Resources for Historic Homeowners

John Leeke's Historic HomeWorks™ Question & Answer Column

#23 Sandstone Foundation

"I am the owner of an old home built right after the Civil war. As close as we can determine the house is about 130 years old. The basement walls are sand stone and are slowly crumbling. There are stones in the walls as well. What is the best way to secure these walls. Some one said to cement the walls over the sandstone. Can you comment?"

First determine if the foundation walls are performing their intended function of supporting the building above and holding water and soil out of the basement. This may require the services of a competent contractor or engineer who is used to dealing with older houses and traditional materials such as sandstone. You want advice from someone who knows how your foundation could be repaired by removing removing individual crumbling stones and replacing them with sandstone cut to fit. This may not be the method you end up using, but your advisor should seriously consider it along with more modern methods.

Then determine the cause of the deterioration. The cause is probably related to water. Find the source of the water. A gutter and downspout system may be leaking or may have been removed all together letting water from the roof pour down on the foundation. Assure that water is controlled outside the foundation with good drainage systems that might include gutters and downspouts, a ground surface grade that slopes away from the foundation, and possibly an underground drainage system.

In nearly three decades of experience working on older buildings I have noticed that costly problems are often created when traditional building systems are combined with modern ones. Simply pouring modern concrete next to your sandstone foundation creates a hybrid foundation system that may not provide a long-term solution. For example, your house is used to sitting on a foundation made up of separate blocks of sandstone that shift and move slightly all along the foundation. This movement occurs slowly over the years and decades. A big section of high-strength concrete cast up against the sandstone may concentrate that movement all in one place causing a crack to run up through the house wall where there was none before.

My rule of thumb is to never use a modern method or material on an older building unless it has stood up to the test of time. If someone recommends pouring concrete up against a sandstone foundation I would ask them to show me two or three cases where this has been done at least 30 to 50 years ago. Then I would look at those cases to see how they are holding up.

Pocket Doors

"I have a 106 year old house, with one of its pocket doors off the runner. It is an 8' X 4' door. How do I get it back in motion? (It is currently mostly out of the wall.) Thanks for your help!" Rebecca, Poplar Bluff, Missouri.

I can commiserate with you since my wife is now on my case to fix our own two sets of pocket doors both of which jam a little and make the most awful screeching noise when they are opened and closed. I spent an entire day fiddling with them a couple years ago, which improved their operation a little, but it has deteriorated since.

First you must understand how the door is supposed to operate. Most smaller doors are hung on rails and rollers from above, but some ride on rollers fixed to the bottom of the door and a rail attached to the floor. If the door has simply jumped off a lower rail you may be able to shift it back up onto the rail with a flat pry bar. Protect the flooring from damage by slipping a 3-6" putty knife under the pry bar. Gently giggle and wiggle the door while applying slight upward pressure to the bottom edge of the door. Be careful to not split wood off the edge of the door or damage the rollers set into the door. A door as big as your will be very heavy and you may need two pry-bar setups and a helper. If you have upper rails and rollers determine if they are broken or simply out of adjustment. Many pocket door hardware sets have a screw driver adjustment just above the edge of the door. The door can be raised or lowered by turning the adjustment screw which may improve the door's operation.

If these simple measures do not help the doorway may have to be opened up to inspect the mechanism and make adjustments or repairs. This is a job for an experienced carpenter since the casings and trim around the door have to be dismantled and put back up without damaging them or the wall.


John Leeke is a preservation consultant who helps homeowners, contractors and architects understand and maintain their historic buildings. You can contact him at 26 Higgins St., Portland, Maine, 04103; or by E-mail:; or log onto his website at:

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