Goodbye Ugly Floor

About to get to work

About to get to work

The next stage of the brick project is the stairway down to the first floor. Since cleaning up is such a pain on an uneven floor, I wanted to install the new floor first. Easier said than done though. The floor is held up by joists that were sitting on long since rotted away boards and bricks. This caused them to be uneven and to sag / creak when walked over. Previous owners had made matters worse installing heat registers in the floor several times. Underneath in the crawlspace many of the bricks had started to crumble. When bricks fell out, they would fill the hole with fiberglass insulation (WTF??). Its amazing we never fell through. In some places the bricks were missing five feet down. The board and the 7 bricks on top of it were all moving as you can see in this video:

It was pretty much the same story all the way around. I decided to replace all the bricks between the stretcher courses. I’d do a vertical section here and there and leave the old bricks in to hold up the house. I’m still alive to write this so I guess it worked. In the end I replaced a 24″ strip between stretchers all the way around where the floor would go.

And….gone! Only the minimum needed to hold up the stairs was left in, but even that would go by the end.

As I moved to the back of the stairway, more and more of the rotted joists had to be removed. In the end we hung the stairs with a 2×4 from the joist in the ceiling above and used a 2×12 plank to get across the pit. (We even hosted a party like this.)

In the back, as I replaced the bricks, I left 3 pockets to install the 2×8 joists in as I decided to have the joists run perpendicular to how they were originally. This has the added benefit of making trips into the crawl space less likely to cause head injuries. I’d use joist hangers on the last joist at the back of the kitchen and I’d double up the middle joists to be able to carry the extra weight of the stairs sitting on it.

Finally with the bricks done and the joists in we installed the subfloor. Next is the stapling up of our final 1/6 floor heating. This will cover the kitchen and the stairway. Up until now, we had no heat in that end of the 1st floor and the other half could barely keep up on the colder days.

The Great Baltimore Fire – 110 Years Ago Today

February 8th, 1904 - Fireboat Cataract spraying water on East Pratt Street Wharves preventing the spread of the Great Fire of Baltimore from jumping the Jones Falls.

February 8th, 1904 – Fireboat Cataract spraying water on East Pratt Street Wharves preventing the spread of the Great Fire of Baltimore from jumping the Jones Falls.

110 years ago today a fire began around where the 1st Mariner Arena stands today. It burned all of downtown east to the Jones Falls. This became known as the Great Baltimore Fire.  It was finally stopped the next day, in-part, by the brave men of Baltimore’s first fireboat: Cataract. I’m proud to live in the house of one of its crew, stoker James H. Hoey. Thanks dude! Much has been written about the Great Fire, so I will focus this post on Engine 16, Cataract, her builders and her crew.

Fireboat Cataract docked in Fells Point

Fireboat Cataract docked at Commercial Pier in Fells Point

Last year I had a chance to check out the MdHS Library. They had a copy of The Official History of the Fire Department of the City of Baltimore by Clarence H. Forrest (c) 1898.  Below is a quote from the section mentioning the Cataract

Its a long quote, but there is so much information crammed in there!

Cataract Roster

James H. Hoey is listed as beginning his time on Cataract on July 1st 1891. This is the day its service begun. Its safe to say he was on the inaugural crew.

In addition to the paragraph about Engine 16′s history, I was able to find the roster, looking to have been updated sometime after the books initial publishing. I’ll probably never know how James came to join Engine 16, but I can learn more about his boss, Captain Andrew W. German. Here is information surrounding his death a few years later:

Here is a collection of photos on the Sun website:

Bricks.. Bricks.. Bricks – Driving Me Nuts

See Through!

Green is what is done… Red still needs to be done.

I’m finishing up the first half of our brick pointing project this week.  I’m ready for this pointing to be over.  Unfortunately, I’m only halfway there.  Pointing really isn’t that bad other than it being hard on my body.  As long as I’ve got my tunes on, I pretty much forget I’m doing it.  I’m just ready to move onto other things like trim.  Also it makes a mess throughout the house.

I’ve saved the best for last. I needed the surrounding bricks to be strong enough to hold themselves up when I took out nearly everything from the floor to the ceiling.  I’ve been careful to leave a pyramid un-pointed from the door lintel up to the window frame.

Bricks Falling Out

The bricks here are basically falling out of the wall.  The lower bonding bricks on top of the lintel are actually sitting on 2″ of crumbling mortar.

