A Century-Old Craftsman, Moved and Improved
The owner of the Best Remodel 2015 tells her story
After: The house set on its new site and new foundation, which allowed for a walk-out basement. A work in progress, the house's original front porch awaits paint as part of a forthcoming exterior redo.
Take a tour of the whole house redo:
Hey, slipups happen. One time a house fell right into Puget Sound. It was like a slow-motion disaster movie: One minute, the proud owners of a two-story Victorian were barging it to a new location; the next, they were practically homeless.
We were pretty determined not to let that happen. For one thing, it had taken time and luck to get our hands on our house—a sturdy, century-old Craftsman that perfectly fit the period-house yearnings of my husband, Eddie, and me. For another, we had no Plan B.
When I first saw the house, it had been pried off a valuable lot in Seattle to make way for a bigger replacement. When it went to someone else, I was really bummed. That was the one I wanted, darn it!
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I should explain why we were looking to move a house in the first place. We were living in Bellingham, north of Seattle, when our daughter, Molina, was born, and soon we knew where we wanted to be: back on Orcas Island, where we both grew up. It's a beautiful place, a few hours northwest of Seattle by car and ferry, with a state park where you can ride bikes and horses and swim and boat—just perfect for kids. Eddie still has family there, along with 20 acres in Olga originally owned by his great-grandfather.
Building on the island costs a fortune, which we don't have, so one day, after I spotted a house on a flatbed while I was driving on the freeway, I did some research. I found a company, Nickel Brothers, that moves houses in the Seattle and Vancouver areas and even has a guy on staff, Jeff McCord, who finds new homes for unwanted old houses. It's a win-win proposition, since demolition is costly and moving a house can save a third of the cost of building from scratch. The house is typically free, even if moving it is not.
Before: Edward Stone in 2009, with the century-old house on cribbing.
Jeff's the one who told us about the Craftsman. When it initially went to another taker, we got discouraged and began looking at prefab construction. We found a model we liked okay and began working out the details. Permits take forever because each new house has an environmental impact. So you need a drainage plan and you have to bring in water, power, and phone lines, which cross other people's property, and the whole island is rock. We even had a tree problem: To make way for the flatbed, we would have to clear out Doug firs lining our drive.
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Then the recession hit. It was like a game of dominoes: The woman who originally acquired the Craftsman couldn't sell her old place, so she walked away, leaving the house sitting on cribbing in the port of Everett, roughly 50 miles from our property. Jeff called to say the house could be ours after all, just as our own deal fell through—the prefab company suddenly went out of business. So in the end we got the house we really wanted for the cost of moving, restoring, and hooking it up.
Amazingly, the Craftsman had almost exactly the same footprint as the prefab, so a new permit fell into place. I was working for the electric utility at the time, and they quickly agreed to clear lines along the five or so miles from Obstruction Pass, where the boat would dock, to our place in Olga.
Everything had to be tightly organized and timed. The house had to be on the water at high tide and move along a route that would allow the captain to duck into a cove if the wind came up. Roads on the island had to be blocked off and emergency vehicles positioned to get through if they had to. Along with widening clearance, we had to add a layer of rock to our drive to keep the truck from sinking. Then we'd have 45 days to pour a foundation before Nickel Brothers would start charging for the I-beams by the day.
This was in late 2009. We moved into my in-laws' house nearby, thinking we'd finish our renovation before they returned from their winter travels. (Sure!) At this point, I decided to suspend paid work and concentrate on the renovation. Eddie kept his jobs restoring new and vintage cars and running a firewood business while pitching in evenings and weekends. Eddie and I were not seasoned renovators, though he's a wizard at installing light fixtures and I'm a former furniture designer, and we'd done cosmetic work on our farmhouse in Bellingham.
In Transit: During its move from the mainland to Orcas Island, near Seattle, the house had to roll under power lines.
Help from friends
Coming to our aid were two good friends, Joanne Price, who helped gut the main floor, and her partner, Dan Watters, who helped excavate so we could pour a slab for a walk-out basement.
You think demolition is going to be fairly straightforward: Just start ripping and tearing. But soon we were wrestling with cast-iron pipes, scary-looking knob-and-tube wiring, and drywall tacked on top of horsehair plaster and lath. The main fireplace and chimney had been taken out for the move. But that didn't stop brickwork from raining down on us when we took a crowbar to the ceiling. I poked my head up into the attic and found a second chimney, apparently once belonging to a cookstove. We didn't know it was there because it had been shaved off at the roofline.
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So you get a dump truck. You have all these tarps and you drag them out to the truck, and when you get to the last two loads, you think, What have we done? You have so far to go, and you're just exhausted.
Eddie is always there when it's time to do the heavy lifting, and I like to think of myself as handy—other women get clothes and jewelry for Christmas; my husband always gives me power tools—but we realized we couldn't proceed without more help. We had arranged to have a sub pour the foundation and help frame the basement. We decided to hire Dan's father, Chuck, a do-it-all carpenter who could help us rebuild and refinish while preserving as much as we could. He became my mentor.
Chuck helped us appreciate all the great touches, from the hand-sawn beams and joists to the wavy-glass windowpanes. He had a structural engineer take a look before we started redoing the house, top to bottom. We repaired and replaced rafters to take a bow out of the roof, and sistered floor joists to support extra weight in the attic. We brought in pros to bring plumbing and wiring up to date, add spray-foam insulation, and reshingle the roof.
We also wanted a deck in back, and between one thing and another the estimate for all the wood was close to $20,000. This we could not afford. So two years in, Eddie and Dan decided, what the heck, we have plenty of trees right on the property, let's partner up and buy a Mobile Dimension sawmill! The house had a ton of trim inside, which I took off and planed down and matched when I had to.
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Chuck added back the main fireplace and chimney, using a gaping hole where they once stood as a guide; built stairs down to the new basement; and helped refinish the worn-out kitchen and spiff up the bath. The kitchen windows couldn't be saved, but I found a raft of salvaged windows that worked just fine. To finish the attic, we added windows under the gables, lined the sloped ceiling with pine, and put in a floating floor. Chuck was more than a little skeptical when I suggested using an old door, reclaimed by Eddie from his childhood home, as a hatch cover. But he came around. By then, after working together for 18 months—a bit longer than planned—we had really become friends.
With much of the remodel behind us, I am back to my customary patchwork of paid jobs. This summer I ran a boat-rental service and an ice-cream parlor while also raising horses. Eddie has been busy landscaping our property and getting ready to mill siding in order to redo the exterior. Molina runs the chicken coop; on weekends she sells eggs at a farm stand we built at the end of the drive.
Of course, we're still making improvements: If all goes as planned, we'll soon have a new basement master suite, and one day a wood-burning furnace. After six long years, though, the end is finally in sight. It's a rustic life—and exactly the one we wanted when we set out for Orcas, salvaging a wonderful old house along the way.