Saturday, December 26, 2009

A Thirst for Connectiveness - Part I

NOTE: Laura Hawkins died 81 years ago on this day (December 26, 1928) at 3:15 am in her home. Cause of her death was listed as "senility". For more on her death, click the link to the blog post, "Lady of the House - Part 2":

Happy Holidays Everybody!

During this spirit-of-giving time of year, many of us review our connectiveness to those we touch in our homes and in our communities. In our camp, we reminisce about all who've made our work on the Laura Hawkins house possible - the Friends of Historic Hannibal (FOHH), Bob Yapp, Ron our fix-it guy, and our neighbors.

As those who follow this blog know, members of Friends of Historic Hannibal (FOHH) ( and their friends came out in 2008 to show the world the original face of "Laura" in an event called "The Unveiling". It was a face that, until 1947, brightened the neighborhood when the house was first built over 100 years ago. On a tip from Bob Yapp, a crew from NPR came to Hannibal as part of their broadcast on Missouri, a bellwether state in the 2008 presidential election. The Laura Hawkins house was a lead-in to their story. A very well done piece, here it is ...

To listen to the piece, click on "Listen to the Story" (All Things Considered) at the top of the webscreen and then click the "download" icon to the left . You will first listen to Richard Garey, Hannibal's Mark Twain impersonator, followed by a short conversation between our guy Ron (with his full Hannibal accent) and myself, and then you will listen to Frank Salter give his voting analysis for the 2008 Presidential candidates.

Frank Salter at the Unveiling of the Laura Hawkins House - October 2007.

For those who don't know Frank Salter (and just about everyone in Hannibal does), Frank is one of Hannibal's key folks in the town's restoration missions. As public relations focal for FOHH and an educator, he's also one of our favorite persons to ask for advice. Frank conducts classes for the Hannibal campus of Moberly Area Community College (MACC) ( and once conducted an Abatron 101 class, just for us. Abatron BTW, is a liquid wood product used to restore columns, shingles, window frames, etc. It's really amazing stuff that can restore the most decrepit of wood moldings.

Aaahhhh... Was this not worth it?

As the Christmas weekend dwindles down, I'm basking in the glow of the two historical events that were benchmarks in the restoration of Laura's house - the Unveiling and a bookmark in the annals of NPR's archive - the 2008 Presidential election and the part Missouri played in it. I'm so looking forward to 2010 and all it will bring for Laura.

Next blog post - our connectiveness to the Becky Thatcher House, Laura's first home in Hannibal. See a similarity between the two houses built 54 years apart?

Restored gable on the Becky Thatcher house (built 1843).

Revealed gable on the Laura Hawkins house (built 1897).
Frank's wife Donna is peeking through one of the palladium windows.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Upstairs, Downstairs - Plaster & Laths

A key thing to look for in any house intended for restoration is its foundation. An unsettled foundation (and termite infestation) will result in many problematic projects throughout the house, not the least being the ceiling.

We lucked out with the Laura Hawkins house in this respect. Though the aged plaster had been cracking and disintegrating, exposing the laths and the rafters, the wall moldings and their levels relative to the ceiling remained intact. The foundation of the Laura Hawkins house was very solid with virtually no settling. The destruction of the ceiling was mostly due to water damage, general aging, and vibrations (hammering away at the exterior slurry during the Laura Hawkins unveiling didn’t help).

Me hammering at that blasted, hardened slurry
installed on the side of the house circa 1947.

Here is the blog excerpt on that Unveiling event:

I’ve seen less-than-stable houses where the center of the ceiling remained intact, but the sides were inches lower. This forced the owner-restorer to re-level the ceilings with edge supports and cross beams from one end of the ceiling to the other - something best left to a professional.

Our guy Ron had done numerous ceiling replacements while working for one of Hannibal’s major restoration companies. He suggested replacing the ceilings and the laths totally with drywall, and then applying an old-fashioned, hand-laid plaster skim-coat over this.

As a purist, I questioned this method. Didn’t we want to keep the lathwork and reapply plaster over this instead of drywall? In a word, no. This process can be prohibitively time-consuming and expensive. Laths damaged by plaster removal need replacement as these timbers were often made from cheap wood. Applying new plaster to laths is something that should be left to an expert (read: $$$$$$). You may have to remove all the laths anyway if no insulation existed in the ceilings, and it will not exist if your house is over a certain age.

