Repointing a Stone Wall with Lime Mortar

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Our wall is cleaned up and ready for pointing. The joins are quite worn away and this project is very overdue.

First and foremost, you can not use concrete / portland cement in any masonry work on a house built before 1850, and maybe even until 1900. It’s worth asking a local mason to see what sort of bricks you have in your home. If they are new bricks and fired to be very hard, cement with confidence. However, older bricks, usually those with inclusions like small stones, have been hand-fired and therefore should only be pointed with lime-based mortar.

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Here is a close-up of the original mortar from 1832. The sand is course and filled with small rocks and pieces of shell. It is very likely that the materials for this wall were obtained from the nearby Delaware river.

 

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This quartz is enormous! When you’re really up-close to your masonry, you discover all the character.

It has taken years to build up the courage to face our basement wall. Years of sweeping up dust and bits of stone as the wall sheds. Years of research on how to make quicklime into lime putty and what ratio of lime putty to mix with sand to form the appropriate mortar for a row house built in 1832. Meanwhile, steadily voicing concerns that we were one rock away from the house falling apart around us. Finally, my husband said, “Make a plan already!” and so I did. I’m currently in the middle of earning my Master’s in project management which means I can’t write as often as I’d like to. It also means that any project I undertake is a good time to practice the project management skills I’m learning. So last month, I spent an entire Sunday researching lime mortar, again, and writing out a plan which included a list of materials needed, a work breakdown structure, and a timeline with actual real dates on it.

Download our repointing project plan.

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Section off the area with plastic sheeting. Misting the wall as you clean away loose mortar also keeps dust to a minimum.

The most challenging aspect of the project was the mortar itself. Quicklime is very caustic and corrosive. Turning quicklime into lime putty is time consuming, messy work; not something you would want to do in your kitchen. I was overjoyed to discover Ecologic natural hydraulic lime from Limeworks. Ecologic mortar is the perfect choice for older buildings that need lime mortar but it has the ease of modern mortar because you just add water. We used a ratio of three pints of water to 12 pints of Ecologic to obtain the perfect consistency. After trying to use several things to stir the mortar, we discovered that using our hands worked best. Mix for a good five minutes and definitely double up on the gloves since the lime is very drying. Also, use a face mask because the dust is irritating. Once it’s mixed, you don’t need the mask but keep the gloves on throughout the project. Mixing the mortar is very therapeutic and like building a sandcastle at the beach and we made small batches as we worked across the wall.

We’re lucky to live nearby one of Limeworks retailers, Killian Hardware in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia, Pa. Killian’s is a fantastic place that carries many products for the older home. It’s hard to estimate how much mortar you’ll need for a stone wall since it’s irregular but we used four and a half bags. Ecologic is around $26 per bag and each bag covered about four-square feet worth of pointing.

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Ecologic mortar from Limeworks. Years of research and all the while, this fantastic product was just waiting to be discovered.

Repointing is messy work and you’re going to want to make sure the area is sectioned off with plastic, along with the floor.

Before we got started with the mortar, we cleaned out as much old mortar and debris as we could. For an interior wall, about an inch depth is recommended. Our wall had been shedding for so long that we only had to suck the loose sand out with the shop vac and give the rocks a good scrubbing with a stiff-bristled broom-head. We had no idea but there are a few very large pieces of quartz in our wall; one the size of a cantaloupe!

In terms of pointing, we had purchased trowels but discovered that using our hands was really the best method. Again, it’s going to be rough on your hands, as the lime is very drying, but our fingers could get the mortar in the crevices most effectively. The trowels were a bit expensive and using our hands saved us $30. We also didn’t need the wood or dowels for the palettes either, knocking another $6 off, making the overall budget for the project less than $200. The best method for applying the mortar was to take small lumps and work it into the joints slowly, like creating pottery. There is something very zen about working with your hands and really considering the shapes of the rocks and how to work the mortar around them.

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Here is our wall about half-way through the project. The difference was really amazing! Notice; if we had partially repointed the wall, we would have had to color-match since the old mortar is almost pink in comparison.

