Sunday, September 28, 2014

The little church on the river

I was trying to imagine Green Cove Springs in the 19th century: steamboats dropping off passengers, deluxe Victorian resort hotels, and visitors taking the waters in search of restorative health. As I ambled down St. Johns Avenue, taking photos of some of the houses lining the street, my friend Robin from Authentic Florida yelled out "we'll meet you at the church." I continued down the road until I saw a white wooden building that I assumed was the church. (It turns out that structure was a WWII-era building from Camp Blanding in Starke.) As I walked alongside the structure and turned the corner – Bam! Right next to the river was one of the prettiest Carpenter Gothic style churches I've ever seen... anywhere!

St. Mary's Episcopal Church, perched a mere 40 feet from the St. Johns River was built in 1879. Phil Eschbach, our guide on this photo journey of north central and northern Florida, is working on a book documenting the thirty-some Carpenter Gothic churches in the state. This is one of his favorites and he pointed out details like triangular shaped battens and panels below the windows that open to allow for cross ventilation.

Photo from the State Archives of Florida from the late 1800s

The interior is stunning as well. The church recently received a grant to allow for the restoration of the stained glass. Rising above the altar, the focal point of the church are three stained glass windows representing the virtues of St. Mary: faith, hope, and charity. Above each is a bird representing the same virtue: a Phoenix rising from the ashes, a pelican pecking at its breast, and a dove.

The beautiful Carpenter Gothic church reflected in the window of the building from Camp Blanding 

John the Baptist, one of two windows in the back of church

My photo doesn't do the space justice. Rich in history and soaked with the energy of decades of worship, it is quite stunning.

Our guide Phil, sits in a pew with the panel open to show how the church can be cooled with the cross breeze coming off the river.

On my previous visit to Green Cove Springs, I passed within a block of the church and never knew it was there. One of the things I learned on this road trip was that it's easy to overlook Old Florida right in your own backyard. While it's great to have a knowledgeable guide like Phil, it's also important to stop and check out the local business you've driven by for years, or explore what's down that dirt road you pass by every day. You'll never know what treasure you might discover once you get off the beaten path.

Note: This is the first in a series of posts based on a two and a half day road trip with Florida history tour guide Phil Eschbach and Authentic Florida's Robin Draper. More posts to come...

Friday, September 26, 2014

Old Florida home remodel phase 1: DEMO

Part of the process of creation is destruction. To build anew one must start with a blank canvas, Tabula rasa. And so the first step in the renovation of our 1924 bungalow was demolition.

First a temporary wall was constructed sealing off the front half of the house from the back half. The majority of the renovations are taking place in the back half, and by walling it off we could continue to live in the house a bit longer. So it wasn't long before plaster walls were crumbling down.

I have to admit it was kind of exciting because I was curious to see what we might find. Everyday after the workers left I poked through the rubble.

First the plaster wall was removed from the guest bedroom exposing the wood lathe from the wall on the opposite side. This would be become our guest bathroom.

Also exposed was the old knob and tube wiring that was used throughout most of the house.  Contemporary building codes required that we upgrade the electricity throughout the entire house.

Something appeared to have created a nest under our bathtub, probably rats.

When we removed the drop ceiling in our tiny kitchen we found two florescent light fixtures with bulbs intact. Perhaps the light switch that we thought did nothing was actually turning on lights we never knew existed. Could this explain our large power bills?

Beneath the vintage bathroom tile was plaster scored to look like tile.

My favorite surprise was this tiny ironing board found in the wall of the kitchen. It would have opened up in the back room which at one time had a washer and dryer in it.

Underneath the bathroom tile was this blue linoleum.

Snail shells inside the walls. Did they crawl there themselves or did a rodent feast on escargot?

Proof that our back room was an addition; the white tongue and groove overhang was the original back of the house. The addition will have similar tongue and groove overhangs. 

The back room sans windows. My guess is that it was originally a Florida room.

Walls demoed, the floors exposed to the elements before they too ended up in the dumpster. The floor boards were in rough shape and could not be salvaged.

Layers of linoleum in the kitchen like sedimentary rock formations, each one holding a story of our home's history. It was difficult to determine what the original flooring looked like.

Here's the back of the house with the back room removed. This would be as far as the house  originally stretched. The addition most recently held a room we called the "Elbo Room", a small bathroom, and two cramped closets. New construction starts here.
City code also mandated that we demo much of our driveway. Our home was once used for a construction business, and my theory is that the business was responsible for much of the concrete that surrounded the house. While I was happy to see it go, I was not thrilled about the unforeseen expense. But I suppose that is all part of the ongoing process....

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Renovating an Old Florida home

There have been many reasons why my posts have been few and far between, but lately it's because we are renovating our home. Anyone who has been through this process knows how overwhelming it can be, and I am finding it exasperating at times. But it is also a source of great insight and personal inspiration.

My wife and I learned soon after we moved in this house ten and a half years ago that the galley kitchen was not functional with more than one person in it. My Mother-in-Law dubbed it the "One Butt Kitchen." It truly was not suitable for more than one butt at a time.

Despite the house's ideal location, we soon stopped entertaining out of our frustration with the limitations imposed by the home's 1924 floor plan. And we started saving our money. About three years ago we hired an architect but got scared when several of the contractors bidding the job told us for almost the same money we could knock down our home and build a new one. But the real reason we hesitated was that we just weren't ready to commit to the process yet. About a year and a half ago we hired a contractor who specialized in renovating older homes. This was a good decision for us, because while we were at times exasperated by this 90-year old bungalow, we loved her like a little boy loves his 'blankey.' It's frayed and old but the sentimental attachment is deep and enduring.

So we are progressing with a plan that maintains the vintage elements of the home, but takes better advantage of its location and makes it more livable. Here are some photos that I took to document some of the areas that have since been demoed.

I created this mosaic to fill in the spot that was once obviously a window. Having dealt with a similar area that rotted in my previous home, I was anxious to try to make it less vulnerable to moisture. 
While I loved the vintage tile and tub of this bathroom, it was actually larger than our kitchen.  To have a larger kitchen, sadly, it had to go.
We wondered if the bathroom was original to the home's 1924 construction. Underneath the blue tile was plaster scored to look like tiles that was original to the house. My guess is that the this bathroom was added some time in the 1950s.
We called this room the Elbo Room, and it was our main living area. While it looks large in this photo, with furniture in it was actually quite small and a tight squeeze for family gatherings. Demolition showed this was originally an addition, probably a Florida Room or screened porch with dark wood paneling and linoleum floors.
This is actually a driveway in our backyard. At one time our home was used for a construction business so we had poured concrete driveway on three sides of our house. I did my best to make it more patio-like, but to no avail. While I was disappointed to lose the planter in the foreground, I will not miss this stretch of concrete.
At one point I stained the concrete to make it look better, hence the  remnants of the brick color. Drainage is an issue on our lot so previous owners had the driveway drain into a pipe that emptied into the yard. I tried to improve the appearance by adding rocks and a proper drain cover.
The renovation process has been both frustrating and exhilarating. I wanted to document what was, as an homage to a cute home with spaces we loved, despite their quirkiness. Stay tuned for images of the construction process as our space morphs into something new...