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The Old Tenant House

Michael Hillman

Read Part 7

Part 8: It was a cold and windy night....

I remember vividly the first night I spent in the old tenant house. It was bitterly cold and windy. With each gust the old house shuddered, as if wracked with pain. The wind blew through the old windows as if they were mere screens.

Free from the obstruction of furniture and rugs, the wind whipped from room to room without challenge. Every crack in the wall gushed cold air and the floor was cold as ice. Try as it might, the old boiler could not keep up, and slowly but surely the temperature inside crept further down. It had been less than 12 hours since my wife and I had inked the purchase papers, and I was regretting it already. It was a very, very long night.

One of my first projects that first spring was to re-glaze the 120-year-old windows. Actually, a better description would be 'I glazed them,' as the old glaze had long ago fallen out.

After what seemed like a winter with no end, spring finally came. Having lived in suburbia, we looked forward to lying in bed in our country house with the windows open, listening to the rustle of leaves.

We had just settled in for the night, books in our laps and cats and dogs at our feet, when I happened to look up at the ceiling. Something didn't seem right. It was much darker than it should have been, and it looked like something on it was moving. I turned the light up higher and looked again. The ceiling was darker, and it was moving; I wasn't imagining it ... it was a mass of bugs! And so began the summer from hell.

That would be the story of our lives for the next 17 years. Each winter we would struggle to keep the house warm. But like the old children's toy where you hit one figure and another pops up, each hole I plugged seemed to open another somewhere else. On windy nights we would sit at the dinner table, bundled in heavy sweaters, and watch in awe as the flame of the candle on the table struggled for life. It was as if the outside wanted in and the inside wanted out.

Summer was no better. Our only relief from the plague of insects that descended every year was to close up the house and run the air-conditioners 24 hours a day, not exactly what we had in mind when we envisioned living in the country.

Needless to say, replacing windows was at the top of my list for projects during the renovation. In spite of freezing in the winter and being eaten alive in the summer, we liked the charm of the old country windows. The old two pane over two pane had a classical look. Unfortunately, all the 'big store' replacement windows were six panes over six panes, and vinyl to boot! Once again, Joe Wivell came to the rescue.

For as long as I've known Joe, he's been the man to call when it comes to replacing windows. With the addition now framed, and the main part of the house fully gutted, it was time to call Joe in. Unlike the store salesmen who try to talk you into their brand, Joe listened as we told him what we wanted - double pane, two over two, energy-star windows with aluminum on the outside and stainable wood on the inside. To make his job harder, we added the additional requirement that they had to fit into the pre-existing openings.

"Mike," smiled Joe, "I know exactly what you need - Anderson Windows. They're top of the line, and you're going to pay for them, but you'll not be disappointed. Let me make some calls and let's see what it's going to cost. I'll get you a good deal."

Joe didn't have to tell me that; I already knew he would look out for me. And he did. Using connections built up over the years, he negotiated for me a price that bettered even the best deal I was offered at Lowes or Home Depot.

Three weeks to the day, an Anderson truck pulled into the driveway and offloaded 25 windows - including the bay window that would grace my wife's study and allow her to look out upon her garden, the French doors that would connect our bedroom to the new second story summer porch, and two new doors for the house. Joe nodded in approval as he looked over his new charges.

"Well, as you don't have much room left to store these in, I hope you don't mind if I get to work installing them?" he asked with a knowing smile.

The truck had no sooner disappeared over the horizon before Joe was test fitting the first window in. "Your brother built the openings for the windows perfectly; putting the windows in the addition is going to be a snap." Joe said. "Replacing the windows in the main part of the house is going to take some figuring, but we'll get it done."

The next morning Joe and his partner Luke showed up ... did I say morning? Let me rephrase that... at dawn the next day, Joe and Luke woke up the birds... "Hey, Mike," Joe yelled up the stairs, "if the hammering disturbs you, let us know and we can wait till you get up."

I pealed my eyes open. It was going to be a long day.

Joe and Luke went right to work, and by lunch they had all the addition's windows in, save the bay window. While that took some heavy lifting, it too was soon in place and secure. The next day Joe and Luke returned and sided the addition with siding that matched that of the main part of the house. As we had hoped, the addition blended in with the original house.

Replacing the windows in the original part of the house proved problematic, as Joe had predicted. Had he been replacing the siding at the same time, it would have been easy, but he wasn't; instead, Joe had to cut through three sets of siding to free the old windows: the original 120 year old German siding, early ceramic shingle panels installed in the 1930s, and aluminum siding installed in the 60s.

To make matters even worse, unlike the addition where everything was square, nothing was square in the main part of the house. A hundred twenty years of settling had played havoc with the position of each window. Not only did the windows tilt horizontally, but vertically as well. Needless to say, installing each window was like performing surgery.

Fortunately Joe had foreseen the issues and ordered windows one inch smaller than the original windows, which allowed him room to shim the windows so they sat square in the original openings. As each window was installed, Tony Orndoff, Emmitsburg's king of drywall, finished the inner wall. Between the two, it was soon hard to detect where the old house ended and the addition started.

The new screen on the last window had no sooner been installed when it became obvious to all that the number of insects in the house was dropping. Within a week, Audrey and I finally got what we had always wanted, the chance to sit up in bed late at night and read to the sound of rustling leaves, not the whining of flying pests.

When winter finally made its return, for the first time in years, it stayed where it belonged - on the outside. No matter how hard it blew, the flame on our dining room table candle burned straight and tall. The house was finally air and insect tight.

But before victory could be declared, the house had to be trimmed out, Brina Reaver would prove his skill as a master cabinet maker by turning the old kitchen into a functional work of art, and Tim Wantz of Woodcrafters would wow everyone by bring back to life floors everyone said were through.

So if you've got a window, kitchen or floor issue, call the people that helped me. Proof of their excellence is there for all to see in the old tenant house!

Read Part 9: The Kitchen Cabinets

Read other humor stories by Michael Hillman