The only way that a poor man can have a rich man’s house is to buy it in the rough and rehab it.
We bought our dream house in 1986 for $80,000. It was in sad shape but we had done two historically sensitive rehabs on houses previously so we knew exactly what we were getting into. The home had been covered in stucco in the 20’s and at some point turned into five apartments.
Five minutes after we closed we drove to the home to break away some stucco to see if there were any hints of the original porch.
We broke into a spot where there should have been a post and there it was, the outline of a huge half post pedestal up against the house. To our surprise the mark for a full half post on top of the pedestal was not there. That started our all-out study of Italianate style porches, trying to figure out a half pedestal without a post on it up against the house. We had an epiphany while studying an Italianate porch in Milwaukee as it had pedestals with double posts on them. The one up against the house only had one post on the pedestal. That explained our evidence.
We searched at the Historical Society for an old picture to guide us in rebuilding the porch. We even contacted heirs of the original owner to see if they had a picture. They had a bound, three volume set of the history of the family but only one picture of the house and that was on the inside.
We spent a lot of time designing the details of the porch. We looked at the Sanborn map which gave us the size of the porch. We collaborated that by finding the old original porch piers. In digging under the porch we found a thick piece of wood that had large kerfs in it which told us that there were some large curved elements on the porch which we had seen in lots of Italianate porches. They had used the old porch treads as forms for the new cement steps which gave us the dimensions of the treads. We found an interesting post in Janesville, Wisconsin whose design we decided to use.
We built the under carriage for the porch floor, installed the floor then started making full scale mockups of the elements to put on the porch to check for their scale. The outline of the pedestal that we found on the house gave us the exact dimensions of the pedestal. The old timers had installed the pedestal first then coped the clapboards up to them giving us the exact outline of the moldings on the pedestal. They were duplicated exactly. The gas meter at the right shows the edge of the old porch which was low and wide. Italianate porches are narrow and tall. The height of the porch roof was told to us by marks on the house left by the old one.
There were marks in the cement of the sidewalk telling us where the newel posts were and that they were octagonal in shape.
Here is the finished newel. Panels similar to these were found on the bay window so we used them here also.
The design of the spindle is an often used classic taken from a house in the neighborhood. I hand turned 72 of them. The spindles were turned from old growth cypress reclaimed from an old water tower. The bottom of each was sealed with silicon to prevent rot.
The bracket design came from the brackets existing on the house. The first two brackets I made for the porch were installed at which time my wife said the scale was not right so I went back to the drawing board. I griped loudly but did it because I knew her eye could be depended on. My wife did an incredible job of painting them.
We were inspired by an Italianate porch with a paneled ceiling in Milwaukee so we decided to make one for ours. It is very easy to make with just plywood and one fancy molding. Being a math teacher, I was very proud of the fact that I used a system of three equations and three unknowns to determine the size of the panels.
Marks on the house told us that we had a low balustrade on the porch roof. We found a pattern on an Italianate in Galena to use for ours. It was time consuming to make but the end product is well worth it.
The porch apron was my wife’s original design.
The original back porch had a tern metal roof made from soldering interlocking pans together so I wanted to do the same for the new front porch. I used an old fashioned plumbers blow torch to heat my irons. The original roof had built in gutters so I used them on our new front porch. I made my pans of lead coated copper so they will last forever.
The pans are lead coated copper so they will last a lifetime. The old timers made them out of tern metal which is a thin sheet of metal covered with a lead alloy.
Here is the finished porch. My wife and I are very lucky in that we complement each other’s skills. She designed the porch and I carried it out. All of the elements are re-milled from a redwood water tower taken down in Chicago. It took me three summers to build the porch.
Luckily I was a teacher so I could dedicate the entire summer to it. The day we took the scaffolding off of the porch after finishing it, my wife and I literally danced a jig in the street.