One more week of freedom

Okay, I really just said that there to irk Dawn, but I definitely understand why we decided long ago never to get married. All of my family is arriving staggered throughout the week, “the moms” are organizing the reception, I’ve set up an itinerary to keep everyone busy, and Dawn — well, Dawn’s busy destroying the wedding site.

A week ago, we had lush lawns and a picture-perfect setting. Today, the septic people have dug trenches and pits through all of that. The room we’re getting married in was selected because it was the only room with a complete ceiling; now there are chases cut through it. And to top it off, the weather channel says it will be cold and rainy.

When you think about it, though, we really wouldn’t have it any other way.

I just have one question: The day after our wedding is our 14th anniversary. Should I get Dawn a gift?


Final word on the septic system

I’ve decided to never mention the septic system again. After this, of course.

  • The septic system is designed to handle 1,800 gallons per day. We will have 5 adults plus up to 10 guests, so even on a full day, assuming each person takes one 5-minute shower and I run 3 loads of laundry, everyone will have to flush the toilet 37 times each before we exceed capacity.
  • There are two fields, each 60′ x 220′. Together that is half the size of a football field (or the full size of an arena football field, if you’re into that sort of thing). In city terms, my septic field in Pennsylvania is 5 times bigger than my entire property in Los Angeles.
  • The “nitrate plume” area (which we can never build on) is 10 acres in size. The minimum lot size in the area, I believe, is one acre, so that’s the equivalent of 10 homes. At a conservative value of $10,000 per acre, that is$100,000 worth of land sitting idle.
  • The pipes run a quarter-mile (1,350 feet) long, and 93 feet up. Now, I don’t design septic systems for a living, but even I am pretty sure going uphill is a bad idea.
  • There are 5 tanks, totalling 7,500 gallons, which all had to be custom-built for our project.
  • The system requires access points every 50′. That means 27 manholes will dot our property.

Septic System or Sub-division? It's hard to tell

Septic System or Sub-division? It’s hard to tell

Everyone tells us they’re happy we’re restoring the property, but then they make up these ridiculous requirements that defy common sense and cost a fortune. If I ever meet anyone who is considering restoring a property in the area, I will tell them they’re crazy.

Come to think of it, everyone we talked to who had restored a property in the area told us we were crazy.



The project is now moving so quickly, I can’t keep up. The septic guys are building the sand mounds, digging the trenches, and burying the tanks; the air conditioning guy is running ductwork and installing cooling lines; one carpenter is fixing the roof on the summer kitchen, while the other one is prepping the radiators; the electricians are hooking up the junction box; the mason is repointing the stone walls; Brian is finishing the basement in the workshop; and Dawn is trying to stay on top of it all!

When Brian first approached Henry about doing the mansion, Henry said we were too far away. Then somehow Brian tricked him into visiting, and as soon as he saw the stonework he agreed to do the work. I think that's the mark of a true craftsman.

When Brian first approached Henry about doing the mansion, Henry said we were too far away. Then somehow Brian tricked him into visiting, and as soon as he saw the stonework he agreed to do the work. I think that’s the mark of a true craftsman.

The only person who isn’t there is the heating guy, who is probably the most crucial person right now. We have been assured he will be there next week and will have enough time to run all the plumbing to the radiators by the end of October. We’ll see.

Henry Hollenbeck, along with Brian and Rodney, are “repointing” the mansion. This means blowing out all the old loose mortar (the stuff that holds the stones together) and applying new mortar. The trick is to match the mortar to the stone — if the mortar is too hard (like portland cement), then during a freeze-thaw cycle the mortar destroys the surrounding stone!

Needless to say, the last person who patched the walls used portland cement. Fortunately, it doesn’t look like too much damage was done, and Henry is going to pull all that out. He is also trying to match the color of the new mortar to the old, and also “tool” (shape) it like the original mortar, so when he’s done patching we won’t be able to tell old from new. (That’s the plan, at least.)


Electric fireplaces

Dawn met with Rich of Fireplace Supply Wholesalers today, and the crew gave her grief for installing electric fireplaces. She told them that if they want to contribute to the project, then they can have an opinion.

We were initially skeptical as well, but when we went to Rich’s showroom and saw them in action, the electrics looked better than the gas fireplaces! Plus they’re economical, non-polluting, safe, and, best of all, they don’t give off heat. If that seems strange, remember this is a B&B — in the middle of summer, guests can lay in their air-conditioned room and enjoy a fire. How cool is that?

