Every home needs a serviceable office, task area, or study, in my opinion. So I’ve chosen the south garret as the office of the Mansfield House. Why is that? Well, after all, it’s a small utility room; not really all that well suited as sleeping quarters, except maybe for a young child, and there aren’t any of those around here, right at the moment.
Also, the south garret’s orientation admits quite a bit of natural light during most of the day, either via its large 12/12 window, or from the well illuminated parlor chamber, to which it’s attached. A mostly white interior enhances this illumination. And cosmetically, the south garret is in better shape than any other second floor room. It also has a single forced air register to keep it warm in winter.
What exactly is a garret? Wikipedia describes it as a “habitable attic or small (and possibly dismal or cramped) living space at the top of a house“. J. Frederick Kelley often referred to it as a “lean-to attic”. In colonial saltbox style homes, garrets are the small “bonus rooms” found on either side of the central chimney, under the rear lean-to roof. Often, one garret has a rear stairway leading down to a pantry area, just off the kitchen. Both garrets were frequently used as storage areas.
The Mansfield House’s south garret is nicely finished, with lath and plaster overhead and lean-to ceilings, and a knee wall, all joined, respectively, by two, large radius coves. The plaster is in great shape, except for a few cracks, and the paint is hard and largely intact, save for a few small peels here and there.
But what’s really remarkable is the south garret floor, which consists of old growth softwood (most likely white pine). The planks are plain-sawn and of varying widths (I’ve measured them ranging from 9″ to 151/2” wide), about 3/4″ thick, and face-nailed to the joists. The floor is generally in good shape, although many areas are badly stained.
The floor also carries an interesting historic record. For example, there’s this odd cut-out in the southeast corner whose purpose is unclear:
And then there are these carpenter’s marks (although I suppose they also could be sawyer’s marks); one indicating the centerline of a plank:
while another appears either to be a roman numeral “nine” or “eleven”:
If they are indeed carpenter’s marks, then that would suggest these particular planks might’ve been sawn from timbers previously used elsewhere for framing. Though I somewhat doubt that, since house frames were mostly cut from hardwood (almost invariably white oak, in Connecticut). So I’ll conclude for now that these marks most likely came from a sawyer.
The south garret also has modern baseboard and quarter round molding along the perimeter of the floor. The baseboard, door, and window trim are all finished in a mustard color. As shown in the very first photograph of this article, the entrance door is extremely old and funky, with one side of its frame leaning toward the chimney. Undoubtedly, this is a consequence of the severe racking of the Mansfield House frame that had been caused by a sinking chimney column, a very long time ago:
The frame was straightened, and chimney column reinforced, back in the mid-1920s, during the Mansfield House restoration led by local historian Mabel P. Stivers. However, traces of this severe racking still remain, in much of the trim and plaster work along the main interior partition walls, as evidenced by the door photo.
What needs to be done for the south garret before it assumes its new role as home office? Well, not really all that much. I need to patch and repaint the ceiling and walls, and repaint the trim pieces before putting them back in place.
The floor, however, needs to be refinished in an historically sensitive manner. In the past, softwood plank floors of this style (so-called “deal floors”) were usually cleaned with hot water and lye, with sand sometimes used as an abrasive. In time, the applications of lye caused the floor planks, which were otherwise unfinished, to mellow to a light brown or brownish-grey. But no, I’m not going to use those same methods today. And I’m certainly not going to machine sand anything! NO. That’s a sure way to ruin an old historic floor, forever (remember those carpenter’s/sawyer’s marks, and hand-forged nail heads?).
Instead, the plan is to gently and conservatively clean the planks, using a linseed oil-based cleaner. Then, seal and finish them, with applications of warmed, boiled linseed oil, and beeswax. I’ll start off with a single plank at one end, and continue if I get good results. In some future floor refinishing effort elsewhere in the house, I might also experiment with mixtures of linseed oil and natural resin varnish, which is supposed to produce a very hard, durable finish. But here, at least, we’ll stick with the oil and wax approach, for now.
A key point of my strategy here, by the way, is that none of these cleaners and finishing agents incorporate VOCs, solvents, petroleum distillates, or heavy metals. The use of traditional and organic materials not only is an inherently green practice, but also more in keeping with how the maintenance of very old homes was accomplished in the distant past. It’s a practice often advocated by those promulgating sustainable preservation, and a cornerstone of my own concept of historic home performance. I’ll touch on this, and other related ideas, in greater detail, as my refinishing of the south garret floor moves forward.
(Do you find it odd that I just inserted several random photos in my diatribe on historic wood floor refinishing? I find it odd. But I can only show you just so many photos of old planks before…they start getting really old).
So, stay tuned for more updates on this mini-project, especially my attempts at sustainable historic wood floor refinishing; it should be interesting to see what sort of results come out this…