Jessica Pollack finished PPS’ Window and Workforce Training Program in May 2021 and promptly started her own business, Classic Sill & Sash, which restores historic windows and doors. She has also been renovating a beautiful house in Providence for the past few years. Here are her thoughts on why she chose this project and what she’s learned:
Why did you choose to buy an old house?
Old houses are special! They don’t make ’em anymore. I wanted an old house because you’ll never find the kind of artful details in a new build that you’ll find in an old house — the ornate balustrade, the built-ins, the ornamental plasterwork.
Also, I’m interested in how things are made and how things have been made historically. I wanted a learning ground for building my skillset in restoration crafts.
My house was a potential tear-down on a block that was once historic listed but where almost half of the homes have been demolished and what remains is in pretty poor condition. I walked in and saw the echoes of its former glory — massive one-over-one wood windows with wavy glass, faux bois trim, plaster ceiling medallions. What really sold me on the place, though, was the flow of the floorplan — like many other old houses, it’s been through a few major renovations over the years that have made it a bit of a rabbit’s warren to navigate. In particular, a renovation we suspect took place around 1906-1907 put a rather grand staircase in the middle of what had been the central hallways on the second and third floors — it’s a stunning feature to stumble upon out of a dark back hallway.
What are you most proud of in the restoration process? What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment?
Restoring the front staircase is probably my greatest accomplishment here. Initially, I thought I was going to be doing an epoxy repair on one of the risers, but the more I investigated, the further in the rotten spot seemed to go! There had been long-term water intrusion from the gutter in that corner and the ivy growing on the outside of the house had roots growing right through the brick into the framing, which had turned to dust. I ended up having to reframe the whole second landing and the exterior wall underneath it, replace part of the sill plate under the stairs, and then I used paneling and flooring I salvaged from the closet under the stairs to rebuild the paneling and flooring of the second landing. It took a lot of experimentation with stains, shellac, and aniline dyes to get a good match on the finish, but today you can’t tell it was ever taken apart.
What’s been the most interesting or surprising thing you came across during the renovation?
I did find a cigar box of squirrel tails once! But from a preservation perspective, it was very cool to find a 135 yr old mistake in the rafters. On an exploratory trip into the kneewall, Rob from Heritage Restoration pointed out that each of the rafters had been notched a foot higher than they were meant to, then the notch was filled in with a block of wood and it was re-notched further down.
What are some of the most important lessons you learned during the process?
Enjoy the process. Don’t get too wed to a timeline because it will only stress you out!
What’s your biggest piece of advice for other rehabbers?
Start with tasks that halt and prevent damage — water intrusion and anything that threatens to fall on the house (trees…chimneys…structural failures).
Use local resources like PPS and the city planning office. A lot of people seem to think that the city’s historic planning office is going to tell them “no” a lot, but I’ve found them to be incredibly supportive and helpful.