Alan D Miller
After 30 years in the old house no. 2 we finally finished the renovation the front door.
We are confident that the door is original to the house, meaning it is 152 years old. That’s tens of thousands of openings and closings.
And on one of those days someone broke the original glass pane in the door. We have concluded from the door’s construction and later modifications that its centerpiece in 1870 was a pane of glass.
After that “Oh, no!” Wait, someone started repairing it. And in a word, it looked terrible.
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So why did it take us 30 years to find a proper solution?
We had other priorities, such as start a family while tackling larger issues such as installation and canopy and depressing disguise from the 1970s. And a decent curtain did a good job of hiding the key flaws in the old window replacement, which I suspect dates to the 1930s based on the way it was cobbled together with bits and pieces of obviously reclaimed wood.
I wrote in this column about seven years ago that my twin daughters had tag-teamed the restoration of the front hallway just inside the front door. The beautiful wood in the curved staircase had to be stripped of old paint and repainted. Wallpaper from several generations ago had to be removed, and the stately woodwork around the front door and the passage from the hallway to “the room” had to be stripped off and repainted.
I don’t have much patience for the tedious work of removing intricate woodwork and that is the main reason why the front entrance was the last of our major restoration projects on this old house. Another reason is that unlike many families with attached garages or garages that are closer to the back door, we use our front door as the main entrance. Shutting down for long periods of time for the smelly, dirty work of stripping and finishing woodwork would be a major disruption.
But daughter #3 was between jobs in 2012, and daughter #2 was in the same situation in 2013, so #3 started the renovations and then handed them over to #2. They did a fabulous job, and they me got everything ready except for the door which i said i would take over.
They suggested that we take design cues from the fancy red glass beam above the front door and etch them into a replacement glass panel. It took almost six years but last year I took the photo and gave it to daughter #2 who used her Photoshop magic to pull out key pieces for the etching.
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I spoke to my friend Mark McPeek, owner of Richardson glass service in Newark, about what his team would need from me to cut and etch the safety glass. He asked for exact measurements of the window frame in the door and a computer file of the image we wanted etched into the glass. (A frosty decal of the image was an option, but we went with the slightly more expensive etch for durability and authentic 1870s look.)
Within weeks we had our old looking new glass and I set about taking apart the rickety replacement that has been bugging me since the day we moved into the house. It looked like something little Alan Miller would have cobbled together as a kid in the 1960s.
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There were rough cuts in the door frames at the top and bottom of the window opening so that one of two wooden crossbeams could be installed to hold the four thin panes of glass used to replace the original large pane. None of the moldings around the glass matched. And under that molding were other moldings and smaller pieces of wood used as washers to fill the space between the glass and the door frame.
I went from angry to sad for whoever did the repairs. From this I concluded that it was probably made during the Great Depression when the family who lived here at the time didn’t have the money for an expensive, large pane of glass. So someone, maybe a teenager, who broke the original window, went looking for glass and pieces of wood to make a replacement that would keep out the wind, rain, and cold.
In this regard, it has worked for many decades. But it still looked choppy, and it’s a good bet the old mechanic would have preferred the option we chose.
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So, 30 years after we moved here and 7 years after we started work on the front hallway, the last of our major restoration projects at this house, daughters #2 and 3 returned to the scene last weekend to fix the front door the appropriate stain and apply a Watco Danish Oil finish to it and the woodwork around it.
Our house is finished – until the next project.
Alan D. Miller is a former Dispatch editor who teaches journalism at Denison University and writes about old home repair and historic preservation based on personal experiences and questions from readers.