Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Carter Mansion

The oldest standing frame house in Tennessee, it is believed, still rests on its foundation in Elizabethton, not far from Sycamore Shoals, famed site of the departure of the Overmountain Men on their legendary march all the way to South Carolina to visit death upon the loyalist forces at King's Mountain.  The area reeks of history - it seems to have ghosts - or perhaps I'm just hypersensitive.  My forebears (David and William McNabb) were Overmountain men so it felt like home.

To be such an important house, it is very sparsely represented on the internet.  Even being a student of the state's history, I didn't know about it until a few years ago.  Growing up, a kid thinks Tennessee history was lived in log cabins, such as the Davy Crocket birthplace (not too far down the road from the Carter place).  Of course, a lot was.  But we don't hear much about how people only lived in rough cabins as briefly as they possibly could.  As soon as they could rub two pennies (or shillings) together, they started sawing out boards and mixing up lime paint to try to throw something together that had a little class, something that might impress the inlaws and the preacher's wife.

New England and the mid Atlantic states are covered in nice 17th and 18th century houses, but then they had been settled for over one hundred years before rough men punched their way into the Tennessee and Kentucky back country.  We don't have a lot of great 18th century houses in Tennessee, but we do have some, some of them splendid.

The Carter Mansion doesn't have a solid birth date that we know of.  There is no record of its existence before the mid to late 1790's, but some place its construction 10 to 20 years earlier than that, based on - well based on not much other than local tradition.  It is certainly appropriate in style and construction for a date in the 1780's.  It was the home of John and his son Landon Carter, and was inhabited until well after the Civil War.

The house is just a gem.  It is fully pannelled, floor to ceiling, with several impressive hearths.  The interior walls are one panel thick - one board separates the rooms.  Privacy was obviously a scarce commodity.  The extensive interior woodwork was apparently done off site and imported - it is not likely that there were cabinetmaking or joinery experts in the region - still a howling wilderness - that could pull off a job like this.

The main hearth in the front room is out of character with anything I've seen from the time.  I wonder if it isn't 19th century.

The clapboards feature a nice ovolo or thumbnail profile, different from the more commonly seen beaded edge.

The house as it stands, it must be remembered, is shockingly original.  That it would have survived the sandblast of time in such a state is, well, a head shaker.

Photos of the building during restoration show its solid frame work - traditional domestic framing of the time.

This is so different from the modern "timber frame" with corner braces sprouting like tree branches from every vertical post.  I look at modern frames and wonder what sort of hurricanes and tornadoes the architect expects will blow through.  Of course, the frame is a huge visual focal point now - an unthinkable oddity in the 18th century.  Then, if you wanted to see a frame, you went out to the barn.

Details everywhere.  The effect of sunlight and shadow on all these great panel edges is hypnotic.  There is something really comforting about looking at a room and knowing immediately how all of it fits together.  There are no mysteries, nothing unsettling.  It's a house built by people, for people.  This is hard to put into words.

Amazing stone work.  Still straight as a chalk line after all these years.  This is just tremendously impressive to me.

Another great hearth, and definitely original.  The walls look black now but would have been a seafoam green in their day.  The copper based paint oxidizes over time until it almost looks like old walnut left outdoors.

Beautiful, tasteful cornice.  This house is one of my main inspirations as I plan and construct my own frame addition to the cabin we live in now.

This level of ornamentation is completely achievable and is neither plain and drab nor is it ostentatious.  Everything about the design is balanced and beautiful.  And this in Indian country, during a Revolution.  Pretty sweet stuff.  We have no excuse.

Friday, August 27, 2010


This is a really, really great book, and puts in clear language and crisp illustrations all of the subconscious things I've been thinking about houses for 25 years.  I've always admired traditional 18th century domestic architecture.  Coming from a (in some ways) complimentary trade background (gunmaking), I always firmly believed and taught that "the best work that can be done, has already been done."  Don't try to reinvent the wheel - you're nowhere near the wheelwright you think you are.   Make your bones by copying the Good Stuff, and after you've copied enough, the ability to truly see will sink into your hands and eyes and heart and you'll be able to make good work of your own.

