A Camp Washington Restoration: Uncovering History

3071 Sidney Avenue, Cincinnati OH. On the left: the home when Adam first bought it. On the right: Adam’s restoration work mid-way!

Historic homes have a unique story to tell. People lived there, experienced life’s ups and downs there, and left their mark. One of the best things about a home restoration is what you uncover about the history of the house and the people that came before you. Our Lead Agent Adam Sanregret’s latest restoration project—the 1885 Second Empire home at 3071 Sidney Avenue in historic Camp Washington, Cincinnati—is no exception.  Here are some of Adam’s favorite discoveries so far.

Shared Living Space

The central staircase runs from the 1st to the 3rd floors.

Sidney was originally built as a multigenerational home in 1885. There are three floors—each had the same floorplan—and one central staircase. If you are entering from the stairwell, you have one large room on your left at the back of the house, and to your right, two tandem rooms extending to the front of the house.

Calling a home multigenerational implies different generations live under the same roof. However, you can just as easily have non-related people living there too! The term applies more to the use of space. In a multigenerational home, there is no major division between lodgings. The kitchen, dining room and other communal areas are typically shared.

Urban or rural, privies pretty much looked the same. Here’s a 1935 urban example, Hamilton County, OH. Source: U.S. Library of Congress.

When Sidney was built, it didn’t have interior plumbing. You used the backyard privy to “do your business”. To get to it, you either went out the shared side door or used the backdoor in the shared 1st floor kitchen. Of course, maybe there was a summer kitchen out back too—it’s hard to say (Archaeology, anyone?).

In the 1920s, Sidney finally got interior plumbing. Two kitchens were also added in the back rooms on the 1st and 2nd floors. Adam found no indication of a 3rd floor kitchen. With plumbing came bathrooms, their locations—such as a 2nd floor bathroom stuffed in the kitchen—constrained by the original floorplan. At this point, Sidney functioned more as a multi-family house with at least two complete, separate living spaces.

Wondering how that worked for the people living there? Adam checked the U.S. Census records to see.

1920 U.S. Census with the record for 3071 Sidney Avenue highlighted in blue.

Adam didn’t turn up anything for 1890 (those records were lost in a fire). However, he did track down the family that owned 3071 Sidney Ave. for much of the first part of the 20th century: the Rettigs. The family included Frank Rettig, his wife (Margaret), and their three children (Marie, Clara, and Joseph). Census data lists them as renters on Massachusetts Ave. (one street over) in 1910. They had moved to Sidney by 1920.

The 1920 U.S. Census lists three households for Sidney: the Rettigs, as owners, and two renting families. That’s a total of 8 adults and 7 kids living in the house. Tight quarters indeed!

Later on, the 1940 U.S. Census lists just two households—with a home value of a mere $2,000 too!

1940 U.S. Census with the record for 3071 Sidney Avenue highlighted in blue.

All About the Frame and Walls

It’s fair to say people who love historic homes appreciate their construction quality. Adam certainly does. After five restoration projects, finding out about a home’s construction is still exciting. With Sidney—135 years old and going strong—he enjoys knowing that his home’s historic character is preserved even in its smallest details. Like its square cut nails and horsehair plaster walls!

Square nail in wood, square nail in Adam’s hand.

Sidney was built using square-cut nails—although “modern” round/wire nails were being produced by the 1850s. Nails may be small but they are important and they have been around for a long time—the earliest iron nails date back to 300 B.C.

You probably know about square nails from house museums or historic exhibits, but did you know that square nails are better than modern round/wire nails?

The nail’s square shape gives it superior holding power. Modern wire nails push wood fibers apart. A square nail’s tip and edges shear wood fibers, helping wedge the nail tightly into the wood. The result? Square nails don’t usually split wood, so you can use them closer to the edges and ends of boards.

Horsehair plaster walls…a combination of neat with a little bit of gross?

Why do we have a prevalence of modern round/wire nails? The usual story of production efficiency and cost…

Another great construction material is horsehair plaster, also known as lath and plaster. Sidney has it, and, yes, it’s pretty typical until the 1950s, when drywall showed up.

The most common horsehair plaster is a lime, sand, plaster, and horsehair mixture. Horsehair—from the mane and the tail of the horse—creates the structural strength when mixed with plaster.

If you already own a home with horsehair plaster walls—or are hoping to—here are some benefits to keep in mind. Compared to drywall, horsehair plaster walls are:

  • more sound-proof (due to density)
  • more fire-resistant
  • provide greater insulation
  • easy to contour—for your custom curves, coved ceilings, and arches!

Hints of Interior Décor

Sidney’s 1st floor back room showing where stencil remnants were found. The photos on the left and right are close-ups.

You can’t help but feel connected to the past when you find interior décor remnants. Wall treatments, in particular—because of how relatively easy it is to change them—can reflect both personal choices as well as popular trends over time. At Sidney, Adam found wall stenciling in the 1st floor back room.

Sidney’s 1st floor middle room showing the old wallpaper.

Sidney’s 2nd floor back room. Wallpaper was uncovered on the blue wall.

He found traces of a delicately painted, waist-high band circling the room balanced by a chunkier stencil in dark relief along the baseboard. The use of stenciled decoration developed in tandem with Gothic Revival, reaching its peak by the turn of the 20th century. The stencil remnants at Sidney likely pre-date the 1920s kitchen updates.

Another popular wall treatment is wallpaper. Wallpaper was also highly popular during the Victorian era, a trend started first by the wealthiest and most fashionable homeowners and first found in the public rooms of a home. But by the beginning of the 20th century, it was used everywhere. You could find it in hallways, kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms, and it was popular in both the wealthiest and poorest homes.

Wallpaper close up!

At Sidney, Adam found wallpaper remnants in several rooms: the 1st floor middle room, the 2nd floor middle room, and the 2nd floor back room. The wallpaper had been covered up when ductwork was installed for a gravity heating system in the 1940s. The wallpaper featured floral designs with a color scheme of browns, tans, and cream (similar to 1920s interiors featured here).

Wallpaper close up!

If there is one thing that Adam has learned from his restoration work, it’s that the amount of history you uncover is usually in direct relation to the home’s condition. The less “remuddling”, the more opportunity you have to create a strong connection to the history of the home and the people that lived there before you.

Stay tuned!

This is the 7th post in an ongoing series documenting Adam’s restoration project: an 1885 Second Empire home. We hope you are enjoying the journey! Here’s a link to our  first post if you’ve missed any.

Adam is currently living in the home and busy finishing up his last restoration touches.

Up next:
A Camp Washington Restoration: The 3 Rs