Bricks Out

In the end I removed all bricks not in a bonding course from the door lintel to the window frame.  I used a jack to lift up the treated 4×6.  Now the bricks sit right on it rather than on 2″ of crumbling mortar.

Bricks Fixed

Here is the same area finished.  Bricks sit directly on the lintel and it all looks WAY stronger.

To finish the 2nd + 3rd floor stairway, all I need to finish up is the doorway.  After that we’ll use some acid to take off the mortar haze and then seal it up… then on to the 1st + 2nd floor stairway.  So tired of pointing bricks.

Happy New Year!

The Harbor fireworks to the left and the Harbor Place fireworks to the right.

The Harbor fireworks to the left and the Harbor Place fireworks to the right.

After a night of meeting people from the neighborhood and getting to visit their homes on a progressive NYE party, we finally got a chance to see a fireworks display from the roof.

We’ve been in this house for a year now… and what a year!  Looking back, we got a ton of things done.  What will be finished this time next year? Will we be hosting a NYE party on a roof deck?

The Dungeon

We call this spot The Dungeon. Under the stairs at the back of the house, this was the old coal pit based on the black walls. Since then it seems to have been used as storage. When we first saw it, there was insulation in the rafters growing the most bizarre white curtains of mold. It was terrifying. The floor appeared to be dirt and it always seemed to be moist.

I started cleaning this out a few months ago. The floor wasn’t dirt after all. The inch or so of soil on the ground was actually boards, boxes and other things stored in here so long ago that they had turned into dirt! Under it was a thin (1/4″ in places) layer of concrete on top of old bricks and sand.

My theory is that this is the mortar and brick leftovers from construction 150 years ago that had fallen to the ground during construction. I sifted each shovel of dirt with a 1/4″ mesh. This helped separate out the sand from the larger pieces. It also helped me to find a trove of old porcelain shards, glass, coal, oysters, even bones. Iris and I are cleaning these up and will make a shadow box for the front room.

I planned to dig down until I found the footers, but no further. It didn’t take long. Once the rubble was out I hit dirt. On the edges I tested a few spots to see how far down they went. On at least one side, not far. It looks like they just laid the bricks right on the dirt. No footer or anything. We were ready for new concrete.

We next had to line up all the materials and tools. Pemixed concrete would have been like 20 bags. Luckily we found my grandfather had an old cement mixer which meant we’d have a much easier time. We had all the sand we needed and only had to pick up 2x 94lb bags of Portland cement and a half ton of #57 stone. Our friend Ian gave us the last materials: 3mil plastic and metal mesh.

I relaid some bricks at the mouth of The Dungeon to get it up to a level the concrete could come to. Next I threw in a few buckets of crushed up bricks from the rubble piles and stones on top of that. Next was plastic. Dad came down to help on Saturday and we cleaned up the remaining piles of rubble to have an area to work. He then started mixing. I started carrying.

Dad at work

Dad at work

Pouring... half a bucket at a time (they're heavy!)

Pouring… half a bucket at a time (they’re heavy!)

Other than seeming really wet, it went smoothly. We checked it for level side to side and to have a 2 course drop from back to front. I floated it nice and flat and then took his advice and not mess with it too much. I did a round with the float around 8pm and another with the trowel at midnight, about 12 hours after we started. The next morning it was able to be walked on and I could knock down some ridges. Looks professional!

Finished!  Going to store some light boxes on it and let it cure for a month before I get to work on those awful bricks.

Finished! Going to store some light boxes on it and let it cure for a month before I get to work on those awful bricks.

I’ve already started to store boxes in there.  I’ll let it cure for a month before I get to work on those awful coal dust coated bricks and joists.

She’s Older Than We Thought!

Last Friday I decided to take a day off work so Siri and I could check out some museums.  First was the Baltimore Science Center.  Its a quick bike ride from Formstone Castle.  There we saw the mummies of the world.  We had time to spare after so we headed up Charles Street to Mt Vernon and the Maryland Historical Society.  I had only a few days left to activate our 1 year family membership.  While we were there we found a really cool birdseye drawing of Baltimore.

The north-south running street on the left is Washington and on the right is Collington.  Castle Street is the small street between them.  Our house is the white wall about 3/4 of the way up to Pratt Street

The north-south running street on the left is Washington and on the right is Chester. Castle Street is the small street between them. Our house is the white wall with a flat roof about 3/4 of the way up to Pratt Street.  It has a back yard with trees and what looks to be stables.

