Brick + Mortar

I’m sitting on the front porch enjoying the roses and watching the occasional carpenter ant march in and out of the house through gaps in my ornate front door frame (a significantly less enjoyable experience). The masons are here, and Dan is helping them out while I take a break from clearing more debris from the wall where we took down the trees. The brickwork has really come along.

As I mentioned in a previous post, masonry work on historic buildings can be tricky business. Old brick and mortar buildings almost act like lungs, breathing moisture in and out of the house.  Mucking this system up can cause a host of problems on the interior and exterior walls, like water damage, peeling paint, and crumbling brick. I did ultimately decide on a natural lime mortar, which is about three times the cost of the portland cement mortar you can pick up at Home Depot. This sounds like a lot, and will add up with the amount repointing the cottage needs, but the difference is $11 a bag instead of $4, and I can deal with that for the right stuff.

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Why rent? We picked up some scaffolding out in the country for $200.

Our mason, John Anderson, has been doing brickwork all his life. He’s a close family friend and Dan calls him UJ (short for Uncle John). He and his son started out by concentrating on problem areas that needed more attention than just repointing. Dan elected to do the unenviable task of grinding out the joints after a short tutorial. When filling the joints between the brick with mortar, you must remove the old crumbly mortar (or in our case, some bad repair jobs) first. In hindsight, the guys were glad I was out of town for this decision. A power grinder is a no-no for restoration work, especially for a novice. The house has extremely soft hand-made bricks, and, to do the job properly, the mortar should have been chiseled out by hand to prevent damage to them. New apprentices often grind into the brick on accident, especially when cutting the vertical joints, and it’s not only aesthetically unpleasing, but can increase moisture in the wall and cause weak points.

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Crumbling and missing mortar at the top and DIY repair at the bottom. Both need to be removed. The joints at the bottom have been overstuffed with mortar that coats the surface of the brick. Remaining bits of red paint cling to the bricks.

You can think of bricks like home-made bread.  The outer crust is baked hard, but the interior is much softer and more absorbent, so you never want to break the crust. And these bricks are already thirsty. UJ gave us all a laugh by repeatedly putting a brick in a bucket of water (which bubbled endlessly) and then pulling it out to watch it dry like magic in two seconds as the brick sucked the water in.

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Not normally one to take personal health into consideration, it took all of a day for Dan to switch from dust masks to a respirator.

When I first saw the grinding, Dan and I had a serious chat (after I had a private freak-out). He wasn’t being cavalier with the job, but experience doesn’t appear overnight, and he had inadvertently damaged a few bricks. He explained that UJ offered to either charge $25 an hour to grind the joints himself or he’d teach Dan to do it for free. Dan thought that we didn’t have the time, manpower, or money to chisel the whole building, and given that the grinding was already more than half-finished and his skill was improving, we should just stay the course. I very reluctantly conceded, but requested UJ’s son, also an experienced mason, handle the areas that had been repointed by the previous owners since this mortar was much harder and the grinding job more difficult. Ugh, compromise…

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While all this was going on UJ took apart the front corner of the house. There was a large conspicuous bulge here where the collapsing sister house next door had started to pull my house into its basement. The previous owners had hired someone to repoint the corner, but it really needed to be completely rebuilt. The brickwork is now flush and beautiful. Once the mortar has cured and the wall is strong, UJ will take a look at the stone foundation here and see what needs to be done to get it solid.

After this repair, UJ moved to the ell near the rear of the house, where a window had been installed in place of a door and very poorly bricked in. The edges of all of the bricks around the window had been chipped off and the mortar job below the window sill was, well…this:

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Anyway, now it’s gorgeous!

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A lot of this work occurs while I’m at the office or out of town, so coming over to the house is a pleasant surprise every time. Well, for the most part. As UJ works his way around the house, he is identifying other problem areas, and each repair adds up. While repointing above the same window, he found that the bricks immediately below the top plate of the rear addition were not even attached to anything anymore. The mortar had turned to sand and they were just sitting there looking pretty but doing nothing.

