The Devil Queen

How my wife and I sold our souls to the Queen Anne Victorian we tried to save.

My Photo
Location: Crow Mountain, Arkansas, United States

Synopsis: This is a cautionary tale. A seriously disturbed couple find the charming, old ruin of a Queen Anne Victorian in Russellville, Arkansas, and buy it for $1.00. They tore the roof off, cut it in half, and had it moved to some land they owned sixteen miles away because they didn't know any better. Since then, they have hired and fired contractors, had all of their tools stolen, re-wired, re-plumbed, insulated, and essentially rebuilt the entire house. Their only problem is that after four years it still isn't finished. Now they are tired, broke, and wonder what in the hell it is they've done to themselves. And, it's haunted.
(Last updated on April 3, 2008)

Press: Russellville Courier Article - December 2003, HGTV website article, AP story - October 2006, and Victorian Homes Magazine - February 2008 (link coming soon).
Art: From time to time, I receive requests for my art. If you would like to look at more of my art, go to The Failed Artist. If you would like to buy my art, email me. I am more than happy to answer any questions you might have. Thanks!

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Monkey on Our Back

As miserable and frustrating as the Devil Queen has been, she is at least a beautiful house. This is in stark contrast to our current home, Mr. Blue.

Why Mr. Blue? Because our little ranch house is the color of Smurfs. In our defense, we didn't mean to paint it Smurf-blue. We picked out a country-gray-blue color for the house, bought ten gallons of it, and turned it over to Larry, our house painter. Then we went to Savannah, Georgia, for a week. How is that for an act of faith? Who in the hell hires a contractor and then leaves?! Ah, the joys of being young and stupid. Anyhow, the paint chip we picked out looked a lot different at Lowes than it did on the house. We pulled up to our house in the middle of the night and went into shock when our highbeams illuminated the house.

"Oh, holy-f***!"

"My God. . . " my wife said.

Then we died laughing.

At that point we were out of money, so repainting it wasn't an option. The house blue - indefinately.

I rate purchasing this house as one of the dumbest things I've done in my life. In my defense, this was the first house I ever owned. And, I have learned a LOT. It was bought as an investment. The bank had repossessed it and we bought it cheap. I thought that it just needed some cosmetic work, we'd finish it in about 6 months, and then sell it for a profit. While we were working on it we'd live in it to save rent money too.

My wife was not impressed. She hates the house and did not want to buy it. I asked two real estate appraisers if they thought that I could fix it and sell it for a profit. "Sure, that is a good idea," was the response I got. So, I bought it.

The "cosmetic work" turned out to include: all new carpet and vinyl, new paint inside and out, repairs to the wiring and plumbing, a dishwasher, a new stove, insulation, floor jacking, and some major carpentry work to the attached carport. Oh, and a new roof too.

According to our neighbor, the previous owners had added the carport by demolishing a family room with a chainsaw. He knows because he loaned them the chainsaw. He thought that they were cutting firewood until he saw the walls of the house coming down. Why did they do it? No one knows. Our POS were morons. The carport's structural problems stemmed not from the fact they carved it out of the house with a chainsaw, but because they believed adequate bracing was an un-necessary extravagance. Only an act of God or a suspension of the laws of physics kept the damn thing from falling in.

There were some other odd problems to remedy. For instance the back bedroom at one time belonged to a girl with no arms. All the light switches were at knee level. We also found a snake skin tangled in the base of one of our ceiling fans. While I'm not terribly afraid of snakes, this discovery opened a whole realm of possibilities that I did not want to consider.

It took us nearly a year to finish all of this work. As soon as it was done we put it up for sale. It took over a year for us to find a buyer. We spent months waiting for all the papers to be drafted, the loan to be approved, and so on. Finally, a closing date was set. Then our buyer, a bachelor in his 50's, died a week before the papers were to be signed.

It's not funny but I had to laugh. If this was going to happen to someone, it would happen to me. Friends and family would ask when the house was going to sell, and I'd tell them that the buyer died. They'd chuckle and say, "No, really, when's it closing?"

We've been stuck with the blue bastard since then. In some ways it's good. The Devil Queen has taken a lot longer to make livable than we ever dreamed. If Mr. Blue had sold, we'd probably be living in my in-law's attic.

Being a retarded optimist, I put Mr. Blue on the market again in January thinking that we'll be living in the Devil Queen by this fall or winter. If you'd like a 1050 square foot, two bedroom, one bathroom house in Atkins, Arkansas, let us know. We'll cut you a deal. Paying for two houses is killing us - we are motivated sellers.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

What Puts a Master in the Bedroom?

Monday's post received the following comment from Carol. Carol said:

"My comment was: is the'master' bedroom really a master bedroom or just the largest bedroom in the house or just the one you choose to sleep in? The whole concept of 'master bedroom' seems so new house people- an invention contrived in the 1970's maybe. Just curious."

