Life was a bit different in the mid-1800s. Not only were there no electric lights, televisions or computers, but without refrigeration even the simple things like meat and fish preservation relied on salt or heat. Salting food was a labor-intensive process, but using smoke offered a much easier way to remove moisture from the food to help it last safely through winter months. As a result, smokehouses became a regular feature in early American backyards.
Behind an 1860s home in Howell, Mich., a stone smokehouse that came with the property sat unused for decades. The home’s south-facing backyard had no shade, which made it difficult for the owners to enjoy their outdoor space during hot summers. They decided to add a covered patio for year-round entertaining and restore the smokehouse for its original purpose.
The smokehouse shares the same type of foundation as the residence, which makes it likely it was built at the same time as the house. Howell-based Paulson’s Construction has a great deal of experience with historic renovation and used the smokehouse as a focal point for the project by extending the new outdoor living space from the 10-by-10-foot structure.
“We looked at opportunities for the smokehouse to serve multiple functions,” says Paul McClorey, president of Paulson’s Construction. “When it came to the new addition, we wanted it to look like it really belonged, and we worked to be sure it didn’t overpower the yard, the house or the smokehouse.”
Paulson’s began by carefully repairing the structure that had become a home for bees throughout the years. First, the company tuckpointed and remortared the smokehouse. They replaced the original cedar-shake roof with new cedar shakes. Despite advances in technology, McClorey says that cedar can handle the extreme heat produced during smoking and works much better than modern-day asphalt products that can melt or lend an odor to the food. In examining new ways to expand the smokehouse’s usefulness, the team looked at how the owners could capitalize on it for entertaining as well cooking.
Where There’s Smoke ...
Smoking can be achieved through two separate processes: cold smoking and hot smoking. The smokehouse originally had been built for hot smoking with a dirt floor that provided a place for building a coal fire. Two long racks slid out so food can be loaded and returned to the oven. The racks are positioned at varying levels to offer temperature control similar to a modern grill. Hot smoking is a relatively quick process that takes several hours whereas cold smoking requires up to 24 hours.
Cold smoking relies on the smoke itself to cure the food rather than heat, and the lower temperatures make it possible to smoke items such as cheese that could not withstand higher degrees. Another advantage of cold smoking is that the longer curing time infuses food with a smokier flavor.
“The owners were also interested in an outdoor fireplace, and since cold smoking requires an external heat source to funnel smoke into the structure without added heat, the concept of a connected fireplace tied the project together,” McClorey notes.
Paulson’s created a custom outdoor fireplace that anchors the new outdoor patio and attaches to the side of the smokehouse. After creating a hole in the smokehouse, they added a steel sleeve inside that leads to the fireplace and remortared around the opening to be sure the smokehouse doesn’t settle at a later date. McClorey used Michigan fieldstones found on the six-acre property to build the fireplace to match the color and texture of the smokehouse.
The weight of the stones meant the fireplace could be built only a few feet at a time to allow the mortar to properly set. Although it took approximately two months to complete the outdoor fireplace, contemporary simulated stone was not an option for the owners.
“Cultured stone is much faster and cheaper, but it would not have been fitting here. Real stone work is a specialty, and there are only a few stone masons that can still perform this type of work; we brought in someone we trust,” McClorey explains.