Overall, it took the two of us about 10 hours to repoint a 10′ by 12′ wall, including a lunch break and the two hours I worked by myself while my husband went back to Killian’s to get more mortar because we needed five bags instead of the two we originally purchased. The next day we devoted to clean up and a light spray of the wall in the morning, followed by one more spray before bedtime. It’s important to note that you do want to use the mortar during the more humid times of the year, so spring and summer. Lime mortar needs to dry slowly. Our basement is usually about 70 percent humidity which is excellent for the wall. When cured, the mortar should last a nice long time and not damage the stones and bricks like portland cement.

A final note; Ecologic comes in several color options and there are kits to further customize the color. We used the DGM 50 color because we wanted a nice contrast with the rocks and were doing the entire wall. You can send a sample of your mortar to Limeworks and they will help create a mortar that matches the color if you need to repoint in sections.

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The finished wall and everything back to normal!

We didn’t realize before the project but the repointed wall, with the brighter mortar, is much more welcoming than it was before. In a basement dining room/kitchen it’s very important to keep things light and cheerful to avoid the feeling you’re in a dungeon. We can also expect fewer drafts and less dust.

Hidden Row Homes – Bell’s Court, Society Hill, Philadelphia

It is not always easy to find out how old your row house is, especially if it was built before 1900, and even more so if it was a dwelling for the working-class. However, it helps to have someone put the date the row was built right on the side of the house.

These row houses in Bell's Court, Society Hill, were built in 1815.

I intended this to be an article about cute little row houses, situated in lovely gardens, in the middle of blocks, providing an urban oasis for those who don’t mind living with a little less space but I have discovered that the little homes of Bell’s Court tell a captivating story.

Alan Heavens, Inquirer Real Estate Writer, wrote about Bell’s Court last year (http://articles.philly.com/2013-07-29/business/40850220_1_bell-society-hill-trinities). Heavens writes that originally, the land the row homes sit on, was part of the garden of a very wealthy local Philadelphian named William Bingham, who, among other things, represented Pennsylvania as a delegate to the Continental Congress from 1786 to 1788. However, Bingham didn’t build the homes. That was wallpaper designer/manufacturer Thomas Hurley, who built not only the four present row homes but also an additional row of four row houses so that the two rows faced each other. Thanks to the little masonry note, we know the homes were completed in 1815.

Philly History is a wonderful archival website and I discovered the following photo that shows the remaining row in 1961. Surprisingly, there are cars parked in front and behind! You’ll see in photos below that it’s completely different today thanks to an urban revitilization of Society Hill, beginning in the 1960s, that saved many historic homes from demolision, including these, and restored the greenspaces.

Row houses in Bell's Court, Society Hill, Philadelphia, PA.

The row homes of Bell’s Court are indicative of the typical “Trinity” style houses that were built throughout Philadelphia during the population boom of the 19th Century. Many of this type of home were expanded in later renovations but, as indicated in the historic photo, it appears that the row was surrounded by streets. Therefore, with no room to expand, we are left with the original footprint and an intact glimpse into 19th Century working class domestic life. Inside, the homes feature two bedrooms, one bathroom, and likely have at least one working fireplace. Other distictions include the ever challenging, or intimidating, spiral “pie slice” stairs and classic Federal six-over-nine/eight-over-twelve windows. There is one room on each floor, with the kitchen located in the basement. Altogether, the homes are just slightly over 650 square feet, which is on the generous size for houses like these which range (originally) from 400 to 550 square feet. A unique feature is the loft over the top floor, seen in the historic photo above. Normally, you don’t get the extra space and it’s a nice feature on a very small house.

Today, Bell’s Court is assessable via pedestrial walk-way and the streets and cars have been replaced with a beautiful garden. It’s one of those charming secret rows that we absolutely love discovering in Philadelphia.

Row houses in Bell's Court, Society Hill, Philadelphia, PA.

Row houses in Bell's Court, Society Hill, Philadelphia, PA.

To read more about how the current residents live in their homes, see Heaven’s article – http://articles.philly.com/2013-07-29/business/40850220_1_bell-society-hill-trinities.

 

RowHouse Magazine Resources: Research

Colonial row houses in Philadelphia.

Colonial row houses in Philadelphia.

You don’t have to face renovation alone. These are a small sample of the associations you can reach out to for assistance with your renovation. If you have an association near you, please let us know and we’ll add them to the list.

 

RowHouse Magazine Resources: Renovation & Restoration

Georgian row house in Philadelphia.Row houses come in every age. If you have an older row home and you wish to preserve the authenticity, the following resources may prove useful.

