Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A View of A Room

I was only going to change the dining room tablecloth, I swear! That was all. Four hours later, we had completely re-arranged three different rooms. We were so pleased with the effect, we thought we’d share.

You might think, "They have a table in the middle of the room….WHY, for heaven’s sake?" In all the pictures that we could find of interior decorating around the turn of the last century, it was very typical to have a table such as this one (from the 1860’s, I might add) in the middle of the room. Don’t ask us why, they just did. Of course, it’ll stay there till one of us forgets that it’s there and crashes into it in the dark. Until then, we’ll enjoy our little touch of authenticity. Hope you do too.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Restoration of A Different Kind

I remember the days when the mere utterance of the word "abstract," as it pertains to real estate, was followed by a sharp intake of air and a feeling of solemnity and reverence, as if someone had said "Allah," or "Yahweh," or "Carter’s Little Liver Pills." I grew tired of merely speculating about the history of the two houses that we own in one of the oldest parts of town. I wanted the facts! However, I ran into a brick wall on my first attempt. The office of Registrar of Deeds informed me that abstracts were no longer kept on houses – and hadn’t been for many years! What was once held in scriptural regard has now vaporized with obsolescence. No one even knows where they all went!

My thinking is, if we’re going to put all of this work into these houses, then they deserve to have a fleshed-out pedigree. At least, as much as possible. I had researched all the occupants of our other house, years ago. That effort yielded quite an extensive list of names – 44 in total. My source for this information was the Polk’s City Directory, and that’s where I was to return to uncover the linage of our current home.

The first time our address appears in the directory was in 1911. It can logically be assumed, then, that the house was built in 1910. This confirms what we were told by the realtor when we bought the house. What was interesting was just how long the original owners lived here. It was a married couple with two children. The husband was 12 years older than his wife, and he would live in the house until his death in 1941 (at the age of 82). She would remain in the house four more years, moving and dying, later, in 1948 (age 76).

After her death, the house changed hands rapidly, for quite a number of years. One of the original mysteries (and delights) about the house was that all the woodwork and hardware was kept in tact – never painted or altered in any way. Even the walls didn’t appear to have been painted! It was hard to believe that decades of ownership would result in such unimaginative inhabitants, to have never even made the effort to paint! We concluded that one of the children of the original owners retained the house as a rental. Because of that status, many of the fine old features unique to a house like that was preserved and maintained. There were probably strict rules about the care of the house and many strict parameters regarding decorating, etc.

In 1956, the house was listed as being "vacant." In 1957, the upstairs apartment makes its first appearance (via a "1/2" designation following the house address). My theory – and this is only a theory, right now – is that the son of the original owners was, at this time, in his early sixties. He could have been thinking about padding his retirement income by splitting the old homestead into two rental incomes.

Our appetites for discovery were whetted even more, last week, upon attending a meeting of the local genealogical society. There, we were both captivated by a fascinating talk given by a woman who works for the city’s historic building preservation office (we didn’t even know they had one!). She explained that her office still had information regarding building permits issued over the years. I later emailed her office with inquires about both of our houses, hoping that she had something on file that would give us some good leads. She only had building permits for garage additions, that were done much later, and some remodel work. No permits exist for the construction of the houses. She did inform us that there is a way to make your own abstract; and now, with this bevy of names on hand, we’re well on our way. The county holds documents that will add a few branches to our house’s family tree, so that’s our next stop.

Stay tuned!

Inner Beauty

One of the favorite features of our old home is a built-in china hutch that occupies a prominent space between the dining room and kitchen. I had started stripping the hutch last January in a "fit of good intentions," as one writer put it, thinking I could knock it off in no time at all. I only got as far as the two bottom shelves when other matters – namely, kitchen, bathroom and floors – distracted me. Brother Rob extricated several doors, when we were gone one day. He returned them a few days later so nice and clean, you could practically have eaten off of them.

For months, the hutch sat forlorn, half-naked and partially disassembled. The old finish that did not get scraped off when I last applied stripper dripped down and hardened on the bare wood below. The thick, black gunk lay in frozen rivulets across the front of the cabinetry like tear-streaked mascara. The belle of the dining room stood weeping, her shelves that once held heirloom china now a convenient repository for hammers, screwdrivers, prybars, drywall screws, duct tape, a paper plate with doorknobs and screws, caulking, paint brushes, steel wool, cat toys, weeks-old newspaper, Target shopping bags . . .

At the commencement of OPERATION FACE LIFT, I turned off the central air, opened the dining room windows, strategically positioned fans to move air both on and away from the work site, rolled up my sleeves and began. I decided to switch to a stripper that is supposedly safe for indoor use. This is not a choice I would normally have made, but I didn’t want our cat to go bonkers from the fumes, and I especially didn’t want the house to stink from now until Christmas!

I slathered on the harmless looking goo with enthusiasm, if not optimism. I was unsure that something so innocuous looking and smelling could remove anything more substantive than Easter egg coloring. The directions clearly stated that it could take up to 30 minutes to show some results, and that ended up being pretty close to the truth. Nevertheless, after about a half-hour, the old finish started swimming and mixing with the peach-colored stripper.

