New Year Chill

As many of you have noticed, I have not been updating the blog during the holidays. That’s because it’s cold and I don’t get very inspired when my tootsies are freezing. last week, we had a daytime low of 18 degrees and inside the hotel, it seemed just a bit colder. One might think that warmer weather would be welcome but one must also be careful about what one wishes for.

The weather today was a lot warmer but it came with an unusual heavy rain which was not helpful at all. I didn’t go on the roof to verify but what looks to have happened is that the rain melted the snow up there very quickly and the resulting water was held in place by ice dams. What happened next was an indoor rainstorm.

Most of it ended up on the staircase where it refroze making the journey upstairs much more challenging.

The floor boards are slated for replacement so I’m not too worried about the water stains. Dog only knows that this has probably happened before. What does concern me; however, is water on the millwork. Here you can see where water has dripped on this door and then frozen.

All is not doom and gloom though. The drips missed the piano by a couple of feet and only a little got on the bar which I cleaned up with a rag.

Deck the Walls

As we continue the careful demolition of the interior, it’s become apparent that many of the wall surfaces require replacement to satisfy the new building codes and seismic retrofits. Few of the existing walls were covered in modern drywall. Most of it was a mixture of plaster on lath, ¼” thick plywood, particleboard and, in some cases, ¾” thick pine walls with no framing studs at all. In addition, some of the framing methods were rather creative. As a case in point, some door frames were only held in place by the trim with no other method of securing them to the stud wall thus leading to catching both door and jamb as they fell out of the wall when the last bit of casing was removed. Granted this was a lot easier than sawing through nails and shims but it warranted a certain amount of vigilance to avoid being squished like a bug.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know that all the lath and plaster has already been removed upstairs. This material was rather easy after 150 years of moisture. The plaster was just falling off the walls and the lath was only held to the studs with tacks so it came down with little effort. The challenge was that it made a huge mess on the floor which obstructed further work. But, before the plaster could be shoveled up, the lath had to be carefully picked out of the mess. Imagine trying to scoop sugar with a teaspoon when the sugar is under a pile of a thousand chopsticks. Once we figured this out, my wife and I changed our approach and peeled the plaster off first, shoveled it up and then pulled the lath off the wall as a second step. It was still a mess but much more manageable.

As for removing drywall, it’s relatively easy since it breaks up into manageable chunks. If you’re lucky, or possibly unlucky, some of the drywall will come off the studs in huge chunks with little effort. At one point, I was trying to figure out how to remove a huge sheet of drywall on the stairwell ceiling. It was water damaged so it had to come down but being above the stairwell posed the problem of how to set up the ladder to get to such a high place. At that point, my wife gave it a tentative prod with a long crowbar and the whole thing came down with a dramatic crash missing me by inches. Problem solved.

The hardest wall covering to remove is the 1920s vintage plywood. It was used on all the walls in the dining room and while it is quite easy to clean up after, it’s a real pill to remove from the studs. The stuff is springy and it does not break up so it has to be removed in entire sheets with dozens of nails. After quite a bit of prying around each edge, the sheet requires a really good heave to break it loose. The reward for this is a free flying chunk of plywood while the ladder is illustrating the theory that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction.” I’ll be so glad when all the plywood is down.



Free Stuff!

I’ve spent the last week getting ready for demo work on the first floor. We’ve gotten the old bar up on furniture dollies so we can move it out of harms way and the piano has its own wheels so it’s good to go. There are; however, more items in the way that I can offer to my honored readers. We’ve got several old fashioned bed springs, two vintage record players, a sewing machine and Edna McDiarmid’s old TV set.


I hate to haul these to the dump so they are free for the taking or, if you feel inclined, we will accept a donation to the building fund. Just respond to this post and we can arrange a pickup.

Clearing The Jungle

It was a sad day today as we said farewell to the Black Locust trees behind the hotel and in the Pony Express yard. All of them were either dead from neglect or mostly dead and the larger ones were threatening the walls. As you probably remember, the yard was pretty wild when we bought the place.

Yard 01

The trees were putting out a few leaves but most of the greenery was on the suckers and the trunks were quite barren.


Now, the back of the hotel is clear.


And the four trees in the Pony Express yard are gone as well.

It’s interesting to note that Black Locust trees are not native to Nevada. They were imported because their wood has excellent rot resistance and serves well as mine timbers. As an ornamental, though, they’re not so good with erratic brittle limbs and a sticky sap that rains in mists over everything  nearby.

As for the Black Locusts of the hotel, counting the rings gives us a clue to their history. It appears that the trees in the Pony Express yard started in the early forties while the ones behind the hotel were about 20 years younger. From what I can ascertain, the hotel passed out of the Gruber family around 1940 and was purchased by Edna McDiarmid in 1950. Nobody seems to know who owned the hotel in the 40s but my guess is that the trees in the Pony Express yard started as volunteer seedlings somewhere in that ten year span and the trees behind the hotel may have been seedlings from the originals in the Pony Express yard.

