In the past, nothing epitomized neighbor helping neighbor more than a rural barn raising. Today, in our central city, historic neighborhoods, a modern day version of a barn raising is bringing neighbors together, old house unveilings.
An old house unveiling is a coordinated event bringing neighbors together to remove replacement siding from one or more houses in a day. Under the replacement siding we usually find excellent clapboard, trim, decorative wood shingles and all the wonderful textures these materials bring to the look and feel of an old house. Rarely have I seen an unveiled house that needed more than 5% to 7% clapboard or trim replacement.
So why remove that so-called “maintenance free” replacement siding? Throughout the 20th century, the first sign a historic neighborhood is in decline is when replacement siding starts going up. It is a clear indication that people are no longer willing or able to maintain their homes.
I meet a lot of appraisers across the country and they’re telling me they add value to older homes with original, well-painted, wood siding and trim. “Bob, your right on that. It’s important that owners of older homes go with the original character and warmth of the era the home was built. When buyers are out there looking for older houses, they’re looking for original siding and trim,” according to Iowa & Illinois appraiser, Dick Koestner appearing on my TV show, About Your House with Bob Yapp.
I recently helped several organizations in Hannibal, Missouri hold a “Great Unveiling/Old House Fair event in to unveil the Laura Hawkins House in the Central Park National Historic District. Laura Hawkins was Sam Clemens girlfriend as a child and his model for Becky Thatcher in Tom Sawyer. The idea was to take all the non-original cement slate siding and a bunch of fake stone off the entire Queen Anne style home in a morning and have old house workshops in the street all afternoon.
The property owner provided a dumpster and a staging in the side yard to provide shade, cool drinks, lunches and resource materials for the old house owners. Ladders, hydraulic lifts and tools were donated by local businesses.
As 9:00 Saturday morning approached, we nervously waited to see if the minimum 20 volunteers would actually show up. Right on cue, the sun came out and over 20 volunteers descended on the site with pry bars and hammers. By 1:00 most of the siding was removed and the old house seminars began.
Old house lovers & neighborhood groups are often able to convince their neighbors to remove non-original siding. In the past that was it, but it’s not enough. The workshops we had for this event included wood repair and cost effective ways to get long term paint jobs.
The unveiled house was in great condition with offset cedar shingle siding on the top half of the house and clapboard on the bottom. Shadows of the original front porch and various molding were discovered which answered many questions the owners had. Most of these really unusual design elements that had been covered over for 80 years. You could almost hear the house sigh in relief. The slate siding and fake stone was loaded into the dumpster and the folks who didn’t want to be on ladders cleaned the grounds. If you have aluminum siding you can almost pay for the paint and wood for repair by selling it to a local metal scrap yard.
When I finally got home that night I thought about how hard all the volunteers worked and how they gave their Saturday for something they believe in. That something is the understanding that the only way we can ever truly turn around central city historic neighborhoods is by using historic preservation as the primary development tool.
While we didn’t raise a barn, we did help an old Queen Anne get naked.