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On the Level (aka New Jack City)

So, contrary to our assumptions, getting the house shored (leveled) turned out to affordable — if painful. Although not in our budget, we decided this is one of those things that is just ‘the right thing to do’ and that this was the right time to do it. Once we install tile in the bathroom there is no going back and leveling the house.

On Wednesday, the crew from Davie Shoring showed up. The amazing thing about watching this team work is the fact that what they did is so elementary. That is not to say it is easy or doesn’t take skill. It is just that everything about what they did was straight out of a 7th grade physics text book. The art and finesse came in as they worked their way through the nuances of this particular house and its unique challenges.

What they were facing: The weight of this two story house is carried by the piers around the outside of the house (front, back, and two sides) as well as by a line of piers down the center of the building. The house has two chimneys  (two stories and double sided) which have settled — but have settled less than the two sides of the house. At first blush, what needed to happen was obvious: the left and right side of the house needed to be raised back to level. A closer look, however, revealed that the front of the house was actually the high point. But, we couldn’t raise the sides up to the level of the front of the house because the chimneys were about 2″ lower than the front of the house. Raising the chimneys while possible was off the table for our budget and would damage the roof and . . . .

We discussed leaving the front of the house where it is (it has a chain wall which might be best left alone) and level the sides to the level of the chimneys.

Doug, the supervisor on the job, wasn’t too happy with that idea. He was hired to level the house and he wanted it level. So he decided to have the crew do some exploration under the front of the house. If he could sneak the front of the house down near the level of the chimneys, then he could get everything else to work out.

Within a couple minutes, the team had jacks under the front of the house and were removing coursing of brick. They were able to drop the front of the house about an inch and a half. At that point they knew they could make the rest of the numbers work and were ready to work on the sides. Because of the size of the house, they used two bottle jacks between each set of piers.

Daylight is visible as the house hovers above the piers

When they were ready to lift the house, each man worked two jacks and they counted the pumps as they raised the house to ensure an even lift and to minimize damage to the interior finishes. Watching this was my favorite part of the operation. They knew to a fairly accurate degree how many pumps it would take to move the house 5/8″ or 1-1/8″.

leveling historic home with bottle jacks

Working in unison to raise Ursulines house.

As they worked their way around the house, they checked their progress with a digital version of a water level. By the end of the day, the house was once again level (mostly — there were certain compromises that one has to make with old houses that are set in their ways). The crew shimmed and pinned the house so they could return in the morning and rebuild the piers and chain wall.

The old sill floats above the pier during the jacking

One coursing of brick removed while the house is leveled

Before the work started, I was afraid that I we would spend the money for the leveling and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. Once they started working and the house began creaking and moaning and plaster began to crack I wanted to stop them and send everyone home. But by the end of the day I could not have been happier.

Remember the window that started it all? The one that was so out of plumb that we couldn’t repair the sash without ruining it?

The proof is in the pudding:

Level on window after the shoring

Level in the front window after the shoring of the house

It is a bit hard to see in the image above, but if you look closely at the apron of the window you will see a diagonal pencil line. That was the line that the carpenter put there using a level before the house was shored. That is how far off of level this window was. Seeing that little bubble nestled in between the two lines of that glass tube confirmed that we made the right decision and that we had a damn good team working with us. Thanks guys!

1

Violated

It started with a voicemail from K. Someone broke in to the new house. Tools are missing. So is the antique china cabinet.

stolen victorian china cabinet

I suspect Buddha is testing my attachment to material objects. Loosing the tools sucks but they are just metal and plastic to me. However, ever since my first step inside this house I have been drawn to this piece. I just loved its beauty and the craftsmanship it took to make it.

Our neighbor actually saw the guys taking it. However, since we have contractors going in and out he talked with them briefly and they said we were getting rid of this or something and he went back inside; can’t blame him for that. All we know is that it was two black males in a white SUV — Tahoe or Explorer or something — which was new, shiny, and had chrome rims. Not much to go on. I think the good news is that judging from the appearance of some other pieces of furniture they planned to take more. But I suspect that once they knew someone had seen them they just bolted. So while our neighbor didn’t prevent them from taking this piece, he probably did save us from loosing a few more things.

I try to focus on the fact that it is just stuff. And that k and I are both safe. And that no one put a gun in our faces. Nevertheless, all day I have been agitated, sad, pissed off, and generally unpleasant to be around.

