As I sift through and pack things in our home for our eventual move, I’m trying to look at the house from the perspective of new owners. We’ve made a great many improvements to the place since we moved in roughly 29 years ago. We gutted, insulated, rewired, and sheetrocked most of the old part of the house, which was built in 1894. We also removed the rotted front porch (trust me when I tell you it had a funk on it and fungi was growing in it) and put on an addition that was as sensitive to the original structure as possible. We recently gutted and sheetrocked the last upstairs room and the back porch. We’ll be doing the same to the dining room before moving. The only room we will leave as original is the living room because the plaster is still in good condition. Also, we want the new owners to see something of the original.
Every house needs constant maintenance. As soon as a structure is built, it’s a battle against entropy reclaiming it. People new to owning a home tend to be surprised by that and the expense involved. Every house, no matter how old or new, tends to also have its quirks, weird things you need to know about it or watch out for.
Our house has its share of quirks, some of which arose from its age and attempts to marry new upgrades to an old house. Some of these quirks we inherited, some came from our various upgrades.
For an example of an inherited quirk, when we were remodeling the upstairs bathroom and hallway, stripping the walls down to studs, we discovered we could not hammer a nail into the studs surrounding the bathroom. Unlike other studs in the house, they were solid oak, and I mean SOLID. Like petrified wood, really. We had to use a drill to create holes to screw the sheetrock on, the bit smoking as it went into the wood. Future owners of our house, don’t try hammering a nail into a stud on this wall in order to hang a picture. You’ll just be frustrated. Because of the oak two-by-fours, we suspect the bathroom was not original to the house. We think the original bathroom was an outhouse.
Another fun fact about the bathroom wall behind the tub: The wood sheathing behind the exterior brick is made from planks that are around two feet wide. Because of the house’s age (128 years this year), it was built during the time of virgin forests with very large trees in Minnesota. Pine Tree Lumber Company had just started operating in Little Falls in 1890, so this old-growth lumber was plentiful. Not only are there large wood planks for sheathing, the two-by-fours are actually a full two inches by four inches, not the reduced sized two-by-fours you find today.
The two-by-fours, however, are not placed in a regular spacing that you’ll find it today’s home construction. Plus, the builders used balloon construction, meaning there is no plate in the frame between the first and second floors. If a fire started in the wall of the lower floor, it would shoot up the cavities in the frame to the second floor, just like a chimney. This, for obvious reasons, doesn’t meet today’s fire code. When we were gutting each room, we had to nail wood blocks between each stud at the floor level in order to create a fire break.
The yellow brick on the exterior of our house was manufactured here in Little Falls in the brickyards west of town. There were three brickyards west of the Pine Grove Park area at one time. I think our bricks were from the Martin Scott brickyard. You’ll see a lot of yellow brick in downtown Little Falls. It is one of the unique features of the Historic Downtown District and many of the yellow brick houses in town could create their own district due to the historic nature of the brick. When we put on the addition in 2004, we wrapped it around the exterior of the north side of the house, turning a window into a door into the addition. We kept the exterior brick exposed as an interior wall in one of the new bedrooms in the addition.
When we moved into the house in 1993, one of our first upgrades was to have a circuit panel installed to replace the old knob-and-tube fuse box. The wiring was wholly inadequate for our tech-heavy age. The upstairs only had two outlets and hanging lights without wall switches. There were no smoke detectors.
Because there was a small basement that was under only a portion of the house, we had to run wiring from the basement up through the kitchen wall behind the sink to get it upstairs. That’s a quirk new homeowners should be aware of.
Another quirk of upgrading the old house can be seen in a few of the light switches. Some switches (upstairs bathroom/hallway and front entry/front hall/kitchen, I’m looking at you!) could not be installed inside the rooms because there was no way to install the boxes properly in the walls. These two sets of triple switches (see aforementioned parentheses) take some getting used to.
When we redid the back porch this past year, we upgraded the wiring, but new homeowners will find a switch in the kitchen by the backdoor that doesn’t turn anything on. It runs to the old back porch light that was on the wall. The box is still there and still wired to the switch, so y’all can add something new if needed.
