Life in Plateville

One silver lining to spending all our time at home is that I’ve started to tidy up various dark corners of the house out of frustration with the general shape that everything is in. A quick glance at my blog will show that I get sucked into different projects and make significant progress on them before stepping aside and working on something else. As a result there are stacks of books and LPs in various corners, and piles of projects in various stages of completion in the basement and on the home laptop. The good news is that this means that I can always feel productive by picking up a project and working on it for a bit; the bad news is that I’m never done. (That might be a feature, not a bug.)

So we come to the topic of this post, my small Lego addiction. While I’ve written about Lego on this blog before, I don’t think I’ve ever documented Plateville, my small Lego town. It lives on a table in the unfinished room in the basement and consists of a single town square, 96 studs by 128 studs, ringed by modular buildings and open on the back for … well, something secret, that I’ll write about when it’s a little more finished.

Most of the fun of the town lies in the eccentric minifigs who live there, but there have been a few special additions; see if you can spot any below.


After many years of service, our trusty Harmony One remote bit the dust a few weeks ago. It turns out that the remote, while rugged, does not like being dropped on a hardwood floor—the touchscreen, while still intact and functional, no longer illuminated correctly. Sigh.

We had owned the Harmony One for quite a few years. I never blogged about it, meaning we acquired it sometime in 2008-2009 when my first blog slowdown hit. It replaced a Sony RM-AV3000 Universal Remote which was powerful but in every way impractical and unwieldy. The Harmony One was, by comparison, luxuriously easy to use. Harmony remotes differentiate between devices – directly driving components of your system by emulating their remote commands – and activities, like “watch TV” or “play games.” With activities, the remote sends a sequence of commands to the components required to do an activity, like “turn on TV,” “turn on Marantz receiver,” “turn on FIOS box,” “set TV to HDMI-1,” “set Marantz receiver to Cable,” and then the hard buttons on the remote are set to handle the most common tasks for the activity—for instance, the volume controls might go to your AV receiver while the channel commands go to your cable box.

The Harmony One was light years ahead of the Sony in usability, but it still had problems. One was programming it—you connected the remote to a Mac (or PC) with a USB A to B cable and then ran a Java application (!) on the device to assign devices and change settings on the remote or activity. Another issue, a daily challenge, was the remote technology. It’s an infrared (IR) remote, like most of the ones you’ve used, meaning it requires a “line of sight” to the device being controlled for the commands to work. Often that meant that one of the kids (or other family members) would inadvertently wave the remote away from the TV or receiver, resulting in cries that the TV wasn’t working and requiring my intervention.

I did some research and learned that the state of the art has moved along pretty far from the Harmony One. After comparing options, we bought a Harmony Companion. It’s light years ahead, though not without its challenges.

The Companion is really two devices, a universal remote without a display screen and a remote hub that sits near your devices. The universal remote communicates with the hub over radio frequency (RF) rather than IR, so you no longer have to have line of sight—you can pretty much aim the remote anywhere you like. The hub sends IR signals to your components, and it even comes with an attachable “IR Blaster” that you can position near components that are outside your cabinet (like your TV) to repeat the signal.

But that’s not the cool part. The best part of the setup is that the remote is fully programmable via an iOS (or Android…) app—and the app also serves as a remote that’s in some ways even more powerful than the physical remote, since it also allows direct access to the device remote commands in addition to the activities you set up. The app is pretty cool; when you set it up, it scans your local network for a hub, and if it finds it and the hub is already configured, it downloads the configuration to your device and you’re ready to go. Lisa getting full access to the remote 30 seconds after I told her which app to download was pretty magical.

So far the only pain point has been setup. I created an activity for watching Apple TV but, probably due to the way I used the wizard, it set the physical remote buttons to control our 55″ TV instead. I had to go through and reassign every button on the activity this morning, but it’s working now.

I’m also slightly irked that the Harmony Hub isn’t a HomeKit device. I suspect this is because Logitech views itself as a HomeKit competitor for controlling the entire home. There’s a workaround using an open source kit called Homebridge that I might check out.

Home theater technology has come a long way. But it’s noteworthy that most of the advances in controlling physical devices are due to investments in mobile computing rather than physical devices.