Dan washed the plaster off of the back of the house and also tried his hand at some repointing. It’s not terrible, but I did noticed it immediately without him telling me.  UJ says it’ll turn out fine when we wash the wall after all of the repointing is done, but I really wish they’d had lessons in a less conspicuous area than in the center of the long wall at eye height…

 

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This wall is almost done. Dan’s handiwork is just to the left of the scaffolding. Can you tell?

 

So far we’ve only spent about $2,000 total on house repairs. The masonry work will ultimately cost somewhere between $6,000 and $10,000, as we’ve committed to rebuilding the entire front wall above the windows where the collapsing porch jacked it outward. Fortunately, we’ve just closed on financing! We now have the funds to get Little Red up and running again and it’s a great feeling, so cheers to that!

Arborcide

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There’s been a massacre. Finally, weeks after we started, all of the trees are gone from the side of the house. We cut about a dozen or so Norway Maples and two other species I don’t recognize, all within about two feet of the wall. None of them were intentionally planted and needed to be removed to reduce possible damage to the stone foundation. Norway Maples are incredibly invasive, and were using the fence line as a trellis. Cutting them down was extra difficult since the chain link was embedded inside the trees. Still, I felt bad. At least two of them were probably older than I am and they cast nice shade over the metal roof and backyard. Alas, they had to go.

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It took absolutely forever, but we stripped all of the branches of leaves and chopped and piled the wood in the backyard. Now…what to do about the stumps? Pulling them was briefly considered. Norway Maples do have a shallow root system, but ultimately we decided that the safest course of action is to have someone come grind them down so we don’t inadvertently cause damage to the foundation. Once that’s done, it’s just a matter of pulling what remains of the chainlink fence and this wall will be ready for some very necessary grading and masonry work.

 

The house successfully denuded, I spent days burning the gigantic brush pile next to the front door. This task took on some urgency. In late May I noticed numerous little black  wasps hanging out lazily on the interior windows along the west wall. The house has an abundance of various insects since it isn’t well-sealed from the elements, so while it caught my attention, I didn’t take much of a second look. A few weeks later, they were gone, but I became concerned that they were more ant-like than wasp-like. I never took a picture, but I’m fairly certain now that they were carpenter ants in swarm.

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A carpenter ant “swarmer” like the ones I spotted in my house. Image from http://citybugs.tamu.edu/factsheets/household/ants-house/ent-2013/

 

I haven’t seen any frass (the sawdust-like refuse that wood-boring insects leave behind) or non-winged ants, so I’m hopeful the colony is either outside of the house or not very large. I’ll find out in the fall when we start on the interior if they’ve caused much damage.  The cottage will have to be treated as soon as possible, but removing the trees and brush piles, and reducing the moisture problems in the house will make it a less appealing environment.

As far as other news on the house goes, I found a great porch column and a little closet door for either under the stairs or in the bathroom during large-item trash week. And a neighbor who owned the house a few decades ago stopped by for a chat. He told me that city trucks and plows used to pull out of the garage across the street and drive up on his lawn. The consistent weight unknowingly ruptured his water main and one day a garbage truck literally fell into a sinkhole caused by the erosion under the road. The city repaired or replaced the main, but this story may explain the sinking at the front of the house that I’ve posted about previously. If so, this is great news, because it means the depression is likely a decades old problem that was resolved and not an active issue that needs attention (and money).

 

Also..uh, there’s something happening here, but you’ll have to wait until the next update to read all about it.

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Acquisitions

It has continued to be an unusually wet spring, but I’ve been able to see the light at the end of the tunnel in the last week or so as the temperatures have finally warmed up.

Working on the house has been a bit frustrating lately. Dan and I can’t seem to completely finish any task. We’ve had two faulty chainsaws, making the tree cutting stop and go. In between broken tools and bad weather, I started a window sash repair in the basement. I tried to dig out the fenceposts in the front yard and got one out after a struggle, but the remaining eight will have to wait for a friend with a truck to help us pull them. The chainsaw is finally running well, but I keep getting sent out of town for work, delaying the tree cutting. And while we focus on the water infiltration issues I explained in an earlier post, I still haven’t been able to get the house completely cleaned out or finish addressing the two large piles of yard debris that pose a fire and rodent hazard.  The end result is everything half-done, and a lot of work but no feeling of progress.

