Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shocking Revelations


Laura’s house couldn’t have been less ready to accept the challenges of supporting 21st century electrical demands. This is an understatement considering this house should have suffered serious damage due to overloaded circuits and a badly placed service box long ago.

Bad Stuff…

One service box was mounted out on the exterior porch wall adjacent to the kitchen.

The fuse panel in the basement gave service of a mere 60 amps – not nearly enough to provide power to three working bathrooms, a full service kitchen, heat and light a 2500+ square foot interior and support computer hardware.

We still had all the knob and tube wiring from the basement to the attic and not enough ground fault interrupters (GFI) to cut power in the case of overloaded circuits. If ever there would be an electrical failure that caused a fire and no GFI was in the circuit, an insurance company would not cover the loss.

So, we decided on these major alterations...

Remove and replace all non-insulated knob & tube wiring in the basement up to the attic.

Add GFI’s in the basement and bathrooms.

Upgrade the fuse panel to 400 amp service.

Move the service panel from the porch to the basement.

In the freezing dead of winter, we approached our good friends, the Talleys and Rick Rose of Rockcliffe Mansion. Both recommended we use John of JM & S Electric. For over 30 years, John had been a popular contractor of choice among locals, businesses and out-of-towners in Hannibal and its surrounding area (all the way down to Saint Louis).

Here were some of the electrical changes John and his crew made. Some of it might look like overkill, but it really wasn't, considering what we had in mind for the house.

The new circuit breaker box in the basement.

Scads of electrical cables in the basement...

John and his crew had to drill through the basement rock wall and other walls, and remove asbestos-cement tiles to install these conduits on the exterior of the house...

Here's a close-up of the conduits. As you can see, we have another restoration project down the road with the original clapboards.

The rewiring job reached all the way up to the attic.

The uppermost room in the attic has a nice view of the
Mississippi River.

Our next project will be the roof. Meanwhile, can you guess what this is?

Saturday, September 20, 2008

A Dead Dinosaur in The Yard

Here's the sugar-coated expectation: We've tasked ourselves with resurrecting a wonderfully historic abode that embodies our fantasies of the Gilded Age.

Here's the reality: We were living with a dead and decaying dinosaur in our yard right next to our Chateau, and it was becoming more decrepit with time.

We were self-congratulatory in buying the house as we prevented the possibility of an undesirable making camp there. The carcass would have been finished off in a matter of a few years. Now a mammoth project awaits.

We hired an inspector to give us a detailed prognosis. Here were some of his findings. Starting with the obvious, here's the roof…

Not only was this roof long neglected, whoever installed it was an amateur at best, a clueless do-it-yourselfer at worst...

Missing flashing!

Granted this was a difficult area to access, the installation of these shingles nevertheless was ghastly.

And of course, the gutters sagged painfully...

Note all the gravel that had accumulated in the already "expired" gutter. The masons at the right were tuckpointing our Chateau at the time of this photo.

One of the most alarming things our inspector found was the state of the electrical wiring. “I wouldn’t spend a night in this house!”, he proclaimed.

Indeed, the electrical wiring was a relic from the Victorian era and it wasn’t about to handle today’s modern electrical demands. Heating, lighting, appliances and computer hardware all going at once would overload the circuits and very possibly cause a fire. Here were the electrical findings...

Overloaded and undersized circuits.

Deteriorated service entrance at the meter.

Unsafe service entrance to the garage in back.

Additional splices in knob and tube wiring.

Electrical cord extension used as permanent wiring.
No comment on the idiot who did this.

Scorched extension cord also used as permanent wiring.
Another idiot undoing of the house.

Other evidence of burns which miraculously did not do the house in...

Burn marks at the furnace.

A charred beam in the attic. Hmmm, it would be interesting to browse the archives of the Courier-Post to find any newsworthy reportings on this.

A leaking roof exacerbates the consequences of electrical load problems...

Water puddle in the attic.

Cracks in the 2nd floor ceiling plaster - very likely the result of water leakage.

Moisture damage at one of the main floor windows.

