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The ghosts of old houses

Or what I did while not blogging yesterday.

I need a Ouija board. Or a medium. Yeah, a seance is in order. I really, seriously need to have a talk with the ghosts of the long-dead folks who built this house! I’ve got hard questions for those old haunts.

I mentioned the other day that the living room floor had already surprised me with an “issue” as I prepared to rip the wall-to-wall carpet out.

You old-house mavens told me what I was about to encounter. You were right — as far as that went.

Today was the day the ripping began. Before pulling up the carpet, though, the very handy handyman helping me took out the hideous raised platform that was under and around the pellet stove. This is what we found underneath:

The hole in my living room floor

Yes. A hole. With a … thing in it. And if that abomination isn’t exactly smack in the middle of my living room, it’s not discreetly tucked in a corner, either. It’s right next to the kitchen door, for one.

Then we started carpet ripping:

Living room wood floor exposed

You prepared me for what to expect: A big rectangle of ugly rough wood in the middle of the floor.

Well, sorta-kinda in the middle of the floor. The geniuses who designed the place positioned it exactly four feet from one wall, 45 inches from another, 54 inches from another, and a completely inexplicable 28 inches from the fourth wall.

The Big Ugly is 8-1/2 feet wide, which wouldn’t be too hard to cover with an area rug. Then it’s about 14-feet 9-inches long, which is way beyond affordable rug length. Time to get creative with floor paint or canvas floorcloth. (And thanks once again for that knowledge.)

From the look of all those rectangles within rectangles, I’m thinking several generations of residents must have attempted to cope with The Big Ugly in their own ways.

Still, every wood floor in the world is more beautiful than wall-to-wall carpet, and the photos don’t do this one justice. This is as far as we got today, but I can already see iIt’s going to “clean up real good.” However …

Longer view of partly exposed living room floor

You know how I kept talking about oak? Gloating over the fact that I had oak? Well, yes and no.

The bottom left half of the next pic is the bedroom (soon to become office) floor. Oak. Definitely. The top right? That’s the living room. Non-oak. Blatantly non-oak. I’m no wood expert, but I’m guessing vertical grain fir. Harder than today’s firs would be, for sure. Impressively tight-grained. But still a softwood and easily damaged by doggie claws. I see many, many coats of poly-stuff in my future.

Oak and fir (?) flooring abuting each other

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy. Delighted in fact to have found potential goodness under the carpet. Intrigued, even, by the challenge of solving its puzzles.

Still, I would ask the spirits of those dearly departed homebuilders:

  • Why would anybody put an oak floor and a fir (?) floor contiguous to each other?
  • And if you had to, why not put the better quality floor in the place where it’s going to show the most and bear the heaviest traffic?
  • And since you decided to put cheap wood in the living room, why didn’t you just go whole hog and do the entire floor with it?
  • And since you decided to put those undistinguished rough planks right in the middle of the room, why the heck didn’t you put them right in the middle of the room? Did you guys not have measuring tapes back then? Not even rulers?
  • And finally … finally, you malign spirits off there in the void … what possessed you to put a giant freaking hole smack in the middle of my beautiful floor???*

The contractor/handyman helping me out says discoveries like these are a normal part of his work days. OTOH, this is my first experience with an old house. I’m so glad I didn’t opt for a career in the building trades.


* Okay, I’m guessing the hole had to do with an old heating system. And it’s where it is because that spot is the exact geographic center of the house. Hey, “dig a hole in the middle of the house” was probably the 1900 AD notion of “central” heating. The hole must have had a pretty grate over it at one time.

But you know what? I’m not in the mood to accept that as an excuse. Not when somebody put a &^%$#@ubg! hole in my &^%$#@ing! floor.


  1. Woody
    Woody April 9, 2011 4:53 am

    That thing in the hole looks a lot like a well casing.

  2. Pat
    Pat April 9, 2011 4:56 am

    Exactly how old is this house anyway? A *large* number of (people and other) influences have brought your house to this condition. Possibly the stove/room has caught fire (more than once) that necessitated several repair jobs; that would explain why the floor is in such a varied condition, different woods, different paints and stains. Also furniture moved about many times allowed people to use the room in different ways.

    The hole is fascinating. Is it deep? Was the stove directly over it, or off to the side? Can that Thing in the hole be removed? Depending on the answers, you could line it with brick (looks like it’s metal-lined already) and use it for a safe.