Laths were usually poplar or pine waste and edgings
and often do not sustain plaster removal too well.

But shouldn’t the construction of the ceilings be as authentic as possible, you may ask? I had reservations about this aspect of the restoration, but you know what? After installing it and covering the drywall with plaster, who can tell? Drywall is sturdier and easier to plaster over and insulation did need to be installed after all. I couldn’t imagine reinstalling new laths on all the ceilings. So we went with the drywall option.

A few weeks into the job, my suppressed concerns of using drywall instead of installing new laths were allayed when we visited the Becky Thatcher House during Open House…

The restoration of the Becky Thatcher House exterior thus far.

Henry Sweets, curator of the Mark Twain Museum, greeted a small group of residents and discussed plans for the restored girlhood home of Laura Hawkins aka Becky Thatcher (this in a later post)…

See me in the middle? To the left of the photo is Dr. Cindy Lovell,
new Museum director and to the right is Henry holding court.

The home, built in 1843 (when Laura Hawkins was 8 years old), is 54 years older than the Laura Hawkins home and it showed in the rafters which needed reinforcement…

The added reinforcement not only saves the stressed rafters,
the upper floor area needs to support the parade of students
who will attend Museum classes that will be held on the 2nd floor.

Dr. Cindy Lovell with Becky and Tom.

We asked Henry how the Museum intended to install new ceilings and he said that drywall is a possibility. To our relief, he assured us that this method was acceptable to the standards of those who’d ultimately judge a house on its historical authenticity merits during restoration (like, committees who federally fund historical grants).

So, back to Laura’s final residence…

The rule to restoring a house is to start from the top down. Here is a "before" picture of an upper floor ceiling…

Missing plaster from the 2nd floor ceiling of the
"Master Room" that faces the street.
The culprit: Water in the attic from a leaking roof.
This photo shows the plaster in place…

What? We missed the stuff inbetween? Below are the steps for total ceiling replacement. These were taken at ground level in the living (or library room)…

The plaster is almost totally removed from the ceiling.
The laths appear to be intact, but...

The laths will be removed anyway,

To make way for the insulation,

And the drywall.
The drywall for the ground floor ceiling is slightly thicker
than that used for the 2nd floor ceiling.
This gives a greater noise baffle for the "museum area".

Here is work that was ongoing in the small dining room.

And here are the before and after pictures of the parlor ceiling.

It wouldn't have taken much for this ceiling plaster
to have collasped on the floor.

This is more like it.
See how the moldings have remained level to the original ceiling plane?

We are at a stopping point on the ground floor ceiling. Plaster will be applied after we sand and paint the 2nd floor, reconstruct the 2nd floor bathroom and move in period furniture.
Meanwhile, the Laura Hawkins kitchen is being gutted and removed of its crumbling walls - the subject of a subsequent post.
Next post - a link to the Becky Thatcher house.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Nothing tells you more bluntly that you have a monster restoration project than two things: a falling ceiling and a neglected, weedy yard. First about the yard…

What the hell are those humans DOING to my yard?

The backyard of Laura’s house is a JUNGLE with nothing but weeds – thick trunked weeds – growing there. It’s survival of the fittest with various weeds muscling and nudging one another for their own turf, so they can continue to grow out of control.

Think I’m kidding? Here’s a typical bi-monthly haul of mowed down weeds – only weeds. No grass grows in this yard.

This bird was overseeing our efforts.

Here’s one of us after wrestling with these critters just a couple of weeks ago.

The Garden Monster

The Garden Monster's claw.

Contrast this with the backyard of our adjoining house, lush and green like a tropical garden.

So we have a yard that is our burden. But it will eventually be our joy as we turn the yard into a lavish garden, one a true Victorian would be proud of.

Next the ceilings…

For any of you restoring a house, don’t you love it when you come upon yet another plaster chunk that dislodged itself from the ceiling?

If it's just the ceiling (often, it is not), be thankful. Deteriorating ceilings are symptoms of bigger roofing problems. Here’s a major example of this when a roof recently collasped in a building just down the street and around the corner from us…

The recently condemned building at 520 Broadway.
(Photo courtesy of Hannibal Courier-Post)

The collasped 2nd and 3rd floors.
(Photo courtesy of Hannibal Courier-Post)

Why, oh why do people allow their buildings to get to this condition? For months, this building was offered free to anyone who would step up and restore it (within an 18-month timeframe). There were no takers and now the City of Hannibal is coughing up over $40K to demolish it.

