Door renovation completed 30 years after family move
Alan D. Miller
After 30 years in Old House #2, we’ve finally finished refinishing the front door.
We are confident that the door is original to the house, which means it is 152 years old. This represents tens of thousands of openings and closings.
And one of these days someone broke the original glass in the door. We have deduced, based on the gate’s construction and subsequent modifications, that its centerpiece was a sheet of glass in 1870.
After that “oh, no!” moment, someone started making repairs. And in a word, it looked awful.
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So why did it take us 30 years to find a suitable solution?
We had other priorities, like raising a family while tackling bigger issues like depressing 1970s plumbing and roofing and paneling. important in replacing the old window, which I assume dates from the 1930s, based on how it was cobbled together with pieces of what was obviously scrap metal.
I wrote in this column about seven years ago that my twin daughters teamed up to restore the hallway just inside the front door. The beautiful wood of the curved staircase needed to be stripped of layers of old paint and refinished. The wallpaper from generations ago had to come off, and the stately woodwork around the front door and the hall door to “the living room” also needed stripping and refinishing.
I don’t have a lot of patience for the tedious work of stripping intricate woodwork, and that’s the main reason why the main entrance was the last of our major restoration projects in this old house. Another reason is that unlike many families with attached garages or garages closer to the back door, we use our front door as our main entrance. Shutting it down for long periods of time for the smelly, messy work of stripping and refinishing woodwork would be a major disruption.
But girl #3 was between jobs in 2012 and girl #2 found herself in the same situation in 2013, so #3 started the renovations and then handed it over to #2 They did a fabulous job, and they finished everything except the door, which I said I would take care of.
on the other side of the mirror
They had suggested that we take design elements from the whimsical red glass transom above the front door and etch them into a replacement sheet of glass. It took almost six years, but last year I took the photo and gave it to my daughter #2, who used her Photoshop magic to extract the key elements of the engraving.
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I spoke with my friend Mark McPeek, owner of Richardson Glass Service in Newark, about what his team would need me to cut the safety glass and etch it. He requested precise measurements of the door window frame and a computer file of the image we wanted to etch into the glass. (A frosted decal of the image was an option, but we opted for the slightly more expensive etching for durability and for the authentic 1870s look.)
Within weeks we had our new old-fashioned glass, and I started tearing down the janky replacement, which has been bugging me since the day we moved into the house. It looked like something little Alan Miller would have cooked up as a child in the 1960s.
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There were rough cuts in the door frame at the top and bottom of the window opening so that one of the two wooden crosspieces could be fitted to hold the four thin sheets of glass used to replace the large original sheet. None of the molded parts around the glass matched. And under that molding were other pieces of molding and smaller pieces of wood used as shims to fill the space between the glass and the door frame.
I went from annoyed to sad for whoever did the repairs. That’s when I deduced that it was probably done during the Great Depression when the family living here at the time didn’t have the money for a large expensive sheet of glass. So someone, perhaps a teenager who broke the original window, searched for glass and pieces of wood to make a replacement to keep out the wind, rain and cold.
It worked in this regard for many decades. But it still looked weird, and it’s a safe bet that the repairman of yore would have preferred the option we chose.
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So 30 years after we moved here and seven years after we started work on the entry hall, the last of our major restoration projects in this house, girls #2 and #3 have returned to the places last weekend to touch up the front door with the appropriate stain and apply a Watco Danish Oil Finish to it and the surrounding woodwork.
Our house is finished – until the next project.
Alan D. Miller is a former Dispatch editor who teaches journalism at Denison University and writes about repairing old homes and historic preservation based on personal experiences and reader questions.