Category Archives: The Trades

Giving Grace to Utility

Excerpt: John Ruskin ~The Relation of Art to Use, 1870

Our subject of enquiry to-day, you will remember, is the mode in which fine art is founded upon, or may contribute to, the practical requirements of human life.

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Bethesda Terrace’s Magical Minton Ceiling

Like other great cities, New York is a museum unto itself. It is possible to visit and never set foot inside any building – save for your hotel – and come away filled to the aesthetic brim. It’s all eye candy: the people, the architecture, the street art, the signs of wear, seasonal changes, the movement of everything, the intentional and unintentional.

The Minton tile ceiling design is made up of 15,876 individual encaustic tiles. These are divided between 49 panels. There are two repeated panel designs that differ only in the central motif being either large or small. Each panel is made up of 324 tiles. The tiles were fixed to cast iron back plates by a simple brass ‘dovetail bolt’. This ingenious fixing used a special slot in the back of each tile that was produced by inserting a wedge-shaped piece of wood that burnt out during firing. The head of the bolt could then be fitted and cemented for extra strength (Figure 2). Once in place, the protruding bolt was threaded through the back plate and secured with a nut (Figure 3). Each back plate was held in place by a grid of structural cast iron work attached to the Arcade stone and brickwork (Figure 4). 

Many private buildings in NYC restrict public access for reasons of privacy and security, so gems like the Woolworth Building are no longer open to common curiosity seekers. But for every inaccessible space, there are ten public jewels like Bethesda Terrace.

Although it appears to be natural, every detail in Olmsted and Vaux’s Central Park plan was purpose-built.  Bethesda Terrace, adjacent to the park’s 72nd Street Cross Drive, too, was purposely designed and implemented by Calvert Vaux and Jacob Wrey to be “a place of social gathering.”1  Standing on the footbridge above, onlookers are presented with a lovely view of the terrace, fountain and lake. But its subterranean delights are well-concealed; the tiles aren’t visible until you descend the staircase and step inside.

I was triply rewarded for my visit: a bright sunny day cast dramatic shadows, furnishing high contrast between dark and light; the Peace Industry Music Group provided a breathtaking musical accompaniment in a cathedral-quality sound space; and nearly 16,000 magnificent Minton tiles, flanked by frescoes, stretched from one end of the arcade to the other.

Bethesda Terrace Minton Tiles Bethesda Terrace Minton Tiles

This is one of the most important installations of Minton tiles in the United States. Others include the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC and the exhibition display collection housed in the Smithsonian.  Bethesda Terrace is the only known use of Minton encaustic tiles in a suspended ceiling2

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As if I wasn’t already agog at the tiles, I plunked myself down on the floor to stare at, listen to and photograph the beauty of the Peace Industry Music Group. Like a modern Van Trapp family, the group includes seven of nine siblings, plus guest players, led by father John Valiant Boyd.  The singing begins @ 2:30.

I returned one rainy morning and had the place mostly to myself. With a book and a thermos of coffee I could have tucked up in a niche and spent the day reading to my heart’s content, a sublime woman-cave in the picturesque heart of the city. Alas, my tile obsession – and corresponding list of must-sees – got the better of me, and off I went in search of the next treasure trove.

Bethesda Terrace Minton Tiles Bethesda Terrace Minton Tiles

Resources:
Minton Tile Ceiling, Bethesda Terrace, New York by Danny Callaghan July, 2013 http://www.madeinstaffordshire.com/thepotteriestiletrail/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/TACS-GE71-Minton-Tile-Ceiling-Article-copy.pdf

 

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  1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bethesda_Terrace 

  2. http://www.victorianamagazine.com/archives/12299 

Eats Shoots and Frames

I couldn’t have ripped-off a better title for today’s piece.

This week I sandwiched the framing of a friend’s bunkie between shooting the glories of summer on Waupoos Island, Prince Edward County. The county is a renowned foodie heaven, overflowing with traditional farming, artisanal food producers, cideries, vineyards and fine craft, all underpinned by the history of the United Empire Loyalists.  Fortunately, a work focus provided the blinders I needed to keep from dashing off madly in all directions.

By their nature, small islands, like Waupoos, are cut off from the rest of civilization. This is a slow-life blessing or an inconvenient curse, depending on the point of view. Everything has to be hauled onto and off the island, more than a kilometre from the mainland.  Christoph makes the supplies list – 3/4″ plywood, concrete footings, PL, and 30 kg bags of stonedust – and fires up the barge, which manoeuvres like a leaden football field. God forbid we should forget something.