If you think this folly wrought on Hannibal is done only by neglectful, fund-less locals, I assure you it is not. The deterioration of otherwise desirable and useful properties has also been the domain of out-of-towners who bought their properties at prices unheard of in their native cities.

Often these out-of-towners come from a sunny climate and are virtually ignorant of the effects of extreme cold and stormy weather in the Midwest (Case in point: just last month, Hannibal witnessed its greatest monthly rainfall at a whopping 11-1/2 inches. Normally, October sees a little over 3 inches of rain.) They’ll leave the house unattended during the winter months not understanding that an unweatherized, leaking roof will allow water to infiltrate the house and cause ancient electrical wires to ignite and burn.

This happened to one Californian at the worst possible time of year – a time when Hannibal streets were clad in ice. Add that the street was very narrow and steep, and this owner’s house became a total disaster when fire trucks couldn't make their way up the street to douse the ensuing fire. Owners who get away with a powerful drenching of their hardwood floors are more the norm and are the lucky ones in this case.

No danger of this with the Laura Hawkins house. The first thing we did (and what every new owner should do with an old house) was replace the roof and replace & upgrade all the electricity. Nearly all old houses in Hannibal come with a deteriorated roof and old knob and tube style wiring (often uninsulated and almost always unable to carry large, modern load demands).

So, Laura’s ceiling…

Here’s what it looked like…

Major plaster losses.

Major water stains.

Here’s the work ongoing to replace the ceilings totally. No half-ass, patching jobs for this historic house. The ceilings will be our subject of a subsequent blog post.

In the end, all of the ceilings in Laura's house will be like new.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Certain Cities “Get It”

We visited Kansas City last month for two of the best reasons to go there during September – the Art Festival in the Country Club Plaza and the American Royal Parade.

One of the things we love about K.C. is that this city “gets it” as far as preserving their heritage. I’m talking about revering and preserving their old buildings. Downtown developers in general loath tearing down anything old and replacing it with new structures. The result is many restored structures recycled to house new businesses and purposes in downtown Kansas City. A prime example of this is K.C.’s Union Station…

This Beaux-Arts station opened in 1914 as the 2nd largest train station in the country.

This grand depot (used in a scene in the movie “Kansas City”, made in 1996), like many others fell into disrepair and required massive restoration if it was to be saved. K.C. stepped up to the plate with stunning results:

The “Lobby”.

95-foot tall restored ceilings...

Harvey House Diner...

This retro-style restaurant serves diner style breakfasts and blue-plate lunch specials.

I wince whenever I think of what Hannibal could have had were civic leaders more mindful of preserving their Union Depot. Here is a photo of that structure. It was demolished in 1953…

The Royal Parade was in its setup stage as we toured K.C.’s Union Station. Here is a shot of it with K.C.’s wonderful old downtown looming in the background.

The American Royal in Kansas City began as a cattle show in 1899. Today, it is an annual 8-week season of barbecue competition, rodeos, livestock shows, equestrian events and agricultural activities benefiting youth and education.

On to the Plaza Art Festival…

A crowd is forming late in the morning. Later, this would become wall-to-wall people.

Within a few minutes of arriving, who did we happen upon? None other than four Hannibalians displaying their unique creations. You’ve likely seen these artists’ works at Fresh Ayers and other venues around Hannibal.

Joachim Knill. Website:

Joachim’s huge photos take you into a fantastic play land where you will ogle, agape in an attempt to glean some meaning from his surrealistic world – a netherworld of towering dolls, creatures and plant life. Joachim uses a huge camera (I believe the largest in the world) that he himself designed.

Janice Ho. Website:

Janice designs jewelry – morsels of organic shapes created in gold and silver, depicting miniature compositions of nature and scenic elements. Elegant and contemporary, a piece of Janice’s jewelry is a simple, fun treasure one would give to a close friend or relative.