First, thank you for the question. To be honest, I never really gave much thought to what makes a bedroom a master bedroom. Carol appears to be right in thinking that the master bedroom is a fairly modern feature in American homes. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to date when the modern master bedroom first emerged.

For an interesting and brief history of the American bedroom, check this article by Christine Vidal from the University of Buffalo Reporter.

According to Wikipedia, a master bedroom is a bedroom with an attached bathroom where the parents sleep in a family home. This matches with the terminology we used when I worked in real estate appraisals.

I remember taking an appraisal class where the instructor went into some detail regarding the term "master bedroom." He had appraised a home that was owned by a lesbian couple. When they received the appraisal they were furious that he had labeled their bedroom as the "master bedroom" because, "there was no master in their relationship!" They demanded that he change the appraisal to which he refused. He did however attach a lengthy addendum explaining that "master bedroom" was a term of convenience denoting a bedroom with an attached bath typically used by the head(s) of the house hold and not a misogynistic, patriarchal term used reinforce a repressive social order.

I'm not sure that the term is really of much descriptive value anymore in regard to attached bathrooms. Most new higher end homes have bathrooms attached to every bedroom. Whereas having one or two bathrooms in a three or four bedroom house was typical 30 years ago, a bathroom for each bedroom is becoming typical.

In the case of the Devil Queen, the master bedroom is a master bedroom because:

1) It's the only bedroom in the house with an attached bath.
2) It is the bedroom that my wife and I (as head of household) claim as our own.

Carol, I hope that this satisfies your curiosity.

Some Weekend Photos

Above is a photo of our Big Dig.

We are making slow but steady progress on the kitchen floor. As of last Sunday, we were officially halfway finished with it.

We only made one small mistake. Most of the boards are not quite long enough to span the entire room. We've been putting the short-runs (12 to 22 inch runs) where they'll be under the cabinets. Things were going good; we got into our groove and were laying the floor like madmen, but we weren't paying enough attention. We accidentally put a short run right in front of the doorway to the back hall. It doesn't stand out in the photo since the unfinished floor has a patchwork pattern look. Once we sand and stain the floor it'll be more noticeable, or, at least I think it will. My wife inspected our work at the end of the day and didn't notice. Maybe I'm the only one it'll bother. I can't figure out if that it a good thing or not.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Smell the McCarthyism in the Air

Our death-dance with the Devil Queen continued this weekend.

Saturday my wife and I spent the day stripping wallpaper in the master bedroom. I'd originally planned to work on the kitchen floor, but I am easily side-tracked.

Stripping modern wallpaper was new experience for me. Having tried it, I can now say with authority that it sucks.

The previous owners believed in the Layer Method of remodeling. According to the Layer Method, all old layers of paint, flooring, wallpaper, etc should be left intact and the newest layer should be installed directly on top of it. I suspect they thought it quite a clever way to get an extra layer of insulation on the cheap. Ah, such sly geniuses.

The first layer of wallpaper was relatively ugly but it came of in huge sheets. Grab the curled up corner, pull, and the whole damn sheet would come right off. It would have been beautiful except for what we found beneath it.

This 1950's vintage wallpaper is a glorious pink that the photo didn't reproduce. It's far too muted and doesn't convey the latent feeling of paranoia, fear of nuclear apocalypse, and the scourge of McCarthyism. As a bonus, the wallpaper also released the funk of musty, old people.

The McCarthy Pink Wallpaper was thoughtfully covered in spackle before the outer most layer of wallpaper was laid. They may have done this to smooth the wall's surface before installing the newest layer, but I think they did it just to piss me off. I'm sure the clairvoyant bastards enjoyed watching us suffer.

They spent what they saved on insulation on glue. They had so much they put on two layers of pink wallpaper in places. It wasn't just a couple of inches of overlap to make the pattern match up. There is one section of the room that had five feet of over lap. Why? Pure spite is my guess.

Most of the dry wall was in pretty sorry shape by the time we were finished with it. We have a lot of spackling to do.

Fortunately, we have perfected a removal technique that works well (less work, less damage to the drywall). First, we take a water soaked rag and run it over the wallpaper. We let is sit for a few minutes an then mist it with water applied with a spray bottle. Usually, this is enough to loosen the glue. If not, we soak it with the spray bottle a few more times. The trick seems be keeping it constantly wet until the glue gives. A sharp scraper takes care of the rest.

Sunday, Charlie and I worked on the kitchen floor and the Mrs. worked on scraping wallpaper. More on that later though, I have a busy day of harassing our utility company.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Weighing on the Scales

Some good news for a change. The telephone company came out yesterday and set up our phone line. All we have to do is spend 15 minutes connecting the line from the house to their box and voila! Unlike Entergy, they were courteous, professional, and efficient. They dug the trench, ran the line, and installed the box themselves. And, it took about one work-week to get it all done. I never thought that I'd be so happy with my phone company. As for Entergy, we still haven't heard whether they found the house or not.

