Taking It On The Chimney

Our troublesome chimney before stabilization

If you have been reading this blog for a while now, you know the deal. We’re interested in historic preservation and home repair projects here. Why?

Well, it’s simple. Living in Midtown Montgomery means that odds are better than decent that you have a historic home, or at least something other than brand new construction. That means you are trying to figure out ways to keep up and improve your home — and the information awash on the Internet can be overwhelming. So we try to curate home repair projects for you, walking you through some of the steps, letting you know contractors and products that we (and our writers) have found to be useful. If nothing else, you might get some good ideas from the process of reading about other folks’ adventures in home ownership.

Today’s chapter is a two-parter, and as of this writing, we don’t yet know how it will end. We’re about halfway through the process and will give you some “after” photos in a few weeks when everything is back to normal.

The tale begins with a bit of conventional wisdom — a lot of the houses in Midtown have cracks in their walls. These are not signs of anything wrong with the foundations of these homes, but are essentially reflections of the fact that many of the homes here are built on a unique kind of soil that expands and contracts dramatically with the weather. This “prairie soil” or “gumbo” is truly amazing stuff and can have effects on your house that might make you think that you are hallucinating. We feared the supernatural when we saw a large crack in our bathroom seal itself up almost overnight, becoming completely invisible. It can wreak havoc on your doors. It can mess with your pipes.

This is, in fact, not cause to panic and it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with your house. We’ve learned this over the years. And that may be why we didn’t mind too much that the crown molding in the front room of our house was sort of cracked. But then the cracks grew. And grew. And it looked like the molding was at risk of falling off. Which would be particularly bad in our case, because the molding in the front part of our house is made of plaster, not wood. The piece at risk of falling weighed a few hundred pounds, and would have seriously damaged our floor when it came crashing down. Once we determined there was nothing holding it to the wall behind, we knew that it was just a matter of time before the thing fell and sheared our mantle off of the wall.

Why was there a growing separation between our wall and ceiling? A little work with a level told us that our chimney was beginning to tilt forward. Once a chimney begins to lean, the pace only accelerates as the center of gravity moves. And it can pull the front wall of the house with it. Not cool.

So we needed our chimney lifted and further stabilized. We called the best experts we knew, Aspinwall and Associates. You may remember that we used them on a bathroom project not long ago. They confirmed that the chimney’s slant was not ideal and had some ideas for fixing it. They showed us the expansion and contraction of the soil, which was wet near the air conditioning’s exhaust and where our sump pump drained the corner of our crawlspace, but dry as a bone elsewhere given the lack of rain since the July monsoons. For years, people had been telling us to run a soaker hose around the house to water the foundation, but we never did. Actually, we poked a little fun at the idea of “watering our foundation.” Well, we’ve learned our lesson but good. The hose wouldn’t have stopped the chimney issues, but it would have helped our house stay more stable.

The first step of propping the chimney was to cut down some small holly trees that were of debatable aesthetic merit. Then they had to lug in a giant metal device built especially for stabilizing chimneys. It ran up our chimney and extended into the front yard. It took about a dozen men to lift the thing. Then they started digging down, and we mean six or seven feet way down, in front of the chimney. When we looked into the hole we could see the strata in the soil under our house. This helped us get an idea of what this “prairie soil” thing is all about. It’s pretty amazing to see the different layers. John explained to us that when our house was built in 1930, the foundation was laid even deeper than the code at the time required. Even so, if they’d just dug another six inches, the builders would have hit a kind of soil called “Selma chalk.” This stuff a) can actually be used as chalk, and b) is very hard, a totally different texture than the layers above it, which were a little squishy. Holding the soil in our hands helped us to understand how water can move a house by expanding and contracting the earth underneath.

As a side note, it turns out that the Selma Chalk is actually a 60 million year old geologic formation extending to the Gulf of Mexico. A long time ago, when Alabama was underwater, limestone and other organic deposits created this formation. So the hard stuff way under our house is basically in the process (or used to be, anyway) of becoming limestone.

Once our geology lesson was over, the workers were ready to pour the first of three piers that would support our chimney. The first pier was critical, as it would be used to support the chimney while the other two were dug under the foundation of the thing. The crew build wooden boxes down in the hole and the first of two cement trucks came by so the pier could be poured. Once it had dried, they used a jack to transfer the weight of the chimney and the second two piers were boxed and poured. It was hard to wait for the concrete to dry. We were nervous and excited for Stabilization Day. What would it be like when the chimney moved? Would it make a noise? Would things move around?

As it turned out, the move itself wasn’t that exciting. Which was probably for the best. To move the chimney, they drew two lines on either side of the chimney and used a laser to start at those marks. This way they could tell how much it had moved from the original position. Jacks under the two side piers were moved, a little at a time, as we all stood around watching a tiny red light crawl across the surface of the brick. Once it had moved about an inch and the bricks on the side seemed like they might be ready to move, John pronounced it stable. The hole was filled in, the dirt (so much dirt!) hauled away, and a soaker hose run around the house for good measure. No more movement!

All because of a piece of molding. We had to do this before the inside stuff could be dealt with, because we didn’t want to deal with re-plastering the front room and replacing the molding only to see it crack and move. Better to treat the cause than the symptom, we figured. So we’ve still got a front room with drywall patches for now – the house is settling into its new configuration, and in a few weeks we’ll see the inside all fixed up. So there’ll be a part 2, but not for a few weeks. In the meantime, here are some pictures from our chimney adventure!

Kate and Stephen are Midtown residents with two cats, a dog, three fish, a garden, an old house and a sense of adventure. They write about life in Midtown here and about life in Montgomery at their blog Lost in Montgomery.

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