It took a couple of applications of stripper, as some of the varnish had crystallized, like sugar baked on a cake pan. With diligence, what was left of the nasty, old finish was finally gone; and, like a receding wave along the shore, it revealed "artifacts" of wear: An errant hammer strike from a carpenter that originally installed it, a scratch from a furniture move, a gouge or two at the bottom from hard-toed shoes or children vigorously playing with their toys on the dining room floor. But old wood is an amazingly forgiving thing. No matter how brutally it gets treated over a period of time, it only asks of us a little elbow grease to coax it back to its original state.

After I removed as much of the old finish as possible, I went back over the surface with that marvelous wash I discovered -- thankfully – early on ("CitriStrip"). This stuff takes it down all the way to the surface of the bare wood. The grain runs clear throughout the boards, each line a sentence from stories of old-growth trees.

I set aside the next day for staining. The first coat, as I anticipated, went on unevenly. It is the second coat that brings everything together. The irreparable blemishes quietly fade into the background, and the dramatic swirls of grain take center stage.

After two coats of polyurethane – this process taking at least two days to complete – it was time to put back together again. Making cabinetry is an art. Putting cabinetry back together is a science! It took the better part of a day; nevertheless, all the doors and hardware finally got put back in place.

In the space between the floor and the bottom shelf, I slipped a note explaining who did what and when to the hutch, just before sealing it up with the board that runs along the front. Now we have a pretty built-in china hutch along with a bit of immortality as well!

Monday, July 23, 2007


The police department in our town recently started a new program. (Wait, this really does have something to do with houseblogs. Keep reading.) They park a squad car off to the side of a notoriously busy highway in town and plant, get this, a policewoman dummy behind the wheel. (This ruse is a warning. There’s a real police officer down the road ready to catch those speeders who didn’t get the message the first time.) As unimaginative as it sounds, this mannequin’s moniker is "Dolly."

Traveling past the spot where we usually see Dolly on the job, my mother-in-law noticed that she wasn’t there.

"I wonder where she’s gone," she asked.

"Hmm.. She’s probably been on the force long enough to earn some vacation time," I suggested. "I wonder where dummies go for vacation?"

"They buy houses and spend their entire summer break getting their other house ready to rent," she quipped.

(See, I got around to housework after all.)

She’s right. That’s what it’s been like for us. A non-stop marathon of Restore, Renew, Repair, Request, Re-think, Resume, Re…. You get the point. Initially, when we bought our Homestead/Pre-Bungalow house with latent Victorian Tendencies, we planned to sell our other house. Did I mention the houses were directly across the street from each other? After we made the move, and had been living in our new, old home for a few weeks, it became increasingly obvious to us that giving up the other house and surrendering it to the whims and possibly destructive tendencies of new owners would be too much to observe on a daily basis. Every time we stepped out on the porch or checked the sunset from the upstairs windows, our old house would be front and center in our view. There would be no way not to notice.

Therefore, we decided to hang on to it and make it a rental (besides, the title "landLORD" had a nice ring to it). A few alterations had to be made; so we hauled back what tools we needed and got to it. Roughly five weeks later, the house was ready. Well, sort of. We’re still putting on the finishing touches. We moved a basement entry door from the kitchen to a corner bedroom, thus allowing the small, galley kitchen to accommodate a full-size range and additional cabinet space. Our contractors added plumbing in the hallway, in order to install a convenient, stack washer & dryer unit. All the rooms received a new coat of paint, and the bathroom got a new storage cabinet.

For all of you old enough to remember the Ed Sullivan show, jugglers were a staple to his lineup. It was impressive to see one guy keep plates spinning, or knives flying through the air, never once crashing to the ground in disaster. With all of the chores we had to do around both of the houses, that’s what it often felt like. However, keeping everything in the air brings a Zen-like calm to life. There’s something very satisfying in knowing you’re on top of things . . .

....until one of your plates crashes to the floor.

Happily, that hasn’t happened….. yet. Oh, some plates (and knives!) have been spinning a little longer in the air than we originally planned them to. What was going to be accomplished this summer – painting the house, having the fire escape removed and the eaves restored – will all have to be delayed now. It’s been weeks since I’ve been able to do any refinishing work in the house. No matter. It’ll still be there when I have time. Our first renter is moved in and happily setting up house. We can come and go on the property at will.

At the start of the summer, someone asked me if I would be working anywhere during the break. I said my time would be spent working at both houses. "That doesn’t pay very much," he said. "Yes," I replied. "But the rewards are pretty incredible."

Gotta run. I’ve got a plate that’s slowing down a bit.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Rounding The Corner

At least as far as the contractors are concerned, this project is nearing completion. Completion of Phase I, that is. The guys were able to turn on the water, last week, and actually keep it on! No leaks. Everything seems to work just fine. Of course, it’s only had minimal use – drinks from the tap and an occasional flush. The real test wont come until we’ve moved in. . . and are doing laundry. . . and washing dishes. . . and taking a shower. We’ll observe a moment of silence, before the big test; and perhaps offer sacrifices to Poseidon right before we dedicate one of the numbers on our keypad to speed dial Roto-Rooter.