The weather has been what you usually expect for August in Arkansas. Hot, humid, and unrelenting. The official forecast for today is 99 or 100 degrees with a heat index of 108-110 degrees. A 20% chance for rain and the humidity is at 53%. There is a heat advisory in effect until 7 PM. Nice, right?

Even with summer in full swing, I can feel fall coming. Not in the weather or because school just started, but something more. Maybe it is because every morning is darker than the day before, and the sun rises later in the day. It has me feeling dread.

Come November we'll have to beg the bank for another extension on the construction loan and cough up a couple grand for the interest payment. After the pleasant cool of early fall, it will become dark and cold. If we don't get our central heat & air installed in the next two months, once the temperature dips below 50 degrees painting, caulking, and other projects are no longer an option.

This will be the third winter the Queen has sat up on Crow Mountain and the end is nowhere in sight. Depending on how productive we are in September and October, there is a chance that we may be able to move in. I will believe it when I see it though.

My wife and I have been doing a lot of talking about the house this week. From the time that we started this project in the fall of 2002, the Queen as been the central focus of our lives. It intrudes upon every moment of our lives. In the beginning it was a passionate obsession, now it is a heavy weight around our necks. In light of how far behind schedule and over budget we are, we've had to reevaluate our situation.

Based on our new estimates, we believe the Queen will be "finished" by March - May 2006. By this we mean, all rooms will be finished (refinished floors, new paint, 100% intact but rough around the edges), all major systems will be installed and working, and the Queen will be 100% sealed from the elements. We estimate that it'll take a minimum of another $20,000.

I think that it'll take another 3 to 5 years to complete the house. This includes rebuilding all the gingerbread trim, screening in the back porch, installing two or three tin ceilings (some rooms have ugly yet functional ceilings now), installing crown molding, and other final touches. It also includes landscaping around the house and building a garage or carport (required by our neighborhood's covenants). Since we've under estimated on everything, it'll probably take five years or more. This brings us to a new set of problems.

Our original plan was to work like the Devil on the Queen for three years. The idea was three years would be enough to make her livable and that we'd move in. We figured that she'd still need some work, but we wouldn't have to devote every free minute of our time to her. At that point we planned to weigh our options. Ideally we'd either have kept the Queen and refinanced her to buy another old house to fix up or we'd sell her out right and move on. In either case, the idea was we'd devote more time to our careers (for me this includes finishing grad school) after that.

Since we acquired the Queen, three major things have happened. The local economy has taken a downturn, we had an child (accidentally), and my wife lost her job.

The economy is the most immediate problem because it has a very direct bearing on our property value. We are afraid that if we continue pouring money into the Queen that we will owe more in the short term than she's worth. For all practical purposes at that point, we are stuck where we are and with the Queen for the foreseeable future. And, while by Arkansas standards I have a pretty decent job, there isn't much else for someone with my experience and education to do here. My upward mobility in this location and job market is very limited. To have any hopes of advancing, I'll probably have to either leave the state or start my own business. Unless I acquire more money, there isn't a way to manage either and keep the Queen. We can't afford for my wife to get a new job (if she could even find one) because of the cost of day care. We are further ahead with her not working at this point.

In five years, I will be 34 and my wife will be a couple years behind me. My wife is starting to worry about her age. Not in a vain, narcissistic way. She is worried about her mortality. This may seem odd. How may women in their mid twenties worry about their inevitable demise? In my wife's case, this is probably a real concern. In her family (maternal and paternal), 90% of the women die from cancer before their they make it out of their 40's. Most don't even make it to 40. From her perspective, she only has about 15 years to get what she wants out of life. Living in Atkins, Arkansas, for the rest of her days(even in a lovely 1890 Victorian) falls far short of her expectations.

Arkansas, in short, can not provide us (or my son) with any future. We are not willing to trade the next five, ten, or twenty years of our lives for a house no matter how beautiful it is. As such, selling the Queen is going to be one of our top priorities. To be honest, we don't really want to sell her. In a perfect world, we'd have the money to finish her and do what we wanted.

This decision doesn't change much for the next six months to a year. We will work on the Queen, and, if things work out, we will probably move in at some point. I don't think that anyone will buy her at this point. The Queen will have to be closer to finished to lure in her next victim. I have noticed most people can't see a finished product when they look at her.

It's a sad decision, not easily made. But, in the end, some things are worth more than others.

In the mean time, work shall continue. Even if we can't keep the old hussy, she still needs to be taken care of.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Part of the New Cruelty

I'm not sure about all of the particulars, but my wife got a message from Entergy today. Allegedly, the reason they haven't hooked up our power is that they CAN'T FIND THE HOUSE.

