Time for the St. Patrick’s Day... White?

Our old house has a back stairwell that abuts our bedroom and my office, and that’s my primary route to and from the downstairs. At the top of the stairwell is a window which looks out on the side yard.

The window

Regular readers have seen many pictures from that window. It’s my first view of the wider world virtually every day, letting me know what I can expect to encounter as I venture forth.

This morning was an unexpected surprise.

The calendar tells us that it’s March 17th, the day we here in the US celebrate as St. Patrick’s day by wearing garish amounts of bright green clothing and turning other things green as well. But Old Man Winter had other ideas this year, and gave us an overnight gift in the form of a blanket of white:

Out the window

Things vary, of course, depending upon one’s latitude, but it is surpassingly late in our winter season for snow to be happening here in northern Illinois. My offspring - I’m not entirely an evolutionary failure - joined us some 17 years ago now within the first week of March. LB was earlier than expected by a month or so, and so I can vividly remember getting the call from my wife and driving the hour or so back home across the countryside at a pace that was, perhaps, a little bit more than the law would allow.

This memory comes up here because on that automotive adventure I remember being surprised that it had begun to snow - just flurries - because it was so very late in the season for that to be happening. The ground itself was completely clear of the white stuff at that point, as is typically the case.

And despite all of that, here we have complete coverage more than 10 days later into the season. Anyone denying climate change is really not paying attention.

That aside, though, it’s kind of a late season gift given us by OMW, or at least that’s how I was thinking about it as I geared up for one last snowy trike ride. Of course, LB expressed what was more likely to be the popular opinion when we talked about it after I got home:

Yeah - you are all like "its a white biking day", but I’m looking out the window from my bed thinking "aw crap"...

Holidays at the Homestead

It won’t be a white Christmas on the prairie this year - not unless little patches like this, the functional equivalent of Old Man Winter’s snow comb-over, count:

Snow patch

This little bit remains due to a combination of drifting and fortunate shading, clinging on despite temperatures that have drifted up near the mid-century mark over the past couple of weeks. It’s made it through the solstice, and though we are a couple of days away from Christmas, a bit of it might remain on the holiday itself, so perhaps technically...

White Christmas or not, however, the decorating for the holiday season proceeds in this old house. This is always a somewhat nostalgic affair for me, given that this home figures as part of the holiday celebration for the majority of my life. When my grandparents lived here we would come over for Christmas Eve, after the service at Immanuel Lutheran Church (which always ended in a candlelit version of Silent Night - as it should be). There we’d have a light dinner which we, as children, wolfed down in anticipation of going into the living room so we could start in on the important part of the evening - the opening of presents.

For the purists out there who are now recoiling in disgust at the opening of presents the night before Christmas, take heart - these were the pre-Christmas presents. This was our gift exchange between family - aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. We also did Christmas morning, but that was for the gifts from Santa (Sometimes resulting in an uncharacteristic awakening at, say, 4:00 AM...).

Those Christmas Eve celebrations mostly took place in the living room, and we have, in past, decorated in that room. This picture is from Christmas 2012, with the tree in the spot that Grandma Marie usually chose - the Northwest corner of the living room:

Grandma’s Spot

Most years, though, we have gone with the placement in the dining room. This room has a large picture window that, itself, replaced a former bay window (the bay window was, reportedly, a "leaker"). The space lends itself nicely to the tree display, and the window offers a backdrop night and day:

Tree at night

Usually our decorating has been limited to the tree and a few knick-knacks scattered around the house. This year, however, the determination was made that something should be done with the front stairwell. It’s a (the) Central feature of the house, but figuratively and literally. In its unretouched presentation it was meant to make a statement:

Newell post

Stairs Rising

And this year that was dressed with garland and lights:

Stairwell brightly lit

I must admit that I cannot take credit for these things. The how and the why of them is largely and capably determined by MLW, with help from the kids. My role primarily involves lifting and moving and placing of things under her wise direction. And to give credit completely where it is due, MLW both conceived of the garland and placed it on the stairwell. There my role was simply to come home and appreciate.

If there is a challenge to all of this - aside from keeping the cats from taking it all down - it is finding a sufficient number of outlets, correctly placed, to allow for the lighting. The front hallway is a particular puzzle, as outlets in the downstairs portion are as absent as belly buttons on an angel.