Please note that listing a product or company here is not an endorsement of the product and/or its quality. Listings here are meant to be useful and informative but not promotional. Companies listed here have not paid compensation to be listed.

 

A Very Interesting Row House: The Dennis Severs’ House

Dennis Severs House façade, 2010, photographed from Folgate Street - source: wikipedia commons

Dennis Severs House façade, 2010, photographed from Folgate Street – source: wikipedia commons

I had quite the row house odyssey last night. I was collecting pins for the RowHouse Magazine Pinterest board (http://www.pinterest.com/bklynwebgrrl/rowhouse-magazine/) and came across this pin (http://www.pinterest.com/pin/29062360069384852/) about the Dennis Severs’s row, or terraced, house in the Spitalfields neighborhood of London, UK.

If you haven’t visited my Pinterest board, please do. I often clip interesting row houses there that I just don’t get a chance to write about here.

Anyway, back to the Severs’ row house. Dennis Severs was an American, born in the 20th Century who decided that he no longer wanted to live in 1970s America. So he moved to a Georgian row house in London and proceeded to retrofit the home to look like it was a family home from the period, ranging from the mid-1700s to 1800s. It’s a beautiful house, built around 1724.

Severs’ approach is unique. He completely immersed himself in history, forsaking indoor plumbing and electricity. The rooms are not so much a museum as more frozen in time. There are fires in the fireplace, half-eaten food on the plates, and mussed-up bed sheets. Walking through the home is far more intimate than walking through any other museum, even living museums like Williamsburg, where they clean up the place before you get there. This home is not perfect, not period-accurate but it seems more real than any other place because it captures the feeling on many sensory levels.

One day, I will go to London and I’m totally putting this place on my list of things to see. It is probably the best historic row house tourist attraction in existence. Meanwhile, here is a video that shows the home and explains what Severs had in mind.

Fell’s Point, Baltimore, Maryland

Row houses in Fell's Point, Baltimore, Maryland.

Row houses in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, Maryland.

In the early 18th Century, near the Baltimore harbor, there was a densely wooded area beautifully situated near a natural deep water port. In 1730, an English gentleman named William Fell decided that this would be the perfect place for ship building and related commerce so he established such a center and called it Fell’s Point. Business went well and in the 1760s, his son Edward decided to further develop the area and divided the land into residential plots. Because of the proximity to the shipping business, homes in the area were very popular. By 1797, Fell’s Point was officially part of the new City of Baltimore (wikipedia).

During the following years, Fell’s Point would be a crucial part of the shipping and manufacturing industries in Baltimore. With plentiful employment, Fell’s Point also welcomed a large immigrant population and became a multicultural hub of urban life in the 19th Century. Unfortunately, by the turn of the 20th Century, due to changes in the shipping industry and the migration of manufacturing out of Baltimore, Fell’s Point was an area largely in decline (wikipedia).

During the 1960s, a proposed highway project almost annihilated the waterfront areas. Thankfully, because Fell’s Point is on the National Register of Historic Places and local residents protested, the area was saved. In more recent years, the area has seen a revitalization due to local preservationists work to save the area’s historic buildings and new homeowners who are attracted to the historic row houses and cobblestone streets (wikipedia). To learn more about preservation efforts in Fell’s Point and the neighboring area of Federal Hill, visit the Society for the Preservation of Fells Point and Federal Hill website.

Georgian row house in Fell's Point, Baltimore, MD.

Georgian row house in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, MD.

The historic district of Fell’s Point occupies the area from Gough Street to the waterfront, between Caroline and Chester Streets. It’s well connected to surrounding urban areas by public transportation and expressways. There are over 161 registered historic buildings. Housing is reasonable, ranging from $150,000 (and lower) for a modest, brick row house, to over $1 million for a pristine 18th Century row home in a desirable section (realtor.com). If Federal row houses are your thing, there are many to choose from!

Fell’s Point offers a variety of shops, restaurants, coffee bars, music stores, and because of the maritime history, there are over 120 pubs! There is something for everyone and it’s never a dull moment! To learn more, visit livebaltimore.com/neighborhoods/list/fellspoint/.

If you find yourself in the area, it’s definitely worth checking Fell’s Point out. Local events and tours are featured on the Fell’s Point website.

Row houses in Fell's Point, Baltimore, Maryland.

Row houses in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, Maryland.

