14 March 2013

A Long Time In Coming... Part 1

In 1989, Da and I bought a circa 1944, 750 sq. ft. cottage with the intention of living in the existing structure while we added on three bedrooms and a second bath. We did this rather than just buy land and build a new house, since in the county where we live, you can be your own general contractor and can be certified to do your own plumbing and electrical work if you are adding on to an existing structure.This would save us thousands and thousands of dollars, since we could do all of the work ourselves. So we bought the little cottage and started working on it.

As I have mentioned before, in the fall of 1989, Hurricane Hugo came for a visit and changed the face of our lives for years to come. The new construction was dried in, we had sheathing on the outer walls and plywood and tar paper on the roof. In normal inclement weather that would have been enough to keep the inside dry, but since we had 110 mph winds for hours, plus several tornadoes spawned by the hurricane tore across our property, so the roof and siding were easily compromised. The winds skinned off the sheathing, tar paper and much of the roof to the old and new structure and deposited it in the woods behind our house. This left the whole of the new construction and much of the vintage 1944 structure exposed to the deluge of rain that lasted for days after the winds had blown on up the east coast. Needless to say it was a disheartening mess. But we were young and really didn't have any idea of the scope of our dilemma. It is probably a good thing, since we might have gotten discouraged if we had been able to see how profoundly it would affect the next several years of our lives. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.
 Ceiling down and water standing in the floor days after the hurricane. Circa 1989
The new construction was under water as well. Circa 1989
Things went from bad to worse for awhile. We had a lot of damage to the new structure, floor decking that warped, building materials and appliances that were stored in part of the new structure were a total loss... In the existing structure, all the sheet rock was soaked and began to slump off the walls. I spent the month after the hurricane shoveling ruined sheet rock and flooring out the windows into a duce and 1/2  dumper that was parked next to the house. My husband and brother-in-law, (God bless he and my sister-in-law for all their help, we couldn't have managed without them), started to get the structure under cover again as quickly as possible. Since there was a shortage of building materials due to all the damage done to the Charlotte area by the hurricane,  it was difficult to get supplies into the area and what did make it in was rationed. There was a limit to how many sheets of plywood you could buy, as well as other building materials, and there wasn't a tarp to be found for 100 miles in any direction! You had to be on the waiting list for plywood and many other building supplies, when you received your limit of materials, your name went to the bottom of the list and you began waiting again. Needless to say, getting the house closed in again was a slow process.
Shoveling wet sheet rock and debris from the collapse of ceilings and walls after days of rain on the exposed interior. It was a disheartening task but had to be done before work could begin inside.

N. my oldest son helping with the reconstruction.

E.M. helped too...

Winter was approaching and we still didn't have enough materials, (or money for that matter...), to get the house closed in. When the cold winds and rain started in December, the gables were still open and the wind howled through the house undeterred. We were living in the one room in the house that was mostly intact. We had a wool army blanket over the door to try to keep some of the cold out, and we had an old Benjamin Franklin stove in that room to heat and cook by. We punched a hole through the brick facing on the old coal burning fireplace and put in a terra cotta thimble to use as a vent access for the metal stove pipe. The chimney had been damaged in the hurricane so the draw wasn't good and it smoked like crazy, but at least it was drafty enough in the rest of the house for us not to die of smoke inhalation. As time passed and we began to get the basics under control, we got the chimney repaired and the stove smoked less. We used the old wood stove throughout the whole reconstruction process. Once we got power back on 6 months after the hurricane, we didn't have to rely on it for cooking anymore, but still used it for heat.

A couple of years later,  we finally got enough of the construction done to allow us to wrap the "to date" reconstruction debt into a new mortgage. With finished sheet rock in all the rooms and paint on some of the walls, we had a sense of relief and accomplishment for persevering through much hardship and endless late nights working on the house.
The master bedroom suite was part of the addition to the original 1944 structure. We designed it to have a vaulted ceiling and gable windows. There were two other bedrooms and another bath in the addition.
Since we had to completely gut and redo the 1944 part of the house we took the opportunity to make some modifications. We reconfigured  a couple of small rooms to be a big open kitchen/dining/family area that echoed the look and feel of the bedroom addition. We vaulted the ceiling and put in skylights to add extra light and make the space feel bigger. In a way, the hurricane allowed us to have a much nicer design to the total house than we would have had otherwise.
E.M. was 6 months old and N. was 7 yrs. when Hugo hit in September of 1989. This photo was taken in April of 1991, E.M. was 3 yrs. and N. had just turned 10. They spent a lot of their early childhood living in a construction zone.

To celebrate our successes, my husband and I built a fire in the stove and settled back with a glass of wine to toast the closing of our refinance. We were feeling very merry, laughing and telling stories about the all that we had been through, when we heard a strange whooshing sound. Then we saw flames shooting out of the thimble around the stove pipe. To our dismay we realized that the chimney was on fire. I ran and snatched the kids from their dreams and tossed them over the fence to a neighbor, called 911 and then assisted my husband in carrying as many of our important belongings out of the house as we could safely grab, while we waited for the fire department to arrive.
The Franklin stove that we heated with and I cooked on for 6 months before we had electricity. By the time of this photo we were almost ready for paint, but it would be another 2 years before we had flooring. This photo was taken just before the fire.

We live in an unincorporated area, where there is a volunteer fire department. This was pre- GPS and it was dark, so the fire department had difficulty finding us. We could hear them driving around, sirens blasting, but they drove past us twice. After they passed our house the second time, I stood in the road and waved my arms as they whizzed by yet a third time. Meanwhile, our newly finished sheet rock was being covered in soot, and the flames were shooting up 15 feet or more above the top of the chimney, flickering and flashing wildly against the blue-black sky. When the fire truck drove by us the third time, my husband gave up hope of help and took matters into his own hands. He ran and got the extension ladder, grabbed a garden hose and shambled up the ladder in the dark to hose down the roof to keep it from catching fire, then he sprayed water down the chimney and eventually got the fire out. The fire department arrived as my husband was climbing down the ladder. The only thing they had left to do was set up some big fans to evacuate the smoke from the house.

Fortunately, there was no actual fire damage to the house, only the chimney was damaged. The soot on the walls was able to be cleaned off for the most part and with a couple of days of airing the house smelled normal again. We were very grateful that we didn't lose our house to a chimney fire after all the work we had done! But we would never be able to use our Franklin stove again. We had been told by the fire department, that spraying water on the fire in the chimney could have caused cracks to form that would make the chimney unsafe. So we sold our faithful old Ben Franklin stove, blocked up the thimble and for more than 20 years the fireplace brick was nothing more than a backdrop for plants, our floor standing brass candle sticks and some of the pottery we have collected from our travels. But all those years I dreamed about repairing the chimney, refacing the damaged brick facing and having a vintage wood stove in our sitting room again. I felt like our cottage with all of its quirky charm was missing something without the wood stove. But with all of the things still left to be done on the house, it was not a priority to spend money on a new chimney, so my dreams of having a functioning wood stove again were just that... dreams... That is until a year or so ago, when a gift from a friend opened up a new chapter in the story of Heart's Ease Cottage, and a renewed hope for me to one day have a functioning wood stove to warm the cottage and make it feel complete.

Please visit again and hear the rest of the story... Part 2 will be coming along shortly!
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