Homeowners share stories of house foundations
Posted on 01/19/2023
Window in the basement of the Barry home on High Street. (Photo by Liz Cezat)From basements and floors to windows and walls, Northville’s historic homes were built to last. This article explores elements of the original construction and how homeowners interviewed for this series live with those items or have updated them – typically for better insulation, improved appearance or functionality.

Let’s start from the basement and work our way up. Many of these homeowners have a portion of their basement set in stone with mortar. Most still have sections of concrete or dirt floors.

Mike Weyburne, 226 West, prides himself on being a handyman who can fix most things around his historic home. After moving in with his wife Sarah, Mike added insulation around the poured concrete foundation with blanket insulation inside and foam outside. “It makes the basement less like a freezer and more like a refrigerator,” he said.

Pat Stein and her late husband, Bruce, contracted with a builder and worked together to add a tall-ceiling basement underneath the family room addition soon after moving into 419 Dubuar in 1986. The new basement section, with oodles of storage, abuts the original basement that has a low ceiling, stone walls and a partial stone floor. The crawl space off the original basement was sealed off because it was letting in too much cold air.

John and Liz Carter, 536 W. Main St., moved into a home that already had an addition built. Their basement was two-thirds finished to delineate the original home (and foundation) from the addition. The classic white pillars in the basement family room not only support the ceiling but play well with the fieldstone wall that marks the original basement. Historic elements in the original section provide a glimpse into a distant past and are an intriguing contrast to the modern addition.

Marianne and Thom Barry, 239 High St., have a unique basement in its original state with hand-hewn beams and bark, fieldstone walls and original wood windows and doors. There are remnants of a rustic basement fireplace, which original occupants used to make pottery. Marianne thinks that the original owners of the house, which was part of a working farm, may have brought in some small animals, perhaps sheep or chickens, for sheltering during the coldest winter days. There was a half door in one part of the basement leading to an enclosed area, where the animals could have been let in and out. Thom recalls that when he was washing the basement wood-plank walls, the odor from the wood smelled like barn animals.

Kathy Spillane, 487 W. Cady, noted that her son, who is 6’7, has to stoop when he goes into his parent’s basement. “We don’t have the luxurious basements with tall ceilings (in older homes),” Kathy said. “Many of the older homes have stone walls and some have dirt floors.”

Ray Bailey and AnnMaryLee Vollick, 116 S. Rogers, are putting an 800 ft2 addition on their 1845-era home, which will add a new kitchen and family room, nestled over a partial addition to the basement. While digging the hole for the new foundation in the rear of the house, the existing foundation, which is simply loose stones stacked on top of each other, started falling apart and into where the workers were digging.

Bailey noted, “As a temporary solution, an architectural engineer came out and designed a way to support the back of the house so they could continue digging the new hole. This support allowed the rocks from the existing foundation to be able to harmlessly fall. Additionally, a new cement foundation was poured and braced on to support the existing walls and preserve the house structure.”

Walls stand tall
Thick walls are the norm in older homes. They were built with plaster over lath, which is 1/4-inch thick wood framing. Those short pieces were pounded into studs and plaster was placed over that. Horsehair was often used as wall filler. Many homeowners delight in the durability and sturdiness of plaster walls.

Bailey prefers drywall over plaster. “Plaster cracks,” he said. “It’s very expensive to fix. Not a lot of people (skilled trades) do it.”

The Barry’s house on High Street underwent a major renovation to the back and upper floors in 1985. Marianne said the workers skim-coated the plaster walls to fix the cracks. They were fortunate to locate an Italian wet plaster specialist for one of their renovation projects. They make it a priority to use craftsmen who know how to repair historic homes.

Molding accentuates a home’s good bones
Having decorative molding on walls, baseboards, ceilings and door and window frames is another hallmark of an older home and elevates the character of the room. The molding and trim is often stained wood, rather than painted, especially in Craftsman-style homes.

Bailey’s house has original wainscoting in the front parlor. Chair-rail moldings are original in the adjoining two rooms and provide continuity between the large, secondary front room and the dining room. The thin band of molding creates a sense of intimacy by visually reducing the scale of the large rooms.

Wallpaper needs to change with the times
Peeling off old wallpaper often comes with the territory of buying an older home.

“There were seven layers of wallpaper,” said Bailey. “We could piece together different stages of the home just by looking at the sections of wall that were removed (for the renovation).”

Weyburne also encountered unwanted wallpaper. “It was like moving into a period house. The wallpaper was Victorian – fancy textured and pink. It was nice but we wanted neutral. The wallpaper went up the stairs. We removed it and went a bit modern.”

Stein had to wrestle with removing wallpaper. It took three months for her and her husband to obtain clean walls again by steaming then scraping. “It was layers and layers of paper and paint,” she said. “It was nothing historic, just ugly.”

Ending this section on a high note, Gail LeVan, 132 Randolph, noted, “Old houses have a lot of quirks and crannies but everyone who comes into my old houses say that they feel immediately at home and safe.”

Below: The original door still keeps out the cold in the Barry's basement on High Street. //At the Carters' home, an addition was added to the basement by a previous owner; the original fieldstone wall designates the contour of the original basement.  Photos by Liz Cezat.
Door in Barry's basement on High Street.
Original fieldstone wall of the Carters' basement