Door renovation finished 30 years after family moves in

Alan D Miller

Closing in on 30 years in Old House #2, we finally finished refinishing the front door.

We’re confident the door is original to the house, which means it is 152 years old. That’s tens of thousands of openings and closings.

And on one of those days, someone broke the original sheet of glass in the door. We have deduced, based on construction of the door and modifications made later, that its centerpiece was one sheet of glass in 1870.

After that “oh, no!” moment, someone set about making repairs. And in a word, it looked awful.

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So why did it take us 30 years to get around to a proper fix?

We had other priorities, like raising a family while tackling bigger issues like plumbing and roofing and depressing paneling from the 1970s. And a decent curtain did a nice job of hiding the most significant flaws in the old window replacement, which I’m guessing dated to the 1930s, based on the way it was cobbled together with bits and pieces of what was obviously scrap wood.

Strip it down

I wrote in this column about seven years ago that my twin daughters had tag-teamed the restoration of the front hallway just inside the front door. The beautiful wood in the curved staircase needed to be stripped of layers of old paint and refinished. Wallpaper from several generations ago had to come down, and the stately woodwork around the front door and the doorway from the hall into “the parlor” also needed to be stripped and refinished.

Alan Miller

I don’t have a lot of patience for the tedious work of stripping intricate woodwork, and that’s the key reason the main entrance was last of our major restoration projects in this old house. Another reason is that, unlike a lot of families with attached garages or garages that are closer to the back door, we use our front door as our main entrance. Shutting it down for extended periods for the smelly, messy work of stripping and finishing woodwork would be a major disruption.

But daughter no. 3 was between jobs in 2012, and daughter no. 2 found herself in the same situation in 2013, so no. 3 got the renovation work started and then handed off to No. 2. They did fabulous work, and they completed everything but the door, which I said I’d handle.

Through the looking glass

They had suggested that we pick up design elements from the fancy, red-glass transom above the front door to etch into a replacement sheet of glass. It took nearly six years, but last year, I took the photo and gave it to daughter No. 2, who used her Photoshop magic to pull out key pieces for the etching.

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I talked to my friend Mark McPeek, owner of Richardson Glass Service in Newark, about what his team would need from me to cut the safety glass and etch it. He asked for precise measurements of the window frame in the door and a computer file of the image we wanted etched into the glass. (A frosty decal of the image was an option, but we went with the slightly more expensive etching for durability and for the authentic look of the 1870s.)

Within a few weeks, we had our old-looking new glass, and I set about taking apart the janky replacement, which annoyed me from the day we moved into the house. It looked like something little Alan Miller would have cobbled together as a kid in the 1960s.

The ‘tag team’ returns

There were crude cuts into the door frame at the top and bottom of the window opening so that one of two wooden cross members could be installed to hold the four, thin sheets of glass used to replace the original large sheet. None of the pieces of molding around the glass matched. And under that molding were other pieces of molding and smaller bits and pieces of wood used as shims to fill the space between glass and door frame.

I went from being annoyed to being sad for whomever did the repairs. It was then that I deduced that it was probably done during the Great Depression when the family living here at the time had no money for an expensive, big sheet of glass. So someone, perhaps a teenager who broke the original window, scrounged for glass and bits of wood to fashion a replacement to keep out the wind, rain and cold.

The Miller front door is restored with a new sheet of glass, which includes etchings that pick up design elements of the transom, which is original to the house.

It worked in that regard for many decades. But it still looked janky, and it’s a good bet that the repairperson of old would have preferred the option we chose.

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So, 30 years after we moved here and seven years after we started work on the front hallway, the last of our big restoration projects in this house, daughters No. 2 and 3 returned to the scene last weekend to touch up the front door with the appropriate stain and apply a Watco Danish oil finish to it and the woodwork around it.

Our house is complete – until the next project.

Alan D. Miller is a former dispatch editor who teaches journalism at Denison University and writes about old house repair and historic preservation based on personal experiences and questions from readers.

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