More on the Parker-Morrell-Dana House

Stone building 1865

When I wrote about our most distinguished neighborhood house, the Parker-Morrell-Dana house, I compared a modern day photo to an 1865 one from Lexington’s Cary Library and evinced surprise at the large number of alterations, including changing Doric to Ionic columns and changing the shape of the parapet windows. How, I asked, had the local historic district permitted such alterations?

Of course, they didn’t. The library had mislabled a photo of the Stone Building as being the Parker-Morell-Dana house. In retrospect, the giveaways were obvious, and I probably would have caught it myself if I had used the modern day shot of the Stone Building below, rather than the front facade shot that I used instead.

Stone building 3

But that’s the Stone Building. The Parker-Morrell-Dana House is something else again. Here’s an undated print of the front of the house, courtesy the Cary Library (again).

Dana house

In this picture — probably not from 1865 — you can see all the features that were present in my modern day photo, including the Ionic portico, the conventional square windows, and even the brick sides of the house (if you look very closely. You can also see one of my favorite features: the elongated window frames, made to look as if the facade had triple sashed windows like the ones on Jefferson’s Pavilions at the University of Virginia. But the bottom third inside the frame is just regular siding.

So anyway, that’s the story of how a mislabeled photograph led me astray. As they say, we regret the error.

The historic survey form from the 1970s has more information about the house and its history.

Update: Just heard from the library and they’re correcting the exhibit.

New house, new neighborhood

One of the big surprises of our new place (well, not so new any more — we’ve been here almost three months) was that it was in a neighborhood. A very old neighborhood, established almost 200 years ago. As I wrote in my last post about the house, there’s been a house in this location for almost 300 years. There was building all around this area then, but it really got going in the early 19th century.

Follen Church

Follen church

About 120 years after the old Robbins house was built where our place now stands, the Follen Church Society called their first minister, and built their unique octagonal church building four years later, in 1839. The Follen Church feels like the center of this little village here in East Lexington. The bells chime every hour. And all the other civic buildings are spread out around it.

Yes, civic buildings. And the Follen Church isn’t even the second oldest one. There are a little cluster of them here, or not far from here. Fire station, a little further up the road. Then there’s…

The Waldorf School

Adams school

Originally the Adams School, this is the second school building in and around this site. The original Adams School building, dating to 1890, was just across the street where a parking lot now stands. The “new” building, constructed in 1912, has been home to the Waldorf School of Lexington since 1980. The school stands far back from Massachusetts Avenue, just south of the Follen Church. It’s got a town park behind it with a playground, soccer field, tennis and basketball courts too.

The Stone Building

Lecture hall

The Stone Building is not to be confused with a stone building. It’s a fantastic Greek Revival building that is the second oldest civic building in the cluster. Built in 1833 by Eli Robbins as a lyceum, it housed quite a few notable speakers over the years, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Wendell Phillips, Charles Sumner, and Josiah Quincy, Jr. It was used as a branch library until a burst pipe in 2007 caused significant damage, causing the structure to close. It’s still closed, though some repairs were done to contain the damage; plaster was stripped from the entire ceiling and some walls in the first floor, but carved decorative lintels around the windows are still intact, as visible in a video shot inside the building in 2008. You can read the architectural recommendations made five years ago.

“Brick Store”

General store

Now owned by the Waldorf School, the “Brick Store” was the original East Lexington post office. Built in 1828, it’s the oldest of the civic buildings in the East Lexington area. It’s also the building that abuts our property, though we’re separated by a parking lot and a stone wall.

Parker – Morrell – Dana House

Parker morrell dana house

This last stop on our tour is the first building I noticed in our neighborhood, and the oldest of the buildings on this tour — but it’s not a civic building, it’s a private residence. Abutting the house on the other side of the cul-de-sac from ours, this fairly magnificent Greek Revival home dating from the early 19th century has apparently always been a pillar of the surrounding community. Built around 1800 for Obadiah Parker, it was converted into its current temple form in 1839 for furrier Ambrose Morrell, who was Eli Robbins’ neighbor and business rival. It’s worth noting that it has undergone some changes over the years; while it currently sports Ionic order capitals on its front porch columns, a photo from 1865 shows a plainer order — maybe Doric — as well as other alterations that have been made, such as the removal of a side entrance and the removal of clapboards on the sides to show the original Federal brick façade. Even more striking is the removal of the quarter-lune windows in the triglyph. I’d love to find the meetings of the historical committee meeting that let that one go down. (Update: Of course the historical committee didn’t allow such a change. See my next post for an explanation of the confusion.)