Rifles, houses,'s all one. And this book clearly delineates all the ways in which we get it wrong these days. It levels a deadly broadside at the McMansion, and in a very analytical manner shows you how to take a "wrong" house design, and with ease turn it into a real showstopper.  People will adore the house, but won't be able to put their finger on exactly why it looks so good. Explain to them that it's because the facade is designed along the lines of a Golden Mean rectangle, and that the upstairs windows are slightly smaller than the downstairs, and that the roof pitch is just right to give you the correct amount of exposure to balance the front wall, that the windows are set back slightly to give a sense of mass to the walls...their eyes will glaze over of course. But what matters is that classic design is intrinsically beautiful.  Its beauty is self evident. It doesn't have to be explained to be appreciated, it requires no expertise to be adored, unlike so much that is modern. 

Grab this book if you're interested in why some houses are beautiful, and others aren't, but you can't quite put your finger on the reasons why.

The things you find...

I am becoming more and more entranced with traditional building practices and materials, by which I mean traditional 18th century western European/American colonial practices and materials. (One must define one's terms.) A week or so ago, I was rereading what I consider to be woodworking scripture - one of Roy Underhill's early books - and he describes how oyster shells or limestone (both pure calcium carbonate) were baked in a kiln, then when covered with water, they erupted into pure white lime. This raw product could be mixed with a few other items and made into a variety of other items. Mixed with sand, it became mortar for laying brick. Mixed with horsehair and sand it could plaster walls. It could be turned into lime wash paint for those plaster walls. All this great stuff, from rocks and seashells?

It couldn't be that easy, I thought. He's leaving out 10 important steps, at least, or we'd be doing it that way today. Well, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but this video on YouTube. And, as they say, you could have knocked me over with a feather.

Slaking Lime At Virginia Lime Works

And it was just "one of those moments" for me, sort of like when you realize that a farmer's horse makes manure that fertilizes the garden, that feeds the family, that works the horse, that fertilizes the garden...etc. etc. And it "clicks". That's the way life is supposed to be lived! Not some smelly chemicals poured out of a can, but natural items, dealt with in simple ways, that make superlative building materials that will last hundreds of years.

Virginia Lime Works also hosts a truly fascinating 9 part video series on YouTube about historic masonry practices, including the Lime Cycle, which for pure "Wow" factor, blows the old Water Cycle right out of the...well, right out of the water. Virginial Lime Works markets a wide variety of absolutely natural, completely authentic, utterly non-toxic traditional lime building materials. You could eat anything they sell, if you could stand the taste. (I don't know that for a certainty, but I would bet money.) And what's more, lime mortars and paints actually absorb CO2 out of the air, as they endeavor, forever, to return back to their natural state, before they were so rudely thrust into a red hot kiln. They want nothing more than to be oyster shells or limestone rock once again, and so year after year lime mortars get stronger and stronger, provided you follow the advice of Those Who Know. 

The Lime Cycle

Traditional building trades and materials are, for me, a really slippery slope. I spoke to Tod Herrli today about ordering sash planes for planing my own windows. I've finally found a source for good wooden lath for plaster work. And of course, it goes deeper still. We haven't even started talking about windows and doors, or the pitch of the roof, or how high up the wainscoting should rise. But we will.


I don't have much of a 401K here lately, but I have wealth in abundance out the back door. We had, (before the economy dropped a cigarette in its lap), planned on building a big new house on our land, relegating our present log cabin to "guest house" status. So we had a fair bit of clearing done. They don't call it White Oak Mountain for nothing - it's like walking through a cathedral. We took down maybe 5 or 6 (each one hurt me as it hit the ground with a crash that would wake the dead) but I swear we can't even see where they came from now, and it seems that 2 more have sprung up for every one we dropped. 

So the logs sit there. Like in The Telltale Heart, I hear the insects eating them in my nightmares. I wanted them cut into lumber while it was still cold, but the sawmill man was "waiting for a part". And here it is August. I guess I've lost an inch all around each one to rain and rot and insect mandibles. What empires, what towers, fell into ruin while the sawmill man waited for a part? 

But it won't be long now - he's on his way he says.

