Magazine

Ask Historic New England | December 2017

Why is there an extra doorknob embedded in the trim at my front entry? —Linda C., Rochester, NH A small knob in the trim next to an entry door is likely the pulling mechanism from the kind of mechanical doorbell that existed before electric doorbells became popular in the early 20th century. Historic New England […]

By Yankee Magazine

Dec 05 2017

Expert Home Advice

Why is there an extra doorknob embedded in the trim at my front entry? —Linda C., Rochester, NH

A small knob in the trim next to an entry door is likely the pulling mechanism from the kind of mechanical doorbell that existed before electric doorbells became popular in the early 20th century. Historic New England has this type of doorbell system at several of its museum and preservation easement properties.

The doorbell pull (which looks like a miniature doorknob) is connected to a bell on the interior by a series of wires. The knob is frequently made of porcelain (though occasionally glass or metal) and has a spring mechanism on the inside that pulls and releases the wire to jingle the bell. If there is a long distance between the doorbell pull and the bell, a series of wires may be connected via small pulleys and wedge-shaped metal guides, or quadrants, to help the wire turn corners.

The pull’s spring mechanism and the metal wire are the parts most frequently missing or broken. There are a number of vendors that sell salvaged or reproduction doorbell pulls, quadrants, 0.8mm metal wire, and antique doorbells. Or you could call on a historic-restoration professional or electrician to help you achieve the correct level of tension in the wire. With a bit of work, you should be able to get your historic doorbell in working order by the holidays.

Dylan Peacock Preservation services manager

My neighbor just “restored” his porch railing, but now it looks kind of skimpy. Why is this? —Mike C., Burlington, VT

Your neighbor probably didn’t use full-dimensional lumber, sometimes called “five-quarter” stock. Modern stock lumber and trim elements are not as beefy as their historical counterparts, so porch railings, balusters, and other decorative details from standard millwork suppliers don’t have the “heft” of the originals. If you measure a modern board whose “nominal size” is 2 by 4 inches, for instance, you’ll see that its actual dimensions are 1.5 by 3.5 inches.

The distinction between the nominal size of commercial lumber and millwork and its “full dimension” historical precedent is something to be aware of when making repairs to an old house. Preservationists often call for repairs to be made “in kind,” so that they match seamlessly with the building’s existing architectural features. To avoid the skimpy look on repairs to your historic house, you’ll want to have your carpenter use five-quarter or full-dimensional stock.

Sally Zimmerman Senior preservation services manager

I was pulling up linoleum in a house I recently purchased on Cape Cod, and I found the boards underneath were painted blue and speckled with yellow, red, and turquoise. It seems old. Is this a historic floor covering technique? —Jody B., Falmouth, MA

What a great find! Although decorative floor painting has been found dating back to the mid-1700s, it is rare, as it generally experiences heavy use.

In the early days, decorative floor painting was often done by itinerant artists, who used stencils to adorn floors and walls with pineapples, stars, leaves, or vines. Some also used painting techniques that made wooden floors look like marble. We start seeing examples of spatter floors, like the one you are describing, around the mid-1800s. This mode of application, sometimes referred to as “spatter-dashing,” is distinctive to the Massachusetts coastal region. The style experienced renewed popularity during the Colonial Revival period, when it was used with gusto in many houses, especially on Cape Cod.

If this is a look you want to replicate, The Complete Book of Interior Decorating, published in 1948, advises that after the base color dries, dip a paint brush in one of your spatter colors, then bang the side of your brush against a pipe or stick that you hold in the other hand. By changing the amount of paint on the brush and the distance that you hold the brush away from the floor, you can get a variety of spatter sizes and densities. Also, to avoid muddying the colors, let the paint dry between each color layer.

Gillian Lang Preservation services manager

Got a question about an old house you need answered? Submit your questions to Historic New England at: Editor@YankeePub.com. Historic New England is the oldest, largest, and most comprehensive regional heritage organization in the nation. Historic New England shares the region’s history through vast collections, publications, programs, museum properties, archives, and stories that document more than 400 years of life in New England. For more information visit: HistoricNewEngland.org. Historic New England Homes