So yes, our little cluster of buildings on the side of Mass Ave is architecturally delightful and complex—and fun. And that’s even before we talk about the bike trail, the Great Meadows, Wilson Farm…

New house, new history

The fence in front of our house is more than 150 years old, but the house itself is only 67 years old.

That was one of the surprises I had when researching the history of our new house. It sits on a main thoroughfare of Lexington, down the street from a church, meeting hall, and old village grocery store, and I always wondered how it was that there was relatively new construction here. It turns out the answer was simple: they moved the old house.

On our lot in 1716, Stephen Robbins built his homestead, and the Robbins family lived here through the mid-19th century. Around 1850, his family built the fence in front of the house, the one historical structure on the property. It’s sturdy, built of wrought iron and granite posts, and it isn’t going anywhere.

Unlike the Robbins house. After a long history (among other things, the house was apparently a station on the Underground Railroad), the house moved on—literally. In the 1940s, Helen Potter bought the place for $500, then spent more than $3,000 to move it up the street, where it still stands today. In its place, the Cataldo family built our brick Colonial, completing it in 1947.

The Cataldos have been in town since the early 20th century. There’s a good oral history by one of the brothers that talks about the early days of the family, including Anthony Cataldo, who founded the Depository Trust Company of Medford and who purchased the depot building for a bank branch when the Lexington West Cambridge Railroad stopped running.

At some point before 1993 the property changed hands, and the biggest alteration was made: a subdivision of the property (and maybe the adjacent property) resulted in the creation of a cul-de-sac and three old-looking modern Colonial houses that surrounded it. Aside from the demolition of an old barn that once stood on a corner of our property, the biggest change to our house was a remodel that left us with gold fixtures in the bathrooms.

Fast forward twenty years. After a few owners, the house was purchased by a nearby school eight years ago and became a rental property. When they realized they needed cash for renovation projects, the house went on the market and we snapped it up. Now comes the fun part of its history: making it ours.

New house, new start


The Jarrett House North has moved. I don’t mean this blog, though given my relative silence here for the last too-long-to-count you’d be forgiven for thinking all the action was going on elsewhere. No, I mean our physical house. Ten years to the day after buying our first Massachusetts home, we became the owners of this 1947 Colonial in Lexington. After ten years in a Cape, I still can’t get over all the space. I mean, we certainly made that little Cape as spacious as we could. But it’s no match for center hall, full second floor, full attic. Even with only a half-finished basement it’s still a lot of room. So of course, we’re still in boxes despite having moved six weeks ago. But we’re getting used to the place and the neighborhood. And what a neighborhood! East Lexington was a separate village once upon a time and we’re right at the center of it all. I’ll post a little about our neighboring architecture soon. And the grounds are astonishing — after having to cut down a bunch of diseased trees at the old house, to have a bunch of healthy horse chestnut trees, maples, a gorgeous plane tree, and even what I think might be an apple tree is a fantastic blessing. So even on a rainy day, I can sit here and look out the window and say: we lucked out.

Christmas 2009

Things have been a little quiet on the blog, even on the linkblog, this month. That’s because things have been anything but quiet in the rest of my life.

We have all but finished the addition project; I’ll be posting pictures of the finished work later. I’ve been insanely busy at the office, running from a web platform release (our seventh this year) to a couple of large projects to budget meetings. Then there’s been Holiday Pops. I still have a couple more concerts to sing for that…

Christmas itself has been a little challenging this year. My father-in-law fell on the second night of his visit. Originally we thought he was OK, but his pain was getting worse, so we took him to the hospital. Turns out he had a compression fracture of one of his lumbar vertebrae. So he’s spending Christmas in the hospital (that’s a seasonably snowy picture from the hospital window above), and we’re not very festive at the house. He seems to be getting better; hopefully we will have some time with him here at home soon before everyone has to go back to work.

