In my seven years of restoring the Cross House, and writing about the process, I have never directly articulated the following.
When the house was built in 1894, it was a quality house. The 43 stained-glass windows, the fabulous Yale & Towne hardware, the stunning custom-designed column capitals, the beautifully carved main stair, all the framing lumber, and so on.
And then…things changed. Where quality was the driving force in building the house, doing things on-the-cheap became the guide for the next one-hundred-twenty years.
Like the circa-1929 conversion of the house into apartments. While this conversion saved the house, the work was done as inexpensively as possible. The new bathrooms did not have tiled walls, but rather a form of linoleum made to look like tile. Rather than install tubs with shower heads, just tubs were installed. And so on.
The circa-1950 motel conversion was the same. This conversion also likely saved the house but it, too, was all done on the cheap. The many new bathrooms, for example, had plastic wall tiles. Even the new lighting fixtures were really inexpensive.
And there’s nothing wrong with inexpensive conversions.
But a sloppy approach to maintenance can prove disastrous.
As the decades passed, damage from leaking roofs and gutters were covered over with cheap paneling. Rotting wood sashes received quick fixes with caulk and even duct tape. Missing roof tiles were replaced with…I kid you not…bits of vinyl flooring. Damaged radiators were just disconnected. Broken pipes were mended with putty. Missing bits of stained-glass were taped over.
In rural Kansas, such an approach is called farm & ranch work: quick and cheap.
Yet, all this mending and infilling and caulk and duct tape kept the house going just a little bit longer. And, curiously, all this quick and cheap work helped to preserve the house. Had more money been available during the 1929 conversion, I can easily imagine that the work would have been much more drastic. For example, rather than alter the main stair as inexpensively as possible, which was done, it might have been torn out and replaced by a new stair. Oh, the horror. Rather than endlessly mend the forty-three decaying stained-glass windows with tape and caulk, they might have been replaced with new aluminum windows. Oh, the horror.
And that is not a house I would have purchased.
Quick and cheap work though cannot continue ad infinitum. At some point decay and problems start to accelerate and an old house will eventually either collapse or reach a state where it is considered unrestorable.
This was the near-state the Cross House was in when I purchased it in 2014. The house suffered from two severe structural issues. Neither had ever been addressed, and one had recently been made spectacularly worse. Both issues would have eventually caused a partial collapse of the house.
In 2014, as I grew ever more intimate with the house, I would experience many many many Holy Shit moments, utterly gobsmacked at another horror directly resulting from decades of quick and cheap fixes. Ditto for 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, and now 2021. Just a few months ago I realized that the massive radiator in the dining room will, at some point not too far away, go crashing into the basement due to really stupid alterations to its support.
For much of its existence, the house mightily suffered from termites. The WHY of this though was never addressed. Since 2014, I have been on a steady campaign to resolve the WHY: termites are attracted to wood and water. By removing the latter, the WHY is resolved. So, what was a very wet house in 2014 is now a pretty dry house via repairs to the roof and gutters, installing downspouts (all missing in 2014), replacing rotted wood sills, and so on. Another year will likely pass before all the WHY is resolved. And none of these repairs involve duct tape.
My guide all along has been simple: The Cross House was a quality house when built. It should be restored to become, once again, a quality house.
It massively helped receiving two Heritage Trust Grants. And working with Justin these past seven years has been a godsend. But mostly though, I think having a let’s-do-it-right attitude makes all the difference. My long experience in design and architecture has been invaluable as well.
I am currently quite excited about the new huge shower, and my plans for the bathroom. It will be stunning when finished. This though will be the first stunning bathroom created in the house since it was built. When the powder room is restored, it will be of the same quality and beauty as the room was in 1894. Both rooms, once finished, will be comparable to What Was in 1894. And the same cannot be said of any of the work between 1894 and 2014.
When the kitchen was new, it would have been attractive in a simple way. It is obvious though that, as time marched on, the kitchen became ever less attractive. The kitchen in 2014? Disturbing in its shabbiness. It was like something found in a moldering 1970s mobile home rather than a grand house. Thus, I am greatly excited about the plans for the kitchen as the finished room will be…stunning. More importantly, the new kitchen will be comparable to What Was in 1894. As with the new floor. In 1894, the floor was solid maple. Later, inexpensive Linoleum was laid down. Then a layer of cheap vinyl. Then another layer of cheap vinyl. These three later cheap floors have now been removed, and a new solid maple floor has been laid down over the original maple (too damaged to restore). The damaged plaster walls will not be covered over with cheap 4×8 paneling (as things were in 2014) but will be repaired with plaster. The windows have already been restored. The wood wainscoting, caked with paint, as is all the trim in the room, will be stripped down and shellacked, as all was originally.
While I have poured money into the house, money, alone, is not a cure all. Because I am not rich, I have to be very careful about money. And this is why, for example, I tiled and grouted the new shower myself rather than hand this over to a $$$ general contractor. But, the new shower, while not costing a disturbing amount, is vastly superior than what might have been installed during the last century. It is not, for example…
In 2014, half the main porch columns were missing. All now have been restored or recreated for way less money than one would think, thanks to careful management…and Dr. Doug.
I have seen too many historic homes actually ruined by pots of money. Curiously, poverty is often a better preservationist than money. So, this post is not about money, or the lack thereof. No, this post is about…a certain attitude:
Many times, I have written about how I simply do not enjoy doing sloppy work. It drains the life out of me. Conversely, doing good work fuels me, no matter that it takes more time and effort. By doing good work 99.9% of the time, I am being endlessly being fueled.
I have also written previously about the importance of crispy, a hallmark of quality work. When the Cross House was new its exterior would have been, well, crispy. But decades of quick fixes, sloppy paint jobs, decaying windows, and lost bits, all contributed to the house looking, well, out-of-focus. This is how most historic homes look after a century.
Today though, the original crispness of the Cross House is now, largely, back. And in the following years I look forward to ever increasing the crispy factor.
Something I am not doing?
Making the Cross House, well, more than it was in 1894.
I am not, for example, adding elaborate ceiling medallions. Because the house never had any. I am not adding crown molding. Because the house never had any. I am though replacing all the picture rail, which the house did have (all removed circa-1950).
I am also not knocking down walls to create open plans. I am not punching 3,953 can lights into all the ceilings.
Sometimes, what we do not do can be as important as what we do do.
in summation, this post articulates what I am most proud of regarding the long saga of restoring the Cross House: Making a high-quality house…high-quality again.
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