Eats Shoots and Frames
Christoph steers and docks with admirable patience

Off we go, first to Waupoos to pick up the van, then on to the Home Hardware in Picton. Back we come, unloading and humping the materials up the embankment to the work site.

After two days we have levelled and re-laid the concrete footings, sheathed and screwed the floor, and framed and sheathed the last two walls.  I recruit the other adults for the wall-raising the next morning at 9:30am. An hour later the four walls are up and secured. My work here is done.

Eats Shoots and Frames
End of a good first day
Eats Shoots and Frames
All hands on deck
Waupoos Island Bunkie-10
Oh yeah
Eats Shoots and Frames
Tired. Unwashed. Content

 

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Something Old, Something New

Seven years ago I snapped a photograph of a pair of doors that I fell in love with in New York City. I always carried it with me, hoping to find some of my very own.

Four years ago I built a recessed, open-shelved cabinet in the dining room that never felt quite done.

Two weeks ago I found a pair of sidelights at Balleycanoe that, with a handful of hinges, were destined to fit the cabinet perfectly.

One hour ago I finished the installation and fell in love all over again.

Before, with the sidelights
Before, with the sidelights
And after
And after, with original trim reclaimed from the exterior of my house
And after
Finished with antique trim from the Marche aux Puces in Paris

**************

Balleycanoe & Co. in Mallorytown, Ontario is a destination.  You are unlikely to stumble across it (I checked my map for the umpteenth time) and it’s not a place to casually pop in and out of.  You need time.  John Sorensen’s meticulously organized 19th century reclamation treasures and antiques are only part of the attraction.  His stories and art are the other.  Be prepared to be entertained and delighted.

Here are a few select pics taken in much too short a period of time (see what I mean?).  There is SO much to look at I could have shot for hours…

Balleycanoe Buildings

 

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Framing Fine Carpentry

Yesterday’s changeable sun/cloud mix presented a perfect backdrop for some architectural photography in Ottawa’s Hintonburg neighbourhood.

Carpenter, and fellow Algonquin College Heritage Trades Institute alumnus, Christoph Altehoefer restored this gorgeous porch, integrating a mix of original and reproduction pieces.  Carefully redeploying existing materials, he crafted each reproduction piece from unusable rafters and other surplus lumber from the existing porch.  In all, the recreation took more than 550 person hours to bring it back to its historical form.

If you’re interested in learning more, Christoph will be giving a presentation on this project on Wednesday, April 10th at 7:00pm at Algonquin College, Perth Campus. To contract his services, he can be reached at (613) 269-3717.

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My $24 Wall

Just like corporate ladder climbing, my mantra is “Up or Out.”

Any unused stuff in the basement, shed or carriage house must be used, up-cycled, repaired, or hung on the wall this calendar year or it’s going straight out the door.  It’s crazy to be storing things that never see the light of day, or worse, be building new space just to keep up with the never-ending acquisitions.

I also have an amazing assortment of old-growth timber that came off the house during my recent energy retrofit.  This I refuse to part with, even though it occupies the better part of my driveway.  If I wake up in the morning and want a new wall/kitchen cabinets/handmade dining room table, I can pull the materials off the piles and begin.  Whatever I can dream, I can do, and having materials lying around in wait makes a quick start that much more possible.

The choice of a wall as my first reclamation project was primarily practical, focussing on design improvements to our modest family room.  I wanted the wall to delineate the space and improve the flow,  create privacy (no more peeking straight in through the back door),  buffer the room from direct blasts of winter air,  and prep the space for a potential conversion to a main floor, wheelchair-accessible bedroom.

The rickety old carriage house doors – ripe for up cycle – sacrificed their life for the project. First, I gave them a rough scraping before bringing them inside, careful to maintain the layers of old paint and the interesting patina.   Then I angle cut the t&g boards and set them into a a slightly thicker frame, creating a neat reveal.  Finally, I applied a couple of loose coats of paint, allowing sections of old paint and wood to show through.

I purchased the old wood windows three years ago for ten bucks apiece.  My plan was to use them in the retrofit of the shed into my own office/private space, but this project budged to the top of the list.  I wanted to create privacy and allow light to pass between the room and the north-facing back entrance.  The windows satisfied both these needs.  If I ever fully enclose the room, I can modify them into hinged transoms to permit airflow.