Leakage below the tub. You are looking at a wooden "doghouse" built to contain the plumbing adjacent to the tub. You can see the edge of this tub in the photo's left - a nightmarish pepto-bismal pink tub born of a bad 1950's designer's dream.

There were water leaks all the way down to the basement.

Piping along one of the walls of the basement.

Dried water stains on floor framing,
in the basement ceiling.

Termite trails in the basement. Evidently, the moist basement created a hospitable environment for the buggers. With a ready meal of barnwood that covered the walls,
this was termite heaven.

Open and filled well in the basement floor.

So, first thing’s first – prevent the house from self-destructing. We had the roof covered in plastic to prevent further leaks...

To get to the roof, a makeshift bridge was created from a beam which spanned the 2nd floor windows of the Chateau
and the house.

The entire roof gets the treatment.

As does the garage roof.

We then employed the services of one of Hannibal’s most respected and long-standing electricians – JM&S Electric. This will be the subject of our next post.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Lady of the House - Part 3

So, what was Laura Hawkins Frazer like?

Why, Laura was a product of her times…

She was the daughter of Judge Hawkins, a well-respected county judge in Hannibal. Judges have almost always belonged to the upper social stratum of society and hence were required to maintain an appearance of utmost respectability.

Social-economic profiles lacking, this judge most likely associated with the professional elites of the church, civil servants, academy, and commerce. Though this judge was no lumber baron or other member of Hannibal’s economic elite during the mid to late 1800’s, the Hawkins family was respectably upper-middle class.

As a female offspring of this household, Laura Hawkins would have been brought up and groomed to become the wife of a successful man similar to her class or better. This man would have been a doctor or lawyer or someone of considerable wealth.

Could Samuel Clemens, the teen who abandoned school to become a printer have even hoped to become a serious suitor of Laura's?

Laura Hawkins as a girl aka Becky Thatcher.
Photo from Mark Twain Museum Website.

Despite the advantages of an upper or upper-middle class upbringing in pre-Victorian America, a girl definitely had her place - to grow up as a woman living and staying at her home in a subordinate role to her husband. And, history does suggest that Laura Hawkins was your typical upper-middle class Victorian wife and mother. This meant:

She was pious.
During Laura’s lifetime, women were expected to be morally competent and the moral center of the home. It was even a part of a woman’s education to aspire her to “moral greatness”. In marriage and the home, women were charged with providing moral uplift, with the father being the family's moral and religious ruler.

In the latter part of her life after her husband’s death in 1875, Laura moved from Renssalaer to Hannibal and accepted the position of matron of the Home of the Friendless (for orphans). This fit neatly within acceptable societal expectations for moral righteousness and charity.

She was home-centered.
Home and marriage was the career-choice imposed on women in Laura’s day. Even if the woman had acquired advanced education as Laura did, women often saw this effort wasted away. Upper-classed women in particular had no professions available to them, and professions such as teaching and nursing were largely the lot of poor or middle-class women who distinguished themselves academically and henced faced the possibility of life as spinsters.

She endured hardships.
Life was unpleasant (by our standards) in Victorian America even for the well-to-do. For instance, people tolerated incredible filth with coal dust coating every interior surface. Clothing was heavy and dirty, and baths were infrequent. Food was extremely bland even for the elite. And, women rarely questioned their inferior status. It was generally accepted that women were mentally and physically weak, and women themselves seemed to accept this with little questioning.

Laura Hawkins at a 1922 movie premiere
featuring one of Mark Twain's books.

Note the heavy clothing diminutive Laura wore
after the Victorian era unofficially ended.

This appears to be the Star Theater in front of which Laura is standing.
The Star was very nicely restored a few years ago, bought only one day before it was to be taken down. It currently hosts special events and is a "dinner & movie" venue with a full menu and classic films. The theater is located at 213 South Main in Hannibal, almost directly across the street from the restored Mark Twain Hotel.

