the all-seeingeyeMcAllaster House-One Room a Year

Original corner post construction

I re-build one room of my ancient house each winter. That's about the rate my wallet and sanity can sustain without permanent damage. I start in earnest the week after Christmas, when my wife's family has departed with their individually labeled grocery sacks of holiday leftovers. I've become fairly good at blending my new work into the near 170 year old framework. A couple of clues, though, will help you spot the bits I've done. If it's plumb, level, or straight-it's probably mine. In its long lifetime, the house has settled and sagged. At least twice it's been on the verge of collapse. Few of my predecessors could afford to wrench the structure back into place before adding or moving doors, windows and stairways. The result is a solid structure with the warp permanently built in.

The place is built like a nineteenth century barn-which is to say by a couple of guys with axes and only a vague notion of units of measurement. In the era of lath and plaster this was not a problem. That is a finishing system which can easily compensate for alignment problems in the framing. There are places where the lath is shimmed outward from the framing, or the plaster is thinner or thicker to accommodate variations in the framing.

All of this sets me to wondering-what is the trade in terms of labor and materials in the early nineteenth century? Was the cost of the more labor intensive lath and plaster offset by its tolerance for less costly rough-sawn lumber? How much of the equation was driven by technological limitations and how much by choice?