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Sneak peek of the basement window repair I started. Someone cut the sash in half to install a stovepipe while keeping the other side operable.

To soothe the frustration and feel like I’m accomplishing something, I’ve been shopping.

In the last few weeks I’ve picked up a lot of great items that will give the house some character. With the interior gutted, we’re really starting from scratch, which has its advantages and drawbacks. Normally, the ideal is to save as much of the original historic materials as possible. In addition to being part of the design and story of the house, they are usually of better quality than I could hope to find or afford today. While the lack of interior finishes is disappointing, it frees me up to orient and decorate the rooms as modern or historical as I please.

My goal isn’t to attempt to recreate the authentic 1870s interior stylings like you would see in a museum home, and I couldn’t afford to do that anyways. Instead, I’ve been picking up quality materials that may be newer than the house construction, but will give it some interesting character you can’t buy at Home Depot. It’s a rule of thumb not to add anything to a building that is older than the building itself, because this can create a (often tacky) faux historic look and confuse future owners and history buffs as to the actual age of the house, but I don’t think I’ll have this problem in Buffalo with my budget.

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My first purchase was back in February before I actually owned the place, which was ambitious to say the least. I bought over 300 feet of solid pine baseboards from Black Dog Salvage in Roanoke, Virginia for $0.80 a foot. They aren’t my favorite, but I will never beat the price, and I’m sure they’ll do once they’re installed. Even the crummiest Lowes or Depot laminate bases are a few dollars a foot. I started stripping them of paint months ago, but have been distracted by more important house tasks.

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I snagged these four heavy metal floor registers for $10 total at a warehouse sale in May. Three of them are operable, and I’m sure I’ll find a way to make the fourth one useful.

I fell in love with two brass doorknobs at an antique shop on a work trip in Youngwood, PA, and I found working hardware for them in the cottage basement. The large one on the left will be for the front door, but I haven’t decided on the location for the second.

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You can’t beat free, and this past week has been a picker’s paradise! While coming home from an open mic night on Tuesday, I decided to drive around Delaware Park and stopped for an interesting trash pile out in front of one of the big houses on Amherst next to the zoo. To my delight (and a little consternation towards the owners), the pile of debris was actually a bunch of solid wood window trim in great condition. I must have looked like a maniac stuffing things in my car at midnight in the rain, but they were totally worth it. I also picked up a little corner sink that we might use if we decide to put a second bathroom in the attic space.

IMG_6408If that wasn’t enough, two days later, I found a super heavy duty 9-foot barn door on the side of the road in Black Rock. Unfortunately, my Subaru only has 8 1/2 feet of cab space, and I had no rope or bungee, so I drove home with the hatch wide open and one arm slung over the door. This will make a great pantry or linen closet door once I refinish it.

Well, that’s all folks. I’ll have another round of progress pics for you next week.

Digger’s Delight

The last few weeks have felt slow at the cottage. It’s rained nearly every day since my last post, and I’ve been traveling quite a bit for work (I’m writing this from Washington, Pennsylvania). I was hoping to finish the interior clean-out, but I need a better respirator and goggles for the attic. When the metal roof was installed, something like 10 layers of shingles were removed, and it feels like all of it was left in the attic. The sellers also ripped out the stairs before clearing out the attic, so a lot of this stuff is trapped up there. Cleaning out one small corner filled three large trash bags and the dust was intense. After about an hour, I’d had enough. The pictures below are not a “before” and “after” like the other shots I’ve posted. They were taken from the same spot facing opposite directions, showing what still needs to be done.

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We had a mason come look at the house. Every inch of the brick needs repointing. His crew is going to come grind out the bits of patchwork that have been done over the years and give us a handsome, unified mortar job. We may decide to rebuild the front wall above the door as well. The first wythe of brick was pulled outward slightly by the collapsing front porch years ago. Our building inspector assured us it had not affected the structural integrity of this wall, since it’s three wythes thick and the interior wall is plumb, but it does affect the aesthetic, and I don’t want a problem down the line.

