Touring Historic Homes in Cambridge, MA

Project: Bob's Shingle Style Home, Episode 2, Part 2

Work gets started as Greg Rochlin presents architectural plans and demolition begins, revealing an old pocket door. Bob and Ryley take apart the staircase banister. Bob joins Brian Pfeiffer to tour the neighborhood and check out other historical homes.

Part 1: Architectural Plans, Demolition, and Door Discovery
Part 2: Touring Historic Homes in Cambridge, MA
Bob and architectural historian Brian Pfeiffer tour the neighborhood's historic homes, including the Cooper-Frost-Austin House, the oldest dwelling still standing in Cambridge, MA.
Part 3: Second-Floor Plans, Door Demolition, and Staircase Disassembly
This project centers around the remodel of Bob Vila's own gracious Shingle Style home in Cambridge, MA. It's a house with a lot of history and beautiful architectural details, many of which were obliterated in remodels of the 50s and the 70s. On the centennial of the house's construction, Bob gets together the best talents in the business to recreate and renew it to its former glory, making some important modifications along the way that will transform this into a dream house for today.

Also from Bob's Shingle Style Home

Hi. I'm Bob Vila. Welcome home again to my 100 year old house in Cambridge.

And as you can see from the dumpster in the driveway today we're beginning demolition. We're going to be giving you lots of tips on what you should do if you're demolishing parts of your house, to protect those elements that want to stay there.

Also, we'll be getting together with our architect Greg Rocklin who's got plans for some of the changes we're making here, and I'm going to take you on a little tour of another shingles style house here in Cambridge. Stick around. It's good to have you home again.

Our floor plan is pretty simple. We've got a front vestibules that is open to the main stair hall. Then we've got a living room and a library, a dining room and a kitchen area. Hi Riley.

Hi Bob.

One tip that I want to show you is we started demolition here, and one thing that's been done already is, to protect all the hardwood floors, we took the wall to wall carpeting that had to be discarded from upstairs and we simply have it upside down here, and that means that during the process of remodeling, we won't damage these floors. and we closed the opening to the dining room here. With a temporary wall that's really just polyethylene, and one of the salvaged doors so that we have a safe place to meet Gregory Rockland, our architect, and to...

Hi, Bob. How are you?

Good. And to the work get without having construction dust get in here.

You've got plans to show us, so let's get started with the first floor here. Now, what are all these colors?

Well, the colors, we have three colors here. Green indicates those elements that are going to be removed or demolished.

Black is whats existing and new construction we've shown in red.

OK, well lets go back to the front of the house here 'cause I just came in through the front door and I see a lot of action happening out here.

What's the point of this?

The green, which is the existing steps, we're going to take out and replace with a new set of front stairs that are tucked in underneath the porch and the eave, to keep the rain, snow, and ice off of it.


I think that's a good idea in New England, with all the snow that we get out here. Now, We're in the dining room, right next to this area and there basically are no changes to this room except what whats this little stub here?

Well, originally, this room had a pair of pocket doors and a cased opening which was removed probably during the 70s restoration.

We want to put that back, not the pocket doors but at least the cased opening and align it right with the center line of this window which is where it was originally.

Because, the house does have an axis, like, in this direction, and in this direction, through it.

That's correct.

So, that you want to line things up symmetrically.


I like that thinking. What's this?

Well, the original entrance to the house was here, the original front entrance, and that was moved to here. Now we have a new front entry, which we need to really set off from the main stair hall.

We're going to add two pairs of columns here with a flattened arch above.

We are going to use the same columns that are out here, only slightly smaller, so when you come in and see these, you'll walk in here and be reminded of those columns out there, and that will set off this entry way from the main stair hall.

Interesting. I like that idea.

Okay. So you still have your front vestibule and closet. You walk into the stair hall. You go to the right to the left, dining room or living room, and then what are you doing here? You're switching the swing of that door, there?

Yes, we are. This door now swings from this side, and we want to swing it from here. Because we're going to put a new pantry in and a sink which could be used. on occasion, from this room. And when you swing the door, you don't want to have the sink behind the door.

So we're recreating a wall of butler's pantry storage here, and then functional areas here. Which, which even has what, an under counter fridge there?