Michael Cole. Website:

Michael is originally from our neck of the woods – Seattle and Tacoma, Washington. He got his start blowing glass art in the studio of Dale Chihuly, the area’s best-known, living super-artist. Michael’s photos immortalize insects, roads, old cars, tools and standing structure on aged photo stock – images that are icon-like and cause you to recollect similar images from deep within your own memory. To frame his works, Michael borrows from salvaged architectural panels.

Melissa Dominiak.
Melissa paints realistic oils of room interiors. I asked her if she was inspired by the interiors of Hannibal abodes; she said that interiors in general inspire her. In viewing her paintings, I kept telling myself “yes, that brings me back to this place from my past… déjà vu?”.

Melissa and Michael bought the old Douglass Community Center building in Hannibal a few years ago. It is their studio and showplace.

The Studio of Michael Cole & Melissa Dominiak located at 1100 Broadway.

Don’t you just love Kansas City so far? It’s a wonderful place to escape to when we desire a change of scenery from our idyllic Hannibal. Kansas City has it all – a wonderful arts community, many jazz clubs, its own brand of BBQ, a Farmer’s Market, the Country Club Plaza, Westport… the list goes on.

Once back home, we continued rebuilding the Laura Hawkins attic. Here are more goodies that will populate this area of Laura’s house, like this restored trunk from the Civil War era. One of several attic trunks, these will display magazines, textbooks, report cards, and other remnants from Laura’s earlier days…

A hooked rug fashioned during the late 1800’s.

This unique “folk art” hooked rug is actually a product of “poverty. This would have been something handed down from a poorer relative of Laura’s. Hooked rugs were fashioned from remnants of factories that produced machine-made carpets for the rich in the 1800’s. Often the creators of these rugs were women employed by these factories.
Though girls like Laura were taught to embroider and quilt, fashioning these rugs and mats were never part of their curriculum. It was considered a country craft. So off to the attic or other “out of sight, out of mind” area of the house it goes.

This adorable Victorian doll carriage from the late 1800’s would not have been used by Laura during her childhood in the late 1840’s – early 1850’s. It would have been used by a child from the Judge’s household in the late 1800’s. And that’s what an attic is about – a time capsule containing nearly forgotten remnants of a multi-generational past.

The hand-woven rug underneath the buggy will go into the “escape room” in the attic. What’s an escape room? Why, it is a room in the back part of the attic where one might have escaped the rest of the household. It has a great view of the Mississippi and its own door to shut out intrusions.

More treasures abound in our upcoming posts.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

We're Getting Noticed

As I sit in my cozy corner of our Chateau pounding away on my keyboard, I spy that we are getting noticed.

This online publication, Small Town Living, used an excerpt from our blog (with our permission of course) for their October/November issue. Click on their current issue, and scroll to page 42...

And this company noticed our restoration efforts and developed house plans based on Laura's house...

In the next few weeks, I'll be posting more on the Laura Hawkins attic, the complete ceiling replacements, and our chance meeting with a Hannibal artist foursome at the Country Club Plaza Art Fair in Kansas City last month.

Meanwhile, here are some items that will go into Laura's kitchen which is also being restored to reflect Laura's turn-of-century way of life...

Shown are a grinder, a sausage maker and a primitive rolling pin
hand-carved from a single piece of wood.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

An OPULENT Period in Hannibal's History

I must have been a Victorian in my past life because I love to buy things, lots of beautiful things. I especially love to buy at auction and from auction sites such as eBay. eBay is a godsend availing anyone to a plethora of antiques and art at prices well below what retail or even wholesale markets offer.

So, Laura Hawkins House-Victorian Interior, what should this home look like?

We enthusiasts of the Victorian era know that interiors back then were opulent, to say the least. We know the Victorian era to be a materially extravagant one - a materialism triggered by the industrial revolution.

This revolution brought the means to manufacture goods quicker and cheaper with steam-powered machines. Wealth was being created in this country at an enormous rate (income tax was not yet a concept) and with it came new-found money and more affordable possessions. Hand-made items were replaced by machine-produced ones, and chemical dyes replaced natural pigments for fabrics and paint, making bright, rich colors commonplace. Decoration, which once was the domain of the rich, became available to the masses.

The Duffy-Trowbridge Stove Manufacturing Company
located on the "other side" of the tracks was the
largest stove manufacturing company in the midwest
around the turn of the century.
The factory supported hundreds of Hannibalian
and emcompassed nearly two city blocks.