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Dan and I decided to go with a basic gray mortar so that future maintenance (especially if it’s owned by someone else down the line) will be fairly easy and consistent in color. Mortar is a tricky thing. Most mortar today contains portland cement, which can be incredibly damaging to softer historic bricks, but is often required by modern building standards.  Brick and mortar work as a system, where the softer mortar allows any moisture absorbed by the brick to wick away. Portland cement does not absorb moisture like this and results in the old brick literally exploding when the water inside can’t escape and then freezes and expands repeatedly during winter:

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Brick wall in North Buffalo – only the hard mortar remains. 
A lime-based mortar would be ideal (and I have a 5-gallon bucket of lime in my garage), but a natural cement will be easier for the masons to get and mix. Our mason friend is going to do the house in sections between his larger jobs over the next two summers to spread the cost out for us, which is pretty great news.

In-between storms, we’ve been able to get some yard work done. If there’s a nice thing about all of this rain, it’s that everything is suddenly in bloom. I spent one relatively dry day raking out the beds near the back of the house that Dan and our roommates had already cleared of leaves.

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If you don’t already know, I’m an archaeologist. It’s what I do for a living. The lawn behind the house is absolutely chock-full of little items from the cottage’s nearly 150-year history; broken glass and ceramics, bits of metal, polished rocks, furniture hardware, clasps and buttons and other detritus. So far, Dan has done most of the yard cleanup, and with good reason. My progress ground to a snail’s pace outside.  I just can’t help but to stop and pick things up, and my pockets were immediately bursting with what is essentially dead people’s garbage.

The wood pipe and 1882 penny actually came out of the basement. I found the pipe stuffed in a wall behind a door frame and it still had tobacco in it! The penny was in that 5’x5′ area of bare dirt floor and popped out while I was sweeping it. The buttons are great. I find a new one almost daily. So far I have glass, shell, bone, metal, and plastic (a lot of people don’t know that plastic has been in use commercially for almost 100 years now). I also found a clay marble, which is pretty neat.

Dan and our roommate Grig began cutting trees in the most insane way possible. We don’t have a chainsaw yet, but they wanted to get started, so Grig shinnied up the long-dead tree in the ell of the house one day without a ladder and began cutting branches with the circular saw, to my horror and Dan’s delight. Lacking a rope, Dan went and got an extension cord (unplugged I hope), to pull the branches down once they were cut. This technique was less “guide them down” and more “yank and run.” The first one hit him in the back and exploded into a million pieces as he was running away. He couldn’t stop laughing long enough to tell me if he was alright or not (he was). I’m not sure if it’s more or less disturbing that both of them were completely sober when they decided this was a great idea. The tree is almost down now, except for one large branch on the left overhanging the roof that was too thick for the saw. I have new gray hairs.

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Dan also started taking down the old chain link fence in the front yard (this time with proper tools). The fence was already old in a 1980 picture of the house that I have. We need a saw to finish the job, since the tree trunks have absorbed the fencing in places, but it should be completely down and out in the next week or so.


One other thing happened recently, and that was my 31st birthday. My parents sent an awesome purple leather tool belt and a reciprocating saw, while Dan’s parents gave me a great framing hammer and work gloves, as well as a Home Depot gift card. I’m officially outfitted! Thanks everybody!

 

 

 

Lucy, We’ve Got Some Grading to Do…

I cleaned out the basement this week. It took four full days, but it’s finally done. Here’s the electrical room:

And the lumber storage:

All of the preliminary work that we’ve done in and around the house makes for great before and after shots, but the real reason for the deep clean is to locate and assess problem areas. Recent heavy rains have given me an opportunity to see how the envelope of the house is performing against the elements. Well, I’d give it a solid C- right now.

I’ve always known the basement had a slight moisture problem. It was being used by the previous owners as a workshop and was stuffed full of tool and supplies during every walkthrough. I assumed the damp was primarily originating from a 5×5′ square of dirt floor just inside the basement door, and I visited in both fall and mid-winter and didn’t see any other areas of major concern. It was a bit musty, but there were no puddles or wall deterioration visible. With everything cleaned out and organized, and A LOT of precipitation, the basement is showing its true colors.

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Some water infiltration in the front corner of the basement caused by trees too close to the foundation and a missing window.

