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The Old Tenant House

Michael Hillman

Part 1

It seems like almost everyday we're being barraged with bad economic news. And like a lot of people, plans on selling our house have been put on hold. In today's market, it just doesn't make any sense to part with a house for a fraction of the price I know it's worth.

As bad news after bad news pours in, I often find myself staring out the windows in the plant room, looking at the sunset over the mountains and thinking: ''We'll if we're going to have to stay, at least I like the house now." That was not the case two years ago however.

When we first saw our farm, which we aptly called "Windy Meadow" for the constant gusts that seemed to prevail, to say the house was the not the prime selling feature would be an understatement. With two horses, our primary concern was sufficient land to support them, and a nice barn. While I spent my time fixing the now infamous [why is it infamous?] white board fence and upgrading the barn, my wife did what she could to improve the insides of the houses. Once those chores were done, our plans were to focus on upgrading the house.

But like the old saying, "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry," so too did our plans for the house. Soon, competing horses for me, and planting and tending native plant gardens (and collecting cats!) for my wife, occupied all our time.

Just like the person who only thinks about fixing a roof when it rains, every winter, as we would sit and watch candles on the dinner table be blown out from cold winds leaking through drafty windows, we would swear that this year would be the year we would finally fix the house. But who cares about drafty windows in the spring when the windows are open anyway? Winter after winter we would promise to fix the house, yet spring after spring, gardens and horses always pulled us away.

Then a cooking element of the stove went out.

Now you ask any guy in a bar who has suffered through a renovation about why they did it, and every story will start off with, "It all began when my wife wanted a new stove...," or, "The refrigerator broke ...."

Why people can live for years with drafty windows, cracking plaster, doors that don't shut, or floors that shake like a trampoline when you walk across them, but can't live with three out of four cooking elements is beyond me. But when that cooking element went it I knew my days of procrastination were over.

Had I been able to find another heating element I probably could have skimped by once more, but finding a cooking element for a 50-plus year old stove proved harder than anticipated. And after calling every appliance company on the east coast, and checking every web site I could think of, I reluctantly agreed to get my wife a new stove. And that's when the problems began.

Unlike our old stove, which was self-contained and stood by itself, stoves today are designed to fit into counters. Not a problem I thought, we'll simply move our 35-year old refrigerator to where the stove was and move the new stove to where the refrigerator had stood alongside the counter ... but then I realized that would mean splicing and extending the 70-year old cloth wiring that proved the 220 volt power to stove. But before I could rerun the wire I had to jack hammer out the old brink base where the original house's wood burning kitchen stove had once stood. But a jackhammer was sure to bring down what was left of the plaster on the walls and ceiling... Time to rethink the plan.

I can't swear to this, but I think somewhere along the line I promised my wife she could have a new kitchen if she let me buy that horse "I couldn't live without." I got the horse, so it was time to "fess up" and give her that new kitchen. Fair is fair.

As I would soon discover, the hardest part of any renovation is not the renovation itself, but figuring out what you want to do, and more importantly, what you can legally do. Unfortunately many people think that building permits and inspections are nothing more than a nuisance - nothing could be further from the truth. Permits and inspections play an important role in ensuring that the work is done properly and safely. And while I had no intention on cutting corners, being able to say the work was done according to code would provide assurance to any future purchaser of the house that they had independent certification of the quality of the work.

So, taking a cue from my brother, an award winning home remodeler outside of Philadelphia, I decided I would look upon the inspectors that would oversee the work, not as inspectors, but as the project's quality assurance team. As time would soon prove, that was a a valuable decision.

Before you can apply for permits, you first have to have a plan. While you can get away with a simple pencil drawing, it's always best to bring in an architect. Having an architectural plan will greatly speed the permit review process, not to mention, most architects will also handle the pulling of any building permits, not to mention calculate the amount of material you'll need.

