Our old farm house was built by my great great grandparents in 1879. We’ve preserved it and are now using it as a guest house. It is what architectural historians call a Folk Victorian “I-House”. The term “I-House” came from the fact that so many houses of this style are found in Iowa, Illinois and Indiana. But architectural historians acknowledge that the style originated in Piedmont Virginia and North Carolina.
It’s very simple: two rooms over two rooms, with a central hall and stairway and fireplaces in all four rooms. Sometimes the chimneys are external and sometimes they are internal. In our case the chimneys are interal and the fireplaces were designed for coal, not wood.
The foundation of the house is made of rocks gatherered on the farm. When we began to fix the place up I hired a structural engineer to evaluate the foundation, assuming we would need to shore it up in some way. After looking it over he laughed and said that the house had barely settled in well over a hundred years and there was nothing he would recommend doing to the foundation. Those rocks are working just fine.
The house is made of logs, covered by clapboards. The logs and boards come from trees that were cut down and hand-hewn on the farm. The boards, like most of the logs, are heart pine. Despite 120 years of exposure, they’re as solid today as the day they were put up.
After decades of neglect, the front porch had begun to fall down, so we had it replaced. I had a carpenter build it back exactly the way it was before. He pointed out to me that while the original porch was made of heart pine, he just couldn’t get anything today other than soft pine that he said would be “dented by a ladies’ shoe.” A mere six years or so after the new porch was built, it’s already starting to rot, something the 120 year old wood has still never done.
This weekend we had a termite inspection. Cherie and I were concerned that we might have termites and we were sure the house had never been treated. So an inspector crawled under the house for a while, eventually emerging to report that he had indeed found evidence of termite damage. But the damage was to the treated wood used to build the back deck that we added five years ago. The original part of the house is undamaged. He says the wood they used hasn’t deteriorated at all, and is just too tough for termites to bother with.
We love the old place, and it is rich with family history. I originally preserved it more out of sentimentality than anything else. But I’m glad we did. It is a testament to the endurance of simple workmanship in an age of shoddyism.