The Cross House

The Danger of Old Houses, and Fire

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In 1989, the great English country house, Uppark, was almost wholly destroyed by fire. The cause? A worker used a blowtorch on the roofing flashing, even though such so-called “hot work” was forbidden. The house was in the finial stages of a extensive restoration. Luckily, because the house was fully insured, it was rebuilt. Exquisitely. The house became a model for how to resurrect a grievously injured historic structure. The story is fascinating, and engrossingly told in this book, one of my absolute favorites.

 

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A house in Wichita, Kansas, was just finishing a full restoration. Rags soaked with stain from the floor refinishing were put into a trash can on the back porch. The rags spontaneously combusted in the middle of the night, and the home was destroyed. Luckily, no one was killed.

 

There are many stories like these. Too many.

It is for this reason that I do not allow a heat gun to be used on the Cross House. Never. Ever. EVER. And everybody working on the house knows this, too. It is the #1 RULE. Break it and you are fired. Sooooo fired!

Also, I am hyper vigilant about what is tossed into the trash. This week I have been refinishing the front entry doors, and am using denatured alcohol. When I am done for the day, I take all the bits of steel wool (soaked with alcohol) outside and burn them in the burn bucket.

NEVER EVER throw such bits into a trash can. Or old rags doused with floor stain. Or anything doused with linseed oil. For, these bits will burst into flames and burn your house down, as happened to the Wichita house.

The Cross House has had three fires. This terrifies me.

In the turret of the round tower is evidence of lightning damage. This caused a joist to explode, and charred numerous other joists. This damage though was wholly hidden until I cut a hole in the ceiling at the base of the tower, stuck my head inside (the first person to do so since 1894), and shined a flashlight into the darkness. Oh shit was my response.

In the attic there is evidence of a very bad fire, although I do not know when this happened:

 

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The attic of the Cross House. It looks OK, right? Look closer…

 

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Geez. The previous owner painted all the damage white. The whole main part of the attic is like this. Geez.

 

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On the south side of the roof, the charred sheathing boards were obviously replaced, and the charred joists had new joists sistered on. This means that the whole south roofing tiles, installed in the 1920s, would have been taken off, the damage repaired, and the tiles relaid.

 

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In 1999 a worker was using a heat gun on the third floor. He was being careful. But heat guns are simply too dangerous, and the house started to burn (it is believed that a bird’s nest behind the wall caught fire). Due to the quick response by the Emporia Fire Department (one block away), utter catastrophe was prevented. Image courtesy Bob Rodak.

 

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The fire burned through the roof. Because extra 1920s roofing tiles were stored away, the damage was invisibly repaired on the exterior. Image courtesy Bob Rodak.

 

I am soon to be installing a sophisticated smoke alarm system in the Cross House, which will automatically alert the fire department. The fire department will also have a coded entry key so they can open the back door rather than destroy it (or, God forbid, the fabulous front doors).

As part of the roofing work going on this year, I am adding a lighting rod to the chimney adjacent to the main tower.

 

 

10 Responses to The Danger of Old Houses, and Fire

  1. Ross I agree with everything you said. I had soap stone used in the kitchen, the installer used linseed oil on the soap stone and they did tell me of the danger of rags catching on fire. I told him that I would never have linseed oil in the house ( I like natural soap stone anyway) I had him take the rags when he left. I also had the alarm company put in the fire and smoke system in the house as one of the first things I did, this is important in getting vacant home insurance.

  2. Wow. I don’t use those sorts of items often. But it’s a good reminder to be really vigilant when I do. Thanks for the cautionary tale(s).

  3. Ross I am soooo happy that you have been matched with the Cross House. You are doing so much investigation and doing the work that most people don’t think about when restoring a home. The steps you are taking for safety will hopefully ensure that the Cross House will be standing beautiful for at least another 150 years. Thank you for your dedication to saving one of our nations most gorgeous historic homes.

  4. I’m curious as to what you mean by a coded entry key? Whatever it is, do you think the fire department would take the time to use it in case of a real emergency? Sadly it likely wouldn’t save your windows. Here in Pittsburgh it’s par for the course to smash each and every window in the case of (even not terribly big) fires. Terror doesn’t even begin to describe my fear of fires, and we don’t even have our original entry doors….

    • Hi Meg!!!!!

      The fire department itself recommended the coded key.

      In the 1999 fire, the fire department was remarkably careful about not damaging the house. One fireman lives a block away in a fabulous historic house designed by the same architect!

  5. Our old house has had at least two fires in its history. One was in a bedroom, said to have started in a chicken brooder that was in that room. Seems to have been caught and extinguished pretty quickly. I found traces of smoke damage at the upper corners of the window casings underneath the paint. I discovered evidence of the other fire when I was stripping paint from the mantel in another bedroom. As I was picking out a bit of bad wood filler on one side of the mantel, I realized that the subject hole that was filled was black around the edges. I carefully pried the mantel off the wall and saw the the entire inside of the upper portion was charred like your roof joists … a fire had smoldered there for who knows how long, and was probably only discovered when it broke through in the location of that hole.

    I experimented with many ways to remove paint when I began the renovation of our house. Used properly, I found that a heat gun was the most efficient way to remove the paint on our miles of trim and doors and acres of plaster walls. I only warm the paint enough to soften it and release its grip on the underlying surface, and I scrape it away with my handy carbide pull scraper. The paint chips fall onto the floor, and are swept up and thrown away with no residual mess and no risk of chemicals accidentally dripping and damaging our pine floors.. Most paid workers cannot be trusted to do it this way, because it takes longer and requires a LOT more care, so I completely understand your ban on heat gun use. For a careful homeowner, though, a heat gun is a very valuable tool.

    • I share your approach. I frequently use an electric heat gun, but with much caution. It’s more important to be aware of what’s behind the piece your heating than anything else, especially if there are gaps or cracks that can admit the blazing hot air. I think that’s what gets people into trouble most often.

      I would never use a propane torch, though. I’ve seen people use it to strip paint, and it just frightens me.

  6. Ross, you might think about grounding the tower finial, as well as installing 1 or more lightning rods, also grounded. When I redid my pile, our building inspector had retired from a full-time job in Detroit, to an occasional job in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The man was a wealth of incredible information. I can’t begin to count the times his advice saved my bacon. When I removed the weathervane from the center of the roof to repair it, and the roof(slate), he advised me to install a huge ground wire, and connect the 2 lightening rods(which were obviously decorative, because they had never been connected), and the weathervane, because of my very exposed location right on Lake Superior. I thought, yeah, right, but did as he suggested. The next week we had a terrible thunderstorm, and while I’m sure the house was not struck, one of the giant oaks in the side yard was, and the tree was so badly damaged that I had to take it down, it was split almost to the ground. It also struck a nearby home, causing a major fire, and much damage.

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