Fortunately, There are two outlets in the upstairs hallway, both to the front of the house near the stairwell opening. Getting anything like this light display to work in there is an operation that deserves extra-credit.

In the winter months - especially now, during the darkest time of the year - that stairwell is a dark place much of each day. The kids, who occupy the rooms at the top front of the house and are the primary passengers of the stairwell, are already preparing their arguments for keeping the garland there year round...

Timely Decorating...

It’s been about 9 1/2 years since we moved out to the Homestead. While it may still be a bit premature, I decided to start hanging some of my pictures up in the office.

Yes - it’s a little sad, but while the essentials have been in the office since we moved in - desks, chairs, bookshelves - it’s taken me slightly longer to get to niceties like pictures. I’d like to claim that the wait is because I was looking for just the right items to complement the space, but the reality is that these pictures are things that I already had. They had hung in my office space in our old home.

I said some, and by that I mean two. I figured that I would start with the area around my comfy chair, which is the first area you see where you enter the space.

So this is a shot of that area prior to any intervention:

Baseline pic here

The first item I hung up is Watched by Mark Daehlin. This painting was a gift from MLW, and a one I very much enjoy (I’m a long time fan of things wolfy). And it turns out that it’s more enjoyable up on the wall than in a stack sitting along the floor.

Watched on the Wall

Once I got that one up on the wall I was still feeling relatively motivated, and it seemed like the space between the window and the corner on by the comfy chair was a reasonable location for my Mark Twain print.


This one is a gift from my mother, and shows Samuel Clemens is his classic garb, sitting in a comfy chair, reading a book. The caption underneath is a quote by him that reads "The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who cannot read them".

The man who does not read good books...

Seemed a good fit, he in his comfy chair over me in mine. Now if he was just holding an iPad instead of a book...

I don’t want to make it seem that I’ve been terribly industrious in this. There are still at least a half-dozen items that I have yet to hang. I’ve let a couple of things, some more real than others, function as drivers (or perhaps rationalizations) of my procrastination.

The issue that is perhaps less real is the thought that I need to have frames on these items match the woodwork in the home in some way, or at least the era the home represents. You’d think after nearly a decade I’d mostly be past that idea - after all, the home now has other modern conveniences that aren’t original to its era. You know, I’m referring to little things like electricity, indoor plumbing, and central heating. And besides, it’s not like I’m scrawling these posts out on parchment with a fountain pen...

The eclectic nature of some of our items is really in keeping with the presentation of the home itself, which bears the imprint of multiple generations, each consistent with its time. So yeah - I can put up a print with a silver metal frame, dammit.

The other, more realistic issue is one of wall space. While the house is undeniably big, and the office is, in fact, the largest room on the second floor, the amount of unbroken wall space is relatively limited. Because of the layout of the home, with most of it centered around a front hallway and staircase, virtually every room has at least two external walls. Each external wall hosts (or at least hosted - one or two have since been removed) at least one window, and most of the walls have two. The windows are large and, while it’s delightful to have the sunlight they bring it, they do leave relatively little room for pictures - smaller and/or narrower are the rules of thumb for wall hangings.

Which is why the Mark Twain print seemed it would fit in nicely in that spot - between the corner and the window.

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...

Solar Roof?

This week Elon Musk, founder of Tesla and Space X, announced a new product developed in conjunction with SolarCity - a new type of solar shingles designed to visually replicate the appearance of traditional roofing materials.

At first blush it might seem odd to bring this up here, on this site dedicated to living in and (very slowly) restoring a family home built in 1861. Indeed, I went back and forth between whether to put this here, or on my more science and technology oriented site. But this seemed the right place.

While our goal is to maintain and restore this old family home, it has never been with the intention of living a 19th-century lifestyle. We've been working our way through the replacement of the original windows, and with the help of the fine folks at Triple Service, have installed air conditioning and, more recently, a modern iron filtering system for the water supply. And, given that the house was originally built without either electricity or indoor plumbing, I hold that these modifications are consistent with the approach prior generations have taken to the Homestead.