From top to bottom are the Moulding Room,
the Sample Room and the Mounting Room in the stove factory.

But with the industrial revolution came filth. The massive increase in the number of factories and people migrating to cities in search of work resulted in major environmental and household pollution (and illness). The pollution came in the form of dirty smoke (from burning coal) from chimneys and factories. This smoke would block out light and cover streets and houses. In additon, many of the streets were dirt roads supporting mere planks along its outskirts for pedestrians to walk upon.

This was the Beggs-Goodson Wagon Factory, also located on
the "other side" of the tracks in Hannibal.
This leading Hannibal factory for farm and freight wagons
was established in 1901. The manufacturing center was
producing 3,000 wagons annually by 1905.

In reaction, the Victorians came to view the interiors of their homes as an escape from the filth outside. So, their new wealth was used to furnish interiors to make their homes a beautiful part of their lives. As the Victorian era progressed, interiors became more elaborate with another influencing factor - the rise of the British Empire. The colonization of India, Australia and Africa fueled an interest in oriental rugs, sensuous fabrics, brass accessories and tropical houseplants.

Armed with all this information, choosing interior décor for the Laura Hawkins house had become a fun part of this entire project. So let’s step back to the pre-Victorian era in the 1840’s when Laura was a girl ...

Back then, furnishings were rather plain. They were hand-made treasures passed on to subsequent generations. So, wouldn’t it make sense that the interior of Laura’s house be a combination of earlier family treasures and the Victorian grandeur of Laura’s later years?

Let’s start with the color scheme of the house. The house was built in 1897 and by then rooms (particularly more public rooms like the parlor) used rich jewel tones of blue, red, green and purple. Additionally, walls were adorned with oriental and floral-inspired wallpaper and floors (polished wood, of course) were adorned with richly patterned oriental rugs.

This turn of the century Anatolian carpet from Turkey
will grace the dining room floor of the Laura Hawkins house.

Antique Qom (city of Persia, now Iran) area rug.

To keep the “filthy” environment out of their private home lives (and to retain interior heat), Victorians layered their windows with dark heavy drapes. Ivory lace curtains were used to allow in natural light while keeping outdoor scenes out of view.

Damask Period Drapes...

This period pattern belongs to a set of drapes going into the house.

Accessories used in a Victorian home are what excites me the most. The Victorians surrounded themselves with personal treasures – photos adorned with ornate frames, souvenirs from foreign countries such as polished brass, peacock feathers and tropical plants in oriental urns, and ornate lamps...

Antique banquet parlor lamp.

For dining, Victorians set out the finest (most ostentatious) utensils and sets they could afford. These things were as much for show as for their intended use (in some cases, frivolous).

Antique Reposse Tea Service.

And of course, chandeliers were grand and highly decorative...

This turn of the century chandelier will grace the small dining room.

Victorians loved to collect paintings...

John Brown George painting. John George (1831-1913) was one of
19th-century America's most skilled and popular painters of children.
In some circles, he was dubbed the "Boot Black Raphael".

Victorians relished Renaissance style paintings.

Such was the "gilded age", as Twain so coined it in his novel of the same name and of whom he named a principle character "Laura Hawkins".
In contrast to the glorious public rooms, the less public rooms (kitchen, bathrooms, and bedrooms) were more ascetic with muted, creamy shades, and floors were often painted to match the trim.

We plan to add a feature of display in the Laura Hawkins house - the attic. With few exceptions (Anne Frank attic, for example), attics would not normally be a draw for your historical house enthusiast. Imagine this though ... Laura moved in with her son and family during her final years and wanted (no, demanded) to be surrounded by cherished treasures from her childhood and earlier adulthood. This was agreed to and many of the items were kept in the attic.

This "rustic" collection will populate the attic and not so public areas of the house. This will be the subject of my next post. For now, here are a couple of teasers...

I don't know who this is, but I loved that it is an ancestral portrait,
circa early-to-mid 1800's.
This was an estate find from a seller in the
Kentucky-Tennessee area - the area from where Laura's family
migrated to Hannibal around 1840.

Ice skating on the Mississippi was a popular pasttime
in Laura's day. These ice skates made in 1850 would
have been similar to what Laura would have worn.