New Old History

We were honored to be contacted by Tai Long who is the great great great granddaughter of the original Union owners Charlie and Carolyne Gruber. She shared with us quite a bit of information handed down from Iva Gruber, who was Carolyne’s granddaughter.

There is a lot of information but I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing to simply address the physical arrangement of the hotel for this post. More will come later. I promise.

The Union Hotel consisted of two sections. The brick portion remains today and is the part that we are renovating. There also was a wooden building attached to the rear of the brick building that no longer exists other than a few foundation stones buried in the yard. The Sanborn map from 1890 confirms the location of this structure. It’s the yellow building marked CL.

The hotel had 14 small bedrooms upstairs, 10 in the brick part and 4 in the wooden part. The brick building also had a suite across the front which consisted of a bedroom and elaborately furnished parlor with a wood coal stove. Each bedroom had a bed, dresser, marble top wash stand with pitcher and bowl set, thunder jar (pee pot) and soap dish. There were also hooks on the door to hang cloths on. The rooms on one side of the hall were double beds and the other side of the hall were single beds. It’s interesting to note that there was only one closet on the entire second floor. It was attached to the suite and doubled as a separate entrance to the suite’s bedroom.

Necessary functions were carried out manually. As there was no running water, it had to be carried upstairs to fill the pitchers and the slops were emptied down the 2 story outhouse which served upstairs and downstairs. The second floor of the outhouse was accessed by a bridge from the back of the wooden part of the hotel which, of course, no longer remains.

The outhouse itself was a bit of a marvel. Upstairs, there were 2 rooms for patrons, each had 2 holes and a lock on the door for privacy and believe it or not, catalogues were placed on the seats for use as toilet paper. Downstairs, the Gruber family had 2 holes on one side. On the other side, beyond a wall and a privacy fence, there was a public room with 2 holes. Apparently, the outhouse was torn down in 1950 for safety reasons. This conflicts with the other legends we’ve heard about the structure being strapped to a flatbed truck and shipped to Hollywood as a gag gift with a large red ribbon on it.

The main floor of the hotel had a huge barroom. It consisted of a long bar and a glass cabinet hung on the wall. It had rock specimens and 2 baby crocodiles preserved in a bottle of alcohol. A pot belly stove stood 10 ft from the corner. Along the wall, were 3 marble top wash basins with running cold water. There was always a tea kettle on the pot belly for shaving purposes for roomers. A large square piano was also in this room with 4 legs and made out of rosewood. It played rinky tink sounds and it’s still in the hotel today.

In the back half of the brick building, there was a huge dining room. This was served from a huge kitchen with a large range with double ovens and warming ovens. There were also two large pantries. It is my guess that this kitchen was on the first floor of the wooden building in back.

Oh, and for those who are interested in how the renovation is coming along, we’ve made quite a bit of progress on the little details required before the drywall can go on. In particular, the stove flue has been boxed out on its way to the roof and the data cable to bring internet to Katie’s and my office has been run. The coolest bit though, is that Katie finished cleaning the exposed brick in her office and hit it with a coat of dust sealer. You can see how beautiful the brick becomes with verses the dusty original on the left.


A Door Able

We are now getting the plumbing completed and the electrical started so the hotel has become a busy place. Over the weekend; however, the contractors were not there so Katie and I were able to finish hanging the doors in the Kitchen. The hardest part of it was hauling them downstairs since they were quite heavy.

The double 9′ doors, on the left, were the originals connecting the kitchen to the saloon and they survived several months of storage while the seismic retrofits were being completed. They used to open into the saloon but we flipped them around so they now open into the kitchen were they tuck against the wall without impeding traffic. The other door is to the new bathroom and it was one of the heavy ones recycled from the second floor.

Upon reinstallation of the double doors, we discovered that the top of the doors were 1 1/2″ wider than they were at the bottom. This may have been an accident but then again, it may have been a brilliant intentional feature. As a case in point, the Greeks made columns wider at the top in order to counteract the perspective problems of looking up at a tall detail. The end result was a column that looked less tapered when viewed up from the bottom. Maybe this is what Mr. Gruber had in mind when he had these doors made.

As for the transom in the double door, it was missing when we bought the place but it really is a blessing in disguise. Both Katie and I are stained glass artists so we have a wonderful opportunity to create something new.

The back door of the kitchen was also recycled from the second floor. The white door to the left is to the new pantry and it used to be to the old first floor bathroom before we rebuilt the walls. It is from the 20s which explains why it’s a different style from the 1870s doors with the transoms. It was also a lot lighter and easier to move than the 1870s behemoths.