    I currently live in a remodeled old farmhouse, and the ghostly sounds, off-kilter plumblines, and weird discoveries are constantly making me laugh or curse on a daily basis. At least you’re getting to re-do it yourself to your own specifications–more or less. Enjoy!

  3. Pat
    Pat April 9, 2011 5:36 am

    Re Woody’s statement: If it is a well casing, possibly there was a hand pump in the house, and possibly the room was part of a large country kitchen at one time. Since it’s near the kitchen, that would make sense.

    PS: Should that be “*As* it’s near the kitchen…” πŸ™‚

  4. Claire
    Claire April 9, 2011 7:31 am

    A well casing. Hm. At this point anybody’s guess may be better than mine. The other guy and I just looked into the spidery depths for a moment, shook our heads, then covered the hole with a piece of plywood. The hole appears to be 4-5 feet deep, but whether the “thing” belongs in it or was just tossed in there later, I don’t know. Given the hole’s location and the metal ducting that lines it I’m still thinking it’s an old heat vent. Once we’ve finished some more work, I’ll go down into the basement (whose mysteries I haven’t begun to explore) and see if I can get a better picture of what’s going on.

    The thing might be a well casing. But if so, I don’t think that hole is its native environment and the house isn’t old enough or rural enough to have had a hand pump in the kitchen. It was built more than 100 years ago, but as part of a neighborhood, which probably offered all the “mod-cons” of the day.

    The house seems only to have had one major remodel in its history — about 50 years ago. But of course many minor things could have been done to that floor over time without involving major house construction. All the evidence says that all three types of flooring — oak, fir (?), and pure crap — are original.

  5. Oliver
    Oliver April 9, 2011 7:35 am

    * Why would anybody put an oak floor and a fir (?) floor contiguous to each other?

    Possibly because they wanted the fir to show around the rug and oak was cheaper to use as a filler that would never show.

    Or the original owner did not use a rug. Many old homes have floors with two or more different woods used to create patterns.

    * And if you had to, why not put the better quality floor in the place where it’s going to show the most and bear the heaviest traffic?

    It is likely that fir is Douglas fir. Technically a softwood, it is as hard as oak and will wear similarly. Many folks think it prettier than oak.

    * And since you decided to put cheap wood in the living room, why didn’t you just go whole hog and do the entire floor with it?

    At the time the house was built, the fir might have been more expensive than the oak.

    * And since you decided to put those undistinguished rough planks right in the middle of the room, why the heck didn’t you put them right in the middle of the room? Did you guys not have measuring tapes back then? Not even rulers?

    It may have been offcentered to accommodate furniture around the perimeter, so that the rug would cover the actual space between the pieces.

    * And finally … finally, you malign spirits off there in the void … what possessed you to put a giant freaking hole smack in the middle of my beautiful floor???

    If you have a cellar, that big square hole was almost certainly to allow heat from an old wood or coal stove to rise naturally or from an old hot air system. Probably the latter given the sheet metal lining. The good news is that they can be patched with matching wood and, if done right and the floor refinished, will be very hard to spot unless you look for it.

    If it were my floor, I’d patch the hole, sand the whole floor as lightly as possible to get it all to bare wood, then apply three or four coats of oil-based polyurethane.

    As an option, you could think about using a stain to darken the oak to better match the fir. Or even just stain a one- or two-board width band around the outside of the oak to transition from the bare fir to the bare oak.

    Another thought – if that is not Douglas fir and is relatively soft, then it may have been used around the outside because it would get little traffic with the furniture in place. Doorways between rooms may well have had small rugs to connect the larger ones in the rooms.

  6. Guffaw
    Guffaw April 9, 2011 8:38 am

    I used to live in a home who’s previous occupant was a plumber. There were always plumbing ‘issues’ I’m no plumber, myself, but, it was as if his name was Rube Goldberg!
    One never knows what’s underneath.

  7. EN
    EN April 9, 2011 9:56 am

    First of “well casing” is my guess also. the next thing is I would explore the basement before I did another thing. It will tell you more about an old house then anything on top. Good luck.

  8. Jim B.
    Jim B. April 9, 2011 12:03 pm

    The answer to most of your questions sounds like it came down to one thing: MONEY. Before WWII if you were to describe the term, people would say that there is no such thing as disposable income. Whoever came up with that term never had to suffer being poor.

