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.




The big news is that Lyon County has just approved our Special Use Permit to occupy the hotel as a private residence. We had a lot of support from the local planner, county commissioner, fire marshal, Dayton historical society and many Dayton neighbors to whom we owe a great thank you.

Getting the permit was the second largest hurdle in making this renovation possible. The largest one is still the seismic retrofits. The design is in the review process now and once that is complete, we will be looking for construction bids. It’s sad that the design process took three months because we are running out of  building time this year. The retrofits require removing the roof of the hotel which may not be possible before the onset of winter. We may have to wait for spring now.

Meanwhile, we’ve been working on cleaning out the interior. All the plaster on the second floor is down and we are in the process of shoveling it into a dumpster. It’s just like raking up fall leaves that weigh a ton and are full of nails. All the lath that is still usable will go to another restoration project in Virginia City and we are thrilled to see it recycled instead of ending up in the landfill.


Speaking of recycling, in celebration of getting the Special Use Permit, I went shopping and found a set of knobs and escutcheons for the front door of the saloon.


These are in cast bronze which I plan to gently clean so that the patina remains. The antique dealer couldn’t be sure where this set came from but it’s possible they originated in Virginia City. In any case, they’re gorgeous!

Colorful Experiments

It’s been a couple of weeks since the last post and we should soon have the seismic retrofit design completed. In the meantime, we’ve not been idle. We’ve started a Gofundme page to help with the seismic retrofits since this is the largest line item in the budget and it benefits the historic community. We’ve also continued to clear out the lath and plaster from the second floor and expect to have that done in a week or two.

But that’s all the tedious stuff and we’ve had to have at least a little fun to keep ourselves entertained. Based on recommendations from the Historic Commission, I’ve come up with a color scheme that may work.


The red is brick, of course, and the gold and green are historically correct for Victorian trim and wall colors. You may also note that the column bases on the balcony have become rather large. This is based on the engineer’s requirement that the concrete column footings must be 14″ square and rise 5″ above the sidewalk. This Could be a trip hazard so I’ll fashion paneled wood boxes to turn the footings into architectural elements that at least look period. I’ll have to run this by the Historic Commission but it should be okay since the large footings are a structural safety issue which overrides historic correctness in many cases.

Argh! Windows!

To all my lovely readers, I’m in need of your wisdom. As you’ve probably noticed from previous photos, most of the windows in the Union are pretty much toast. The jambs can possibly be saved but the double hung sashes are crispy critter. I’ve been looking at several all wood six over six lite windows but no matter what brand, they all have bad reviews including fogging, leaking frames and even exploding glass. Have any of you had good experience with a window manufacturer? I’d love to have your input.

Sifting Clues

As we peel back the layers of old plaster and past remodels, it’s becoming apparent that the Union Hotel was not built all at once and possibly did not even start out as a hotel in the first place. Currently, it’s agreed that the stone wall of the court yard is the old Pony Express building that predated the hotel structure by many years but the evidence is tossing up some contradictions. From the following photos, it looks like the roof structure of the Pony Express building actually used the side of the hotel as a support which is impossible if the hotel was not built at the same time or before the Pony Express building.

Pocket 01

Pocket 02

The beam pockets in the pony express wall align with the beam pockets in the brick wall of the hotel. Also, it seems apparent that the rear wall of the Pony Express building was neatly tailored to the hotel wall.

Building seam

This suggests that the Pony Express building was built after the hotel structure which messes with the accepted later construction date of the hotel. Considering this, I’m contemplating the idea that there was a brick structure on the hotel site that was as old or older than the Pony Express building and that that structure was later converted into the Union Hotel on the date that is historically agreed upon. My first bit of evidence is the window headers on the first and second floors. They are not the same.

First flr header

On the first floor, the windows are deep set. The masonry is supported by multiple iron bars and a fancy flat keystone of vertically arranged bricks.

Second floor Header

On the second floor, the windows are not as deeply set. Only a single iron bar is visible and the keystone is an arch of horizontally laid brick. There is also a subtle change in brick color between the first and second floors.