Beautiful storefront row houses in Fell's Point, Baltimore.

Beautiful storefront row houses in Fell’s Point, Baltimore.

Some lovely Federal row homes, and a row cafe, in Fell's Point.

Some lovely Federal row homes, and a row cafe, in Fell’s Point.

Federal row houses in Fell's Point, Baltimore, MD.

Federal row houses in Fell’s Point, Baltimore, MD.

A unique corner row house in Fell's Point.

A unique corner row house in Fell’s Point.

Another cafe/pub in Fell's Point.

Another cafe/pub in Fell’s Point.

Photos: Christine Halkiopoulos.

Acorn Street, Boston, MA. Source: Amanda Beattie

RowHouse Magazine Resources: Publications

Acorn Street, Boston, MA. Source: Amanda Beattie

Acorn Street, Boston, MA. Source: Amanda Beattie

Bricks and Brownstones: The New York Town House

Old House Journal

The American Townhouse

The Modern Townhouse: The Latest in Urban and Suburban Designs

The Old House Web

This Old House

Please note that listing a product or company here is not an endorsement of the product and/or its quality. Listings here are meant to be useful and informative but not promotional. Companies listed here have not paid compensation to be listed.

If you would like to be added to this list, please leave a comment below. Thank you!

Wooden row house in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

Visiting Wooden Row Houses in Brooklyn

One of my favorite row house neighborhoods in New York is Brooklyn Heights. Not only do we have fond memories from when we lived nearby in Cobble Hill, but Brooklyn Heights has a wonderful range of row houses. I recently found myself in the area and decided to take a few photos of some of my favorites. Unfortunately, I didn’t note the exact addresses as I walked around but these are roughly between Clark, Joralemon, and Court Streets and the Promenade. These represent a small sample as there are quite a few wood-sided row homes in the area.

Wooden row house in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

This home is a wonderful yellow color. The classically influenced lintel’s above the windows are rather unique. To the right is another row house with wood shingle siding.

Wooden row house in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

This is a very wide wood framed row house located at 13 Pineapple Street. Luckily, this home had a picture in one of my architectural guides (“Old Brooklyn Heights,” author Clay Lancaster) to the area so I have some additionally information. Built before 1830, this was likely a Federal home originally. The third floor was added in the middle of the 19th Century. It’s facade is covered with wood shingles.

A wooden row house in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

Fancy iron entrance on this one.

A wooden row house in Brooklyn Heights, New York.

This is a lovely Federal style, wooden row house with small-pane windows.

Related to these, is the blog The Wooden House Project, managed by Elizabeth Finkelstein, a historic preservationist living in Brooklyn’s South Slope. Ms. Finkelstein wanted to build a community to support wooden frame row houses in Brooklyn so she started The Wooden House Project. Like many cities, Brooklyn began to outlaw wood frame row houses during the 19th Century so the survivors are really quite special.

We are always really excited to learn about other people who love row houses and advocate their preservation.

Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Overbrook_Farms_2.JPG

Is Historic Preservation a Good Thing?

Photo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Overbrook_Farms_2.JPG

An example of a lovely home in Overbrook Farms, Philadelphia. Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/ wiki/File: Overbrook_Farms _2.JPG

First, a big thumbs up to Grid Magazine. I acquired a complementary copy at my gym and was very surprised to find a variety of nice articles about preservation and sustainable living in Philadelphia, including one about historic masonry and how awesome bricks are. And, we all know how much I love bricks. Anyway, visit their website, or look for an issue to pick up. Totally worth the read.

Anytime I see an article about historic neighborhoods I’m going to read it. According to Grid, there is a battle over to designate or not to designate the Overbrook Farms neighborhood as historic. I did a little research and discovered that Overbrook Farms is full of beautiful, mansion-like, homes in various colonial-revival or tudor-revival styles, all built in the late 19th Century. Originally a very affluent area, many homes boast craftsmanship of the highest order. With so many beautiful homes, at least 100 years old, it would only seem natural that the neighborhood would want to protect it’s architectural integrity. However, not every resident is supportive.

The historic designation question is a hot topic. Both those for, and those against, have points worth considering.