The two cottages will have gas fireplaces, but for a purely practical reason: They’re using heat pumps, and during the dead of winter they may need supplemental heat. In the summer kitchen, we’re putting the fireplace downstairs; we aren’t sure if we’re going to put anything upstairs, because of the room layout.

Unfortunately, the electrics don’t make noise. There is a pine cone you can buy that crackles, but I’m not sure how far I’m willing to go with these fake fireplaces.


An apology

dawn in the mirror

Dawn’s vanity
(Get it? Vanity mirror? Dawn photographing herself? Oh, forget it.)

I should apologize for this journal; it certainly isn’t what I started out to write. I imagined great tales of exploration and learning, with some entertaining or even harrowing passages thrown in. Instead, it’s a 12-month gripe session on what we’ve been through dealing with the local bureaucrats, which has nothing at all to do with the restoring the house.

I let the bastards wear me down.

So my first question is, why didn’t I see any of this on This Old House? Norm Abrahms (and Bob Vila before him) come to the job site, review what needs to be done, and do it. They never spend four months standing around waiting to find out if they need to install sprinklers because some local official can’t tell the difference between a house and a hotel. They never get written up for not having a building permit six months after they were given a building permit. They never say, “Well, we were going to restore this house here, but the local yahoos told us we have to move a hill, widen the road, install a second basement door, build a new septic system the size of Rhode Island, create stormwater detention, and repave the parking area, and our remaining budget is $46 so instead we’re going to take the crew for hamburgers and forget this crap.” You never see that.

So if I seem bitter and angry, it’s because I’m frustrated (and bitter and angry) about everything that we’ve had to do that’s not about the house. We didn’t come to town to provide full employment; we actually want to accomplish something. Yet every week we just get more grief. And they always smile and tell us we’re doing a great thing here just before they tell us to install an exit sign in front of the 250-year-old door. Hard to believe that for 250 years, people have had to figure out that the front door is actually an exit without a sign posted in front of it; how did they possibly manage?

So my point, before I got all hot-headed again, was to stop focusing on the negatives, and to get back to the restoration. Amazing things have happened over the past six months, but I’ve been completely distracted by the side show circus. So please let me know if my vitriol spills over (you should have seen what I wrote about the code inspectors the other day…) and I will endeavor to make this what I had hoped it would be: informative, engaging, and fun.



Four months ago, it was furniture. Three months ago, exterior colors. Two months ago, bathroom fixtures. Last month, interior colors. Today, it’s lighting. The sheer number of choices involved in this project is just staggering, and we still have three kitchens to go.

And of course no decision is ever final — at every stage of the project it gets reviewed and discussed anew. We intentionally try to limit our choices just for our own sanity — for example, we’ve ruled out any bronze or brass fixtures because this was an ironmaster’s mansion. Even then, the number of chandeliers, pendants, sconces, and table lamps in iron is in the thousands.

Fortunately, Dawn and I have pretty similar tastes. Unfortunately, we don’t trust anyone else. Otherwise we’d just turn this over to an interior designer and be done with it. Instead, we both spend many, many hours combing the Internet looking for the right fixtures at reasonable prices. Did I mention we needed 15 chandeliers?

To compound the problem, period-appropriate lighting is kind of boring. Back then, indoor lighting meant one thing: candles. (You could burn whale blubber, but I’m not going there.) So chandeliers were just candle holders, which is hardly inspiring. (And the elaborate wrought-iron chandeliers just look like giant spiders to me.)


PPL strikes again

I don’t know if the local electric company is incompetent, negligent, or just abusive.

Digging a trench for the new transformer

Digging a trench for the new transformer

As I’ve mentioned before, the farm has a “center pole” where the meter is located, which is perfect — it’s far enough away that it doesn’t detract from the mansion, and close enough to be easily trenched. When we told PPL we needed to upgrade the electric, though, they told us we needed to put the meter on the mansion. Then they showed up with a 4-foot by 3-foot meter panel! After much discussion (during which we learned they don’t even read the meters anymore), they agreed to put the meter panel on the back of the privy, so at least it was out of sight. Then PPL decided to install another pole, with a transformer, right in the back yard! Again after much discussion — and $1,100 — they agreed to put the transformer in the ground, but we had to dig a 39″ trench for it.

Dawn had the “one call” people (which turned out to be a PPL employee) come out to mark the electric lines, and she hired an excavator to dig the trench, which was exactly 39″ deep. Last Thursday a PPL rep came by, unannounced, to drop off some equipment, and she told us the trench was too deep, and they would be back in two weeks.