Personally, I'm skeptical. We've had a temporary pole up at the Queen for over a year (more I think), and, without fail, someone comes out every month to read our meter and then sends me a bill. I know that Arkansas isn't the top supplier of the nation's best and brightest, but give me a break. Do these people find their way home after work?

My wife was going to call them back with detailed directions, but they didn't leave their phone number. Thanks for going that extra mile guys, we appreciate it.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Slouching Onward

The Devil Queen has been moving forward in slow motion. Last weekend our biggest problem was the heat. It was 100 degrees out and that was without the heat index. Pretty abysmal. We started the kitchen floor, but didn't get too far. For once, I really don't care. If we'd worked any harder, we'd be in the ER with heat stroke. The best part of working on the Queen last weekend was taking a break and listening to Charlie tell stories about his time in the Army in the 1950's - 1960's.

Starting the kitchen floor was difficult because the rear wall of the kitchen is bowed. The center of the wall is 3/4 of an inch further back than its two corners. We entertained ourselves by scribing and cutting a 13 ft long floor board to match the wall. Once we got this finished, things moved faster. The floor is looking good, and, to the naked eye, it appears to be running in even rows. When measured, however, one end appears to be nearly an inch ahead of the other. I haven't done all of the measurements to check this, but I suspect that the kitchen's four corners don't square up. Fortunately, I don't think that this will effect the final product too much.

Our contractor came out and fixed our leaky porch last week. If I understand this correctly (All my information is second hand), when his crew built the porch roof they tore some of the tarpaper and shingles. This left a gap a couple inches wide in the roof. He patched it and it should be 100% cured. We'll have to wait till the next big rain to see.

Entergy still has not hooked our power up. Three weeks ago they told us they'd be out in seven to ten days. My wife called them yesterday and asked when they'd be out. In short, their answer was we'll get there whenever we get there. I take this to mean that they know they're the only electric company in our area so providing prompt service isn't really an issue for them. I'd can't say that I'm surprised. If nothing else, they have always been consistent.

Friday, August 19, 2005

American Gothic

The Devil Queen as effected us in ways we never could have anticipated, for instance the way we watch TV and movies. My wife and I are no longer riveted by the plot, characters, and dialogue alone. We are now compulsively scanning the background for architectural features.

Suspenseful thrillers are punctuated with "Oh, look at that tub!" or "Look at that porch! The gingerbread is gorgeous!" or "how would that color look in our house?"

There is no shortage of architectural gems showcased on film, but here are some of our most recent architectural favorites:

American Gothic (the short lived TV series) - Wilmington, South Carolina.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (the book is tons better) - Savannah, Georgia, is an awesome architectural city. Something like 80 movies have been filmed in and around the city.

What Lies Beneath - my wife particularly liked the clawfoot tub.

Of course, since I'm trying to think of some good architecture movies, I start drawing blanks.

So, what are your favorites?

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Belly of the Beast, Wallowing in the Black Pit of Despair

Gloomy week so far. Everyone else seems to be enjoying all the rain we've gotten. Something to turn the lawns green and to bring the temperatures down a bit. Personally, I wish it would quit, it makes my commute to and from work unbearable. The hell with the grass.

Predictably, the kitchen floor is still waiting to be installed. We didn't have a baby sitter so we spent Saturday at home. It was a pretty good day. I got to sit around in my pajamas for half the day, played with my son, and drank lots of rich coffee. On the downside, it was a snapshot of everything that I've been missing since I spend nearly all my free time up at the Queen.

Sunday we turned our attention to "Mr. Blue," the little 1970's ranch house we've endured while slaving away on the Queen. In case you're wondering, Mr. Blue is named for his color. We've put off a lot of maintenance and upgrades over the last three years. I keep hoping we'd get the Queen livable and move out of Mr. Blue. Hasn't happened. Finally, my wife couldn't take it any longer. Mr. Blue's bathroom had to go.

We thought that it would be a fairly simple job. Pull out old sink, temporarily remove toilet, lay new underlayment over old flooring, glue down new vinyl, re-install toilet, install new sink, and voila! We figured it'd take about 6 or 7 hours. Yeah, right.

The good news was we did finish it. It only took twelve hours and one smashed knee. Not too bad I guess. We've certainly had worse. The bathroom looks a lot better too. It wasn't a fun project. My wife is seriously considering giving up home ownership for rental. After that night, I was too.

As for the Queen, Entergy still hasn't hooked up our electricity (two weeks and counting), we still haven't heard back from the contractor about the leaking porch roof, and we're broke. I just had to write my cousin in San Francisco to tell him we won't be coming to his wedding because we have no money.

We are also beginning to suffer from a serious case of home improvement burnout. Unfortunately, the bank doesn't give a damn about that, so no meaningful respite for us.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Back Into the Trenches

To keep my disappointment to minimum, I'm keeping my expectations low. My single goal for the weekend is finishing the kitchen floor. Period. I'm pretty sure that we get that done (not that I haven't said that before).