The under counter fridge is here and then this is a service closet for brooms and mops and vacuum cleaners and things like that.

I see. And then the kitchen will be, basically gutted, so that it can be re-done. Explain to us what we've got. Obviously, this is an island with a sink in it, right?

Yes. The existing kitchen, all the cabinetry is pushed up against the walls. We want to take that out, move the island so it's ninety degrees to the front wall.


Behind this island there'll be another counter with a cooktop in it. And then we zoned the kitchen into four areas. There's the sort of cooking area here. A pantry here, which is very much like the kitchen was originally.

Yes, it's reminiscent of a 19th-century kitchen to have a pantry.

With a service sink, refrigeration. And we've got more cabinets here. And we have a new rear entrance, so when you come in, on the rear of the house, you're right where you can put your groceries down. You can put things in the refrigerator.

And you got another coat closet here.

Coat closet here. Pantry shelves here.

And this is the home office?

This is the home office.


And we opened up this whole wall to the south. So now we have a lot of light pouring into this kitchen.

Oh that's great. And the fourth zone is, of course, the eating zone over here, right?

That's right.

Yeah. OK. Well, the library is the last room I wanna touch on, 'cause we spoke last week about trying to improve the depth of all these shelves that are in there. What does this indicate?

We're taking out the existing casework, which is modern, and reproducing casework which probably would have been there, but making it very deep, sixteen inches. We are going to take the same details that you see in this hutch. This pilaster...

The fluted pilaster. the dental moldings and these sorts of things.


Use those elements, but do it in mahogany, in a natural finish which is more appropriate to a library, in the face of this case-work here.

And now the doorways blend into all of this case-work right.

That's right. The doorway to this will be part of the case-work,
so it'll look like one whole wall of books.

Well we've got to think about that, because I know Riley just discovered one of the old pocket doors boarded up in there. Listen, I'm going to check in with him, and why don't we meet again on the second floor and we'll review your plans up there.

Okay. Great.

All right. As part of our research about this house we got an article from the Cambridge Chronicle of 1897 that mentioned that this house was being built for a professor W.H. Pickering.

And one interesting sentence was a large back entry is connected with a rear porch, and then it said sliding doors will be used between the main rooms.

You know, we started looking at the thickness of the walls, around here. And we determined that perhaps we had them, and in fact Riley just discovered this one yesterday. And it's one of the original pocket doors which has been basically boarded up since that renovation of the early seventies. Hi, Bob. So you've already got... you're salvaging this.


This is just half inch stock that was used back in 1970 something when they remodeled the house to cover this up.


But now we've got this other connecting doorway that goes from the living room to the den. And we're about to find out if there's a door there, right.

Right, we're gonna take the same piece off. So what we're gonna start with is this very wide stop.

So that the first thing you do is to score the paint.

That's right, yes. Because if we don't when we pry it off it's liable to split the wood, and we're trying to save as much as we can.

Yeah, and you know, typically when you going after moldings and removing pieces of wood like this, you want to use a flat bar or a very very sharp tool such as a chisel.

He's got an old chisel that is not really good for cabinet making, as it were.

No, I carry this around just for this purpose and I like to use because it's not blunt at the end. And then an old putty knife.

This makes them stiff.

Which is stiff and acts as a spacer also.

And by keeping the putty knife behind the pry bar, you won't put any dents or marks into the other wood that you're prying against.

Right, right. Let's pull it out. This is exciting.


Just like the other one I guess.


Wait a minute, wait a minute. Look!

Aw, look at that . So it goes back further than what this opening is.

And now, this is confusing.

Yeah, lets see, from the center , this piece.

This is a four foot door that's been closed down at one point to this size...


...which would indicate that at one point, the opening here was a four foot opening, right?

It's got to.

I'm confused.

It's got to be a four foot opening.


Now, we're really challenged because the architect's plan was to close this up entirely.

And I didn't even think there was a door there to begin with.

Oh, fun. Gotta break for messages.

Don't go away. Well I just decided to take a break from the demolition and take a walk in Cambridge. With me, Brian Pfeiffer, who's with the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. Brian, this is one of the oldest properties in Cambridge, right?