All history aside, we now have room to work and space to plant new trees of our choice with Nevada native trees being our first choice.

Back Balcony

In an attempt to recreate the historic look of the back of the hotel, we must pay special attention to the back balcony. It provided a rear exit from the second floor to the ground by way of a long staircase. This was probably more for access to the outhouse than it was for escaping fires but who really knows? Now, it would be easy enough to just copy the original but the original design does not live up the current building codes and would never get approved by the county.


In the original, the stairs exited the left of the balcony and went straight down to land adjacent to the door to the Pony Express yard. This was a long and steep staircase which I’m okay with but it would make the building department unhappy. The new stairs have to be much less steep and there must be a landing somewhere in the middle for people to rest on their upward journey. As you can see in the above model, the stairs will have to bend in the middle and head out into the yard. Not only will this take up more space, but also, I now have a column on the wall in the same space as my breaker panel thus requiring it to move at great expense.


In this next version, I’ve flipped the balcony and put the exit stairs on the right. Not only is this more aesthetically pleasing, but also, it avoids blocking the breaker panel. It’s now up to the engineer to decide what works.

Slowly But Surely

We finally have the seismic retrofit plans but now we are faced with the county. The hurdle that the county has set in place is that, despite the special use permit for residential, this project is still considered to be commercial and we must get a general contractor to handle our subcontractors. This is frustrating because it adds another level of expense to do the coordination that we’re already doing ourselves.

While we are now looking for a GC, we’ve kept ourselves busy with the upstairs prep work.


This included another dump run with the last of the plaster.


I finally have a clean space to work.

Meanwhile, we had a side adventure on Halloween. Considering that the hotel had been broken into before, it seemed like a good idea to stake the place out for the year’s most mischievous night. So, My wife and I ordered a pizza, set up a table and played cards until the wee hours. Of course, no corporeal pranksters came by which was a bit anticlimactic but we did entertain ourselves by taking a few spooky night photos. Here we have a lot of orbs around our game table.


Are they spirits of the past or are they only dust particles captured by the camera flash? You decide.


Rainy Friday

Well, it’s a blustery day and the mason is home warming his feet making it the perfect opportunity to take photos of his artistry. As I covered in the last post, repointing is merely the act of removing old failing mortar and replacing it with new.


This bit is in the Pony Express yard and retains some of the original plaster that is still clinging to the wall after a hundred years. The mason has paid special attention to making his work look as natural as possible.


This view is of the back of the hotel where the repointing is partially complete. The lichen has been left intact in keeping with the Ghost Town Revival style and the new mortar color has been formulated to look as old as the building. But wait until you’ve seen what the mason has done to the window in the Pony Express yard.


In rebuilding the windowsill, the mason has selected burned bricks found on site to retain the scorched look of the fire that destroyed the Pony Express building in the 1870s. You will also note in the second picture that the mason has dug down to find the stone foundation which is the next clue in this mystery. The mason and I both agree that the original Pony Express floor is around 12″ lower than the current grade level and there must be all sorts of cools stuff to find if we dig it up.

Repointing Has Begun!

Back in the days of soft bricks and even softer mortar, repointing was a necessary practice. With wet weather and freezing temperatures, both the bricks and the mortar would slowly erode leaving loose bricks and unstable walls. Repointing is simply the process of scraping out the loose mortar joints and repacking with new mortar which is a task that should be ongoing. If neglected for 150 years, it gets to be a problem.


The Union Hotel has gone a very long time without repointing so some of the repair issues are more extreme. In this case, a window sill has gotten so much water that the bricks have disintegrated. With a little digging, the entire sill turned to rubble.


Fortunately, we were able to salvage enough old bricks from a decorative walkway in the backyard to replace what had crumbled beyond usefulness.

Using vintage brick for repairs is critical because new bricks are much harder than the original Gold Rush era bricks and using them will hasten the decay of old bricks adjacent to them. Also the new mortar has to be formulated to be as soft as the old mortar for the same reason. A modern Portland cement would just destroy the bricks around it.



Batten Down the Hatches!

Let the wind blow! Winter is fast approaching and we just got the plastic sheeting up on the windows before the first storm. We had thought that just tacking around the edges of the window would work but the wind gusts were so strong on the west side of the building that I had to add cross bars to keep the plastic from tearing out. It was fortunate that we had all that lath laying around. It was perfect for holding the plastic in place.


Speaking of lath, much of it is now stacked and ready to be shipped off to our friend in Virginia City. As for the plaster that was attached to it, I’m happy to report that we shoveled the last of it into the dumpster and it was taken to the dump where future archeologists will marvel at all the different patterns of wallpaper.