If we can manage it, we may turn our attention to some deferred maintenance at the house we are currently living in. Our tiny bathroom is in serious need of an upgrade. If we can manage it, we're going to lay a new vinyl floor. Not very exciting, but we can't put it off any longer. With the exception of upgrading our wood stove last fall, we haven't done any maintenance to our house since the Devil Queen came into our lives. It's starting to show.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Tawdry Eye-Candy

The homes below are all in Little Rock off of West 2nd Street (near Chester Street). I believe that they have all been converted for "quiet commercial" use.

Can't Get No Satisfaction

I can't believe it took me all week to get this post written. Sigh. It has just been a stupid, busy week.

We spent last Saturday and Sunday up at the Queen.

Saturday wasn't as productive of a work day as I would have liked. In theory I was supposed to 1) prep the kitchen for laying the new floor Sunday, 2) re-hang a window weight for one of the kitchen windows, 3) plug a hole in the kitchen wall (the old dryer vent), and 4) help with the last bit of touch-up painting in the kitchen.

I've come to hate working on our windows. I started with the kitchen window so I could get it out of the way and enjoy the rest of the day. As I fished the weight out of the wall, I noticed that there wasn't anything under the window sill. The window is sandwiched between two double-studs with nothing directly beneath it. Over the years, the window sill had slowly pulled down and away from the rest of the window. I pounded the sill back up and blocked it in place with some 2x4 cripple studs.

I returned my attention to the window weight. I decided that it would be easier to work on the top, outer pane from the exterior of the house. After spending weeks painting and caulking the kitchen, I had no desire to risk tearing our new paint finish up trying to get into the weight pocket behind the window trim. I quickly set up the scaffolding under the window just in time for a summer thunderstorm to darken the sky. I decided that standing on a metal scaffold was a poor idea since there was a lot of lightning. So, I headed inside.

Plugging the dryer vent hole was relatively easy yet time consuming. I then helped my wife with the last of the touch up painting.

The hardest part of painting the kitchen has been making a relatively straight line in the two corners where the sand and purple walls meet. The corners were never perfect from the day they were made. Before the 1970's wood paneling was installed, the ugly, uneven corner-seam was covered with a piece of trim (cove? quarter round?). Since we didn't much care for this look, we had to hide the seam in a different way. As such, we've used copious amounts of caulk to arrive at an approximation of an even corner. The best brush for painting these corners have been a $4.00 set of four, student-grade, artist brushes. They hold oil and water base paints equally well, they clean up wonderfully, and they don't fall apart. They were left over from the mural (the only brushes that didn't disintegrate) and they worked great. With these little brushes and some patience, the kitchen looks fairly good.

By that point, the rain was really coming down. I went out on the front porch to check out how the Big Dig was handling all the water. As I was standing there, I noticed water dripping on my shoulder. I looked up to find water leaking from the underside of the porch roof. I looked up to where the porch roof and house meet and found the wet spot shown in the photo below.

I went out into the pouring rain to see if there was an obvious trouble spot on the roof. The shingles were all intact, but the leak was directly below the spot where the front gable, the hip roof and the porch roof all meet. Somehow, water was getting under the shingles, running down until it hit the bead-board, running down the bead-board, and dribbling out on the porch.

My wife and I are pissed. For as much as we spent on the damn porches and for as long as it took the guys we hired to build it, you'd think that it would be structurally sound for more than one season. Hell, it probably never was sound, we just were never out on the front porch for a torrential rain. Not too long after that we called it a day.

The goal for Sunday was laying the new kitchen floor. It didn't happen. After dragging herself around for a couple of hours, my wife went home because she felt sick. Charlie and I leveled and patched a section of the old floor that had rotted away long before we got the Queen. We then layed tarpaper down over the old floor.

While we were pretty sure there was enough wood flooring left to do the kitchen, we'd never actually counted it all up. Charlie figured that we needed 54 rows of flooring, each measuring 13'6" long. We went out to the wood pile and began pulling nails and counting floor boards (my wife had started this job before falling ill). The tarp we had over the flooring was in tatters. The elements had not been kind to it. Saturday's storm had soaked some of the boards, so, as we de-nailed them, we laid them out to dry.

It looked like we had just barely enough wood for the kitchen, but it was very close. Maybe too close. Then we found more wood flooring in our catch-all wood pile. I took it as another sure sign that we have way too much in our yard. How else do you loose a stack of 10' to 16' floorboards?

We were certainly in the clear now. My father-in-law finished de-nailing the wood, Charlie hauled it to the back porch, and I stacked it neatly, with lots of air-gaps, next to the saw. It was 6PM by the time we finished.

So, once again, our kitchen floor has been deferred for another weekend. Baring an act of God, we are really ready for this weekend. I hope.