Not that being home isn’t work–what with putting together Christmas presents and moving into our new bedroom, I’ve been a busy beaver indeed. But I’ve still taken time out to watch A Charlie Brown Christmas (on one of our Christmas presents–a new bigger flatscreen, so that we can put the old one in the basement guest bedroom). After all, I need to thank Mr. Schulz’s creation for driving a ton of traffic to my blog–the number one search term since Thanksgiving around here has been “charlie brown christmas tree,” leading to an old article about Urban Outfitters’ replica of the tiny real Christmas tree from the show (and amazingly, they still make it).

Ah well. The rest of the family can nap. I’m off to figure out how to cook the duck breasts we got for Christmas dinner. Maybe we’ll give the recipe with the cherries and port sauce another go. Or shall we just do a sweet cherry sauce? A pomegranate-wine sauce? Balsamic and apricot? The blood orange sauce I made for Valentines Day in 2005? Or maybe I’ll just punt and do a pan sauce. We’ll see. I like having these kinds of dilemmas.

Thanksgiving 2009 preparation: downsized feast


This is an unusual Thanksgiving for us. For the first time in our marriage, we’ll be eating the meal just as a family, without any guests. In the early years we traveled to family houses or had friends join us, and since we’ve been in Massachusetts Lisa’s parents have driven up. So why is this year different?

Well, the picture above might explain it. That’s the inside of our former guest bedroom as of about two weeks ago, looking at what used to be the outside wall of the house, and which is now the wall between the guest bedroom and our new master bedroom. The first floor guest bedroom has given up three feet of width to form a hallway that goes to the new master bedroom, so the decision was made to gut it so that it we could reconfigure it properly. Lots of fun historical archaeology as this room was taken apart, too, including the radiator pipe that is the remnant of the system we had removed in 2005 (you can see it in the wall in the foreground left of the picture) and the discovery that there were three layers of plaster in the room, each of which was backed by a cement based backer board. Our contractor didn’t swear us out after a day ripping this stuff out, but I’m sure he was swearing at the original owners the whole time. Plus, of course, the water damage on 60% of the original floor (the part that didn’t have holes from AC installation and former doorway locations) that necessitated replacing the entire floor in this section.

The good news is that there has been substantial progress since this picture was taken: the rooms have been fully insulated, blueboard and plaster have gone up, and as I speak tile contractors are doing the bathrooms while our project manager devotes personal attention to recreating window and door trim that match the existing trim in the house. I’ll try to get new picture up of this progress shortly.

But with no paint, no floors, and no working bathrooms, there was no way we could accommodate guests this year.

So we’re going to sit down and figure out how to streamline our normally, um, gargantuan feast. Menu? A twelve pound turkey, Brussels sprouts with bacon and garlic, sausage and bread stuffing, and (gasp) PURCHASED mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce. We might buy the pies too. You know, put us in the middle of a house renovation project and our standards just start to slip…

Addition update: Amazing what a few weeks can do


I could have sworn that I wrote something else about our addition project since the foundation was completed in mid-October, but it seems I didn’t. It’s really astonishing what you can do in a month:

And Friday, the exterior painting began. And this Saturday, the crew came in and finished most of the insulation.

Today, I think, is more insulation, and maybe initial blueboard.

Along the way, we have learned, so far, that working with contractors is a lot faster than doing it yourself, but there are still as many decisions to be made. Meaning that you’re not driving yourself crazy working on the house one slow room at a time, you’re driving yourself crazy driving around creation looking for “owner purchased items.” Our job has been to have the “owner purchased items” ready to install, which meant a lot of back and forth 0ver tile, medicine cabinets, lights, and other ephemera. From our last remodels, we learned not to sweat the small stuff (towel bars etc.) and knew what we wanted for tile, but it still took three weekends of home store visits (I think we managed to visit four Home Depots and two Lowes stores in a single weekend, looking for enough tile to complete the bathrooms) to get everything ready.

