Recently while perusing area real estate listings I ran across an all-too-common offering — the unfinished renovation of a house which had retained a good deal of originality prior to being gutted to the studs. At least it affords us the opportunity to take a close-up look at balloon framing techniques (which has since been replaced by platform framing). This house appears to have been built around 1910 or so and is fairly typical of what could be found nationally at the time.

Clearly a lot of effort, time and expense went into getting the house to its present skeletal stage. We’ll likely never know the precise reasoning for the decisions made here (or why the house was put on the market unfinished), but similar situations routinely appear on the market. Frequently these situations result from a failure to understand the substantial value that intact old houses, with their superior-quality materials and authentic historic character, offer when compared to new construction.

Sometimes its simply a lack of knowledge regarding various options for economically updating tired infrastructure such as wiring and plumbing. In other instances it may be a dislike of anything old or, similarly, a love of all things new. Or a myriad of other unknown reasons which we could only guess at. Regardless of the rationale behind such attempted renovations, the power of television to shape popular tastes can not be over-emphasized.

Let’s take a look at a sad and increasingly common type of real estate offering. We’ll start with some older images for comparison purposes. And remember, don’t try this at home!

Curiously, the real estate listing included this historic photo of the house. The porch and gable ornament add great character to the modest but very attractive house. Photo source:

This is how the house appeared when captured by Google Street View in 2008. Though wider siding had been installed at some point, the original narrow clapboard exterior was likely intact beneath it. The original gable ornament remained intact (most of it) as did the porch columns.

The house today. The entire exterior has been replaced — even the original boxing (sheathing). A type of house wrap is visible everywhere save the section below the porch roof where synthetic siding has been installed. The windows and door are all new. Gone are the four original columns and charming gable ornament. Photo source:

A square window, formerly on the staircase, has disappeared from this wall — along with the character and daylight it added. Photo source:

On the other side, sheets of flake board cover an opening likely intended for patio doors. Here a furnace has been vented through it, presumably to heat the job site during the winter. Photo source:

Let’s head inside. Here new siding with an unnaturally emphasized wood grain joins a Neo-Victorian door. A wood block at the top of the door intended for the mounting of a porch light is unfortunately emphasized with the trim color. Photo source:

Oh, my. Yup, skinned to the bone. While the original balloon framing of the exterior wall remains, the flake board seen between the studs reveals that the original boxing (and siding) is gone. The new windows are of the same width, but are a bit shorter than the originals — requiring the sills to be raised a few inches. Photo source:

Can you say “open concept“? If so, you likely watch a lot of television! A furnace temporarily vents through an intended patio door location. The chimney was clearly intended to vent wood-burning stoves and was built upon a wood frame with space for a closet or cupboard beneath it… an interesting historic feature now which is now increasingly rare (thanks to aggressive remodelings everywhere). Photo source:

Apparently the only bit of original material to survive was the staircase, perhaps because it was deemed “fancy enough” to save. Without a window to illuminate it, however, it will lose the intended play of natural light which had previously given it an ever-changing character throughout the day. Photo source:

At least there is some natural light at the top of the winding stairs. To the left of the window jamb, two horizontal 2x4s are seen… that is the top of the balloon-framed exterior wall, also known as the top plate. Dormers and gables are built on top of the top plate. A few feet below it, another 2×4 is let into the studs. This 2×4 is known as a ledger board. It supports the floor joists of the second floor rooms.

Note that the wall behind the pilaster newel has been moved… there is nothing to support it!
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Hmmm. Oh well, I’m sure the next owner will understand (and appreciate) the intent here. It is clear that many wall studs salvaged from the original walls have been repurposed here — “ghost” marks of varying directions from the former plaster and lath walls give away the repurposed studs. That’s actually a smart move as old studs are straighter and denser than new studs.

The sistering of rafters is presumably to allow for deeper insulation in the roof. The angled studs above one wall (at left) will support a future dust-catcher if ever clad in drywall. Photo source:

Roof rafters can be seen bearing on the top plate. Plywood sheeting covers original roof nailers. Photo source:

The gable wall is built upon the top plate of the balloon frame — roughly at the center of the window’s bottom sash. Is this the only bedroom in the new floor plan? Photo source:
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