The E. Sachse, & Co. published a bird’s eye view of the city of Baltimore in 1869.  I had seen this in some of my Baltimore history books before, but always tiny.  Blown up on a wall it had so much detail.  I had originally thought that the artist had just drawn in notable buildings and flubbed the rest.  After closer inspection, it is pretty damn accurate.  The types of roof are correct as are the number of windows.

This is a view of the northwest corner of Pratt and Washington which is right above “ST” in the birdseye view.  Nailed it!  I’ve explored the image quite a bit while comparing it to what’s still there on Streetview.  Some of this stuff has not changed in over 150 years.  It will be exciting to finally get a chance to sit down in the Land Records Office and the Baltimore City Archives to see what we can find about this house.

You can view the rest of the map visit the Library of Congress website. This page also has a link to the downloadable JP2 file which lets you view it on your computer.  I downloaded kdu_show for this, but there may be better options out there.


Like Sand Through an Hour Glass, These are the Bricks of Our House

A few weeks ago we started pointing bricks in the stairwell. This is one of those DIRTY projects that should have been done before we moved in, but logistically it had to wait.

This job is DIRTY. It involves scraping out mortar from between joints which creates a good deal of dust, even more sand and to do it right, lots of water is sprayed inside the house. Where does it all go? Down. All the way down both flights of stairs. This makes it pretty much impossible not to track it around the house. Iris also seems to need to go to the bathroom 10x more than normal when there is unavoidable sand on the stairs.

Sitting on a board.

I’ve gotten pretty good at balancing myself on a plank. Since I’m going to get covered in mortar and water, I hardly bother to dress. Usually its just cut off sweatpants and bare feet.

This job has gone smoothly so far, but I have barely made a dent in the 450 square foot wall. The house becomes an indoor beach complete with sand dunes on the stairs. I do the work in chunks because the clean up is so time consuming. It is impossible to leave it dirty when we have Iris or guests so there have been long gaps between working days while I wait for there to be no one around.

The single brick thick walls are taking priority. The century old mortar has long since turned to dust and gravity is the only thing holding up the wall. I’ve been able to replace mortar more than half the depth on most of these. One day I may try to hit them from the other side, but good mortar halfway though is enough to sure up the walls for more serious repairs to the wall above Siri’s office door. These bricks are literally falling out and will need to be removed and re-layed to do it right. Better hurry up though. Fall is already here and we can’t have a gaping hole in the side of the house much longer.

We had not planned on replacing the stairs, but after all this mess, I think the only way to get the area cleaned up when this is done is to rip out the old stairs and replace them. I plan on drawing this up in Sketchup in a few days. I’ll be sure to post my ideas.



LADEE Launch


This is the trajectory of the Minotaur V rocket carrying LADEE to The Moon. The launch is this Friday evening from Wallops, VA. Should be clear so we’re hoping we can catch a view from the roof.

Follow up: This was amazing!  We could actually see the flames and smoke trail.  We could also clearly see one of the stages fall away and the next stage fire up.  Totally worth going up on the roof for.

Siri’s Favorite Hobby


Organizing her books.

This week we sealed the first of 4 sections of bricks on the 1st floor.  This allowed us to seal the bricks and put up book shelves.  We used leftover rough cut joists for this.  I screwed small oak supports on both ends of the shelf and the big joist just hangs over it hiding it.  Need to redo the trim around the window eventually, but at least we have a place to put the books.  We’re trying to clear out space on the basement bench shelves so we can clear out the little storage area under the stairs in the basement for major brick / floor work once we get back from vacation.

Us vs Heat: Victory or Defeat?

Monday afternoon, returning from work, I declared success. We finished up the wiring on Sunday morning and by Sunday afternoon we were relaxing in a 65 degree house. The weather forecast for the week is 99 degrees F and high humidity. Good thing we have air conditioning.

And then the power went out… and stayed out. Its been nearly 48 hours now and BGE is still working on the issue. News crews have been in the area so our discomfort is not in our heads, its news worthy! Without electric, there is little work I can get done on the house, if I could stand doing it in the heat.

Kitty and I tried to find comfort on the roof, but the breezes were not enough, so we packed our bags and headed to Ian’s house for the night.  Hopefully power comes back on tonight so we can get back to work.

Cat on a Hot Tar Roof

Cat on a Hot Tar Roof