I’m thrilled with the finish and the overall design blends brilliantly with the other rustic features of the house.  Not bad value for $24 worth of 2×4’s and a couple of days’ labour.

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A Tree Grows in My Bedroom

 “Why are there trees I never walk under but large and melodious thoughts descend upon me?” – Walt Whitman

A bitter, alarming storm blew up the river and through the village a few weeks ago. Swaths of trees were felled in an instant, looking like a gaggle of giants had stomped through.  The rain blew horizontally, and with such force, that a small waterfall appeared on the inside of one of my old, unflashed windows.  The phone line dropped and the power went off as lightning and thunder pounded the sky. Three of my kids were on a bus somewhere between school and home.  My eldest and I sat quietly on the main floor and waited and hoped.

A few minutes later the sky returned to blue, the little ones arrived safely, and we walked the neighbourhood to survey the damage.  Fortunately, our enormous birches, maples and evergreens fared well.  Some neighbouring trees, not so much.

This weekend I picked through tree carcasses, looking for an ideal piece to integrate into the master bedroom. I found a fine piece of maple that had a sexy and distinctly feminine curve and form.   I cut the branch to rough size then fiddled with placement, searching for the appropriate alignment.  I toenailed it into place, added one ‘peg’, and tinkered with introducing a third branch to create a tripod for a hand-made birds nest.  I had my heart set on a birch tree (my second favourite species), but I am liking the smooth, greyish bark of the maple.  It will sit ‘as is’ until the next ah-ha! idea reveals itself.  It will be a hanger of sorts, but I’m undecided whether its nature will be utilitarian, aesthetic or a combination of the two.  In my house there is really no such thing as ‘finished,’ only more of what matches my vision.  And I love not knowing exactly what will come next.

Last week I installed a partial wall in the bedroom to break up the awkward, open space and create a modest walk-in closet.  I strapped out the walls and installed cedar t&g that I had sitting around for that purpose.  In the Fall I will build the custom closet spaces.

My drywalling skills have jumped measurably, although I am still slow.  The new wall is immaculate and I am very pleased with my repair of drywall over a large and tricky patch of existing lathe and plaster.  As always I am contemplating what I could have done better.  As always, there are several things on that list.

I’ve wanted to get rid of the furniture in the room and build custom pieces that better fit the needs of the space itself.  The built-in headboard/storage runs the length of the main wall.  I framed it up, correcting for the sloped floor and created purpose-built box inserts from leftover pieces of 2GS plywood.  I used the reclaimed lathe from the Quiet Room walls to face the piece.  I did a temporary install of cedar deck boards on top. What I’m leaning towards, though, is a concrete topper embedded with fossils and small stones we’ve collected on family vacations.  The headboard is a collection of positive and negative spaces and I am creating some interesting pieces to frame and hang on the lathe where the boxes (purposely) don’t exist.

Ceiling work, trim, more closet and fine work yet to come.  If I waited for magazine-perfect completeness, though, I don’t think I’d ever be writing or posting about my building/carpentry work.  But I have the lovely luxury of time and lateral thinking when the house is my own.

I am pleased with the results so far, which is saying a lot.  I anticipate, and embrace, those large, melodious and creative thoughts my new tree is apt to bring.

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Adaptive Reuse (and Reuse and Reuse) at the Grey Nuns’ Convent

Not all those who wander are lost. – J.R.R. Tolkien

Choosing a mini-adventure over a late afternoon nap, I laced on the mocs and headed across Esplanade Riel to Le Musée de Saint-Boniface.

While the museum is filled with fascinating objects, including the half-burnt coffin of Louis Riel, the principal artifact is the building itself.

It was constructed as a convent for The Sisters of Charity of Montreal (“Grey Nuns”) who arrived in 1844 to provide social services/missionary work to the Red River Colony. It is of Red River Frame construction, the oldest building in the City of Winnipeg, and the largest oak log structure in North America.

