Screen Room?

Like a lot of people we have tons of plans for our old house. Some of those plans are on a definite near future timeframe, others in the necessary long term, and some are more aspirational.

One of the things we’ve long discussed is the possibility of putting a screen room on the south side of the house, off of the dining room. This is more more towards the aspirational, longer-term - it would be very nice to have, but it comes behind small niceties like having a second bathroom and updating the 70-year old kitchen...

While it is a reality of life that one can’t always do everything one wants (or at the very least, not now, necessarily), one of the upsides to our old house is the realization, through living in it, that our predecessors had similar thoughts. While the house doesn’t have, and hasn’t ever had, as best I can tell, anything like a screen room, many of the rooms in the come close.

Every room in the house has at least one window, and most have at least two. The front rooms in the house, upstairs and down, each have three. The windows are over five foot tall on the upstairs, and about six foot or so downstairs. While they didn’t have the construction techniques to do a wall or corner of windows ala Frank Lloyd Wright, our ancestors clearly understood the value of having a connection with the out-of-doors.

This leaves a home that is awash with natural light during the day, which makes sense given that it was constructed in the days well prior to electrification. It also means, for the rooms where we’ve had the opportunity to replace the original windows with modern units that include full screens, a cool summer evening or early fall afternoon presents a close equivalent to that screen room.

Living Room screen room?

No - it’s not exactly the same as having open walls on all three sides, but it does get close. On a summer evening you get a delightful cross breeze and (assuming there aren’t too many explosions and gunshots on the televisual entertainment selected) the beautiful night sounds of rural Illinois - crickets and frogs fill the summer night.

It’s a little thing, of course, but it’s a little thing that gives well and reliably, and makes the waiting for those more aspirational items a little easier.

Glazed Over

Our old house has a lot of windows. This is something I’ve written here before, of course, and it continues to be the case. There are somewhat fewer windows than when the house was first built, some of them victims of remodeling (no one wants a six-foot tall window in the middle of their shower stall. Well maybe not no one, but nobody in this house at any rate). Still, there are many.

One of the things that I’ve come to realize is that having this volume of glass around the house seems to also increase the likelihood that one will have broken panes from time to time. These occur for a variety of reasons - wind blown tree debris, rocks thrown from lawn mowers, animal incidents, the possibly unwise decision to have your 12-year old hold a martial arts target for you inside...

As a result, I’ve become somewhat adept at fashioning temporary repairs using cardboard and duct tape (if the women don’t find ya handsome, they should at least find ya handy...). This is an especially attractive repair when the only box in the house large enough to use for a given opening happens to be the ones from the pet food delivery service:

Thanks Chewy!

What one might think, if one is being optimistic, is that this also gives opportunity to learn a new skill. And there is absolutely truth to that. In the course of dealing with this... opportunity, I’ve learned a few things:

  • Stephanich Hardware in Mendota will cut glass to your specification and, if they are not busy, they’ll do it while you wait. Quickly.
  • They also happen to carry the other components you need - glazing putty and glazier’s points - things that one has almost certainly had no awareness of until one has had to do this task.
  • Replacing a pane of glass is conceptually simpler than you think, and involves only a small number of tools.
  • A thing being conceptually simpler than you think does not mean that it doesn’t involve skills that are best honed with years of practice.

The window in question here is a large picture window that was put in to replace the bay window original to the house.

Old House - Bay Window

The replacement was done in my grandparents time because, as I’ve been told, the bay window was "a leaker". My uncle tells me that the picture window was custom made for the opening, which is certainly believable, given that it is huge - over 6 1/2’ tall and nearly 5’ wide.

Tom Silva from this old house recommends that the process of replacing a pane of glass be done with the window taken off of the wall and completed on a flat work surface. I’d done this task once before, on an upstairs window, and I did exactly that: removed the sash from the pane and worked with it on the floor. But there was no way that was going to be feasible with this particular portal. Given its aforementioned hugeness, it would be a two or three person job to lower it out of the wall safely. Even if I wanted to do that, I’m not a fast worker on such projects, and the prospect of having a 6 1/2 x 5 foot hole in the wall in the middle of insect season for any length of time was not an attractive one. What’s more, the overall condition of the window leaves one skeptical about its ability to successfully survive the transition out, and then back in to the opening. So - thanks Tom, but this was going to have to be done in an upright position.

What I realized, as I put the putty in to place (this part is kind of fun - a little like working with silly putty), is that it didn’t have the adhesion (or gription) needed to keep it there for much of any length of time. This wasn’t an issue for the bottom or sides, but it meant that, when I put the pane of glass into the opening, the putty at the top started drooping down like 4th of July bunting. But, you know, not in an attractive way.

