Oak Park contractor heads East for a hands-on history lesson

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Gardening blogger

Scott Fisher, 52, is a carpenter, general contractor and jazz trombonist from Oak Park who says he has an intuitive sense of how to seamlessly blend new and old construction in vintage buildings, as if what he has done had always been there.

It's not a science, he says. It's his art.

"It may sound corny, but after a while, a building speaks to me — not literally — and after spending time in a building, I tend to start feeling what that particular building needs, almost on a subliminal level, and it percolates in my mind and pops, or floats, out."

In the Oak Park home Fisher and his wife, Cindy Richards, purchased nearly 20 years ago, the carpenter's craftsmanship and high regard for recycling and reusing materials speak for itself.

In 1995, when they bought the dilapidated, architecturally un-significant 1893 Queen Anne home on the 100 block of North Cuyler, Fisher pulled out his tools and began renovating it. Twenty years on, the house still has stories to tell.

In the 1920s, Fisher has been told, his house was half the size it is now (which is roughly 3,000 square feet). Reportedly, it was a thriving brothel called "House of the Green Door," which some of the Chicago area's well-known politicians frequented.

"I added a two-story addition and a basement [and] it is impossible to tell where the new and old start. One of the tricks I commonly do, and did here, is steal the trim pieces from all over the house, and then mix it in with new trim in the old part of the building," Fisher explained. "It blurs the line, so what is old and what is new is not so clearly defined."

A colonial adventure

That skill was put to the test last fall when an unexpected call came in from Art and Janet Utay, college friends of his wife, Cindy. The couple was painstakingly renovating their nearly 300-year-old Colonial home in South Windsor, Conn., and wanted him to rebuild a couple of very old bathrooms and reclaim a staircase in a home where the earliest documentation is dated 1737.

Fisher was intrigued and drawn to the five-month gig — for the adventure of it all.

Circa 1850, a major addition was added to the house. After that, it degenerated into a two-unit apartment building.

Fifteen years ago, the Utays bought it and carefully began reconverting it to a single-family dwelling. The plan was to blend the addition into the original structure, while upgrading the home to be energy and water efficient.

Fisher says some parts of the house were virtually original while others had been remodeled time and again without precision, including the bathrooms on which he was assigned to work.

One of the big challenges, he recalls, was re-claiming the unusable staircase that ran from the first floor to the second floor. It was obscured by a mish-mosh of plumbing — 20-30 different pipes running left to right, top to bottom, up and down, making the staircase impassable. On the landing was a washing machine plumbed into all of that.

"I helped the plumbers figure out how to move all that into the wall, and now, for the first time in 75 years, it can be used," Fisher said.

Another challenge was that the house had no conventional framing — no square or rectangular boards in the house. The walls, ceilings and floors were framed with tree trunks. In other words, two sides of the house were constructed relatively flat, while the remaining two sides featured tree trunks with bark. The structural corners and seams inches were inches from being out-of-plumb, out-of-square and out-of-level.

"The owners and I surmised that the house was built by a local farmer who did the best he could," Fisher said, "and most likely cut down trees on his own property for the lumber for the house."

The varying sizes of lumber used to plank the floors weren't uniform either.

"We had planking that was 20 inches wide that were cut from a 2-foot diameter tree," Fisher noted, "so the planks ranged in width from 16 to 19 inches. Now the biggest board you can get is about 12 inches across."

Yankee mindset

In spite of everything, Fisher couldn't help admiring the builder. Everything about the old house spoke of its original owner's indefatigable spirit of self-reliance and of a structure raised up by a family of builders who hundreds of years ago might not have known exactly what they were doing but gave it their best shot.

"And the building is still here nearly 300 years later," he noted.

Some evidence of this can be found under a weathered floor plank in the bathroom, where Fisher found some reading material: an old financial page of a newspaper dating back to 1796. He shared it with the owners. They read about a local house in probate and goods that had just arrived from England and were available to the town folk in local stores.

"That is by far the oldest thing I have ever found in any building," Fisher marveled.

Another blast from the past was discovering that one of the bathrooms originally was a cold storage room. To modernize it, he rearranged the spacing in it and built a third wall using harvested materials from an existing wall, which still held the original hammer and saw demarcations from the original builders.

Out of the 300-year-old wood he salvaged, Fisher crafted a solid door that, when closed, seems to disappear into the new wall. Behind it is a small, cedar-lined linen closet.

Updating an original stone shower with new stone "tiles" imbued with fossils was especially interesting, he said. The stones contained the imprint of an ancient reptilian skin, as well as hundreds of small sea creatures.

"I found it especially pleasing that here was stone millions of years old that had been milled and cut in the last year, and now was sitting next to planking that was milled 300 years ago."

Next autumn, he's heading back to New Windsor, and is wondering what surprises the next new/old house will bring.

"We spent some time chasing down vintage product around the Northeast, and we found several hundred feet of recycled tongue in groove planking for a very reasonable price, so we purchased a bunch of it," Fisher said. "Not all of those things I saw there will apply to our homes in Oak Park, but something will, and I have stored those details away that I think could become relevant."

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