As for the leaking porch, my wife finally got a hold of the contractor that built it. He said that he'd come out to take a look at it. That was four days ago, and I have no idea if he made it.

Also, we are waiting for another theoretical happening this week. Entergy should be out this week to connect our main power line. If so, it is only a matter of time before the Queen is full of working ceiling fans.

All I've Got to Show for a Day's Work

A photo of our kitchen with the tarpaper.

Our glorious stack of flooring.

Diagram of the Leaking Porch

Monday, August 08, 2005

The Big Dig

Last week our bulldozer guy started excavating out in front of the Queen. We’re hoping to permanently drain the seasonal lake that forms under the front porch after a good rain.

So far, so good. I wish I had photos to show, but I forgot to take any the last time I was there. The main excavation seems to be complete. All that remains is digging the trenches for the French drains. That ought to get done this week. Then I get to lay the drains. Fortunately for us, my wife's parents donated some drain pipes they had left over from one of their home improvement projects. We still might need another 20-30 feet, but we won't know for sure until the digging is finished.

After the French drains, we need to landscape the Big Dig. The landscaping phase falls into two stages. One stage is building a dry-stacked, rock retaining wall to control erosion and to improve drainage. It will also be a lot nicer to look at than a muddy cut in the ground. The second stage is laying a brick patio that gently slopes away from the Queen towards a drainage ditch or French drain (we're still debating which). The bricks are all scavenged from the Queen's original foundation and chimney. We also have lots of leftover sand and gravel on-site from the foundations and utility lines, so we should have everything we need for this project.

If I can over come my guppy like memory, I'll take some pictures the next time I'm at the Queen. I can't really find the words to adequately explain this project. In the mean time, here is a crude sketch (not to scale) of what we're going for.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

A Freaking Miracle

This old house is on the 1000 block of 3rd Street, a couple of lots down from Cross Street in Little Rock. Defying all odds, someone is fixing this house up instead of demolishing it for a parking lot. This house has been in need of some attention for years. I drove by it a couple of weeks ago, and I was shocked to see all the scaffolding around it. I'm not sure how old this house is, my guess is that it was built between 1870-1910 (probably closer to the 1870 end of the spectrum). Many thanks to whoever is funding this project.

Wisdom of the Day

The other weekend my wife and I were running some errands in Russellville. This included a stop at The Frame Shop so I could talk with Suzanne, the owner, about some upcoming art shows.

The Frame Shop is in an old building in the historic part of downtown Russellville. I'm not sure how old it is, but it has to be close to 100 years now. It is separated from the railroad tracks by a thin splinter of land and a two lane road. You can look out the front windows and watch the trains roll by.

Suzanne did a real nice job remodeling the building's interior. You can see all of the exposed ceiling beams, the original brick walls, and a nice pine floor. My wife asked Suzanne if the floors were original to the building.

"Oh, no. Those are new. I wish that I'd never laid it," Suzanne replied.
"It's beautiful. Why don't you like it?"

"The floor of this building is below grade, and it has flooded before. It makes a mess of the floor. I wanted to keep the floors concrete, but I listened a husband and put it down anyway."

"Well, it looks good anyhow."

Suzanne glanced down at the floor and shrugged, "Live and learn, stay stupid and die ignorant."

Friday, August 05, 2005

Passive Cooling

The ugly part of Arkansas' summer is setting in, and it has me thinking about how anyone could live here before the advent of air conditioning. As I stand dripping sweat, I try to image old Van Boswell living here 100 years ago. How could they stand it? Particularly when the decorum of the day dictated that nearly every inch of skin be covered. I read somewhere that during Victorian times it was scandalous for a man to role his sleeves up in public. For any woman to see his forearms beside his wife was shockingly immoral.

One consideration is since there was no air conditioning they were probably better acclimated to the heat than we are now. Some of their coping was lifestyle. Things move slowly in the South for a reason. Walking slow and pacing yourself are a must in the summer if you are outdoors.

They were also clever about their architecture. Virtually every major architectural feature was designed to maximize the Queen's ability to keep her inhabitants cool.

Viewed from the exterior the Devil Queen is a text book example of a Queen Anne Victorian. She has the high hipped-roof, cross gables, the elaborate gingerbread trim, an asymmetrical layout, and a forward facing gable with a bay window. However, if you look at her floor plan, she more closely resembles a traditional southern home. I've read through some books of Victorian floor plans (Dover Books publishes a lot of these) looking for houses built like the Queen. I've found a few that looked similar from the outside, but their interior floor plans are nothing like it. From my point of view, they have muddled floor plans. Good ventilation didn't seem to be a major consideration. Then again, these homes may have been designed with different regions of the country in mind. I've noticed that houses get more box like the further north one goes. I read somewhere that their main concern was holding in heat during the harsh winters. I assume that their floor plans reflect this.