Foundation, filled and ready


As before, I’m having a hard time keeping up with our contractors. The picture above is from Friday. At the end of last week, they had sunk a pair of drywells (one visible above), established the drainage field with perforated pipe and gravel inside and outside the foundation, and backfilled the foundation (poured the previous week). Today they got the lumber on site and got the sill plate down. This despite snowfall yesterday that was still on the ground and cars this morning.

We were busy over the weekend too. I had a PODS storage unit delivered on Friday, and filled the back part of it with the contents of our storage/mechanical room and our laundry room on Saturday. The plan right now is that they’ll cut the door opening from the house (inside the current storage/mech room) to the addition tomorrow. We’ll see how they do. I forgot how much I like the PODS guys–we used them to move our stuff across country when we moved from Kirkland, and they had a real can-do attitude about backing the pod down the narrow driveway (officially, with six inches fewer clearance than they needed) to drop it behind the house.

Work day

Foundation poured and waterproofed

Our contractors were, as I noted before, busy last week, and you can see the results of their labor above. The foundation is poured and the waterproofing has been applied, and there’s just another day or so of cure left before it’s time to start framing. Their vigor has inspired me to take on some projects of my own. My office is closed but the rest of the family is busy (not all institutions give props to Columbus, I guess). So I’ve got a day to catch up on projects around the house.

Our front door, which had a supposedly troublefree finish, has had peeling paint on the inside since about a month after it was installed–apparently the guy, who no longer works for our contractor, didn’t bother to prime before he put the finish coat. So that’s project #1.

Then I have to do the next round of windowsill painting–time to do a little more winterizing. And about half the lawn (the half that’s not under an enormous dirt pile) needs mowing.

After that? Well, I might honor Columbus Day in the traditional slothful way. If there’s any day left, that is.

Addition foundation, fixture fixation


Work on our addition is proceeding faster than I can document it in photos. They broke ground on Monday (the picture above was taken by Lisa on Monday night), unearthing enormous boulders. (I now fully believe the story that the stone fireplace in our basement was built from rock found on site by the builders.) By mid-day Wednesday, despite heavy rains in the morning, they had poured the foundation. And yesterday they removed the concrete frames, waterproofed the foundation exterior, and left it to cure. I will have pictures of the foundation shortly.

The site work the team has done so far is impressive. That one big boulder isn’t the only one in that rock pile, and a few of its friends are visible at the bottom of the hole. (Fortunately, unlike a lot of our neighbors, we don’t sit directly on the massive rock ledge under Arlington Heights, but it’s clearly not much further down.) And they removed the crumbling stone wall that sat next to the garage , and tore up the driveway pavement around the defunct drywell and the scary French drain that was illegally connected into our main sewage outflow.Part of this contract will include capping the connection to the sewage system, and putting a proper drywell in at the base of the driveway. At last.

And last night we went and resolved at least some questions about bathroom fixtures. The addition will have two bathrooms, one at basement level (which, as you’ll note in the picture above and the architect’s drawing I posted previously, is above ground in the back), and one on the first floor in our new master suite. So we had fun chasing around with the consultant and picking pieces.

The fun is going to come to an abrupt end shortly. Once the foundation work is done and they backfill the hole and cart away the excess dirt, we’ll be bringing a storage pod onsite and emptying the storage room, utility room, and first floor spare bedroom to prepare for the Cutting of the House Wall. And then the disruptive part of the process begins…

New project: Addition


Well, I guess we’re about to get started.

While Zalm was going condo, my wife and I were planning for a little addition–namely, two floors, office below, bedroom above, with two bathrooms. We’ve known for a while that it would be good to have a little more room in our Cape-style house, and this seems to be the best way to go.

In the process, we’re going to accomplish a few goals:

  1. En suite master bath
  2. Dedicated office space
  3. Finished utility room (at last, at long last–no more plaster chunks falling on us in the laundry!)
  4. Fixing the drainage in the back driveway (this will merit a post by itself)
  5. Removal of the old fixed concrete trash disposal from the backyard.
  6. And getting more space in this tiny little Cape.

And, you might ask, how much of the work are we doing ourselves this time around?

