When Hardware Is Shared

Who knew we shared fasteners through a party wall?

I was helping the new owner of a small twin house; we were replacing the wall-side stair rail. Once the damaged rail was off, all that remained were two stubs of threaded rod protruding about 1 ½". They would not pull out, as they seemed to be mortared in place. They would turn, however, as if screwed into some kind of interior hardware. Within minutes, the twin neighbor was at the door. —Ray Tschoepe

Shared railing hardware

"‘Stop whatever you’re doing!' shouted the neighbor. His own rail had just fallen to the floor."

When I unscrewed the threaded rod that had held the rail to the wall, I apparently unscrewed the nut that held the bracket for the railing next door as well.

I’d grown up in a Philadelphia twin and I’ve worked on several of these houses, but I’d never seen railing connected through the party wall before. Row houses generally do not share hardware. Live and learn. My client and I apologized and made repairs to the neighbor’s wall.

Since the threaded rod had been damaged by the previous owner, would not accommodate new hardware, and was not at the right height for today’s code, we cut it off below the wall surface, using a metal cutting wheel on an angle grinder. The holes were patched and new hardware was installed with masonry anchors. In the future, no owners on either side will face this issue.

A masonry wall divided some of the earliest attached masonry houses. But, by the second quarter of the 19th century, it was common to build the dividing wall of wood studs faced on each side with lath and plaster. The wall might not extend into the attic (or roof crawlspace), making the attics common space. Such construction allowed fire to spread rapidly house to house, until new fire codes mandated a fire-retardant party wall that rose to just above the roofline.

Before the use of terra-cotta blocks, effective insulation, and soundproofing, party walls might present residents with annoyances including cooking odors, shouting up the staircase next door, or peculiar music, especially the bass end. So our rail-bracket incident was no big deal!

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