Warm Inheritance

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.

The company then outfitted the firebox with a special damper that has two controls — one in the horizontal position that lets smoke into the smokehouse and a second vertical control on the bottom of the firebox to control the amount of air and temperature of the fire.

They equipped the fireplace with solid doors that close tightly during smoking but can be opened or completely removed to use the fireplace for recreation. Because the fireplace is wood-burning, the owners also can add applewood, cherry or hickory to enhance flavor during smoking.

A Bridge to the 21st Century

The covered patio that contains the fireplace and extends out from the smokehouse is topped in the same cedar shakes for consistency, and exposed aggregate concrete was used for a safe, nonslip patio surface to create a period-appropriate look. Nevertheless, the space is full of modern features.

Another opening in the front of the fireplace provides a built-in oven for outdoor baking. On either side of the fireplace, McClorey designed benches of smooth concrete and added brick sides to create storage areas beneath the benches to keep wood orderly and dry.

The pavilion was electrically wired and outlets were installed so the owners can use their laptops in the shade. Copper sconces flank the fireplace with soft lighting for entertaining without attracting many bugs. The crew installed a ceiling fan within the vaulted roof, and opposite the fireplace. A flat-screen television hangs in the gabled recess.

The owners were looking for ways to enjoy the space even in Michigan’s brutal winter months, so they had Paulson’s Construction custom-create snap-on sides from materials similar to a wedding tent to keep cold winds at bay.

“Even when there’s 2 feet of snow and it’s 10 F in the dead of winter, the owners can have their friends over, crank up the fire, serve great food and watch the big game on TV. We also added a recessed bonfire pit outside of the covered pavilion. It’s a popular feature for entertaining, and now they can have outdoor bonfires anytime,” McClorey says.

The $21,750 renovation and addition added 180 square feet of year-round recreational space for the owners and transformed an untapped resource into a functional smokehouse to rekindle its useful life and lend a distinct character to the entire project.

KJ Fields writes from Portland, Ore., about remodeling and design.