But we got past that and got the glazing on around the outside as well, necessary to seal it up against the elements. And here is where I really begin to realize the skill set needed to do this well; a skill set that I simply do not have.

glazed window

(I mean, I could probably have done a more ham-fisted job of it, but that would likely have required considerable drinking while working on it, and handling glass while intoxicated seemed unwise).

With practice I could get better, I suppose, and this window certainly offers the opportunity for additional practice. While the other panes are intact, the glazing is crumbling off around each and every other individual pane - all 19 of them.

Close up of other panes

And, of course, the window frame itself is in need of paint.

This is all a task I’ve been reluctant to undertake because: a) all of the above; and 2) the plan is to eventually replace this window either with a setup that is more energy efficient or, ideally, with French doors that exit to a porch or deck. But at this point you can tell the direction of the wind during a rainstorm based upon how much this window leaks, so...

Warm Weather Approaches

We've had a very cool spring - I could hear the furnace kick on periodically well into April. As we got through May, however, things finally warmed up. Temperatures around these parts have stopped shy of the 90's so far, but we've had some solid mid-80° days.

Temperature control year round is an issue for our old house. We've talked quite a bit here about taking measures - some more successful than others - to manage the cold. Hot weather is also a challenge, though less-so than winter.

We do have central air conditioning. This was something that we had installed by the second year or so that we lived here. My grandparents did not have it, and my uncle will tell sad stories of summer nights in his bedroom just wishing that his sister - my mother - would open up her bedroom door so that the southern breeze entering her room could be shared across the hallway into his.

As I understand the story, she never gave in, selfishly hoarding the refreshing summer breeze to herself; The story, at least, as my uncle tells it.

While we have the central air available, however, we use it sparingly. It gets hot here now, and it also got hot back in the 1860's, when the house was built. With the absence of technological interventions like air conditioning, they employed other strategies to keep the building relatively cool. Those strategies, and the support systems for them, still work today.

Most of this involves keeping the house closed up. Part of this is focused on making sure all windows and doors are sealed during the part of the day in which the outside air is warmer than the inside air. Having it sealed prevents temperature exchange, and the inside will stay much cooler than one would expect without the help of AC.

Another part of being closed up refers to covering windows - particularly those facing south and west. This decreases heat gain from sunlight, keeping rooms that would otherwise be scorching hot from reaching those temperatures and sharing them with the rest of the building. You can see this strategy employed in one of the few very old pictures of the house that we have:

Shutters are Closed

If you look closely you will see that this picture - clearly taken in the daylight in summer - shows that every window has shutters on it, and every shutter is closed. They were external shutters, in this case, which also had the benefit of protecting the glass in high winds. A few of those shutters are still around, incidentally. My grandfather repurposed some of them into use on the enclosed porch windows (the windows were also repurposed from the old bay window that was taken out - the shutters covered the bay windows as well), and into a closet door. Others are out in the shed, far the worse for wear. I'd love someday to be able to use them as a template for new versions, though that's far down the list.

The final part of the strategy for staying cool is something I am thankful my ancestors took care of for me: shade.

We have very large trees to the south and west of the house, planted by enterprising relatives likely both to cool the building and protect it from the wind. It's a gift that just keeps on giving.

To be clear, we still give in and kick the AC on when the weather gets too hot, and particularly when it gets too humid. While I love the care and attention that my ancestors paid to keeping the house cool, that love only goes so far on a 98° day with 95% humidity.

The Differences

The Differences

We’ve been living in our Homestead for over six years now, and, given that it was my Grandmother’s home, I’ve been around it in one way or another for my entire life. I like to think I know this place pretty well.

I think the house enjoys proving me wrong.

Since I was young I recognized that door surrounds and kick panels on the back rooms of the house were plain, flat boards while those in the front rooms were intricate, multi-piece affairs. I’ve always understood this - in conjunction with the steep back staircase - as a part of the divided nature of the house - the back portion intended for the workers, the front for the owners and their guests.

The flat, simple woodwork around this (poorly hung) kitchen door is consistent with what can be found throughout the back side of the house, both upstairs and down...

The flat, simple woodwork around this (poorly hung) kitchen door is consistent with what can be found throughout the back side of the house, both upstairs and down...

...While this door, in the dining room, shows what the woodwork looks like in the front of the house. Well, in  most  of the front of the house...

...While this door, in the dining room, shows what the woodwork looks like in the front of the house. Well, in most of the front of the house...