The excavator was getting ready to go on vacation, but Dawn wanted to take care of this right away, so she got him to come over early Friday morning to backfill the trench. It was so early that Dawn wasn’t even awake. Then PPL showed up, two weeks early, to install the transformer.

According to them — although no one had mentioned it before — Dawn was supposed to have hand-dug another hole nearby. Since the excavator was there and Dawn was not, the PPL guys asked him to dig it with the back-hoe. The excavator is a nice guy so he agreed to this favor. Besides, it was 30″ from the orange line, so there was no danger in hitting the electrical main.

Needless to say, they hit the electrical main. Fortunately they just nicked the cable, they didn’t actually cut through it, and all that needed to happen was to wrap it with some electric tape. But PPL had at least six supervisors over to look at it, and then announced, “It’s not our fault.”

They also brought the “one call” person who had marked the electric main and he, too, said it wasn’t his fault, because the dig was 12 days after his visit, and they only “guarantee” it for 10. That’s right, even though his line was clearly visible, and the electric main hasn’t moved in 30+ years, he wasn’t responsible for his line being 30″ off because we were 2 days late.

On the following Tuesday, Dawn caught another PPL rep sneaking onto the property — even though the main was already wrapped and back under three feet of dirt — and she asked what the status was. He announced, with an air that clearly indicated we should be grateful, that PPL was not going to charge us for the damage done to the electric main.


My “vacation”

Friday 11pm, red-eye flight to Pennsylvania, two-hour layover in Cincinnati. I sleep soundly, but my back is killing me the rest of the week.

Saturday 9:10am, arrive in Harrisburg a little early. I call Dawn only to find she is running late and so stressed that she is crying. I assure her we have plenty of time, and then silently hope she hurries up.

Dawn gets me back to the farm just in time for the 11am tour, and I am surprisingly coherent. We have seven people — 3 from the Lancaster County Historical Society, 3 from the Lebanon County Historical Society, and 2 who are celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary. Checking out a construction site is not my idea of a romantic vacation, but I may feel differently in another 21 years. 🙂

At 2pm, the alarm guy arrives, and we review the options. I want something as unobtrusive as possible which, of course, is much more expensive than just installing door and window contacts everywhere. (I’d give you more details, but then it wouldn’t be much of a security system, would it?)

He is also installing the fire alarm system, and I bite my tongue as he shows us where the bright-red fire pulls go. He does compromise on the alarm keypads — normally they go by the front door, but ours will go in the kitchen. I still can’t believe we’re being made to do this to our historic home.

Dawn and I spend the rest of the evening discussing interior colors. Someone realized that the radiators need to be installed by November, which means that we need to paint the wall behind the radiators before November, which means we need to choose colors now. We’re looking at the Sherwin-Williams “Victorian” line because they are really Colonial colors. (Their “Colonial” line is really “Colonial Revival.”)

Sunday 1pm, we drive to Mechanicsburg to meet a minister ( She wants to know all the details of the ceremony, and we are clueless — we have a date and a location, and that is about it. Dawn and I argue over whether guests will be seated or standing, if we will “recede” after the ceremony, even what time the ceremony will be! I suddenly remember why we’ve avoided this for so long. We finally agree that the ceremony will be at 1pm, casual dress, BBQ reception, Dawn will make the wedding cake, and the photographer will double as the chef. We still don’t know if the guests will be seated.

Monday, 10am: We finally visit Tulpehocken Manor. In a word, wow. Geoff and Jason give us the full tour, including the 7-hole outhouse. Originally a colonial stone house, it had been converted into a 7,500-square foot Victorian mansion, with gingerbread trim in every nook and cranny. Neglected for 18 years, the two brothers and their families spent a year restoring it before they could move in. That they did almost all of the work themselves is just amazing.

The rest of the day is spent at the Long’s Park Art Festival. I expect a small group selling carved corn cobs or something, but there are hundreds of vendors from all over the country selling very expensive clothing and artwork. One of the locals makes hand-carved wooden toys — golf carts with removable golf bags and individual clubs, and train sets six or seven cars long! We take his card and if we have any money left at the end of this project, we’ll definitely give him a call.

Tuesday, 9am: We go to the county courthouse to get our marriage license. I want to stop by St James Episcopal church because someone told me Robert Coleman and Ann Old are buried there, but we are already running late. It is going to be a long day.