I'll be the first to admit, looking for ways to pinch every penny I could, bringing in an architect for a simple kitchen renovation seemed extravagant, but not wanting to be penny wise and pound foolish, I acquiesced.

Again, taking direction from my brother, we interviewed three architects and settled on Eric Jarvivan who lives just outside of Emmitsburg on Fairfield Road. We chose Eric because, unlike the other two architects, he was more interested in designing something that fit our lifestyle and budget than in designing something appropriate for a "McMansion."

Both my wife and I loved the charm of our old tenant farm house. Since its original construction back in the 1890s, each successive owner had modified it in some way. Sometime in the 1920s a two-story addition had been added to the rear in which the kitchen and master bedroom now resided. Later, the back porch and second-story porch were enclosed, and in the 1960s, the house and summer kitchen were connected. However, each modification was done differently, giving the house a patch-work like appearance both inside and out. Eric's job was to bring together all the modifications over the years and make them look uniform, as if they were meant to be there. I didn't envy him.

Eric listened patiently as my wife expressed her kitchen needs, and offered many insights that neither my wife and I had ever considered. He was right, of course. It soon became obvious to all, that we were not talking about a simple kitchen renovation, but an addition. Once again I groaned, but acquiesced.

Less than two weeks later Eric had a preliminary design. We were astounded by what he had come up with. It was like he had read our minds. It was perfect. I would like to say the center piece of the design was... but I can't, as there were many centerpieces to his design. All the current interior openings between rooms, which at one time were openings for exterior doors, were widened into arches, carrying forward the theme of existing arches in the house. A "U"-shaped kitchen counter, which incorporated an old style farm sink, a modern stove, new refrigerator and desk occupied the full area of the present kitchen.

The western wall of the kitchen, which housed a single window from which for 20 years we had looked at the sunsets over the mountain, was replaced by a 12-foot wide single story addition, made up of a wall of windows.

The best analogy to describe what our view of sunsets over the Catoctin mountains was going to look like is to visualize what it would be like to go from a 12-inch black and white TV to a 50-inch plasma color TV. The view was going to be breathtaking.

The old cinder block building behind the house and the 70-year old boiler were removed, replaced by an office for my wife and a bay window looking out onto her gardens. On top of her room, a summer porch was placed, accessible via French doors from our bedroom.

I no sooner looked at the plans than I knew that whatever the price for the plans would be, it was money well spent. As it would turn out, the bill for the architect's plans was the least expense of the renovation, and far, far less then I had even hoped for. And, as I would soon learn, having good plans saved rework, excess material, and allowed the craftsmen who would help me bring those plans to completion, to work efficiently and effectively, reducing the cost of the renovations by more than the cost of the architectural plans themselves.

With Eric handling the pulling of permits, it was time to line up the "team." For help on that I turned to Joe Wivell Jr., someone I've come to trust and admire for his home remodeling skills. Joe had helped me on many projects over the years, each and every one of them received rave reviews from my brother, my standard for excellence. Better yet, I could trust Joe to protect my wallet as he would his own.

Knowing the quality of the craftsmen available in Emmitsburg, Joe looked no further and assembled a team of Emmitsburg craftsmen. Over the next year Joe Wivel, Stas Laquaratez, Joe Reckley's crew, Tony Orndorff, Dicky Seise, Buzy, Brian Reaver, and Tim Wantz became so familiar around our farm that even the dogs didn't bother to bark. And as for Mark Zurgable of Zurgable Brothers hardware, well, let's just say Mark and I became best friends.

While my renovation project took place before the current economic slump, had I not done it, I would still do it now for now is the perfect time to do that renovation you've been wanting to do. Renovating an old house is a heck of a lot cheaper than buying a new one, and when you do it with local Emmitsburg craftsmen, you'll get it done the way you want it and done right the first time - not to mention you'll find, like I did, you'll have a lot of new friends!

Read Part 2 - Inspiration

Read other humor stories by Michael Hillman