Mansfield House South Garret

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.

Garret door, with left side of frame slightly skewed.

The entrance to the Mansfield House south garret. The door frame is more-or-less plumb on the right, and highly out of plumb on the left, with a wedge attached to the edge of the door to compensate for it (explanation to follow). One of the old Wood Crushing Stones of the Indian Treaty Tree holds the door shut. A temperature / relative humidity datalogger maintains a lonely vigil, just to the left of the door.

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.

Garret window and corner facing south.

View inside the garret facing due south. The 12/12 window is larger than normal for a room this size. The plaster cove above is a nicely done piece of work.

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.

Garret interior partition and bullnose.

Interior of the south garret, facing north. The chimney bay is just on the other side of the end wall. In this photo, the plaster cove between lean-to ceiling and knee wall is obvious.

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.

Wide plank flooring of the south garret.

The old growth, softwood "deal floor" of the Mansfield House south garret.

The floor also carries an interesting historic record. For example, there’s this odd cut-out in the southeast corner whose purpose is unclear:

Cut out in corner of garret floor.

A rectangular cut-out, visible in this photo as the dark area in the far corner of the floor.

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:

Carpenters mark in flooring plank.

A mark delineating the plank's centerline.

while another appears either to be a roman numeral “nine” or “eleven”:

Another carpenters mark in a flooring plank.

Yet another mark in a different plank.

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.

Close up of floor planks and iron nail heads.

Close up of the south garret floor right above the rear girt (a large beam running longitudinally between two posts), where the ends of these planks are butted together. Both machine cut and hand forged iron nails (and even a few modern wire nails, in several spots) secure these planks today.

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:

Mansfield House severely leaning to one end.

The Mansfield House was in a highly moribund state, prior to its 1925-26 complete restoration. This photo shows how severely the house frame was racked by the leaning chimney column.

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.

Antique hanging light.

This curious antique hanging lamp is in need of some cleaning and polishing. And maybe even some rewiring...

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?).

Draft shield over forced air register in ceiling.

I recently placed a draft shield over the forced air register in the south garret ceiling. Why? To keep debris and dust from the badly deteriorated flex duct right above from raining down into the garret (I need to replace that duct very soon, before the heating season begins).

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.

Garret window, looking up.

This view of the south garret window shows more of the interesting plaster work found here. The "box" right above the window encloses the cantilevered end of a tie-beam, where it carries the large rear plate, just above the overhead portion of the ceiling.

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.

Garret window with tobacco cloth curtain.

The south garret window properly dressed in tobacco cloth. Needless to say, the wrought iron rod doesn't quite fit the sloped ceiling. However, the upper area between the interior sash stops is reserved for a forthcoming insulating roller shade (with a homespun finish, of course). Besides, I live for this sort of quirkiness.

(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… ;-)

About John Poole

My interests include historic homes, architectural preservation and restoration, improving the energy performance of old houses, and traditional timber frames.
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9 Responses to Mansfield House South Garret

  1. I didn’t find the random photos odd, John. (Notice I put the comma in there and didn’t call you Odd John, John.) What I find odd, John, and I do like odd, by the way, in case you weren’t aware of that tendency, is that I found no mention of differential equations, partial or otherwise, in this article. Don’t you think that’s odd, John?

    I do like the floors. We used 80+ year old hardwood flooring, salvaged from a local school, in the house I built.

    Seeing the racking in this house, though, makes me realize that I have to agree with Scott Nearing. I’d rather start new than try to restore an old house like that. That’s me. I’m glad there are people like you to advocate for keeping some of the old ones around, but I wouldn’t want to be the one to do it.

    ~ ab3

    • John Poole says:

      Hi ab3,

      Oddly enough, I’m saving the differential equations for when I develop my “house as a system” models of 17th and 18th century Connecticut homes. I also plan to summon the spirits of Pascal, Lavoisier, and Boyle (possibly others) to help out, wherever necessary.

      Regarding the racking, there’s a small degree of lean in the house today, but it’s nothing compared to what had been. The true “heavy lifting” was done back in the 1920′s, when the house was moved, straightened, and re-situated on modern (at the time) footings.

      That was accomplished by folks far more knowledgeable and intrepid than I could ever hope to be. But nonetheless, I fully understand your preference about starting new (oddly enough). And thanks for the compliment. I’m glad I’m here to advocate for these old places, too!

      And your reclamation of 80+ y.o. flooring in the house you’d built certainly makes a lot of sense to me, not only aesthetically, but in conservation terms, especially.

      ~ Odd John

  2. Randy Ritter says:

    Instead of the cutter’s mark, could the X on one plank go along with the XI or IX on the other plank as part of a numbered set?

    Reading about your historic preservation updates is inspiring and only continues to reinforce the terrific decision the Derby Historical Society made to sell the Mansfield House to you.

    Now, about that John Ireland Howe house…….

    • John Poole says:

      Hi Randy,

      That’s a great point that I hadn’t considered. It could very well be that these are instances of numerical sequencing. Only the intersection of the ‘X’ is dead on the exact center of the plank, so that initial impression stuck with me. It never fails, does it? Find two data points, and you only wish you had a third to break any ambiguities!

      And thanks very much for the highly complimentary comments. I certainly hope it was the right decision, and I’ll do my best to live up to DHS’ expectations.

      But I’m afraid the Howe house will have to wait until one of us wins the Powerball! :-)

      ~ John

  3. Hi John,

    I have been riveted to your page since I found it today. I love the pics and narrative. Have any of the floors been painted (in full or around the edges)? If so, how would you deal with those?

    Thanks! Kerry

    • John Poole says:

      Thanks, Kerry!

      I’m glad you find the postings here interesting. Some are quite long, and perhaps overly detailed, but I try to convey as much information as I can.

      Regarding the wood floors, all of them here are in a natural state, with none painted. I suppose if they’d had paint around the edges, I’d probably try to remove the paint with some non-toxic, non-aggressive remover (like a soy-based one). But if an entire floor had been painted, I’d leave it as is, and maybe just apply a fresh coat or two to brighten it up.

      Here’s a great product line you might be interested in, BTW: http://www.solventfreepaint.com/

      Sometimes, I think it’s best just to leave historic wood as is, even if its coated over and you’d prefer to have the natural wood exposed. My own philosophy is to avoid damaging things, as much as possible.

      - John

  4. John Poole says:

    Hi-ya, my favorite Californian amiga.

    Knee wall is the small, vertical wall often built between a floor and a sloping roof, especially in finished attic areas. Often, people have small doors to make the space behind the knee wall accessible for storage. But my knee walls here are solid. Knee walls make guys like Allison above crazy because they’re often leaky and not properly insulated.

    And yes, there’s much work to be done. This is one of the smaller projects, actually. So what are you waiting for? Collect some old clothes and gloves; we gotta get crackin’ on all this stuff! :-D

    ~ Oddly John

  5. John Poole says:

    Of course you can! Just be careful not to block its sensor, or little LED blinking light. The blinking light amuses me.

  6. John Poole says:

    That’s OK. I still plenty you can borrow!

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