The front porch certainly had seen happier days by the time we moved into Comstock House. Part of the floor was rotted and needed urgent replacement, the stone lions had crushed the stair side platforms (original 1905 redwood, too), almost all treads were split, and the entire step assembly was pitching forward away from the house. And, as we found out, that wasn't the bad news.

Our original restoration plan for the stairs was to simply replace the treads and risers, believing the supporting structure was still sound. The treads felt firm, except for a little sponge on the split boards. But once we looked closer, it became apparent that the steps could have collapsed at any moment. The side walls had no foundation at all and were simply sitting on dirt, with one of those walls haphazardly braced by a pair of 1x6 planks nailed to the back (a beer can was also found in the dirt next to this fine workmanship). While the base of the stringers rested unbolted on three sturdy concrete piers, the stringers themselves were rotting because they were unsealed raw pine. Except for a few puny nails connecting the top of the stringers to a floor joist - which itself was crumbling with dry rot - the entire structure was free-standing. Had any of the stringers failed, the whole mess would have lurched and collapsed to one side or the other, like a puff on a house of cards.

LEFT: What happens when 100 lbs. of stone meets 100 year old redwood
RIGHT: No foundation under the steps, except for the front piers

LEFT: A foundation was formed around the existing piers
RIGHT: Pressure-treated stringers are bolted into the new foundation

ABOVE: Framing the new side walls

Aside from a debate about period-proper handrails, construction was uneventful. Architect Mark Parry created a foundation plan where new concrete was poured around the old footings (which are two feet deep). A sill bolted into the new concrete provides support to the pressure-treated stringers, which are placed between the piers. The stairs now feel sturdy and should last for decades.

There's still some work to be done. The cedar steps need another coat of paint, and the caps on the side walls will have to be refinished (again), a project that will come up in a later post.

The back stairs were a lesser headache. Those steps were still firm, and might have lasted another ten years or more; the immediate concerns were instead the railings, which were becoming more wobbly each year on both sets of stairs. We already had made emergency repairs to prevent collapse of the kitchen railing when we moved into the house in 2006, and since then I had used consolidant to fill holes and major cracks.

None of that construction dated back to origins of the house; both entrances were apparently rebuilt at the same time, c1960. Some of the details matched the blueprints, other parts not so much. The railing on both landings retained architect Brainerd Jones' hallmark "Union Jack X," but the house side of it was attached directly to the building, not to a half post, as indicated. The caps on the backyard posts were square and flat, not rounded; the handrail was likewise a flat 2x4, where the blueprints suggest a curve. Yet the kitchen posts had arched tops, and that handrail seemed to follow the drawings with what was called at the time a "toad's back" (AKA toadback, toad-back) curve to the top, making it inviting to hold. Why were they different? Were they rebuilt by different carpenters at different times? Small mysteries.

LEFT: The backyard steps; notice the flat platforms atop the posts and the white patches of consolidant on the railings
RIGHT: Detail of kitchen railing

Although both stringers and decks were still in reasonable shape, it was decided to replace everything at once, using modern materials such as pressure-treated wood for the supporting structures. Moving the stringers adjacent to the house closer to the center also allowed a gap between the treads and the wall to prevent water from pooling on the steps.

Contractor David Jessen performed his usual magic in restoring the design shown in the blueprints. Once more the landing rail terminates into a half-post attached to the house; the tops of the posts are again curved on all four sides. At our request he placed the newel post on the second step instead of on the ground, as shown in the drawing. We believe this is how it was originally built, providing a "swing around" that's also found on the interior staircases.

None of material from those stairs was worth salvage, but we were able to refashion original redwood left over from the rebuild of the front porch balustrade in a few parts. The half-posts on both back porches are old wood, as is the kitchen porch top rail and the backyard porch newel post.

LEFT: The backyard steps before finishing; notice the old redwood newel post and half-post at the top
RIGHT: The kitchen steps after oil treatment

In theory, the north side of Comstock House should have been easier to shingle than the south. Yes, more shingles would be required because there's more square footage to cover; there's no chimney or porch cut-out to break up the wall on this side. But that also would mean, in theory, that the project should go faster because there would be less time-consuming work on chimney flashing and trimming all those end shingles into custom shapes to fit. It looked like a more straightforward job overall. In theory.

(RIGHT: Jim Scotchler unwraps the third of three shingle palettes that have been used to date. Each palette contains 13 squares, and each square is intended to cover 100 square feet. Actual coverage is less due to defects - shingles too narrow or uneven - and because we are strictly using the old standards where there is only 4½ inches of shingle exposed)

Before any work could begin, we had to evict our squatters. Honeybees had lived in a portion of the north wall for as long as forty years, and getting rid of them required tearing open the sheathing. We moved our scaffolding from the south side of the house to the corner with the bees, and made a date with beekeeper and "structural extraction" expert Coral Pawka to round 'em up and move 'em out. The tale of this adventure is told in a previous post (don't miss the video).

The other major obstacle was reaching the peak and upper section of the northwest corner. There's a three-foot bump-out for the kitchen, making it impossible to erect the usual scaffolding up against the house. This corner also has the electrical service, so there were also safety concerns about having a scaffold near the lines. We contacted Marshall Scaffolding in Santa Rosa and arranged for them to set it up, and their solution was ingenious. A traditional scaffold remained on the east side and on the west, sections were built up both from the ground and from the roof over the kitchen. Planks bridged over the twin scaffolds. A photo can be seen at the end of this post; every part of the structure was absolutely rock-solid, even at the very top. My highest recommendation goes to these good folks. But like the removal of the bees, this was essentially a separate construction project from the work at hand.

We have some concerns that the bees may try to return to the location of their old home in the spring, even though all the honeycomb is gone (we hope), their former residence between wall studs is now packed with insulation, and every possible entrance way is sealed (we hope). We likewise expect that the new shingles will deter the woodpecker that did so much damage over the windows in the servant's bedroom and attic.

The real estate agent told us that a servant had died in that bedroom (VERY doubtful) and hinted that some thought it haunted. Then a few weeks after we moved in I heard a knocking coming from there; assuming it was a plumber or someone working on the house, I checked outside. No one around. The same thing happened shortly thereafter, and confess that I was now mildly spooked. Finally I caught our "ghost" in the act; instead of the furious rat-a-tat-tat I associate with Woody Woodpeckers, this fellow makes a few pecks that sound like knocking or hammering, then peeps into the hole to see if there's anything for eats. Before the reshingling I kept a big aluminum skillet in the attic, and whammed it against the wall whenever I heard the "ghost," which seemed to exorcise it for a couple of days.

Newer Posts Older Posts Home