There should be about 1,200 board feet of white oak there - perhaps justbarely enough to floor the addition to the cabin (two floors) that I'm building now. I am ambivalent about oak floors - for historical authenticity in my neck of the woods, I would have preferred yellow pine, plus my forearms hurt just thinking of driving cut nails through dry oak. But this is here and it's practically free, and what's more it came off this land. I think there is a proper symmetry there. If a tree falls into your lap, you should make the most of the situation.

It's a Poor Livin'...

For a while, I made a meagre living as a full time gunmaker. A good friend told me, between file strokes, "It's a poor livin'...workin' on the guns..." I built Kentucky rifles for a growing and appreciative clientelle, but the nature of the work being what it is, I realized after a few years that I would never be able to quit my "other job" (which paid the bills) nor would I be able to buy a good used vehicle, or take a vacation to any place nicer than the local mall. With two growing children I did the Right Thing, and closed the doors for several years, went to grad school, and now have a Real Job. Needless to say, I regret my decision, but the bills get paid on time. And that, as they say, ain't hay.

The Kentucky Rifle - where to begin? All my life it has sung to me like the Siren (crashing on the rocks and all). I don't know how to explain or describe the hold these things have on my imagination. Beauty is where we find it - there is in each of us a void that holds objects of a certain shape. Inside me there has always been a hole in the shape of an old long barrelled rifle

The longrifle may look primitive, but it must be understood that a fine flintlock was balanced atop the peak of 300 years of firearms development in its heyday. And like all the highly and fully developed trades, best quality gunmaking (whether here or in Europe) encapsulated the best of all the arts that touched it. A fine rifle might contain some of the best ornamental wood carving, the best metal engraving, and the best forge work of any single item in the culture. As an object of the decorative arts, it has not gotten its just deserts. I have seen furniture carving in museums at which the docent and spectators gazed in mute amazement, that would not even be considered middling work on a good rifle.

There were ornate clocks and splendid furniture and majestic architecture in the 18th century, but good gunmaking could hold it's place next to any of them as work superbly and elegantly designed and executed. Utilitarian though it had to be, it was still near the pinnacle of the arts of it age.

Today there are many talented and dedicated craftsmen who can do work as good as, or better, than any that was ever produced. There are one or two geniuses that rank with the half dozen greatest gunmakers who ever lived. To be alive at the same time as those men, and to have known them and worked with a couple of them, is one of the great joys of my life.

I'm still making rifles. For myself, for friends, but not too many for sale. Like raising daughters, it hurts too much to see them go off with strangers.

First things...

...first.  I started a blog a few months ago called "Art and Mistry", but let it die because there is another blog, by a furniture maker whom I very much admire (Adam Cherubini) called Arts and Mysteries.  This was unintentional.  So, since I find myself doing some cool things, and Facebook just doesn't seem the right place to talk about anything of substance, I feel compelled to start writing it down in a place where someone might gain something from it.

My main interests, here as I enter middle age, have boiled down to building Kentucky longrifles, building traditional timber frame buildings and most of the associated building trades, and making some furniture up to what would be considered simple cabinet making.  I do not see myself ever making a bonnet top highboy or a marquetry inlaid writing desk.  By God's good graces I live in a wonderful place - in the middle of a forest of oak, hickory, yellow pine and beech - pretty much in that order - and have some space to build and move around a bit.  I hunt deer on my own land and if I make a smoky coal fire, no one calls the cops.  I cut my own trees for lumber and firewood.  I cannot help but think this is the natural state of man.

Martin's Station - Cumberland Gap

I am intoxicated by this work and it has pretty much defined the boundaries of my life for the past twenty years.  I expect it will do so until it's time to put out the fire and call the dogs.  I cannot get past it.  I can't be comfortable in a modern house.  I can't feel good shooting an automatic rifle.  I can't sit in a chair that looks like a giant potato chip without feeling like a fool.  I dislike or find comical much of what is current (not all, but much) and this is my attempt to put some insulation between myself and what I feel to be an abrasive modernity.  Also, most of this stuff is just better looking and more interesting that what's going on now, and there are only so many hours in the day, so I spend them where the scenery is the nicest.