    I agree with EN, but would go even further, I would have checked out EVERYTHING about that house before I did anything, and that includes the basement. You never know where the bodies are lurking. ; )

  9. Kentucky Kid
    Kentucky Kid April 9, 2011 12:40 pm

    Just think of this entire process as a grand adventure, and think how much blog material you’ll get out of it.

    πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

  10. MamaLiberty
    MamaLiberty April 9, 2011 1:28 pm

    You bought a house without looking at the basement? Yikes!

    I’d say you have at least a few more surprises in store… πŸ™‚

  11. Claire
    Claire April 9, 2011 1:38 pm

    Oliver, good answers. πŸ™‚ The fir probably is Douglas-fir, as that’s the dominant tree in the area. And you could be right that oak was cheaper than fir back then (I do recall a time, even during my life, that oak was looked down upon.) You slightly misunderstood the predicament, though. It’s not a fir floor with oak in the middle. It’s an oak bedroom floor (pretty) that abuts a fir living room floor (nice but in bad shape). And in the middle of the fir floor is a rectangle of some really crappy, rough softwood.

    Got all the carpet up today. It’s very clear that nothing is ever going to make that wood in the middle look good. That section is either going to have to be painted or covered with something.

  12. Claire
    Claire April 9, 2011 1:45 pm

    MamaLiberty, EN, and Jim B. — I not only bought a house without looking at the basement. I bought a house without looking at the HOUSE. I never laid eyes on the place until after I closed on it.

    However, I may also have given a wrong impression. BEFORE I bought the place I’d seen more than a hundred photos, gotten two detailed descriptions, and had a home inspector spend four hours looking into its corners and crannies. Also, I didn’t mean to imply that I’ve never been in the basement. Yes, I’ve definitely been in the basement many times. It’s just that I’m not always clear on which parts of the basement are under which rooms, and although the basement seems very large, it’s actually only partial and I’m not sure which part of it correlates with that part of the living room — or if any part of it does. It’s possible that the hole in the living room goes into the ground under the part of the house where the basement isn’t. (I have no recollection of having seen any such thing down there, which suggests it’s either under dirt or is built into a wall where it wouldn’t stand out.)

    I may be a moron. But I’m not a complete one. πŸ™‚

    Kentucky Kid — You speak the truth!

    Guffaw — I kinda wish you hadn’t told me that. But since you have, I may as well laugh.

  13. Claire
    Claire April 9, 2011 1:50 pm

    Oliver — Oh yeah, you’re also probably right about why The Big Ugly is off-center. Now that all the carpet and padding is removed, the location of that rectangle is surprisingly pleasing to the eye.

    Now, if it were only made out of something other than … oh, old packing crates or used warehouse flooring or whatever it may be!

    And even if they had a good excuse back then for putting a spider-filled hole in my floor, I still don’t approve. πŸ˜‰

  14. Jim B.
    Jim B. April 9, 2011 2:34 pm

    If I were you I’d get the configurations of the basement established first so you’d KNOW where and how things are. You’d have a much better idea what and where you can MODIFY. For example if you know where that hole in the floor in relation to the basement, then you can begin to figure out what you can do.

    Incidentally, I knew that you brought the house sight unseen, but as long as you had it professionally overlooked…

  15. Roberta X
    Roberta X April 9, 2011 5:12 pm

    There are products user to reinforce and “stabilize” soft wood, though usually on a smaller scale; and there are finishing tricks with pigmented fillers that can make crummy-looking wood merely have an excess of “character.” –But it’s a lot of work. Cost varies, in inverse proportion to effort. (Strange bonus: you can have wood with grain colors not found in nature. Wasabi green and lavender? We have the technology; this is not necessarily a good thing.)

    The Thing In The Floor (probably Derleth, not Lovecraft) looks like an old floor heater. Is your home, by chance, plumbed for gas? I think you’d have noticed it if it was impinging on the full basement, so it’s probably over a crawl space.

  16. naturegirl
    naturegirl April 9, 2011 11:17 pm

    I remember that, Claire’s unique way of house buying, LOL…..and how fast the whole process went, too…..

    Does the “thing’s” top come off? I’d drop something into it to see where it ends up…….I think it’d make not only a great safe (as suggested) but a great place to stash food-ammo-prep stuff…..who’d ever guess there’s a “thing” in the floor like that, hehe, – besides, it looks pretty sturdy…..

  17. Pat
    Pat April 10, 2011 3:07 am

    Claire, Are there any basement windows; where do they look out? Are there any crawl-space accesses on the outside; on which side(s) of the house? This would help you figure out which part of the house has basement or not.