Along with the doors, Katie and I roughed out the banister at the new landing. Once it is covered in drywall, We’ll put a cap on the railing and newel post to dress it up a bit. The window shelf will also get a wood deck so that the cats will have a nice place to relax while observing the passing traffic.

Granted, this look is a bit plain but it is our intention to create something more elegant once we are living there. We need to find the right architectural elements to reuse or build them from scratch both of which will take time. It’s all part of the wonderful journey which we hope will never end.


Cold Stair

Greetings my friends. It’s been cold inside the hotel for the last couple of days but that has not stopped Katie and Me from making progress on the staircase.

As expected, the concrete seismic work at the bottom of the stairs reduced the ground level landing size to the point where it was no longer code compliant. To remedy this, we removed the last three steps to make way for a plan so clever that it would make a weasel proud.

With the bottom three steps removed, it was an excellent opportunity to shore up the original stringers. I built a short wall which I firmly attached to both the stringers and the floor below which removed much of the original wobble which had been there since 1870.

Now here’s the clever bit. We moved the landing up three steps and turned the bottom of the stair 90 degrees to land in the saloon in a much more dramatic fashion.

This entailed making short stringers for the new steps. Yes, they are a little awkward in design but it was just a matter of having a limited selection of tools. I have the perfect saw to make a standard stringer to match the originals but it’s in storage and dog help me in finding it. Sigh.

The completed landing looks fine and I was even able to salvage the old stair treads to keep that wild west look. The one hitch is that the existing window seen here will now have to be replaced with tempered glass so that anyone running down the stairs after a couple of beers is not likely to run through the window and be impaled on the glass shards. It’s not likely to happen but better safe than sorry.

The next task, was the underside of the stairs. In order to make way for the drywall, the interior of the closet and the underside of the stairs outside the closet had to be framed out.

The inside of the closet was easy since everything was within reach. The sloped ceiling outside the closet; however, was a bit more dodgy. It was accomplished by me balancing on an eight foot ladder with Katie cutting lumber and handing it up to me. If this isn’t romance, I don’t know what is.

Finally, we gave ourselves a chance to do something more fun. Katie and I bolted the historic marker on the front of post office.

And the neighbors up the street approved.

What Success Hinges On

Now that we have windows, we’ve moved on to doors. Several of the doors that we’ve gathered are antiques that we rescued from a barn in Amador City CA.

They’re very nice but they didn’t come with jambs or hinges so we had to buy a few new tools and learn a new skill.

The router and hinge jig allows the perfect dado for hinges once one gets the hang of it. The learning curve was not too steep and our first attempts were pretty close although there were a few goof ups which lead to much head scratching on how to fix it. In the end; however, we made all the mistakes disappear and we were happy with the result.

The real trick is making the hinge dados on both the jamb and the door align perfectly. This was tricky but doable.

On a side note, the new jambs were fabricated from old base boards salvaged from the hotel guest rooms. It’s old growth pine and is better than anything we could have purchased. More importantly, it was already paid for over a hundred years ago.

Another salvaged resource is the door hardware. The vintage iron is incredibly durable and can be taken apart, lubed and reinstalled without a problem. The only challenge is that most of it is coated in several thick layers of oil based paint. This can be overcome with a little help from Grandma’s crock pot which we found at the thrift store for eight bucks.

We learned this trick from a PBS show long ago and it’s simply a matter of submerging the hardware in water with a dash of dish detergent and cooking it for eight hours. The old paint to falls right off! After that, the hardware gets a coat of gloss black spray paint to imitate the original finish.


What a Pane

The big news for this week is that the seismic work on the interior of the hotel is coming to a close. The concrete work is finished and all of the testing completed so now, the other contractors can descend upon the site.

First to come is the windows. They had been sitting in a warehouse in Reno since October waiting for the concrete work to be completed but once that hurdle was in the past, installation went very quickly.

The windows are constructed of wood both interior and exterior to please the historic commission with the one compromise being that they are dual pane. The historic commission was okay with this because single pane windows just aren’t available at a reasonable price anymore. In any case, the hotel has become warmer and a lot quieter.

Of course, no progress is ever achieved without the obligatory setback. While the windows were being installed, the wind kicked up and blew the back balcony door shut so hard that the glass shattered and sprayed out over the carport roof.

The door should have been propped open with the vintage brick we keep handy just for that purpose but it wasn’t. In any case, the new glass will be tempered so that’s an improvement.

On a more constructive note, Katie and I found a new stove for the saloon.

It is a Thelin brand stove which was made in Mound House. Thelin stoves have been around for about 40 years and they have an interesting history. The first models were made from transformer housings salvaged from old power poles and the chromed rings were truck rims. Of course, new building standards have made the early Thelin stoves non code compliant but you can see that much of the early design is retained.