Jill Wade, in her paper Red River Architecture 1812-1870, details this form of construction:

It is made of log construction common to Manitoba and given a variety of names: Manitoba frame, Red River frame, piece sur piece, poteaux sur sole, poteaux et piece coulissante, and the Hudson’s Bay style. As some of these names suggest, the building type grew from strong French influences, but actually originated in Denmark and Scandinavia…

The style was introduced to North America by the settlers of New France and brought west with the fur trade. Eventually, it was adopted by the employees of the HBC. It was used to build Fort Douglas, the Selkirk settlers’ first fort, and remained popular for homes, churches, stores and outbuildings throughout the area until the 1870s. An increased availability of manufactured materials late in the century made elaborate homes possible and common homes easier to build, log buildings lost their popularity.

The Red River frame building started with a frame of hand-squared logs, often oak, resting on the ground or a foundation. This foundation could be built of any readily available material, which on the prairies often meant a mixture of fieldstones and mortar. Sill logs were placed atop the foundation, then vertical members were tenoned at the corners and along the sill. These vertical logs were grooved in order to accept the tapered ends of horizontal logs placed between the uprights.  Doors were often set between two minor uprights, windows similarly established or were simply cut out of the wall, with the rough hewn window frames nailed to the free ends of the logs.

It has, in turn, been a hospital, orphanage, senior citizen’s home, day school, boarding school, and a nursing college for students of St. Boniface General Hospital, which was operated by the Grey Nuns.  In 1956 the Grey Nuns vacated the building and in 1958, the His­toric Sites and Mon­u­ments Board of Canada des­ig­nated the build­ing as a his­toric site, recommending that it be pre­served for pos­si­ble use as a museum, as it soon became.

I met Museum Director Philippe Mailhot on the stoop.  Although I am a management consultant, alas I wasn’t the consultant he was waiting for.  I toured the two floors of the museum alone and then peppered the poor woman at reception with my construction-related questions.  She kindly summoned Georges Lavergne, Maintenance Foreman and part-time builder, and we promptly descended to the basement, always the best place to begin an architectural exploration.

The building is intriguing both for its original construction style as well as for the thorough work undertaken between October 1993 and May of 1995 to restore the historic fabric of the building.*  Seems the walls were pulling apart, as witnessed by the visible tenons on the second floor.  Vertical steel posts have been sunk into the basement floor and run the full height of three floors.  Glulam or steel I-beams have been added to each floor, and all the posts and glulam beams have been clad in spruce to blend with the original structure. Steel cables help to lock the walls in place.  Maybe this work wouldn’t be remarkable on a contemporary structure. However it is a complex undertaking in a building where most of the wood members have deflected over time, some remarkably so. Little is plumb, square or level.  It would have required extraordinary attention to detail and continuous problem-solving to complete this work on time, on budget and according to specs.

I brazenly roped Phil into giving me a tour of the ‘off limits’ third floor.  Walking onto the third floor was like entering a much larger version of my own attic.  We talked construction, funding, history, building science, and about the challenges of maintaining old buildings.  He disappeared for a few moments and returned with a hefty roll of the museum’s architectural drawings.  To my amazement, he presented it to me.

Blueprints are at once treasure troves of knowledge and pieces of art when they are hand-drawn, as these are. I was both surprised and honoured at such a gift.

The moment I set foot out of the museum it began to rain.  I pulled off my fleece and slipped the roll into the arm hole, bundling the rest of the jacket around it for safekeeping.  By the time I reached the hotel I was soaked but the drawings remained dry.

So glad I skipped the nap.

* The project team included heritage architects from the City of Winnipeg, the Province and the Federal Government (Parks Canada) and was supervised by Prairie Architects.
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A Carpenter’s Life: As Told By Houses

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I was encouraged by my elders to “follow my heart.”…Would not our world be a better place if we all followed what our hearts tell us to do?  People with heart won’t fight senseless wars, they won’t strip-mine a beautiful mountain, commit genocide, pollute our land with toxic waste and chemical fertilizers, foul the air we breathe, poison all our water and then charge us more for bottled water than they do for gasoline, dump 4.9 million barrels of oil in our sensitive Gulf, pay their workers poor wages, destroy Native cultures, keep slaves, spend $35,000 per second on war (Google “cost of war”), rape other countries of their resources leaving people to survive on $1 a day or less, let the riches of our country benefit a chosen few, let our children wander our streets homeless, and believe this is what life is all about.

I’ve never been one for hero-worship, but, jeepers, it’s refreshing to find a decent, substantial, informed, authentic human being every so often.

