This is not a contemporary cookie cutter house, built with kiln dried pine and vinyl siding. The weight of things in this house can be measured in tons. Tons that I am slowly shifting, tearing out, and moving, in incremental amounts. The massive chimney inside the house is no exception. It extends from the basement, up into the first floor where there is a fireplace, then through the second floor bedroom (taking up the equivalent space of a large closet), and into the attic. However, it doesn’t go through the roof. At some point, a new roof was put on. Perhaps because the fireplace was so old and would be too expensive to repair, the top was removed and roofed over. It is a shame that the chimney is not functional because the fireplace in the dining room certainly adds character.
In the basement, the design of the chimney is quite strange (at least to my inexperienced and untrained eye). As you can see, it is not simply a column of stone down to the floor. It looks as though there may have been a wood stove in the basement at one point, with a hole for a stove-pipe. There are various beams and boards in the stonework. Some boards are supporting the hearth above in the dining room. There are also beams running through the stonework. Some of these boards are rotten, and they are all very old. This is one area of the house that will be disconcerting to a prospective buyer, no matter how much renovation occurs above.
The rather absurd thought of removing the entire chimney was first suggested by Chuck Silfee, the builder and excavator who dug out the foundation around the rotten walls of the addition. Since he builds and remodels houses, he wanted to see what I had gotten myself into. It was during this initial tour of the house that he saw the chimney, and said matter-of-factly that I should remove it. What Chuck says shouldn’t be taken lightly (no matter how absurd it may sound at first).
He owns and operates heavy equipment, such as excavators, bulldozers, and trucks of the size that boys at heart turn to watch drive past. He tears down and hauls away houses like this over the course of a long weekend. He also readily restores and builds houses, using every bit of brute strength, finesse, and craftsmanship that this house will require. He is not a big man, but still conveys the strength and determination of the equipment he uses.
Tearing out the chimney, though, seemed like a crazy idea, even coming from Chuck. I realize that he works on a bigger scale than me, and has ready labor, but the idea still struck me as absurd. For me, working on a much smaller scale, the idea was unfathomable. Not to mention that I already have too much work on my hands. The rear of the house is collapsing because of rotten sills and studs, for goodness sake! The labor involved would be crazy, and where to put the stone? I don’t know why I even contemplate it. As absurd and unfathomable as the idea may be, however, it has taken hold in my imagination. I sometimes think that bashing my head against this huge chimney would benefit me much more than thinking of removing it. None-the-less, as I work on other things, my thoughts return to removal.
If one does think about it, removal would enhance the basement (which is scary and cannot be remodeled like the rest of the house), the first floor dining room would become bigger and more functional, and the second floor bedroom would gain considerable wall space, allowing for a big closet and a window. Also, it would provide needed attic space and room for the job of putting in new bedroom ceiling joists (which is another absurd task that I will get to). This process of ruminating on whether to remove the chimney, and accentuating the positive, is also how I think I talked/thought myself into buying the house in the first place.
I jokingly taunted some friends that instead of going for a run they should do real work – hauling stone down several flights of stairs and out into the yard. A combination of friendship, bravado, and insanity prompted them to accept the challenge. A brutal, and dust choking, three hours later, we managed to remove, by hauling buckets-full and throwing from the window, the attic portion of the chimney. Wow! I did not expect such a significant accomplishment. What started as a joke turned into some actual progress. This absurd project may be feasible after all. However, as motivating as the great start is, it is just that – a great start. The chimney gets progressively taller and wider on the two floors below, which is going to generate even more stone, and dust, and pain. I will also have to figure out what to do with all of this stone. Frankly, all we have done is use gravity to help us transfer the stone in the attic to the yard below. Tonight I put an advert in Craigslist for ‘Free Stone.’ Craigslist hasn’t failed me yet. Let’s see how long this takes!