Living here has shown us there is more.

We realized fairly early on in our stay that the windows on the back of the house were different than those on the front - six-pane divided lights per sash versus dual panes. When we started looking at replacing windows we also learned that the windows downstairs are taller than the ones upstairs.

The original front windows on the house have two divided panes per sash - one suspects that this was part of being a show-piece, and that those were the largest panes of glass they could get at the time; that they'd have gone with single panes per sash if they could have.

The original front windows on the house have two divided panes per sash - one suspects that this was part of being a show-piece, and that those were the largest panes of glass they could get at the time; that they'd have gone with single panes per sash if they could have.

The back windows in the house have six-panel divided lights on top and bottom.  The bottom sash in this picture is not original to the house.

The back windows in the house have six-panel divided lights on top and bottom.  The bottom sash in this picture is not original to the house.

This week, for the first time ever I realized that the wood surrounding the windows and doors in the living room are different than anywhere else in the house. While all of the rooms at the front of the home have intricate, multi-level surrounds, the ones in that particular room are more intricate, and deeper than those in the rest of the home. They bevel out, instead of in, and stand a good 3" proud of the wall.

45 years of life in and around this house, and I’d never taken notice of that difference before. We discovered this hanging curtains, realizing that the brackets that came with the curtain were not long enough to stick out from the side of the window surrounds.

This is a door in the living room - note the way the surround builds out all the way to the outside edge...

This is a door in the living room - note the way the surround builds out all the way to the outside edge...

...And it's not an optical illusion - the edge really does come out that far, standing outside the edge of the door framing.  The windows in this room all share this feature as well.

...And it's not an optical illusion - the edge really does come out that far, standing outside the edge of the door framing.  The windows in this room all share this feature as well.

This closeup of the dining room door shows that, while it is also built out in a somewhat ornate fashion, it does not continue to radiate outward beyond the edge of the frame.

This closeup of the dining room door shows that, while it is also built out in a somewhat ornate fashion, it does not continue to radiate outward beyond the edge of the frame.

These are little things, I suppose, in the long run. To my mind, however, they illustrate some of the key differences in how people thought about their homes in the 1800’s as compared to today. Modern construction is often dictated by standard materials, while older buildings allowed for greater variability in design, relying upon the carpenter’s skills to make everything work. You can see the results of that in these old houses when you get behind the walls and into the attics and basements, where you will find boards cut at creative angles and joined in a fashion that clearly was determined on the spot.

There are also differences in how they planned to use the homes from modern day. It’s clear that the living room was intended to be a space for formal entertaining. In addition to the intricate woodwork around the windows and doors, this room is the only room in the house that has decorative wood paneling below the windows. The door to enter this room is right next to the formal staircase in the front entryway of the home.

The living room is the only place in the house where the window surrounds descend all the way to the floor, and where there is paneling below the window.  (The heating vents were (clearly) added later, with an eye towards practicality rather than attractiveness.  The house did not originally have central heating).

The living room is the only place in the house where the window surrounds descend all the way to the floor, and where there is paneling below the window.  (The heating vents were (clearly) added later, with an eye towards practicality rather than attractiveness.  The house did not originally have central heating).

One imagines that John Foulk, in putting all of this together, pictured himself entertaining guests in this formal room, it presenting as a luxurious formal area providing comfort and visual interest; and - let’s be honest - making a statement about the level of success of its owner. And there was a community here. The church down road was built to serve the spiritual needs of the German-speaking settlers in the area, it’s stained-glass windows testifying to this still with script indicating “In Geftistet Von”[1] (donated by) followed by the person’s name.

Living in the house, seeing it, one wonders how much any of that actually happened in John Foulk’s time here. The bulk of the wood in the house is soft pine, and those formal steps look pristine, as if they were rarely trodden, while the steep, back stairwell shows the bevels and grooves from many a footfall. One suspects these decorative elements were put into place for the show, and then left to sit for those prospective guests, despite the fact they rarely actually came.

This is a component of our culture that still lingers, though it seems to finally be fading. How many of us within Generation X grew up in homes with at least one formal room that had to be there - “for guests” - which we were allowed maybe - maybe - to look at, but not to enter or touch? I am certain I am not the only person who grew up in fear of accidentally using the “good” towels to dry my hands (thanks Mom).


  1. I am well aware this may not be spelled correctly. Google Translate didn’t like it, and I remember looking it up years ago, as a teenager, in my English-German dictionary. I’m reproducing it here from memory, which may well be, at best, a little cloudy.  ↩