Brick change

If you look closely, you can see that the bricks between the beam pockets are a lighter shade than those above the beam pockets. This can mean either that they are a different brick or possibly weathering has changed the color. The detail is inconclusive so let’s look at some other pictures. Inside the second floor bedrooms at the rear of the building is another clue.

Burn 01

Burn 02

Note the burn marks on the mortar and bricks at the base of the wall and how they stop after the sixth course of bricks. This tells me that the first floor structure burned and that when it was rebuilt, a second floor was added. That would explain the difference in window style between the first and second floors. It could also support the theory that there was an older structure on site that became the Union Hotel in later years. If that’s the case, then what was the earlier building? Perhaps there is an explanation.


This message is written in carbide lamp soot and it’s been hiding under the plaster in the Pony Express yard for a very long time. I can’t read it. Does anyone have sharper eyes than me?

When in Rome

I heard in a movie once that when the Romans didn’t know what to do next, they built stuff. In the case of the movie, they were referring to things like catapults and scaling towers but the theory still holds true in more peaceful endeavors. In my case, the bid for cleaning out the second floor lath and plaster turned out to be way more than I wanted to pay so it behooved me to come up with a another solution.

Renting a dumpster was the easy part but actually getting the construction debris to it from the second floor was a bit of a trick. The hotel’s rear balcony was a perfect exit but the decrepit old carport stood between it and the best place to park the dumpster. Then, I think of our friends the Romans and it hits me that I just need to build a solution.


Using salvaged lumber, I created a ramp from the balcony down to the roof of the carport. The sheathing on the carport was way to0 rotted to safely walk on so I located my supports over the carport rafters hiding underneath the sheathing. Now, I can just roll a wheelbarrow down the ramp and dump it in the dumpster from the top of the carport.

On another topic, we had a visitor last Friday night. It’s apparent that someone came up the stairs to the back balcony and broke in through the second floor door. This was a feat in itself because those stairs were so scary that I would not have attempted them myself. But I digress. Nothing was taken but whomever got in went on to break the only complete unbroken window in the building.

Como Window

They lifted the lower sash and then broke the glass in both the upper and lower sashes with one strike from the inside. I hope that they realize that this is a protected historic structure and that vandalizing it is a felony and not a misdemeanor.

Creeping Forward

As you’ve probably noticed, progress has been kinda slow. I’m still waiting for the structural engineer to finish up the seismic retrofit design and I’ve been using my time to demolish elements that are either beyond repair or too modern to suit the vintage nature of the building.

While removing non period plywood wainscotting in the saloon, I did not locate the bag of gold coins that was rumored to be hidden someplace. Instead, I discovered a letter from 1939 that discussed the Worlds Fair. I also found a mummified bat with a rather annoyed look on its face.

I figure the previous items do not warrant a new post so I’ll toss in some ideas of what I think the future floor plan may be. C:Data rescuedUnion HotelDesignnew base plan 1st (1)

This first floor shows a rather ample saloon at 20′ x 30′. We’ll just call it a Texas sized family room that will sport a rebuilt version of the original bar, game tables and possibly a pool table if I find an old one that suits my design sense. The Kitchen beyond will be of a country design with a large harvest table in the middle to make the room worthy of a Sunset Magazine foldout. I’ll also put in an old wood stove for decoration. It won’t be functional other than being a neat place to display my cast iron cookware.

C:Data rescuedUnion HotelDesignnew base plan 2nd (1)

The second floor was originally a maze of tiny rooms but with a bit of judicious wall removal, I’ve turned it into 3 bedrooms with 1 bath and his and hers office spaces. Special attention is paid to placing the laundry room on the 2nd floor with the bedrooms. There were, originally, two other laundry hookups, one on the first floor near the back door and one in shed at the far end of the garage structure. The idea of lugging a laundry basket up and down 13 vertical feet of stairs, however, was not so exciting.

Now, the big question is do I want forced air or radiant heating. I’d love your opinions if you have a preference.

Dust and Treasure

The seismic retrofit plans are still in the works but, in the meantime, I’ve been keeping busy with prep work. This week saw a minor victory in making demolition more safe. The scary electrical wiring has been disconnected at the source and I now have two new J-boxes with GFIs to safely power my tools. A big thanks goes out to my electrician.

breaker box

With that done, it’s back to the plaster demolition on the second floor without any fear of lighting myself up like a Christmas tree.

