1846 Homestead Renovation

Leveling the House

I Gotta Level With You…

Leveling the house was amazingly hard work.  First, jacking up an entire wall of a house and using a sledge hammer to try and get it back on the sill log is just craziness.  Everything is heavy.  Everything is hard.  But beyond the physical labor, the problem solving part of it took tremendous effort.

I kid you not.  Leveling the house was an incredibly difficult process for us.  We were stressed and exhausted.  The house wasn’t cooperating.  It had issues we didn’t anticipate like sill logs that resisted power tools.  Bees.  Termite damage.  We were whipped physically, mentally, and emotionally.  Leveling the house was tough on us.

I knew just how tough leveling the house was when, for the first time, it began to be difficult to roll out of bed in the morning.  Our bodies were beginning to let us know that they hated us.  Luckily, Jerry is a professor and only had to go to work three days a week.  I was a doctoral research fellow and writing my dissertation at the time and I worked the same three days.  This gave us four days a week to devote to the house.  It also meant that we had three days to rest. We have never enjoyed our days in the office as much as we did during the house leveling process.

First Things First

We knew that before anything else could happen, we had to get the house out of the dirt and level.  I thought we would be able to get the house level.  I mean, how difficult could it be?  You jack it up until the bubble floats in the center of your level.  Easy.

Great in theory, in practice it fell short.  We were trying to level a 173-year-old house.  After we had finished doing the best we could, I could see that the floor wasn’t level.  It is higher at the back of the house than at the front.  If we lowered the back, the wall started falling off.  If we continued to raise the front, the side rooms drooped.

We should have known from the first that leveling the house was going to be impossible.  After all, we did find the chains in the attic that had been added to help hold the front of the house up.  I explain it like this.  We took my 173-year-old friend to the chiropractor and expected them to get her straight in one treatment.  It just doesn’t work like that.  I am sure that the tree trunks used for sill logs are not straight.  I am sure that other supports are warped.  Leveling the house was the first of many times when we realized that what we had was just going to have to be good enough.

I now have stacks of washers under the legs of all my furniture in the old house and I am okay with that.  The vertical boards that make the walls, lean.  It is a wonky little house and I love it.  We called it good and went on to the next projects, completely forgetting that wonky continues forever and impacts other projects.  We forgot to take this into consideration when we installed the ceiling in the newly constructed porch and that was a real low point I will save for another post.

Looking Back, We Were Crazy

I think that of all the projects we did, this was the most dangerous.  We would raise the jacks a little at a time and listen to the house.  It would creak.  It would emit loud pops.  And every time it would “talk” to us, I thought it was going to fall down.  In fact, while we were doing the raising, we spent the last hour or so of the day going around and trying to do things that we thought would prevent the house from falling overnight.

Case in point…the last wall that the crew worked on before we took over was a long section of wall on the east side of the house.  They cranked on the jack too much too fast and the wall came off the sill log.  The sill log was rotten and had to be replaced.  When they dropped the sill log out and replaced it, the wall wouldn’t sit on the log.

In their hurry, they had forgotten to either cut notches for the studs to slip into or, another solution, trim the studs off so that they sat on the sill log.  The back wall was on the sill log, but it looked like it was wearing a stiletto heel.  A storm was coming and our phones kept giving us severe weather warnings.  The workers left Jerry and I there to shore up the mess as best as possible.  That was the day I really thought the house was just going to either fall down or kill us out of spite.

Several screws and a 4”x4” post wedged between a huge dirt pile and the wall was all we could manage before the storm hit.  When we arrived the next morning, the house was still standing and Jerry and I decided that we were on our own from here on out.

On Our Own

Looking back, it was a great decision.  Not only did we do a better job, it was at that moment we knew that we could do whatever we needed to do.  We committed to the project like never before, but even as we did this and felt empowered, there was a sense of…I don’t know, early onset exhaustion?  Maybe isolation?  It was scary, but once again, I heard a voice asking, “do you really want it?”  Yeah, I did and it was too late at that point to turn back, but we both knew (or thought we did) just how much work we were in for.  From then on, with very few exceptions, when we were asked “who is going to (roof, insulate, do the siding,…)?” we always said, “we are.”  And we did.

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