She was appropriately demure.
Victorian women were considered to be the fair or gentle sex, particularly upper and upper-middle class women. They were expected to walk quietly through the streets, seeing and hearing nothing that they ought not to. Upon meeting acquaintances, a woman would give a courteous nod and with friends, she gave words of greeting. She was expected to be unobtrusive and never to talk loudly or laugh boisterously. She wasn’t supposed to do anything to attract the attention of the passers-by. She went along in her own quiet, lady-like way and was modest, discreet, kind and obliging.

So, what was Laura's home like?

Laura had two sons. One of her sons, Louis. E. Frazer was to become a lawyer and commissioner and later, judge. It was in his house she would live during the latter part of her life. Hence, the social-economic life of a judge and the social mores of Victorian Hannibal dictated the family’s living structure.

Examples... it was common during this era for more than two generations to occupy one house. Also, Victorians strictly assigned each room in a house a specific purpose with different family members occupying their own areas of the house. Parents and children and servants each occupied separate quarters, hence the requirement for tall houses during this era. Furnishings were often created by hand during Laura's day and were handed down generation to generation. Almost nothing was thrown away hence furnishings generally reflected earlier time periods.

We purchased this youth bed (hand-made circa 1835) from the Becky Thatcher (childhood) house located in Hannibal's historic district. It would have been similar to one Laura Hawkins could have slept in as a child and will be on display in the
Laura Hawkins house.

In upcoming posts, we’ll carefully examine the details of Laura’s domestic life and how the house’s interiors and furnishings will reflect this “Cult of Domesticity” in Victorian America.

In the coming weeks and into winter,
there will be considerable activity at Laura's house.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Lady of the House - Part 2

In Part 2, I’ll touch on the death of Laura Hawkins in 1928.

Below, Laura Hawkins' death certificate lists cause of death as “Senility”. Senility? I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. While growing up, it was not uncommon to be told someone died of “old age”. I suppose we can view Victorian age's “senility” as the grammatical equivalent of “old age” used in the latter part of the 20th century.

In researching certificates of 19th century deaths, a definite pattern follows…

Infants died of ''convulsions,'' ''fits'' or ''failure to thrive.'' Seniors dropped dead of ''dropsy'' or ''senility'' or simple ''old age.'' People got tired of ploughing fields, or working in sooty factories, or spending their rare free moments in a drafty church with a bad toothache, and died of '' exhaustion.'' Any number of pulmonary disorders were listed as ''tuberculosis'' or ''consumption'' or the dangerously over-consonanted ''phthisis'' (TIE-sis). (Source: New York Times, Article, March 25, 2004)

Based on some of my sources, the funeral of Laura Hawkins began at the house. Many visitors came to pay their last respects before the funeral ended at her current grave in the Rensselaer, next to her husband who preceded her in death over 50 years ago. Incidentally, Laura was often seen wearing the customary black gown expected of widows in her day.

Laura & James Hawkins Tombstone in Big Creek Cemetery in
Rensselaer, Missouri (7 miles north of Hannibal).

Source: Find A Grave Website:

Here is a shot of the cemetery itself...

Source: Find A Grave Website

There is a mystery connected with Laura's casket being on view at home. How did they get it through the front door and into the house? The width of the existing door (approximately 36 inches) could not have accommodated a casket, assuming it had all of its decorative handles and moldings. The front door frame appears to be original, and the foyer area that awaits a visitor is small.

Welcome to 210 North 5th Street.
You are looking from inside the house. The door is standard width.
I'm glad the etched glass house number sign is intact.

I'm sure these entry tiles were not original to the house.

Other entrances into the house – back porch, basement door – are of similar size.

Here's the back of the house.
Note the standard width porch and basement doors.
Can you imagine anything larger than a bathtub being brought in?

Up the porch and to your left is the door to the kitchen
(interior view shown).
I can't imagine maneuvering a casket up the stairs,
through the porch door and then through this door.

I suppose discovering mysteries such as how a casket could be brought into a house with standard sized doors will solve itself during our restoration journey.

In Part 3, I’ll share my interpretations of what Laura Hawkins was like and how we’d like to do the house.