is a typical box lock. Surprisingly, we have a complete set of keys for the doors, despite the irregular chain of custody of the years. It is worth noting that, after 175 years of settling, every door in the house still swings freely. Don't find that in new homes, even with lightweight, hollow doors.

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Restoration: Dining Room

The dining room at Oak Ridge was originally the back room of the house. In the early 20th century a room was added behind the dining room, which was converted into a kitchen in the 1960s. The wallpaper in the dining room was an elegant Chinoise pattern with an 18 foot repeat of the pattern. The trim color was that ubiquitous sea foam. There was a door made to the kitchen on one side, shown here.

A kitchen, to us, is a place to gather and this arrangement isolated the kitchen which was a little small for socializing. It was also cluttered and in very bad repair, with torn linoleum floor and ancient appliances. So we (meaning architect Richard Morris and decorator Terry Lowdermilk) suggesteded converting the dining room into a family room and open it up to the kitchen by creating four foot wide open doorways on both sides of the fireplace. The front parlor will become the new dining room.

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Restoration: Home Construction in 1836

When we opened up the frame to make the doorways this is what we found. This view is looking into the kitchen from the dining room. Notice that, instead of vertical 2 x 4s, this house has 4 x 8 angled braces at each corner. It is no wonder that we can't tell when the wind is howling unless we look outside!

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Restoration: Door Frames

Thomas Day took pains to make every room unique. For example, the door frames in each room are different. This picture shows the fluting in the frame for the doors in the dining room, and the hand carved decoration at the corners. Those in other rooms are similar, yet have different fluting and circles. The wainscoting in each room has a different pattern of panels. Also, the thresholds all are two colors. The floors for each room are stained slightly differently, and the demarcation between the two colors is the line along the threshold where the doors close.

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Interior Restoration: Family Room Floor

The floors in Oak Ridge are made of yellow pine cut from the virgin timber in the 1820s. Each floorboard runs the length of the room (21 feet), without a joint. All we did was to sand the original floor and apply oil to it. No tints or dyes. This is what the family room floor looks like.

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Interior Restoration: Family room

We converted the dining room into a family room, opening up two doorways into the kitchen, Here is how it looks, now the wallpaper is up. The paper is a damask style, with adobe and cream. The trim color is the same as that in the kitchen.

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Interior Restoration: AGA stove

We just couldn't imagine that a stainless steel stove would look right in this kitchen, so we searched high and low for an enamel stove that would look right. The answer was an AGA stove, from England. We chose the ivory finish, to match the sink in the center island. Here is how it looked, flanked by cabinets, before anything was painted.

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Interior Restoration: Kitchen Counter tops

We chose soapstone counter tops, to reflect the black off the stove. This was taken shortly after oiling, so they appear darker than normal

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Interior Restoration: Kitchen Pie safe

Rick Morris thought it would look great to have one kitchen cabinet that looked like an old pie safe, with punched tin panels in the doors. Can you see the glorious gold color of the tin?

It was originally planned that the cabinet be stained pine, but we agreed that it needed Andy's skill to paint it an adobe color. Here is how it looks, next to the cabinets that flank the stove. Note how the blue milk paint of the cabinets shines in the sunlight, where the upper cabinets, in the shade, look gray.

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Interior Restoration: Pie safe panel

Here is an individual panel for the pie safe. The tin is about 50 years old, and the artist who applied the pattern copied a period piece. We think the color and the pattern are simply lovely.

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Interior Restoration: Cabinet colors

Back in the day, people made paint using milk protein as the binder. The reason we were able to preserve the faux marble paint on the stair risers is because they were painted with milk paint, which resisted the solvent we used to strip the oil paint off. We were intrigued by the idea, and Andy Compton has preserved the art of milk paint. He uses curdled milk protein as a base, and adds pigment to that before applying to the surface. It takes several months to fully cure, but then it is as hard as enamel. So that is what we chose for the cabinets.

We insisted that we wanted blue, to everyone's chagrin, but blue is what we got, and we are very pleased with the result.

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Interior Restoration: Kitchen Exhaust hood

This picture provides a better view of the cuprous coloring that Andy Compton was able to achieve on the hood exhaust. It picks up the faucet color but adds some unique lustre.

Interior Restoration: Stove wall

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This picture shows the cabinets that flank the AGA stove, with the island in the foreground and the pie safe in the corner. Hopefully you can see how the colors integrate. Note the hardware is different on each piece. Also, the cuprous finish on the fume hood compliments everything.

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Interior Restoration: Center Island in Kitchen

We were very lucky to have the services of Compton Interiors to realize the goal of having our new kitchen look old. For the center island, Andy applied three coats of stain and two coats of paint to be able to "stress" the surface, revealing different colors underneath. This photo shows the end product, with which we are very pleased.

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Hutch Opposite Stove

Behind the wall opposite the stove is the back of the chimney. This, too is painted with milk paint. To try and give it some texture we applied three colors, then sanded through so the colors bled through a bit. What do you think? Does it have a Goth look?

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Grounds: Kitchen House

Draped in snow

Back in the day, cooking was done in an outbuilding, out of fear that fire might destroy the main house. Here the kitchen house is blanketed in a wintry shawl. In front is a brick well house, which was built in the 1940s. The original well spring remains full of water. The fireplace inside the kitchen house still contains two iron cranes, from which the cook would hang pots over the flames.

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Grounds; Kitchen House Chimney

View from a different angle

This shows the kitchen house taken from behind the home, beneath the black gum. The stonework in the chimney is in disrepair, but we simply can't do everything at once. Hopefully it will survive until we get to fixing it.

Kitchen house chimney rebuilt using the original stones

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Restoration of Kitchen house

The original chimney had separated from the kitchen house, so we tore it down, poured a new concrete footing and rebuilt the chimney. Instead of the traditional design, where the stone is topped with bricks, we used brick all the way. We also lined it with fire brick and a flue, so it will function properly. Tommy Atkins was the craftsman that built the stonework.

Interior view of kitchen ouse