Anything on the floor was rusting or rotting. Three of the four basement windows are missing and not adequately sealed (one just had bubble wrap stapled to the top of the frame and was just blowing in the wind). Water was coming through both basement entrances and three open stovepipes/vents. The moisture problem was exacerbated by a ton of wet porous materials sitting on the floor, a number of mature trees about a foot away from the foundation along one wall, gutters missing downspouts or endcaps, and landscaping that forces water back towards (and into) the foundation.

There are also some concerning areas of subsidence and voids around the house. It’s difficult to capture in photographs, but the previous owners killed a tree that was too close to the foundation, and root decay, paired with an overflow downspout from the rainwater barrel (gray object at right), has caused quite a depression to form at this location.

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In addition to the dead tree, there is more subsidence visible at the front corner. In 2010, the neighboring house (the edge of which started where the grass meets the concrete path) began collapsing into its basement and started pulling my cottage in with it. My wall was repaired a few years ago after the neighboring house was demolished, but I think ground settling and water runoff has caused sinking and voids to form in this corner to the street.

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Are you panicking? I’m not…yet. I don’t want to say these things are superficial, but most of the problem areas have identifiable causes and fairly simple remedies. All of the trees against the foundation need to come down and the ground graded to slope water away from the house. The foundation needs a bit of repointing in places, the gutters and vents to the basement need sealing, windows replaced (I found two of the three missing sashes while cleaning), and the dirt floor paved, and I think we’ll be as good as new. The concrete path does need to be torn up to address the low points, but we were planning on doing this work anyway. It sounds a bit intimidating, but at this point we can do almost everything ourselves, so while it’ll take some time, it shouldn’t be overly expensive. The other good news is that the roof is brand new and, gutters notwithstanding, is performing great. The main floor is dry, with no evidence of water infiltration. Hip, hip, hoorah! Unfortunately, fixing the exterior and basement problems takes precedent over any other interior work, so we won’t be doing much of anything inside for quite a few weeks. Here’s hoping the weather gets more agreeable before the house floats away!

 

First Look

The first time I saw my house was May 19th, 2016. I was working in a building at Broadway and Ellicott Street and needed a break from my desk. This day I decided to take a stroll down Broadway. As I approached Minor Street, the long brick wall of St. Mary’s Gymnasium caught my eye. I followed it down the empty, rough road and saw this cottage. I stopped in front, smitten, and snapped a shot of the front door.

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In August, Dan and I reached out to a real estate agent friend who specializes in historic buildings. I told him we were casually looking for a fixer-upper and to let me know if he heard of anything that fit the bill. A few opportunities came and went, but nothing serious. Then, in September, he told me that a couple – friends of friends – were considering selling their house. It was not officially on the market. He had done a walk-through and thought I might be interested. We went to check it out. It was my house crush from last spring.

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I wanted this house. It was a wreck, a huge and likely expensive project, and still I wanted it. There was no heat, no hot water, no kitchen, no staircase, and a million other things that needed attention, but I was sold. Dan wasn’t as confident (he’s the realist of the two of us), but was willing to give it a shot. Three banks turned us down (the first because the purchase price was too low, the second because it did not have heat, and the third because the appraisal came back at a whopping $13,000). We worked things out privately with the sellers and in March 2017, almost a full year after it caught my eye, Little Red was ours.

The house is 20’x30′ on a deep, narrow lot in downtown Buffalo, with a smaller 11’x17′ addition on the back. The front door leads into a long wide hall with 11′ ceilings. All of the walls are covered in OSB board (a thicker load-bearing type of particle board), the personal aesthetic of the previous owners, who were operating a paper mill out of the house for a while and liked the industrial look. The floors and the windows are the only original features left in the house.

*For shots of the house layout in 2010 – including photos of the pocket doors and fireplace mantles – check out David Torke’s Flickr album).

The first room to right of the front door was designed as a loft bedroom and later used for the paper mill. It was built with a sleeping area over a kitchenette space. It is one of two rooms with wired electric.

Past the front bedroom is a room with a large opening that was designed to be the kitchen. The room has not been wired and is generally just an empty box at this point.

