Fine old house given modern approach to life
Blaine’s booming early days left us with a central neighborhood of fine old houses on streets once lined with towering big leaf Maples, since cut down to satisfy someone’s idea of progress. Many of the old houses still have small buildings in back that once served as stables, big enough for a buggy, a horse and some hay in a loft.
There are a few of the old trees left, notably those planted as ornamentals when these houses were new. One such house and yard currently undergoing renovation is the R.W. Ridings house at 1283 Harrison Street, built in 1903 and now owned by Tom and Pat Long.
The house is balloon-framed, which means that it was built by framing the outside walls with 2x4’s on 16-inch centers that run from the floor plate up 30 feet or so to the roof plate. The second and third floor joists are then hung on the outside studs. The technique is still used although fire codes limit the length of vertical studs as the long vertical passageways are a fire hazard. When Tom Long cut an access into the attic from a third floor closet he found he could shine a flashlight down to the first floor inside the wall.
The lumber used in building the house, as with many of the houses in this vintage neighborhood, is locally produced fir and maple. It was built by lumber broker R.W. Ridings, a captain in the First Battalion, Second Washington Volunteers, organized by Whatcom County veterans for service in the Spanish-American War. Ridings never saw action but continued to use the title after he returned to Blaine, working as a music teacher before being elected Justice of the Peace in 1904 and later Police Judge.
Ridings’ use of hardwoods inside the house was lavish, as in many of the houses in this neighborhood. The pioneer Holtzheimer family built the house across the street at 1274 Harrison two years after Ridings built his house and used the same “quilted maple” trim in the door casings and window trim. It has decorative touches that the current owner, shipwright John Werdal, thinks are Icelandic in origin.
On entering the house the main stairway and many windows give the impression of a place filled with beautiful woodwork and lots of light. If the door to the dining room is open, which judging from its unfaded side it almost always is, one can see through the entire 2,300 square foot house into the back yard through the windows in the back door.
The interior doors in Long’s house are all five-paneled old growth fir, like the windows cased with broad expanses of quilted maple, and are custom built, sized to fit their rooms and function. Of the three doors in the living room, for example, one is a regular door that leads off the entrance hall, one is a two-paneled bi-fold door leading to the dining room and a third is a two-paneled pocket door that leads into a parlor. Fortunately, the maple trim and almost all of the fir has never been painted.
The kitchen and a third floor great room and bedroom required the most extensive work in this project. The 11 x 13 kitchen was a random collection of appliances with the sink exiled to a long, narrow (10 x 5) pantry that shared plumbing with a downstairs bathroom off the kitchen, one of two in the house. Since the house was built with minimal plumbing, and originally had an outhouse on the back alley for a toilet, the plumbing vents went up an outside wall as they were added later. Their plumbing contractor, Curley’s Plumbing of Blaine, has re-routed the vent pipes as well as re-plumbed the main floor bathroom and the kitchen to accept a new sink and dishwasher.
The kitchen was a challenge, Pat Long said, because the small room has seven openings, five doors and two windows, and one of the cabinets was a through-the-wall unit built into the common wall the kitchen shares with the dining room. It was faced with fir on the kitchen side and maple on the dining room side.
Working with Judy Lachner from Columbia Cabinets Northwest, the kitchen was re-designed with the appliance triangle – stove, sink and refrigerator – completely inside the room instead of inside the pantry as well. The stove was shifted to the south wall, the sink to the west wall and the refrigerator into a recessed opening created in the north wall between the pantry and bathroom doors. Plumbing is readily accessible should future owners want to install a wet bar in the pantry, which is itself well lit by a window that nearly fills the north wall.
The kitchen floor is marmoluem tile, a material that’s been in use almost as long as the house is old, and was installed by Bill Canaan of Walker’s Carpet One. The cabinets have gaps for the windows, and the sills were raised to counter-top height for more counter space. The kitchen side of the through-the-wall unit was removed and supplied with a new fir back and will become a stand alone unit, and was replaced with a part of the east wall cabinetry that integrates it with the rest of the room.
The spacious dining room is flooded with light from a row of enormous windows on the south wall. It was built with a central oil-fired furnace that heated the whole house, and was later replaced by a wood stove. The Longs removed the woodstove and separate flue and will replace it with a gas-fired stove that will use the old platform chimney as a route for the stove’s exhaust flue.
The second floor hallway is carpeted, as is the master bedroom, about the same size as the other three which together occupy the four corners of the house. An exterior door at the top of the stairs that matches the back door leads out onto the roof, which originally had a railing and was used as both a second-story deck and widow’s walk as well as a place to shake out rugs before vacuum cleaners were available. The centrally located second floor bathroom has been slightly enlarged and repainted, and will receive new fixtures, including an enlarged shower.
The steep stairway to the third floor is encased behind its own small door, reminiscent of northern European houses that use furniture which can be broken down and re-assembled by hand after being carried up into the room board by board. Art Nolasco of AAA General Painting Contracting patched the plaster walls seamlessly with new drywall in the kitchen, the laundry and mud room off the side porch, in the enlargement to the second floor bathroom and extensively on the third floor. Drywall used to renovate the third floor’s T-shaped main room and bedroom was brought in through a window.
As with the main floor parlor, which will probably become a den, the four second floor bedrooms and the third floor great room, the third floor bedroom is served by two category five wires for telephone and internet connections and a TV cable. The old knob and tube wiring is being completely replaced to bring it up to code.
Longs have consulted with University of Michigan professor Rob Schweitzer for choices in exterior colors that will be applied later in the spring. Schweitzer’s method involves painting a 4 X 8 foot sheet of plywood in a base color with strips, some narrow and others wider, representing trim and accent colors. “He makes it easy,” said Pat Long, “giving you about six choices with trims instead of the zillions you see at the paint store. And it’s easier to see how it will look when you have that big of a surface painted.”
On the outside, the Longs will also landscape the yard to replace English ivy that was well-entrenched beneath the large porch but will keep the two large maples in the yard. The sidewalks leading from the front and side doors stop in the lawn at about the place where the original parking strip was located – it had to be wide enough for horses and buggies, since Blaine’s first cars were still some years away.
The original back stoop and small roof were replaced with a simple flat deck some years ago. The Longs credit Kristin Engerman of InteriorArts with figuring out a new design for a replacement based on Schweitzer’s advice to put an “arts and crafts pergola on a suburban deck” attached to their Queen Anne Victorian as a way of tying in the back porch to the front porch.
The Longs have been working on the house since last October, and hope to finish it up this next summer. They’re already looking for their next project, and have their eye on a craftsman bungalow in a neighborhood to be named later. Stay tuned.