My first exposure to Larry Haun came in a darkened classroom, in my first year of construction carpentry at trades school.  We were all visibly impressed by the lanky middle-aged guy in the videos who banged nails in two “licks” and tread the unsheathed floor joists with the grace of a ballet dancer on a high wire.  We knew the video was slightly dated and that Larry was well into his 70’s and still framing up a storm with his brother Joe, an impressive tribute to his skills and approach to life. The magic starts at about 2:01.

Larry, with his modest and kind demeanour, gave me hope.  I was awkward with my framing hammer (and inexperienced with most of the other carpentry tools and equipment), twice the age of the majority of my classmates, and the only woman. Thank goodness I was also Type A, a voracious reader, and highly inquisitive, or I’m not sure I would have made it through.  In my worst moments of self-doubt and panic I could count on Larry.

I have said that our houses form the backdrop of our lives, from birth through death and all stages in between.  A Carpenter’s Life: As Told By Houses employs the conceit of housing form to reflect not only the chronology of Larry’s life, but his philosophical underpinnings, layered against the undercurrents of broad societal change.  His story is told in twelve chapters and twelve historical forms of housing, beginning with the Nebraska Soddy of his childhood, through the California tract housing of his young adulthood, and ending with his work with Habitat for Humanity in Oregon.  It marries excellent personal storytelling with active doing, a form that I particularly favour.

Although Larry was a carpenter by trade, he defied the limits of a singular description.  He was at once a father, husband and grandfather, a world traveller, a polyglot, an artist, a philosopher, an historian, an environmental steward, a community builder, activist and leader, a grower of food, an extoller of small homes, simple living, reuse and reclamation, a learner, a Buddhist and a fully-formed lover of life.  A simple and modest man, I imagine he would have held his own with anyone, anywhere.  And chances are, he would have been the most interesting, engaging and wise person in the room.

This book requires no previous knowledge of the building trades; it tells a story of a life well- and thoughtfully-lived and authentically recounted.  It is a generous, perfect fit of a book considering the global challenges we face housing and feeding our expanding population, and the environmental degradation that threatens to pull us all asunder.

Sadly, Larry Haun passed away on October 24th, 2011 at the age of 80 just as this book was being published.  He died from lymphoma, which he believed he “caught” as a result of long-term exposure to toxic wood treatments and asbestos through his beloved work.

I live with some regret that I didn’t make the pilgrimage to meet him.

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The Oracle at Lee Valley

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Yesterday morning Husband and I had one of those insanely stupid thirty-second flash arguments, this time about the best way to sharpen the garden tools.  My rule of thumb is he/she who actually does the work has absolute sovereignty – including the last word – over the purchase, maintenance and use of tools/systems around that work.  Both through interest and default, the outside work falls under my dominion.

Our kerfuffle sent me rooting around the Lee Valley website for the 10″ bastard mill file I knew would do the job.  Now I need to bug my neighbour Fairlie to teach me some sharpening techniques.

Or maybe I should just ask the folks at Lee Valley to add this to their ample, cross-Canada list of seminars and in-store demonstrations. I had all but forgotten about their skill-development workshops.  And if it wasn’t for our argument, I wouldn’t have been on the website at 7:32am on Saturday morning and noticed that the Woodworking for Ages 9 to 12 class was being offered twice that day.  I also made a mental note of the Steam Bending seminar in June.

As a construction carpenter, I felt a little ridiculous sending my kid out to carpentry class.   But such is the irony of limited time these days.  My current consulting contract and writing are cutting into my building work at the moment, and so my tools sit idle.  Little Man and I decided to gamble that the 9:30am class wasn’t full, dressed quickly, and made the trek into town.  As luck would have it, there was one spot available.

As luck would also have it, I ended up having an interesting and protracted conversation with Stephen Glazier, who books and coordinates all of the seminars and workshops at the Ottawa location.  I was flattered when he asked me if I might consider becoming a seminar leader.  It is a fun and intriguing possibility filled with potential.

Of course I picked up the bastard mill file and handle I needed, as well as a big-ass aluminum dustpan and the Larry Haun memoir that I’ve been wanting to read.  Need, need, want.  That I got out of the store with only four items is nothing short of a miracle.  The more hands-on skills I acquire, the more difficulty I have differentiating between the carpentry, garden and home products I need vs. those I plain old covet.  And the folks at Lee Valley, with their clever/useful/fascinating new products, books and seminars, certainly don’t make that decision any easier.

But how on earth, I wonder,  can they possibly know what I want before I do?

 

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