All of which makes this new product very interesting to me. The prospect of using alternative energy sources - either solar or wind - has been something I've wanted to incorporate in the long-term picture for our home from the beginning. This is true both from the standpoint of being a person who is interested in these technological solutions for their own sake, and for the benefit they stand to offer to the environment. It's also true from the perspective of a person who owns a large, 155-year old home who must contend with the utility bills that home generates.

In addition, owing to our rural location, we are low on the list for restoration during power outages. In the seven years that we've been living at the homestead we've encountered at least one outage each year, and several of those have been for multiple days at a time. Because we have forced air heat and get our water from a well with an electric pump, a power outage also means a heat and water outage. This is a reality of where we live, of course - on the open prairie, in an area with high enough winds to justify a wind farm - but that makes it a reality it's which one must contend. Being in the position of generating some or all of one's own power becomes a very attractive option under these circumstances. If one can do that in a fashion that also complements the appearance of our vintage home, as opposed to looking like a modern-era tack-on, so much the better.

Another, very relevant detail is the quality and durability of the roofing material itself. Because of our location in the wind farm the traditional asphalt shingles that are used here struggle to maintain their protective position in the face of the gust. The descriptions of this material suggests that it is considerably more durable than traditional roofing.

This is all early days, of course. The product is not yet available, and there's been no announcement of pricing, though the stated goal is to make the cost competitive to the cost of traditional roofing plus utilities. Still, I think our Homestead would look quite nice with the Slate Tile panels on it. If the folks at Tesla and SolarCity are looking for a location which would provide a real-world, four-season, high-wind test site for their product I'm certain arrangements could be made...


My grandparents were the last inhabitants of our old house. They were not especially well-to-do, but my grandfather was handy. The combination of these two facts can be seen around the home. Probably my favorite example, which I touched on briefly in another recent post, was the repurposing of materials from the old bay window that was on the south side of the house:

Bay Window

At some point in my grandparent's occupancy that window began to leak, and my Grandpa Ray made the call to remove it and replace it. In its place he installed a large multiple pane picture window, which still occupies that space today:

Picture Window

This decision seems to have been a practical one - either the bay window was worn beyond repair, or perhaps to a degree that was beyond Ray's capabilities to rectify. In either case, however, removal of that item did not signify the end of its useful life.

Two of the windows, and their shutters, were repurposed. If you look closely at the first, older picture you can see that the house originally had an open porch entry into the back door:

Porch Close-up Old

It's since been enclosed, and a close look at the second picture shows that Ray repurposed two of those windows for service on that enclosed porch:

Porch Close-up Recent

And, not only did he repurpose the Windows, but the shutters continue to grace them on the inside:

Shutters on Porch

This seems again, eminently practical, as the porch windows face south, and the temperature in the space can otherwise heat up considerably.

This is all pretty straightforward, of course, but there is also at least one example of some real imagination and out-of-the box thinking:

Closet Doors

These shutters - which appear to be the same shutters as those on the porch - are serving as a closet door for the room that was once my grandparent's bedroom. Two of the shutters are fastened together on one side, and the other is free, to make a sort of double door.

I saw this closet door many, many times across the course of my childhood. It was so familiar to me from such an early age that I don't believe it had ever occurred to me to ask, or even wonder, why the door was made from shutters. Having been away for a while, and coming back, combined with having the old pictures of the house to compare against has given the the opportunity to begin asking, and understanding, about these things. In a lot of ways it helps me to better get to know my grandfather, who died when I was only six.

It also means that, with the closet door and the porch windows, seven of the eight shutters from the original bay window - shutters first built in 1861 - have survived to current day. This might seem a small thing to others, but to me this is a pretty cool thing.

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.

Spring Birds

One of the delights of life out on the Homestead is the veritable orgy of birdsong in early Spring. This recording was made yesterday morning, standing in the back yard with an iPhone in the air (you can hear the spring winds in this in addition to the birds).

Joining the array of LBB's and Cardinals that remain year round are the Mourning Doves, Robins, and one of my favorites, the Red Wing Blackbird.

In addition to the delight of the birdsong itself, the sudden preponderance of avian activity whips both the dogs and the cat into a frenzy of activity. Outdoors the herding dogs make great efforts to "guide" the flocks of birds from tree to tree, while indoors Malcolm the cat sprints from window to window (and we have a lot of windows) in an effort to see and, one strongly suspects, in hopes of catching an errant bird that might, somehow, wander in through the glass.