Um. Well. We’re planning to lay a floating floor in the basement. We’ll certainly plan and assemble the storage ourselves. And I think that’s about it, really. Yeah, this time around we’re planning to let the professionals do the work. Because after the last few projects, I think we know our limitations.

So tomorrow, excavation starts in the back yard for the addition foundation. Photos, I guess, to come…

The irises of spring


I always forget how magnificent our irises are when in full bloom. The photos don’t really do them justice. Right now there is a wall of irises rising up between our driveway and our front sidewalk. The bulbs, which come from my grandmother Jarrett via my father, are really in action this spring and have created a spectacular wall of purple.

The wall of iris is reassuring because it’s a risky year for our plantings. We ripped out the remaining “legacy bushes” (big dense evergreens) in front of the house last fall when we redid our front steps. Against all odds the rhododendrons and compact evergreens we planted in their stead survived the winter and are blooming like crazy, but there’s still a lot of empty space to fill with plants. Cue a lot of annuals and perennials purchased and dug in over the past month, and you can understand my relief when the irises simply, reliably, just came up and bloomed.

Also, I built a raised garden bed a few weekends ago. The tomato plants are in, the basil and cilantro haven’t died yet, and the peas and lettuce are just starting to poke their way above the soil.

Finally, we hacked away some of the old growth along our back fence, taking down a nasty thornbush and some subpar “bridal wreath”, and found a big cherry tree hiding among the detritus. Hopefully opening it up will give the cherry the room to breathe and grow that it needs.

FiOS finale: getting the Airport Extreme online

Why is it that home networking stuff takes so long to resolve? Warning: highly technical and elliptical post ahead.

It took me a few days after my last networking adventure to get the last few items cleared off the checklist, namely getting my network attached storage (NAS) and TiVO into the network. To do it, I came darn near to voiding my warranty on the Verizon-supplied Actiontec MI424-WR before I pulled back from the brink and did something really… well, comparatively simple.

I tried some of the advice on the links I previously posted. Hint: don’t bother, at least if all you want is to put an additional wireless base station on the network. After attempting to put the Actiontec into bridge mode, then restoring factory defaults when my AirPort Extreme didn’t work as advertised, I ended up having to call Verizon to release my DHCP release remotely so the Actiontec would work again.

Back to square one. This time, I set up the AirPort Extreme on a separate SSID from the Actiontec, and darned if it didn’t come up successfully. So now the FiOS internet signal is spread across two overlapping wireless networks, and because they’re all connected to the same base network and the Actiontec is serving all the IP addresses (the AirPort Extreme is in bridge mode), all devices on both networks can see each other.

Okay. So the last step was getting the TiVO online. Under the old setup, I had an Ethernet USB adapter connected to it, running to the AirPort Extreme, which was connected to the cable modem. Only problem is, there’s no cable modem in the area any more, and there’s no Ethernet connection in the room. So how to get the TiVO back on the network?

My original plan was to hook up the TiVO to the Ethernet port on the AirPort Express in the room, but the Ethernet port isn’t active unless the AirPort Express is in WDS mode, which it couldn’t be with the Actiontec. But: it could be with the AirPort Extreme. So I reconfigured the AirPort Extreme and the AirPort Express together as part of a WDS network. Which … well, I gotta say, typing in a hex address is not the most foolproof way to establish a network. Especially when the letter B on a label looks like an 8. But I eventually got it straightened out.

So. The final setup:

  • Fiber to Verizon-provided ONT.
  • ONT: Coax to my Leviton coax splitter, whence it heads to both bedrooms, the kitchen, the library, and the living room, all from one split.
  • ONT: POTS to my Leviton phone distribution, whence it hits both bedrooms and the kitchen.
  • Leviton: Coax to the Actiontec router.
  • Actiontec: Wireless network #1, including the printer.
  • Actiontec: Ethernet to the Leviton, whence both bedroooms and the kitchen.
  • Actiontec: Ethernet to the AirPort Extreme, and thence to wireless network #2, including the living room and the TiVO.
  • AirPort Extreme: has the NAS containing all my music.

You know, all the people claiming that the computer folks ought to kick the crap out of the home theatre guys because of ease of setup? They’re talking out their asses.