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At the back of the main block, there is a very large bathroom with a new working toilet and sink, but nothing else. The house has new plumbing and hot and cold water hookups, just no water heater at the moment.

Through a narrow door at the back of the main block, there is a second bedroom. This one is drywalled, and not only has outlets, but also electric baseboard heaters.  The room is partitioned by a low wall into a platform for the bed and an office area with two closets. This room has new vinyl windows and exits out to the back of the house through the door with the square of paint removed.

I don’t have any great shots of the attic yet. We intend to make the space usable, but since it doesn’t have a stair and is pretty dark most of the day, I haven’t spent much time up there yet.

Out the back door of the second bedroom are the remains of another addition that needed to be torn down a few years ago. The back bedroom was originally used as a kitchen, and you can see an accumulation of soot above the former location of a stovepipe. The entrance to the basement is a low brick arch located in the back wall, diagonal from the door. There are five rooms downstairs, including a laundry room and a wood shop area, but we’ll have to enclose the entrance eventually to make the basement truly usable in the winter.

The back of the house extends another 130′ and is wooded with big old trees. There are large piles of debris and vegetation that need to be addressed, but overall, it’s very serene.

A lot of these shots were taken during our first walk-through in September, while the previous owners were still working and living there. We have since given the interior a good scrub to provide us a clean canvas to work with as we re-design the layout and figure out what we’d like to do.

Well, that’s it for the first look at the house. Saturday the first walls start coming down!

Spring Cleaning

The last few weeks have been a flurry of activity. The previous owners needed some extra time to remove their things after the closing, so Dan and I focused on getting the grounds spruced up before Spring really takes hold. I raked the front of the house clean of leaves and trash and reclaimed the sidewalk from the asphalt overflow of the neighboring parking lot. It was a pleasant surprise to find flowers already blooming beneath the leaf litter!

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Unfortunately, Little Red is located across from a city garage known as the Broadway Barns. While the Barns have a fascinating history all on their own dating back to the mid-eighteenth century, currently the city garbage trucks are stored here. It doesn’t smell bad or anything like that, but since they use our road to enter and leave the facility, the occasional buoyant plastic bag, styrofoam plate, or chip bag blows out and lands on our street. These accumulate over time and if not managed, you get this:

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This is the sidewalk across from our front door. It took two full days of work and about a dozen black trash bags, but all of the trash is gone. I still need to finish exposing the sidewalk down to the fire hydrant, but the Barns don’t look half bad now. It seems like such a small thing, but completely changed the feel of this section of the street. 

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Stay tuned for more pics of the interior and exterior as soon as they’re cleaned out, all well as floor plan ideas and more on the house’s history. We’ll really start digging in and begin taking down walls in the next few weeks. 

Eureka!

Hello! My name is Katy and on March 23rd my boyfriend Dan and I bought a sweet little brick cottage in downtown Buffalo, NY.  This little brick cottage:

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Meet Little Red, a handsome 1080 sq. ft. 1870s worker cottage. The story of this house is a tough, but common, one for Buffalo’s historic homes. I will post more on the longer history of this house later, but Little Red was once one of a dozen cottages on this street. Now it is the last little cottage here.

The second half of the 20th century was not kind to Milnor Street. In 1959, the neighborhood was mostly complete. But urban renewal took it’s toll, and by the early 2000s, Red and a sister cottage next door were all that remained on the block.

In 2007, the city of Buffalo assumed ownership and added it to their Homestead program, also known as the Dollar Houses.  A young couple purchased the house in 2010 and set about stabilizing and restoring the building. The sister cottage next door couldn’t be salvaged, and was demolished shortly after the sale.

Dan and I purchased Little Red from this couple. The previous owners did a tremendous amount of work on the house, including a new metal roof, full insulation, new electrical hookups, and dozens of other stabilizing improvements to the masonry and grounds, but felt it was time to pass the baton. As it stands now, the house has no central heating, a half bath, no kitchen, no stairs, and is wired in only two rooms. Over the next few years, Dan and I will be rehabbing Little Red ourselves, and I will post regular updates here so you can see the progress. Won’t you join us on the journey?