NOPD came out and took a report. Very nice officer. One of the best I have encountered here and that is nice. Then again, the fact that he estimated that a detective would be on the case in 5 to 7 DAYS doesn’t inspire much confidence in that route. I guess if I were down and out and needed some cash and someone said, “it’s illegal . . . but you’ll have a 5 to 7 day head start before the cops come after you” — I might take those odds.

At least the sun is going down. Tomorrow will be another day.

0

When Blueprints Were Blue

One of the amazing aspects of getting our house was how great the sellers were to K and I throughout the process. As much as we wanted the house, they wanted us to get it. I’ve never experienced anything like it before and it made this special house that much more special.

At the closing, they brought us a series of wonderful presents; mementos from the house including the original contract for the building of the house in 1903.

But the thing that took our collective breath away was when they handed us the original blueprints for the construction of the house.

blueprint from 1903

original blueprint from 1903

2

Alluvial Woes

This morning did not begin well. A meeting with one of our contractors who is also a structural engineer. The topic of discussion: Is the house sinking into the swamp? Or does it just appear that way?

We already knew we had a rotten sill along the front wall of the house and so repairing that is in the budget and already underway.

bracing on the front porch

Interior bracing

However, any time you build a large, heavy house on unstable alluvial soil there is a chance that physics can come into play. Apparently physics is having a blast at our place.

For those of you who don’t live in an historic city located in a flood plain, I should probably note that a perfectly straight and level house in New Orleans is the exception to the rule. All our houses lean a little this way, settle a bit that way. So when you get a home inspection, the general rule is that as long as no portion of your floor is more than 5″ higher or lower than any other portion of your floor we call it normal.

Our mistake was asking a carpenter to go through all the windows in the house, ensure that none of them are leaking, weather strip them, and re-hang them so that they are all operational. Everything went fine until the carpenter came to this window.

exterior window showing evidence of the house sinking

close up of window showing the movement of the house

What you see with this window — and its cousin directly above it on the second floor — is that the window has racked so that one corner is substantially lower than the other. The finish carpenter working on the windows rightly pointed out that if we “fix” the window to accommodate this extreme rack, we will have one weird looking window.

However, fixing the rack is no easy undertaking.

The super-duper right thing to do is probably to call in a shoring company to lift the entire house, level it, rebuild the foundation, and then drop the house back. That is probably $50,000+ (K says last time she checked for one of her clients it was about to $70,000 but that was closer to the Federal Flood so maybe people aren’t quite so busy these days).

The New Orleanian thing to do is to fill the gap in the window with an old washcloth, stick a plant in front of the window, and call it a day.

In between these two extremes is a sea of gray that swirls around the general idea of gently lifting that corner of the house to remove a portion of the rack while keeping an eye on the side wall of the house to make sure you don’t then rack all those windows and create a bigger problem than the one we started with.

I’m leaning towards the idea of crafting a wood insert to fill the space at the bottom of the window, adding on to the top sash to fill that gap, and then painting it all out so that the casual observer doesn’t notice. While it doesn’t address the underlying issue, it does have the advantage of not destroying the original wood sashes. Then if in the future we – or the next owner – decide to undertake the leveling, the patched in pieces of wood can be uninstalled and the house can be made whole again; nothing has been destroyed in a hack-fix.

Then again, maybe the washcloth and potted plant is the way to go.

This evening I finished removing the sticky tile from the wood floor in the upstairs bathroom. Then it was back to the kitchen where I finally got up the last of the luan plywood and sticky tile.

The highlight of the evening was seeing the first of the old window sashes painted and ready for a reinstall.

freshly painted window sash ready to be reinstalled.

That and finding a very small prayer book with a card inside providing the times for the Holy Week Services at St. Anthony’s Church at Canal and St. Patrick Sts. . . . for 1939.

holy-week-services-1939

prayer book exterior

This city never lets you forget that you don’t really own anything here — you are just lucky enough to be the caretaker for brief moment in time.

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Kitchen Demo: Day 4

Picked up a mattress tonight that will live in the guest room but for now now will also allow us to sleep at the house when we are too exhausted to drive home.

Most of the evening, however, was spent back in the kitchen. K & I removed the sink and the final set of floor cabinets as well as most of the upper cabinets. Of course this meant uncovering mounds of roach droppings and not an unsubstantial number of dead roaches.

Then it was back to pulling up the sticky tile and luan sub-flooring to get back to the old hardwood floors. A hellish task given the ungodly number of nails they used to secure the luan sheets.

For the most part the floors look good although we did uncover a small area patched with newer yellow wood. Most of that will eventually end up back under a cabinet so I’m not too concerned. Still better than sticky tile!

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