The floor plan below represents what I believe the Queen would have looked like in 1890. I believe there may have been more windows on the rear face of the house, but no trace of them has survived. These areas were completely reworked in the 1920's to add two bathrooms and two new rooms.

According to Jean Sizemore's Ozark Vernacular Houses, the Devil Queen's floor plan would be considered a double-pile (meaning the house is two rooms deep) with an enclosed "dog-trot" (the central hall running front to back). Below are two photos of traditional dog trot homes in Scotia and Starkville, Mississippi.

This floor plan has several advantages.

First, the porches help shade the houses interior and allow the windows to remain open during summer thunderstorms.

Second, the house is designed to work as a wind catcher. In the South, as I mentioned in a previous post, houses are typically aligned along a north-south axis with the rear of the house facing north and the front facing south. This helps the house catch the prevailing winds. The winds are channeled through the house's breezeway (in the case of dog trots) or through the central hall (in the Devil Queen or plantations). When the winds are channeled through this confined space, they accelerate. Some architecture majors at Mississippi State University conducted a study of this phenomena and determined winds passing through a dog trot's breezeway moved three times faster than the exterior winds. As the winds pass through the breezeway, they pull air from the rooms on either side of it. This provides a cooling breeze in the rooms interior.

I haven't taken the time to measure air speeds at the Queen, but, if you stand in her central hall, a strong, cool breeze pass through it even when there is very little wind outside.

Third, the Queen originally had a wood shingle roof. I read somewhere that when dry the wood shingles shrink (a little) allowing the hot air trapped in the attic to escape around them. When it rains the shingles absorb some of the moisture and expand to create a water-tight fit.

Fourth, the Queen has transoms over every door (in the original floor plan above, later additions typically did not have transoms), 12 foot ceilings throughout, and double hung windows. All of these features improve air flow. As far as I can tell, getting good air flow is somewhat like sailing. You have to set your windows in a particular way to maximize their air flow like a sailor trims his sails to obtain maximum speed and performance. On the windward side of the house, the lower half of the double hung windows ought to be opened. All the transoms ought to be open as well. Then you open the top half of the double hung windows on the downwind side of the house. This allows the breeze to circulate through the house, the hottest air close to the ceiling being expelled through the top-open double hung windows.

Fifth, the Queen was built on a crawl space. A crawl space, as I understand it, was considered desirable because it allowed breezes to pass under the house. This was great for cooling in the summer but made the winters quite uncomfortable. My wife's great-aunt hates wood floors (even modern ones with insulation, sub-flooring, et cetera) to this day because of a childhood worth of winters in an old farm house. She associates wood floors with freezing. She says that when the wind blew the rugs and carpets would billow up from the floor. When we lived in Victorian house (It was sub-divided into apartments; we couldn't afford to buy a house at the time) in Savannah, Georgia, we had a similar experience. Instead of hating wood floors, we became ardent fans of good insulation.

Sixth, though not technically an architectural feature, the Queen had several shade trees at her southwest corner and west facing side. Unfortunately, we didn't have the money to move the trees when we moved the Queen. So, we'll have to start from scratch and plant new ones. Of course I'll probably be long dead by the time they are big enough to provide any shade, but someone will get to enjoy them. If we ever finish the Queen, we're planning to reforest a good bit of our three acres. There are some oaks and hickory trees left on the lot. We're planning to add maples, dogwoods, cottonwoods, magnolias, fruit trees (apple, peach, fig), and more oaks (red, white, pin oaks).

From what I've seen online, there is a growing interest in passive cooling. Universities and colleges seem to be doing the most research on it. The College of Environmental Design at Berkeley has some interesting studies including the Waverly House, a Southern plantation, and its passive cooling design. Some students at Mississippi State University (mentioned above) have done some good research on the topic as well. I'm curious to see how (if?) these traditional design features get incorporated into new home designs.

While the Queen has changed over the years (the wood shingles are long gone), she still retains a majority of her passive cooling features. I'm interested to see how much of difference they make once we become full time inhabitants.

Thursday, August 04, 2005


I was reading Greg's August 3rd post (The Petch House) and he got me wondering about something. He mentioned that people commonly mistake his redwood, tongue-in-groove floor for the house's sub-flooring. It occurs to me that with the exception of the additions to the Devil Queen, our house has no sub-flooring. Just three inch wide tongue-in-groove pine floors laid directly on the floor joists. The Davis House (the house we tore down for salvage materials) didn't have a sub-floor either. I can't remember seeing an old home in Arkansas that had a sub-floor original to it.

I can't decide if folks here were too poor to have two layers of flooring (doubtful, the Boswells had money when they built the Queen), a sub-floor was deemed undesirable for some reason, or if they were following some sort of local building tradition lost to us in the shuffle of time.
How common are sub-floors in Victorian or other old homes? Thoughts?