Yes it is. It's a house that dates from the 17th century, which is a rare thing in Cambridge. It's the Cooper Frost Austin house .

The tree could almost date from the seventeenth century. It's huge.

Its huge, not quite, but close.

Now, the Cooper Frost Austin house, obviously has had various owners. It's a salt box though right?

Yes, and that refers really that long lean to roof that you find at a lot of 17th and early 18th century New England houses.

And salt was actually sold in boxes that looked like that, right?

Yes, and the English called it cat slide, though there are plenty of names for it.

Alright, now tell us about this house. How was it built?

This house was built in two halves. The half that faces us was the earliest piece, built in the 1690's and it housed one family.

But when they had two generations that Married and having children, they built the second half about 1710-1715, and lived side by side thereafter as they farm the land around.

Sure, so that's where you end up with a central chimney. How does that affect the front facade of the house?

The front was extended so it appears nearly to be symmetrical though, that's mostly a 19th century renovation to the front. But, on the end here you see a little bit of 17th century work on this overhanging gable, which is a detail found throughout New England on houses of this period.

The clapboards up there look to be quite, quite old. Could they be original to the--?

Probably not original. There are no remaining 17th century ones, but they certainly are late 18th, early 19th century clapboards.

Okay. Now, I imagine they had scores of acres around here.

Yes, this was part of a farm that extended back in all directions. And actually, I think just around the corner there is a house designed by the architect who designed your house on what might have been an orchard at one point.

Hartwill and Richardson.


Let's go look at it.

This a house that dates from 1890.

What would you call the style of this house?

Well, it's mostly Colonial Revival, but there are lots of elements of other things. I think the color, kind of high hip roof, the balustrade that you see over the porch and coming down the stairs are all things that were popular as colonial revival elements in the late nineteenth century.

But it borrows from a lot of different styles, right?

Sure. The oriel windows, those windows in the end here that curve with the glass, the curved glass were something very popular in the 1880s and 90s

And they're called oriel because they don't come all the way down to the ground, they just die into the side of the wall.

Right. If they touch the ground, they'd be called a bay window.

It's a heavily detailed house, and if you will look at the dormer on the third floor, it has a chimney coming through the roof of the dormer.


And then that panel with kind of a sunburst down the front, isn't that sort of Queen Anne?

It is, but again they were freely grabbing here and there elements that they liked and put them together in ways that made sense to them visually at the time.

It's spectacularly done though. The paint job looks like it was just completed yesterday. absolutely, and there's this nice special detail, the bow on the porch coming out in a wonderful stone vase.

A belvedere. Now there are some shingle style houses by Hartwell and Richardson, right?

Yes, in this neigborhood, just up the street.

Now Brian this is an enormous house isn't it?

Yes, this is really among the largest that Hartwell and Richardson worked on when they had their large practice in the 1880s and 90s. And typical of, I think, a lot of their houses , it was built for a wealthy merchant, a grocer in this case, a man named Henry Yurksa.

So there were new fortunes in the 1880s.


Now, this is a shingle style house . But aside from the fact that it's entirely covered in shingles, what is it that's typical of the style?

Well shingles are certainly one of the most important pieces. But one of the qualities is this horizontal element, rather than the very vertical quality that you see in a lot of Victorian buildings.

And the kind of undulation of the wall's surface, I think you see it best on this porch where that railing is all shingled, and just keeps rippling around the base.

But also a little bit up in the towers, and then also the patterning of the... Where the decoration is really just that little curved line and a sawtooth at the basement just above the first story.

Yes. And the line that demarcates the separation between the first and second floors.

And that slight flair too, at that point, where the wall kicks out a little bit, is very much characteristic of the shingle style.

It is kind of like stretching a skin around all the masses of the house.
And just puncturing where the windows are. But the windows aren't really, they don't really stand out that much.

No. And also the windows really reflect the way the way the space is laid out inside, as opposed to being rigidly symmetrical.

Is the brown a typical color that would have been used in shingle styles?

Very much so. Earth tones, dark browns, reds.

I love it. It's like a big chocolate cake. Thanks for the tour. We have to do this again.