Our house’s new owners will also find a double switch at the top of the new basement stairs. One is for the lights in the stairwell. The other runs to the outlet on the south wall opposite where you enter the stairwell. We always intended to hang a neon light on this wall and wanted a switched outlet to be able to turn it on and off. Never got around to it, though.
The basement has its own set of quirks. The original basement is a round cistern made of yellow brick. At some point, long before we moved in, a cement block bump-out was added for a fuel oil tank. Later, a gas furnace was added, again before we moved in. We upgraded the furnace in c. 2004 so that it was sufficient to heat the addition. The fuel oil tank is still in the basement because it cannot be removed without cutting it up. We aren’t sure how they got it down there in the first place. The original basement stair was like a ladder in its steepness and there was only a tiny window next to it. We had this set of basement stairs removed during the 2004 addition construction. This stairway was accessed through what is now the pantry in the kitchen. You’ll see a bit of the original linoleum in the pantry that was in the kitchen (even on the counters!) when we moved in.
When we were having the addition constructed, during excavation for the new basement section the workers dug too close to the house and the stone wall foundation collapsed into the hole. We were terrified the brick veneer above would fall into the hole, too. Our contractor came over immediately to shore up the wall with supports. He then had a new cement block support wall constructed that was not part of the original plan. It worked out well for the new basement under the addition.
In installing the new furnace, we had to have vent pipes installed. While the furnace is in the old part of the basement, the vent pipes come through the exterior wall in the new part of the basement. They are very low to the ground on the north side of the house. It is very important for the new homeowners to know that due to their proximity to the ground, the area in front of these pipes must be kept clear of snow in the winter. If they get blocked, the furnace will stop working because it won’t get enough fresh air through the intake pipe. We learned this quirk the hard way one year. This is the house quirk that inspired this blog post because we just had a giant snowfall while we were gone for a couple of days and had to have a friend come over to check on these pipes.
Speaking of snow reminds me of another quirk of our house, this one relatively new. In 2020/21, we had the house reroofed. We had new asphalt shingles put on the upper roof of the original house, as had been there before. For the lower roofs on the addition and back porch, we installed metal roofs. Aside from the longevity of metal roofs, we wanted to try to prevent problems caused by ice dams on these lower roofs. That effort has been successful, however, if it warms up while there is a significant amount of snow on the metal roofs, the snow will often let go and we’ll wind up with a pile of it on the back deck or front walk. It tends to be heavy and hard-packed, so you’ve got to shovel it right away before it refreezes. This seems to happen more often with the back porch roof, probably because it has a steeper pitch.
Prior to having the roofs replaced, we had the trees trimmed above the house. Our yard has eight mature oak trees, many of them pretty close to the house. As the branches grow, they create highways that allow squirrels to get on the roof. While tree trimming is expensive, this is one area of maintenance that you don’t want to ignore. When the squirrels are able to get on the roof, they find ways into the attic. We watched as a squirrel went up and into one of the air vents in the upper roof, having chewed through the plastic. Patches on the wood soffet and fascia indicated that the previous owners had the same problem. While we were having the house reroofed, we had our contractor install metal soffit and fascia to prevent squirrels from chewing their way in through that area. The metal on the lower roofs should prevent them from coming in there. But the really big deterent was in removing the squirrel highways above. Don’t make the mistake we made in not getting this tree trimming done sooner and with more regularity.
Okay, this post is getting much longer than I intended, but I want to end with one other historical note. Our house has only been owned by two families in its history. It was built by Knute (also Knut) and Christina Elvig (also Elvik) and their daughter Beulah and her husband William Mueller moved into it. Buelah gave her house to her church, First United Church in Little Falls, and we purchased it from the church (it was our church at the time, too). Buelah lived in the house until she was in her 90s, then lived in a nursing home until her death at age 100. I find it amazing that only two families have lived here, but it shows how great a home this is, even with its quirks.
When we took off the front porch to build the addition, we found five cement pilons holding it up. Each pilon has Knute Elvik’s name etched into it. The pilons are still in the yard, which seems fitting for this wonderful house.