11am, we meet with Adam Moyer, who is handling the plumbing, heating, and cooling. (He also bid on the electric and septic, too, but we didn’t want all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak.) Every restoration book cautions you against making any change orders once the work has started, but we completely ignore that: We want all of the thermostats in the kitchen, plus remote sensors in the return ducts; we want radiant floor heat in the kitchen and one of the bathrooms; we’ve rearranged all of the radiators around the house; we want a new type of exhaust fan in the bathrooms; and we need everything done by November 1st so we can keep the house warm during the winter. Adam looks around, thinks for a bit, and agrees without changing the cost. This is why we like Adam so much.

1pm, Gary Geiselman of Olde York Homes comes by. We go over the schedule and we’re not going to make an April opening, but May looks good. I’ll still leave the “Open Spring 2006” message until we have an exact date. I’d like to be able to offer rooms as they are ready, but we can’t get our occupancy permit until everything is done. (We will, however, have friends over to serve as guinea pigs before we open.)

There is some bad news: The roof of the summer kitchen is shot, and needs to be replaced. Gary was hoping to preserve the standing-seam metal with a special rubberized coating, but it had gone unpainted for too long and is now paper thin. Dawn is getting a bid from Lantz roofing since they did such a fantastic job on the mansion. (We also found out they did Tulpehocken Manor, as well.)

3pm, Tony Haldeman is here to discuss the new septic system. Apparently in constructing a sand mound (which isn’t sand but stone dust), you have to build a “berm” of dirt to contain it. Since our sand mound is the size of a football field, he needs 70 truck-loads of dirt! (If our septic system was ready, I’d donate it to New Orleans–I’m sure it could handle 50,000 people.) Anyway, it just so happens we need to move a lot of dirt on the side of the mansion because it is directing rainfall into the basement. So if we move the dirt to the septic field, we kill two birds with one stone, right?

Of course it’s not that simple: First, there are trees by the mansion that would not appreciate the dirt being removed, and Dawn does not appreciate the trees being removed; and second, the same township that won’t let me put a roof on the shed without doing stormwater detention is not going to appreciate us moving a small hill. We call David Christian, who handled all of the permit issues, and also happens to do landscape planning. He’ll be out on Friday.

4pm, channel 11 news arrives. This is the local cable station news, but I’m happy for all the coverage I can get. Or, at least, I thought I was until they pointed the camera at me! I was exhausted, hoarse, and completely unprepared. The reporter and cameraman were so friendly, and I’m sure I came off as some shifty-eyed psychopath. Sigh.

Well, that was my Labor Day vacation. Tomorrow at 6am I’ll be flying back to LA, leaving Dawn to deal with all the issues I created. But she’s used to that.


The True Cost of Dawn

While Dawn was in LA last week, she was actually working–her old company needed her to cover for a week, and we are in no position to turn down money. Well, I just ran the numbers and found Dawn made a little over $1,000, and spent $1,400!

appeal result

Dawn had to speak in front of a dozen people!

My first thought, of course, was that Dawn was never coming to LA again. But then I realized that, on average, she spends $5,700 per week in Pennsylvania! So if I had any sense, I’d whisk her back to LA immediately!

But then she sends me a copy of the appeals board decision, and I remember that she just saved us over $50,000, and that wouldn’t have happened if she had been in LA. So it’s all good, I guess.

P.S. Most of Dawn’s expenses were in dental work–she likes her dentist here and refuses to find one in Pennsylvania. (She’s already got an appointment in December to get a crown replaced.)


Sometimes web surfing takes you to some odd places, and yesterday I found myself at the “Outhouses of America Tour.” As the title suggests, they have pictures of outhouses from all over the country, and I suddenly realized (which is kind of scary) that we have a great outhouse!

The privy. It's a three-holer with separate men's and ladies sections, though we're not sure which side is which.

Dawn will not be amused by my sudden protectiveness of the privy

Most outhouses are wood; ours is stone. Most seat one; ours has three holes and a divider wall (although we can’t tell which side was which). Most have a crescent moon for light and vent; we have two original windows! Of course, ours is in pretty sad condition — the roof has partially collapsed — but it’s on the list to be restored, and it (along with the other 18th century buildings on the property) are being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Suddenly I’m feeling like we shouldn’t be mounting the electric panel on the privy as we planned. I mean, there’s lots of 18th century stone houses in the country, but how many 18th century stone outhouses are there?

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