Replace or restore?
By Anthony Chase; photo by kc kratt
I do not recall who told me about Lost Cities Restorations, but someone must have. I did not find it in the phone book and I’ve never seen it advertised. All I remember is that I was in despair that I might lose my front door. A hundred and ten years old and original to the house, the door was in horrible condition. Contractor after contractor told me it would have to be replaced entirelyor that it would cost thousands of dollars to restore.
I was relieved, therefore, when Daniel Farrell (Lost Cities Restoration, 510-3195) came to my house and quietly and confidently told me that he could repair my door. And while the job would take a long time and would not be cheap, it was affordable. He removed my ailing door, rotted out at the bottom, its heavy glass window sagging down into the frame, its damaged mahogany veneer painted black, and put a steel door in its place.
In no time at all, my neighbors were asking, with as much diplomacy as possible, “That is temporary, isn’t it?” Indeed, it was. Two months latera long wait, but in time for Thanksgivingmy original door returned, perfectly restored and looking new.
Energized by this experience, I had Farrell turn his attention to my historic wooden windows, some of which were broken and no longer working. They would return entirely refurbished.
Farrell, who took a bachelor’s degree in interior design at Buffalo State College, and made ends meet painting houses before finding his true calling in window restoration, warns, “Those home improvement shows on television will sometimes recommend replacements, because their sponsors sell them!”
I’m not having it.
Being a new homeowner, I did not think about the importance of remembering how I had found Dan Farrell and Lost Cities. I now know better. A good list of referrals is a valuable commodity.
Sitting on the newly rebuilt porch at the home of a friend in the Allentown neighborhood, I admire the workmanshipjigsaw cutouts and handsomely lathed spindles. My recent experiences prompt me to ask who did the work.
What? The notion seems absurd.
“Ask Chris Brown. He found them. Chris can find somebody to do anything.”
OK. So I asked Chris Brown.
Unlike me, Christopher Brown has been in the game of historic property stewardship for twenty years. He is also the president of his block clubthe Kleinhans Community Association (www.kleinhansca.org). He is purposeful in maintaining a roster of competent and qualified contractors, dedicated to the ideals of historic preservation.
“To begin with,” says Brown, “no house is maintenance-free. The fact is, the windows you just restored lasted over a hundred years, and will give you a hundred years more. If you had replaced them with vinyl windows, that might have been nice for a whilethey tilt for cleaning and so forthbut you would, unwittingly, have put yourself on a replacement cycle. Styles change and companies go out of business. But your original wooden window can always be repaired.”
“But how do you find people who can do these things?” I ask, recalling my months-long search.
“It’s a series of connections,” explains Brown. “For the porch, I had been looking at salvaging columns and had spoken to a number of contractors, all of whom gave me very expensive quotes. Then, an architect I work with, Joe Delaney, said he knew of a project that had been done by Amish carpenters from the Strykersville and Franklinville area. I had worked with Joe and knew he was a taskmaster with my own high standards for quality.”
The Amish got the job.
“In our block club and in our neighborhood there is a lot of sharing of information about what works and who does what,” explains Brown. “Roofing is a big one, because Victorian homes have complicated roofs and require expertise. When you live in the preservation district, you follow the rules of the preservation board. So you’ll find that most roofs in the preservation districts have been done by Joe Gott of Home Handyman (984-3567), Naples Roofing (877-8488), or Expert Exteriors (879-0301)one of the three.”
“Carpentry work is really tough, because carpentry is often a temporary business. The same is true for paintersand for plasterers? That’s really tough! As soon as you find a good plasterer or carpenter, they move on!”
Brown had great luck consulting with Vince Kuntz, who is married to librarian-historian Cynthia Van Ness. “The actual labor and the materials are difficult to get. Vince put me in touch with a man in Texas who does custom woodwork, Dean Arnold. [His business] is called the Wood Factory, and it’s in Navasota, Texas (111 Railroad Street, 936-825-7233). Many companies do reproductions. This guy has a passion for Victorian authenticity, and you save on taxes what you spend on shipping by land.”
For windows, I’m devoted to Dan Farrell, but Brown also recommends John Gulik of the Window Company in Allentown. “He did Trinity Church.”
What about insulation in a historic home?
“You have to be careful with insulation. If you don’t know what you’re doing you can cause a condensation problem that makes the house rot from the inside out. I know a terrific guyJeff Brennan of Apollo Construction (881-1747).”
Having shared an abundance of contracting leads, Brown closes with some general advice: “Remember that in the long term, it is cheaper to restore than to replace. Don’t rush. Do lots of research. Talk to multiple contractors. Make an informed decision.”
Anthony Chase writes on theater for Artvoice and other publications and can be heard on “Theater Talk” every Friday morning on WBFO.
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