Yes to Historic Designation

Homes in historic neighborhoods, especially those that are designated and protected, have higher property values than those in areas that are not designated. Historic homes tend to hold their value better than non-historic homes. Typically homeowners in historically protected areas have to adhere to a set of rules that keeps them from demolishing homes and making inappropriate improvements to their homes. This keeps the neighborhood’s character consistent and intact. A well-established historic neighborhood is very attractive to home buyers interested in the characteristics of a particular neighborhood.

For people who are appreciative of their neighborhood’s stock of architecturally interesting properties, it can be horrifying to watch a careless developer tear down 100+ years of history and put up a McMansion-esk confection iced in cantaloupe colored stucco. It’s especially horrifying if you live in a row of identical homes and that monstrosity is attached to your house (true story!).

The historic designation attracts the sort of homeowner that likely supports conversation and doesn’t mind being told what to do with their house, in the name of preservation. Chances are, they are researching on their own and looking forward to keeping things exactly how they looked when the house was built. This sort of homeowner is going to spend a little more money keeping their home in good condition because it’s not just a house; it’s a mission.

No to Historic Designation

Historic designation will raise the value of your house. Higher value  means higher property taxes. For long-time residents, especially those on fixed incomes, or people just having trouble making ends meet, a jump in the value of their home and the resulting tax increase can be devastating. For the people who may have worked very hard to change a dodgy neighborhood into a vibrant community and now find themselves priced out of their homes, this is a slap in the face.

Once a neighborhood is designated as historic you lose freedom over your house and what you can do with it. Since you paid for your home, you should be able to do whatever you want with it. If your coming into an already established area, you know what you’re getting into. But if not, it’s like having someone snatch your favorite toy away. It’s almost rude! All of a sudden, you need to check with some higher power about what windows or door you can have or what paint colors you can use. Often, maintaining a historic property to specification set by a historic commission is a lot more expensive. Constraints mean owners of inefficient relics can’t take advantage of more environmentally friendly home products and the homes people are trying to protect become drains on the owners wallets and resources.

If there isn’t room to change, then neighborhoods get stale. In urban neighborhoods where many row homes are run down or have been demolished, new row home development is often revitalizing. In our own neighborhood over the last five years we’ve seen quite a few empty lots replaced by new, energy-efficient row homes. The new homes are a vast improvement.

If you make a community too rigid  you will scare away interesting people that make a community exciting. New businesses may also be reluctant to conduct business in an area where they have to adhere to strict rules.

So, What’s Better?

The debate gets very heated. What’s certain is that unless an entire neighborhood is in support of historic designation, the approval and transition of a neighborhood from non-historic to historic won’t be successful.

From our perspective, and we’ve seen a lot of neighborhoods, just because a neighborhood lacks historic designation doesn’t mean that it’s complete chaos. Often, row house neighborhoods do just fine.

Row House in Danger

New York is a big city. It’s always changing. It’s always growing. It changes and grows at such a pace that sometimes the little guy, or little house in this case, doesn’t stand a chance.

35 Cooper Square, a two-and-a-half story Federal row house, was a typical New York City home when it was built in the early 19th century. Today, it is an anomaly in the East Village, a neighborhood that has undergone so many changes in recent years that it’s hard to imagine it as the colorful place where artists and writers called home and attributed their creativity to. It was dirty and sometimes dangerous, but it was edgy and alive. Now, it’s clean, sterile and has little soul left.

A recent post to The Local East Village by Greg Howard, where he describes 35 Cooper Square as “little more than an eyesore next to its surroundings,” caused quite a backlash among those who are trying to save what little history Cooper Square still has. Architectural historian Kerri Culhane explains why saving this little house is so important. But based on the pictures, there is no doubt that the house has seen better days and it’s hard to show why it should be saved when it appears to be practically falling down on its own. Another thing to consider is the cost of renovation, which could be substantial and with its comparatively small square footage, to a building in the same foot print, it just doesn’t hold up economically. It doesn’t mean that this situation isn’t terrible.

For those of us who think every row house is worth preservation, we hope for a miracle. It appears that the words of Frank Sinatra, “if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere,” may not hold true for Federal row houses since if you were such a house, you might have a better chance of survival in Philadelphia or Boston.

Additional articles about 35 Cooper Square can be found at: http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/03/15/local-legends-35-cooper-square/ http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/03/11/your-voices-35-cooper-square/ http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/03/14/your-voices-more-on-35-cooper/ http://eastvillage.thelocal.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/final-tenants-reflect-on-35-cooper/