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.

Mystery Cap

While looking for the water line to the hotel, I found this cap buried in the yard. Does anyone recognize what it is? It’s about 5″ in diameter and mounted on a white PVC pipe. I don’t think it’s sewage because a sewage cleanout would be black with a square nut on the cap.Mystery cap

Mystery cap 2

More About Me

While we are waiting for the structural engineer to figure out how much concrete to add to the hotel, I’ll take a moment for some back story and flagrant self aggrandizement.

My fascination with the Union is a mix of several background interests that I’ve had since I was a child. The most important being interests in antiquities,  architecture and reuse of materials. This inspired many possibilities including building a home from scratch.

Scene 02

This is one of numerous house ideas that I’ve toyed with over the years. This particular design uses shipping containers as the structural component with the idea that once the sheathing and dry wall goes on, it would be impossible to tell it apart from a normal stick built house. I’ve toyed with other concepts as well such as rammed earth and straw bale construction.

The Union; however, has provided a suitable shell for my passions so there is no reason to start from scratch anymore. The Union’s architecture, both interior and exterior, is aesthetically pleasing to my taste and the building provides enough room for my other endeavors as well.

As for the other endeavors, I’m an artist of scattered interests. In other words, I try everything that I can. I started by learning wood craft from my father and went on to glass, ceramics and metal. Mix that with the interest in recycled materials, and it makes for a fun menagerie of creations.

box joint

This box was made of old book shelves and salvaged hardware.

lamp03sTorch 01Parlor stove fini

The two lamps are assembled out of numerous broken fixtures that I combined to make whole again. The stove; however, was just a straight restoration so I take no credit for the beautiful design. My job was to remove a lot of rust and apply liberal coats of Rutland Stove Polish. Oh, and the mica windows are new as well.


Half is Better Than Nothing

One of the early items on the to do list is to take stock of existing elements that can be reused. The most obvious one is the bar with the drawback being that only half of it remains.


The other half was left outside until it was a lump of dry rot and beyond salvage. The trick now is to use the remaining half in a way that looks correct and not contrived out of scraps. To start, I’ve created a 3D model to experiment with different design options.

bar 02

Currently, the bar is pushed into the left rear corner of the saloon which is probably not the original location. It seems like it was originally parallel to the east saloon wall but to make that look right, I would need to recreate the missing half of the bar which would be difficult and expensive.

Let the Games Begin

Today we did a little bit of testing to see how bad the plaster was upstairs and got carried away in the process. The plaster is so soft that it just crumbles away and it seems like the only thing holding it together is the wallpaper.

Genoa 01

By the way, those studs actually measure 2″ x 4″ and the lath was held in place with square nails.

A Rainbow of Color

One of the cleanup chores that has been a real pain is all of the paint that came with the Hotel. Many of the cans were partially dried out and others had never been opened but had gone through freezing temperatures last winter which renders it unusable. Since the dump won’t take wet paint we are drying everything out so it can be disposed of properly.


At least it makes for a pretty picture.