My pleasure. The staircase in this house is one of its really best features. And over the course of a hundred years, it has gotten a lot of paint, so that all these spindles have lost their crispness of the turning. We're going to take them all out, send them out to be stripped and then reassemble this.

So Riley is gonna give us a tip on how to do that in a minute. Let's check in with Greg again so that we can talk about changes to the floor plan here. Some added baths...

Gonna add two baths here for each bedroom and then we are producing a large master bedroom suite. Moving this wall back so we now have bedroom that's almost sixteen feet wide, and then two, his and hers baths here. And then right here in the hall we're gonna take this little closet, enlarge it and turn it into an upstairs laundry room.

So we'll have a small upstairs laundry room with a stacked washer/dryer.

That's right.

And you're in the process of doing all the marking right.

I'm gonna actually mark these walls out for the demolition.

what color is that?

This is red, to remove.

So red means to remove all the plaster, right?


Okay and you're going to do that on the inside wall, because the inside wall will also come down, right?

That's correct.

Well, while you're doing that I want to check in with Riley on the appropriate way of taking apart these casings. They're kind of complicated, aren't they?

That was really an interesting way they put these doors together. Here's all of the applied trim right here. What they did first was they installed the jams first in rough stock, and then they apply the trim after. This is the first piece they put on, and that's just a half inch stock.

Half inch stock, like that.

With the casing, they took this trim here.

They overlapped it. So it's pretty elaborate.

Right, then they put a stop, on the inside. You bring it over here and it looks like that.

And it goes like that.

Its all half inch stock.

Right. And this is a jam and then the stock went over that. They put a two piece jam on Yeah, and it's a pretty complicated way of doing it, but you got to remember it's 1897.

A lot of work.

A very well trained carpenter probably made a dollar a day. And the cost of dressed lumber was pretty high.


So this gets taken apart basically the same as you showed us downstairs earlier, right?

Same, exactly the same. What you want to do is the first piece you want to take off is the last piece they put on, and then just back your way, right back into it.

Back out, like getting undressed at night.

But use that knife to score away all the paint before you try to use your chisel.


Let's talk about something that's a little bit more difficult.


How do you approach taking apart a staircase?

This one here, we've already taken part of it apart, and what we've found is it's bolted together on either end and also nailed. So, what we're gonna do is just get these newel posts away from the rail enough to get a metal cutting blade in there. We're gonna cut the nails and the bolts out and then we'll tap this up and slip it out.

So you can actually do that. You can actually, separate them a little bit.


Right. You just take a...

Just with a block? protect that wood. They've been here for so long, they'll separate pretty easily. That should be enough right there.

Yeah. I just want to get this blade in here.

That a boy.

And now you tap it at the opposite end.

Yeah, same thing.

Actually, can you hold on to that right there?

Yeah, that's what I was going to say.

Yeah, that's got it.

All you need is about a sixteenth of an inch gap. I don't want the.

Yes. Be careful not to lose any of those balusters.


Of course most of the staircase is made out of poplar, which was not and still is not an

expensive wood.


But was meant to be painted.

That's right.

So they boarded this down at the floor.

Right, they drilled the hole and there should be a dowel down here.

There you go.


There's the bottom.

Yes. So the bottom is doweled out like that, right into the floor and then it was toe

nailed. The top is just square. If you look at how they fit in, you'll understand that

all of this was done by hand. First they drilled a hole and then they squared it off so

that they could fit that in. Today would be done differently. Today they'd plow out the whole bottom of the rail and then fit in all the balusters, or the spindles. And fit in with little blocks in between.

Now, the neat thing about this is that there's over a hundred different balusters in the staircase, and we're going to have to have a number assigned to each and every one of them. Which means we'll use a little engraver or a wood burning tool, right?


OK. We've got to break for some messages. Don't go away.

Well that's going to wrap thingsup for this time. I hope you can come home again with me next time when we'll be finishing up all of the demolition work, taking out all of the last of the plaster. But none of the walls come down until we've had a visit from the structural engineer who's going to determine exactly which ones are load-bearing and which ones can be taken down.

Also, I'm going to take you on another little tour of another fabulous site here in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

'Till then, I'm Bob Vila. Its good to have you home again.



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