Another Building Ghost

by Don Friedman on June 6, 2016

I’ve written here before about how we can get information about the past from the ghosts of long-demolished buildings. I’ve written about a ghost that confused me. I even wrote an entire paper on this topic for the Fifth International Congress on Construction History. Obviously, I like this topic. Or maybe I’m stalking it.

Here’s the side of an old tenement (click to enlarge), exposed when the tenement next to it was demolished. What do we know about the demolished building? Off the top of my head, that it was built simultaneously with the remaining building, they shared a party wall, it had two rows of fireplaces, and the fireplaces were on the right side (when viewed from the street front) of the lot. All of that comes from one fact: the ghost of the front-fireplace flue group is visible through the stucco on the side wall.

The wall is a bit thinner where the fireplaces and the flues were removed – this can be seen at the parapet – because the flues in party walls are partly contained within the thickness of the wall. If the projecting front sides of the fireplaces – the hearths and flue front – are demolished, the projection becomes a recess. When you stucco over the recess, you get the appearance in the photo.

In this case, taking a picture from the street of a random building, it doesn’t matter very much. But when we are investigating a problem at a building (leaks through a side wall, for example) or designing a renovation (changing the floors at the front left corner, for example), the more information we have the better our work will be. Learning about past practice and learning about reading the ghosts of past practice is part of current practice.

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