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.