Normally, Thelin stoves are quite expensive but thanks to Craigslist, we found this two year old model in Wellington for a fraction of the original price. Now, some may ask why we didn’t use the original parlor stove that came with the hotel. We would have liked to but it would have made the hotel difficult to insure. The Thelin stove we have now is UL listed and comes complete with installation instructions and proper wall clearances stamped on the back. What could be easier?

As for the original saloon stove, we plan on setting it up for decoration someplace as a non functioning unit.

Behind Door Number Three

It’s been a slow holiday season but work is beginning to pick up again. For the first task of the new year, Katie and I installed the back door on the second floor.

The recycled door was donated to us from the train depot restoration across the street and it came complete with hinges and jamb. It was pretty easy to slide into place but the real challenge was to get it leveled and operating correctly. To get this done, the jamb was centered in the brick door opening which was a very loose fit. Then, it was shimmed with thin strips of wood and nails were driven through the jamb and the shims into wood nailing blocks that were embedded in the bricks. Of course, the first attempt was not level so the nails had to be pulled and the door shimmed up again until we got it right. This was accompanied by an inspired collection of four letter words in combinations not often heard but in the end, the door works fine and is waiting for trim and spray foam to fill up the gaps between the jamb and bricks.

While this was happening, the contractors were busy downstairs applying the last of the shotcrete.

The rebar was wired in with care and wooden forms were installed around the windows to keep the concrete where we wanted it instead of all over the place. We were somewhat successful but some of the concrete penetrated and hardened behind the salloon door jamb which pushed the jamb an eighth inch out of plumb. Now, the door refuses to shut and the only remedy is to take the door frame apart and rebuild it. The nice part about this was that we were able to recycle many of the same four letter words we used upstairs. Heck, they were already paid for so why not?

Once the shotcrete application began, it got pretty messy.

But when the spraying was done, the dust settled and the troweling was much more peaceful.

Eventually, the concrete wall will have drywall applied over it so even the trowel work will be hidden forever. One would think with all that we’ve spent on the seismic retrofit, we’d have something worth looking at but the truth is that it will be entirely concealed. The only indication of what’s behind the walls will be the slight whimpering noise I make while trying to figure out where all the money went.





The Hole Story

If you’ve driven up Silver Street Lately, you may have noticed a big hole in the ground behind the hotel. This was due to a chance meeting of one of our neighbors. John, a bottle digger of many years, won my confidence and we agreed to take on the challenge of finding a privy hole together. So, with visions of buried treasure right in our own back yard, we sank our shovels.

Previously, I had used the 1890 insurance map to locate a privy at the far southwest corner of the wood extension behind the hotel. The foundation blocks were still there but they were not telling the full story. I was digging in the wrong place and this was apparent when the pick hit solid river rocks and 18” and my fillings dropped out from the impact.  John took a closer look at the map and figured out that the foundation that I was measuring from was not the same as the map and that the privy was actually 10’ farther south from my hole.

Digging commenced in John’s new location but we soon discovered that the old sewer line from the 80s cut through the corner of our privy. It showed signs of being dug previously but undaunted, we kept digging in the hope that whoever dug it before missed the corners or never made it to the bottom. As it turned out, it was not completely dug out but it was quite apparent that the original owners kept their privy well scooped out so there was very little to find in the way of bottles or other trash/relics.

What the earlier bottle diggers did not discover is that our pit adjoined two other privy pits which we tunneled into. We still didn’t find much but in the end, we had two complete champagne bottles, a couple square medicines, a hand made toy pistol and one bottle marked “Job Moses”.

The Job Moses bottle was of particular interest because it turned out to be an abortion pill from the late 1800s and suggested a shady occupation that may have been practiced in the hotel back then.

At the end of the day, the take wasn’t much but we did have one more surprise in store. While filling the pit back in, Katie was picking at a few dish fragments in the side of the pit and discovered yet another privy hole adjacent to three that we had already dug out. Well, that’s an adventure for another weekend.


Nothing To See Here

In our last episode, the backyard was doing its best to look like the Grand Canyon but since then, the scene has changed quite a bit. The plumber laid the sewer pipe and I, Katie and Ken, the neighbor with the tractor, bedded the pipe with sand and back filled the trench.

One would think our work was done but no. It turned out that the trench was not wide enough to accommodate both the sewer and water lines so we will have to dig another trench parallel to the first one for water. But wait. There’s more. The gas company wants to dig a trench as well and it will be parallel to the trench for the water line.  Argh!