I’m sure most of you are familiar with lath and plaster but for those who’ve not experienced the pleasure, the following is a brief description of what it’s like.

lath front

This image is of what a lath and plaster wall looks like after being whacked a few times with a crowbar. It’s basically a 1/2″ thick layer of very soft cement that’s been troweled onto a series of 1 1/2″ wide slats which are nailed to the wall studs beyond. The fun patterns that you see are many layers of wall paper adhered to the exterior face of the plaster and, in this case, it’s mostly what’s holding the old plaster together.

lath back

On the back side of the wall, you can see how the plaster spludges through the lath. Is spludge a real word? Well anyway, the spludging is what causes the plaster to anchor to the lath thus making it stay in place for a hundred years or until someone like me whacks it with a crowbar. Why you don’t see this material used anymore is that it is very labor intensive to apply and requires a highly skilled craftsman. A typical house could take weeks to plaster and months to dry. With the invention of drywall or gypsum board, the process of covering walls could be done much more rapidly with less skilled laborers thus leaving the skilled craftsman out on the street corner selling pencils.

Now, back to the project. I’ve pulled down about as much plaster as I can by myself and I’m hip deep in rubble. It’s now time to call in my contractor with his crew of very strong guys and a dumpster to clean up the mess. While I’m waiting for a window on his calendar, I’ve taken the time to start scrounging whatever elements that I can use.

Scrounge 02

Scrounge 01

It’s a shame to let any of this stuff go to waste particularly when you see the prices for this sort of thing at the architectural salvage places in Berkeley. Oh, and lest I forget, this little beauty came out of the Guv-Nor’s-Sweet and will look fabulous once restored.




Shear Testing

As part of the engineering plan for seismic retrofits, a shear test is required to determine the strength of the original mortar in the hotel walls. In preparation for this test, one brick is removed from the wall and one vertical mortar joint is removed from the far side of an adjacent brick.

Shear 01

Into the hole left by the missing brick, a hydraulic ram is inserted.

Shear 02

Shear 03

A hand activated pump will cause the ram to exert force against the adjacent brick with the goal of sliding the adjacent brick into the space left by the missing mortar joint. Once that happens, a gauge on the pump will report how much pressure was exerted before the mortar failed allowing the brick to slide.

Shear 04

Something to note on this particular test is that the wall is painted with latex paint which, in this case, served to protect the brick making it one of the strongest walls of the building. This runs counter to what I’ve been reading about old brick walls and their need to breath. Moisture being trapped inside bricks by paint is supposed to hasten brick deterioration but apparently, Nevada is so dry that moisture doesn’t get trapped in the first place. This makes the project a lot easier since I don’t have to worry about removing all that latex paint from the masonry.

Now, everyone please send your good thoughts. Once the test results are in, the structural engineer will create his plans and we’ll know if this project is financially feasible.

Good and Bad

I’m still waiting for the seismic retrofit design to be completed but in the meantime, I’m exploring the structure with a bit of delicate crowbar work. One of the first things I discovered had me running for the breaker box. This photo is of the main connection that powers the second floor. Can you say EEEK! boys and girls?


It was simply stuffed into a wall cavity with no junction box and I expect more of same throughout the rest of the building. The plan is to completely replace the old electrical so that I don’t have to trust wiring like this.

On a better note, the only vermin that I’ve found inside so far has been this little fellow. I suspect he won’t be much of a problem.


Oh, and there’s also mud swallows nesting in the bathroom light fixture but they’re too cute to be counted as vermin.

The best news is that I opened up the second floor ceiling to check the roof structure and I was amazed at how solidly it was built. The ceiling joists are 2″ x  10″s of knot free cedar and they are all 24′ long! They just don’t make trees like that anymore.


You can also see that the roof is sheathed with full cedar planking and that the attic space has plenty of room for the new HVAC ducts. Looking at how fresh the lumber looks, it’s mind boggling to consider that this was cut 150 years ago.