    And which are load-bearing walls inside? One might align over the basement’s foundation wall under the house.

  18. woody
    woody April 10, 2011 8:46 am

    It looks like the thing in the floor has a hole in the top. Attach a fishing sinker or a small weight to a string and see how deep it is. If it is deeper than about 10 feet it is probably a well. If your house was equipped with gas lights at one time it may be an old calcium carbide acetylene generator. The neighbors house has one.

  19. UnReconstructed
    UnReconstructed April 10, 2011 10:23 am

    I want to know what the heck that cylinder thingee is….

  20. Teresa Sue
    Teresa Sue April 10, 2011 12:39 pm

    Considering the “hole safe” is being thoughly discussed on the internet, it is no longer a safe “safe”….just sayin’. Perhaps if it’s cool in there, you could use it to hide your chocolate, πŸ˜‰

  21. Dan Perkins
    Dan Perkins April 10, 2011 12:45 pm

    I think it was a floor heater and originallly wasn’t an ugly hole, but had a nice grate over it. They were around a hundred years ago and a few of them still work.
    As for the odd configurations of wood, that may be due to damage at different times from water or fire. The quality of wood used each time reflects the owner’s financial state at the time.
    I mean, they did put a gas fired furnace in the middle of a wooden floor so…

  22. Roberta X
    Roberta X April 10, 2011 5:30 pm

    Dan, that was pretty much SOP for years and years. It works — if the floor furnace is properly designed. That thing looks like a modded gas-fired “salamander” at first glance, but I wouldn’t bet against the acetylene generator, either. (I’ve gone caving with the tiny version on my helmet, back when that was still the hot app. It’s okay if you don’t think about it too much).

    Step One is to check for gas pipes. (My trust in old gas pipes is non-existent. Black iron rusts; copper has nasty embrittlement-failure modes). Step Two is to make sure there’s not a nameplate (etc.) on the thing that would help figure it out. Step three is finding it in the cellars/crawlspace. Sometimes there are fascinating things in crawlspaces — I ended up with a very nice Millers Falls hand drill and an antique buzzer from one expedition!

    Ideal outcome: it’s something strange and unusual that Claire can swap for flooring or cash. There are a lot of people who collect antique stoves and heaters.

  23. winston
    winston April 11, 2011 11:07 am

    Looking on the bright side…you have a secret floor compartment now. I think.

  24. Scott
    Scott April 11, 2011 12:43 pm

    In old houses, it’s probably “We Used What We Had(or What Was Cheap). It maybe be a well casing(could’ve been a sink or some such there at some point) another, somewhat unlikely, possibility is a carbide tank. Some older houses with gas lights used carbide(mix carbide and water,get acetylene gas-used where city gas wasn’t available. Illuminating gas isn’t the same thing as natural gas). Those had a habit of blowing up. If you let acetylene pressure build up past 25 or 30 pounds..booooom.
    There may be old knob-n-tube wiring,ancient gas or water lines left in walls-all sorts of things. Occassionally, ancient and new are mixed(sometimes,new fixtures are connected to ancient pipes or wiring, especially if it’s difficult to replace). I used to work rental maintenenace-sometimes you find really cool things-like perfectly intact gas chandeliers/wall sconces,sealed in when those old vaulted cielings were lowered,or walls “brought in”.
    Look at it as a treasure hunt-you may yet find something cool in the walls.

  25. Claire
    Claire April 11, 2011 12:50 pm

    Roberta X — the wood lady! Thanks for chiming in. I think you and Dan Perkins (and anybody else who pegged The Thing in the Floor as part of a heating systerm) are right. Whether it was gas or something else I don’t know . But I made a brief foray into the basement and found the metal casing the “thing” is in. It’s suspended below the floor. Goes down only about four feet. On one side it has a small electric motor. On another it has a hole where something might once have been connected to it. The next week is going to be busy, but I’ll try to find some time to go down again and get photos of it and look for a nameplate.

    Wasabi green and lavender wood grain? Um … probably not. But it’s funny because you actually chose two colors that would go very well in this room and now you’ve got me curious.

    BTW, RX — a big LOL and agreement. The Thing in the Floor is definitely more Derleth than Lovecraft. Not quite scary enough to be the real deal.

  26. Claire
    Claire April 11, 2011 12:54 pm

    winston — Um … I think I just made it about as un-secret as possible.

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