Owners restoring 1879 house to Victorian splendor
By Maggie Blackwell
For the Salisbury Post
The restoration at the McCubbins-Rouser House, located at 727 S. Fulton St., has caught the attention and imagination of all who drive by. Close to 50 layers of paint, accumulated since the house was built in 1879, have been painstakingly removed, and the house is on the way to its original glory.
Will and Mary James bought the house in 2004 and have been busy restoring the home ever since.
“Being a longtime historic preservationist, I believe in quality, doing it right the first time,” Will smiles. He was a pioneer in preservation back in the ’70s, when he lived in Denver. “It’s not only for ourselves because we love living in it, but it’s also our gift to future generations.”
And they are doing it right.
When the Colonial Revival wraparound porch showed signs of rot, the couple could have run to the local home repair store for pressure-treated wood to replace it. Or they could have purchased beautiful mahogany. Instead, they researched what sort wood would have been used when the porch was added to the home in the early 1920s. Based on this research, they purchased reclaimed 120-year-old heart pine from a mill in Georgia. The result is a stunning, warm floor that just begs to be touched. Normal boards are 3/4 of an inch thick; this stuff is 11/4 inches.
The porch boasts 24 Tuscan columns. Seven showed signs of decay and had to be replaced. The remainder required repairs.
A teensy leak in the kitchen unearthed mazes of pipes ó “a virtual jungle of pipes,” Mary interjects ó beneath the house, dating from the nine apartments added there in the ’60s. Bit by bit, the unused pipes have been removed so that now the house has an orderly plumbing system.
The two front rooms were carpeted. Removal of the carpet revealed a fairly new pine floor. The Jameses dug deeper, with astounding results. The original floor is quarter-sawn heart pine with a Greek key border.
The deep walls for the wide central hallway held a secret: inside were massive pocket doors, weighing 300 pounds each, but they were walled up inside the hallway. The Jameses have restored them for one of the two parlors; they will get to the other two as they reach that point in the restoration.
The walk-out vestibule upstairs was yet another challenge. Burdened by years of pigeon droppings, it was not the delightful retreat it might be. Mary gamely donned a mask and gloves and spent a day shoveling the guano. Today it is a pristine little place to step outside.
All this work is impressive, but nothing has been as dramatic ó or as public ó as watching the removal of the aluminum siding and subsequent restoration of the wood siding.
“Oh, my, when they pulled off the siding, all sorts of stuff came out ó dirt, straw, nests, dead birds ó the painters’ faces were covered with dirt.” Mary James is a great storyteller, and no story quite has her passion like the story of this house.
At one point a worker pulled siding off to reveal a hornets’ nest. Stings on his head, face and neck required a quick trip to the emergency room.
After removal of the siding, the next great task was taking the paint off the siding. Detail emerged in the moldings as layer after layer of paint came off.
Removing the paint was not an easy task, either. Many painters use grinders to remove so much stubborn paint. The James’ painter, Eberhard “Ebby” Denker, refused to use one, as it would damage the wood. Instead, his staff used paint shavers and sanded and scraped the wood by hand. This method took much longer than using conventional means but preserved the integrity of the wood. Denker experimented with using chemicals because of the sheer volume of paint, but discarded the method because of its toxicity. “It’s poison,” he says.
Denker hails from Germany, where he attended trade school for three years to learn the craft of painting. Another three and a half years in school prepared him to own his own business, and an apprenticeship with a master painter taught him the finer points of the craft. Denker came to the U.S. in 2000 and within a year opened his own business, Quality Painting.
One key part of the project was replacing missing ornament. Apparently when the aluminum siding was installed, the workers used chisels to lop off beautiful Victorian woodwork that might be in the way. This included rosettes along the fascia, called “bosses,” and a “drop ornament,” a large inverted fleur-de-lis that hung from the gable. The Jameses called Tim Isenberg, local master woodworker, who milled about 50 of the rosettes, and crafted the larger ornament as well.
“I used different woods for them: cedar, Spanish cedar, mahogany, walnut and reclaimed 100-year-old pine. All these types of wood are resistant to the elements.” Isenberg set up a duplicator on his lathe and cranked the pieces out one-by-one.
Another craftsman has been neighbor Niven Bayer. Bayer and Denker have worked closely. As Denker discovers more decayed wood, he calls Bayer to come replace it. Bayer also reconstructed much of the walk-out vestibule upstairs, as the pigeons had not been kind to the wood.
“This has definitely not been a sand-and-paint job,” chuckles James. He points out that every hole in the siding from the aluminum had to be filled. There are hundreds of them. The paint removal was in progress for twelve weeks before the first stroke of new paint was applied.
Once the upper floor was totally stripped, the bare wood was breathtaking. Several local folks suggested that the Jameses might want to stain the wood rather than paint it.
“We considered it,” Mary said. “But Will is so true to history. He realized that the Victorian homes just were not stained. They were painted. We want to go with the original intent.”
The home appears on October Tour as a “work in progress,” definitely not a finished product. “We should live so long to see it completed,” Mary jokes.
The couple accede that they owe much to the prior owners of the home, John Conn and Michael O’Rorke. They transformed the home from a 9-unit apartment house back to a single-family home. They also uncovered the eight fireplaces that are located throughout the house. The house was on the tour when they owned it, in 2002.
The McCubbins-Rouser house is an expansive Italianate house, characterized by the extensive moldings and ornamentation. It was built in 1879 and has 6,105 square feet of living space.