While all this was going on, the contractors have been making some progress inside. The shotcrete was applied to the end walls of the second floor; however, we’re still waiting for shotcrete on the first floor.

This wall is in the master bedroom and the 4″ of added depth to the window sill lends quite a bit of drama. On the first floor, the shotcrete will be twice the depth so the arches at the front of the saloon will be very substantial looking.

First floor framing has also progressed. The stair closet and basement entrance closet have been framed out. The wall at the stairs has also been b0lted to the staircase so it does not bounce anymore. As for the ghosts, you can see two large orbs in the picture. I was using a flash to take the picture so the orbs are probably just floating dust but who knows?

Another exciting bit is that we now have plumbing to the second floor and heater ducts.

You may have noticed the red and blue pipes. Those are flexible PEX water pipes which have become a standard alternative to copper. PEX will not corrode like copper in Dayton’s alkaline soil and it will resist splitting if it freezes. Of course, the real reason to use it is that it’s much cheaper.

I Can Dig It

In the past week, the backyard has become the focus of attention. The stars finally aligned and our neighbor, Ken, was able to find a bit of free time to dig our new sewer line with his backhoe.

The challenge was that the county sewer line is in the middle of Silver Street and we had to get there without digging up the pavement. As luck would have it, we ran into a couple of generations of old sewer line while trenching toward Silver Street and this helped us confirm the best path through the yard.

The clay pipe was probably installed in the 1920s when the hotel got plumbing for the first time. It was later abandoned and replaced by a more modern plastic pipe that ran along side of it. We stumbled across the plastic pipe about half way to Silver Street and we removed most of it. Where we got lucky was at the edge of Silver Street. The plastic pipe continued out under the street to connect with the county sewer and it had a nice slip coupling right on the property line. This will allow us to neatly connect our new sewer line to the county with less digging than expected.

Now, you would think that with all the digging, we would have found a bottle or two. We didn’t, of course. It was obvious that when the ground had been trenched for the earlier sewer lines, anything of interest had already been removed. This was disappointing but there was another project that proved to be more interesting.

There used to be a brick path in back of the hotel and from this, I was harvesting period bricks to use as thresholds at the front of the saloon.

While pulling the bricks loose from the ground, I noticed a lot of green glass fragments in the soil. These turned out to be from several dozen blown glass wine bottles that were inserted neck down all along the edge of the path.

They were all broken, of course, but still fun to rescue and speculate about what they were doing there. I suspect that it was a decorative touch from the late 1800s.

Now, they will be cleaned up and strung together as fence ornamentation like I’ve seen in Gold Hill and Virginia City.


Side Trip

The new roof is finally getting installed and Katie and I are proceeding with prep work for the new windows. This includes removing the old rotted windows which uncovered a new challenge. The brick work around the windows has suffered quite a bit of damage over the years and there is nothing in the budget for repair; as a result, I’ve now become a budding mason.

Almost every window has seen quite a bit of water infiltration over the years and this would not have been a problem if the brick work was more modern. These old bricks, however, were not fired as evenly as newer ones and they vary in hardness by quite a bit. Some are hard enough to daunt a concrete drill while others crumble with the least bit of stress. The mortar is also quite antiquated in that it is probably just lime and sand which looses its bonding ability after many years. Many of the bricks just lifted right out or their mortar bed as if they were just sitting in dry sand.

Now, it’s important to note that when restoring old brick masonry, modern mortars are too hard for the old soft bricks and can cause them to disintegrate over time. With this in mind, the mix that I use is similar to the old lime and sand but it also has a dash of Portland cement. This creates a mortar that is soft enough for the old bricks but has added durability from the Portland cement.

The repaired sills are probably good for another hundred years and maybe longer.

Another part of the window that suffered over time is the nailing blocks. These are wooden bricks embedded into the window opening so that the window jambs have something to attach too. Most of the originals were just loose and had to be pulled out leaving a pocket.

With a bit of mortar, it was easy enough to put the nailing blocks back in for securing the new windows.

As a beginning mason, all my handiwork will be covered by the window jambs and casings. Perhaps this is a good thing since I’m still working on making the work look pretty. In the meantime, I’m learning about mortar consistency, differing types of sand and protecting my hands from undue wear and tear.

On this last point, I discovered the hard way that the lime used in mortar likes to eat skin. It’s quite irritating and where the skin cracks from dryness, the mortar goes subcutaneous and leaves little gray scabs that hurt for about a week. I now wear surgical latex gloves under rubberized cotton work gloves. This provides suitable protection without rendering my hands too clumsy for handling the mortar.

With luck, the next post will have the new roof completed and walls installed on the first floor. Keep your fingers crossed.