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Another Woman

What can I say? I have a thing for older women. This lady is down on the 900 block of West 4th Street in Little Rock. I believe one of our U.S. Senators uses it as their home office.

Sorry about the fuzzy photo quality. I could blame the camera, but my wife takes good pictures with it. I'm just a crappy photographer.

Conspiracy Theory

In yesterday's post, I failed to mention that we now have scaffolding.

We’ve been looking for some for over a year. It has been very hard to find. If anyone does sell it, it costs $150 and up for one section of scaffold. We need three sections for our exterior projects, and we can't afford to spend that kind of money.

We've looked into renting it too. The waiting list is long, very long. A three month wait is typical. We signed onto one waiting list over a year ago, and they have never called.

Fortunately, our Siloam Springs Contingent loaned us three sections of matching scaffolding this weekend. To say that we're thrilled or ecstatic would be an understatement. It was a Godsend.
Later that weekend, I was telling a guy about how hard it had been to find scaffolding and how wonderful it was to have some.

He nodded knowingly and said, "Some of the guys at work have had that problem too. They can't hardly find it anywhere. They say that no one carries it because they want you to rent their motorized scaffolding, real high dollar stuff."

"A scaffolding conspiracy?"

He pursed his lips, eyes squinted in the sun, and said, "Yep."

Leave it to The Man to keep a good Do-It-Yourselfer down. I wonder if we could make some money by starting up a black-market scaffolding ring?

Monday, August 01, 2005

Home Improvement Juggernaut

We spent four manic days and nights working on the Queen. We didn't get everything on our list finished, but I think we got close enough to feel good about it. And, I must say staying on schedule was made entirely possible by the countless hours of volunteer help we had this weekend. A heart felt thank you is the least we can offer.

Our permanent electric pole is finished (again), this time in accordance with Entergy's specs thanks to my father-in-law's perseverance. Entergy should be out in two to three weeks to hook it up.

The kitchen is ninety-percent painted thanks to two friends coming down from Siloam Springs to help. We still need to cut-in the corners. We tried taping them off, but it didn't work. The paint seeped under it and the corners are not entirely straight (the joys of beadboard). It looks pretty ratty, so we'll be practicing the Zen of straight-line painting. There is a section of kitchen wall that needs the full treatment: priming, caulking, and painting. It wasn't up when all the painting started so it missed out on the fun (photo below).

Even with all the painting remediation, I think we are on tract to have the kitchen floor in by the end of next weekend. The week after that we'll be ready to sand the floors in half the house. After that? Who knows, there is no shortage of things to do. There is some siding that needs to be replaced, the cabinets need to be installed, walls need to go up, et cetera.

The Siloam Springs contingent and my wife managed to restore the large kitchen window to working order. In the last 30 years, someone "fixed" the window. They nailed in everything so tight that the there wasn't enough play for the windows to move up or down. With some judicious banging, scraping, and prying the window was restored.

The ceiling in the main hall received five hours of attention, but not much progress was made. I hoped to finish reinstalling the whole hall ceiling, but the good-housework-mojo was in short supply.

When we started working on the Queen, I never imagined that one of my favorite tools would be a two-ton truck jack.

If everything moves according to plan, our bulldozer man should be excavating a drain for the seasonal lake under our front porch Tuesday. I'm curious, excited, and anxious about the whole thing. I'm hoping that it works. I'll be thrilled if it does, but I'm worried about how we're going to pay for it. He charges $55.00 an hour and said that it would be a "full day's work." I'm not sure what that translates into in real hours. I have a feeling that a lot of stuff will be finding its way onto eBay this week.

The picture above is a bit out of order. It's the last section of kitchen wall being installed. I didn't have enough of the original wood left to finish this wall. I had to salvage the same pattern of wood from other parts of the house. Most of it came from the original porches. The rest came from strange places. Every time they "upgraded" the Queen, they cannibalized boards from all over the house and beyond. We've found them in the attic, in dropped ceilings, and closets. No matter where these pieces of beadboard came from, they all looked exactly the same until you try nailing them up. They have a 1/16 to 1/8 inch variation of width. If you try to switch boards mid run, you start running into problems. The obvious solution is to only use one type of board for each run. This works fine until you run out of wood. Then you have to make do with what you've got. In caulk we trust.

I devoted nine hours to the mural on Monday. I would like to say that it is done, and I could probably get away with calling it finished but something isn't quite right. No one else would probably notice or care, but I would. Since it's in the middle of town, it'd be hard to avoid.
I think that an hour or two of touch up work would fix the problem. I hope.

A Painted Kitchen

Me in all my pudgy, white glory. Caulked ceiling boards to the right, un-caulked ceiling boards to the left. The kitchen devoured over twenty tubes of caulk.

Painting the ceiling.

The photos below are the Siloam Springs Contingent at work:

Sand, purple, and white.

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