As I’ve mentioned before, much of what we have to do to the house is a matter of correcting the bad judgement (or bad taste!) of the previous owners. Rob spent all of last weekend correcting the walls in the laundry room. When we moved in, they were nothing but pads of insulation enclosed behind a clear plastic sheet. When Rob took out the old insulation, he discovered mold, an old mouse nest, and daylight where the wall and floor meet. The wall was nothing more than plywood sheets over the old back porch. In fact, they just put plywood over the original porch screen, never even bothering to take it out. Rob spent all weekend cutting 2X4’s to reinforce the wall and give him something to attach the sheetrock to. He then cut the insulation of fit between the studs.

Saturday, Dad and I rented a floor sander. I had heard that the "vibrating" type of sander is much better than the old drum style, so that’s what I wanted to try. We started on the corner bedroom; and, even with the coarsest sandpaper we could use, we saw little for our effort. It’s not entirely to blame, I suppose. The boards are pretty warped. It would take days of sanding just to create a completely level surface. Because it couldn’t get "down in the valleys," so to speak, the old finish remained. What was left over was a somewhat-finished floor. The old stain, safely ensconced in the many dips and valleys, gives the floor a speckled look.

We had finished going over the second room with the rough sandpaper when the sander started making funny noises. Then, large chunks of metal started falling out from underneath it. The machine was still running, but, judging by the size of those chunks, if we had continued on much longer, there would soon have been nothing left but the handle! We took it back to the rental place, and were braced for a fight. Thankfully, they refunded half our money, so it wasn’t that big of a loss.

The question remains what to do with the floor? We could try taking stripper to the remaining stain, but that would be a project of gargantuan proportions. We have enough of those without adding more. I might try to just put some stain down and see if it masks the old spot, or, at least, brings them into the fold. In the meantime, we’ll be looking for sales on area rugs. BIG area rugs.

The contractors have put sheet rock up on the dining room ceiling and given it its first coat of mud. They have one more coat of mud to put in the guest bedroom ceiling before they head on into the living room. After they’ve completed that room and the parlor, our storm door should arrive. They’ll install that and be done. Uh, with Phase I, that is. (They installed new basement windows, last week, and boy are they snazzy!!)

The bathroom is starting to morph into something actually usable. It is past its "desperately ugly" stage, as Bro Rob put it, to "nearing-its-full-potential" stage. I was able to get some color up there, last weekend, and that alone was a welcome salvation from the fire-house red of its past incarnation. There’s still a lot of trim work to do, and many a mitered cut to make before we sleep. But ah, to sleep, perchance to dream of finishing up with phase I – ay, there’s the rub.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Another Busy Weekend

The last week has seemed to be the turning point in our renovating project. Changes of real substance are happening quickly. Last Friday was a big day – our Corain countertops were installed. These babies are nice. There’s a lot of $$ floating around in that kitchen, but considering it’s a pretty important room (and in desperate need of attention), it seems a worthy investment.

We finished putting the trim back on the guest bedroom windows and doorways. This was a learning experience, as I’ve never done that before. I was so pleased with myself, Friday night, when I showed my first completed window to Rob.

"Wasn’t there a little strip of wood that goes under the top board?" he asked.

Sure enough, I had gotten it all put together and managed to actually leave a piece out. And I remember refinishing the blasted things, too! I felt really dumb.

I felt even dumber when, upon showing the bathroom window trim that I had put back on the wall, he again had to ask the same question: "Wasn’t there a little strip of wood that goes under the top board?"

I did it again!!

"See you in a hour," he said, and walked off to where he was installing a window in the laundry room. This is one nice window. It changes that little dungeon of a room to a much more cheery, pleasant place to be. Even from the kitchen – even from the dining room, for that matter – we can see out to the backyard, now. While we have that wall open, we’ll install a motion-detecting light on the other side of the window. (There weren’t any back yard lights at all on that house.)

The contractors were working on the bathroom plumbing, when they stopped, last Friday. We expect they’ll be finishing up with the bathroom this week. They’ll hook up the kitchen sink plumbing, dishwasher, etc, as well. Then I imagine they’ll start putting up sheet rock on the guest bedroom ceiling. If they are done with that by next weekend, we want to rent a floor sander and experiment with that room to get an idea of what the rest of the house will be like.

The last major thing to do in the kitchen is put in shelves. We expect that the little stuff -- wainscoting, baseboards, chair rail, etc. -- will be done long before that. That room will be ready to go well before we’re moved in.

We’re slowly coming out of this miserable winter, the moderate temps have made working in the house so much nicer. I can actually open a window when I put the poly on. It won’t be long before yard work will be beckoning to us. And with as much we need to do out there, we probably wont see the inside of the house again for weeks.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Renewed, Restored

As our blog title indicates, the whole goal is to bring back to life what has been allowed – either by bad taste or lack of interest – to deteriorate. This past weekend was a chance to Renew, Restore, and even Re-fashion, in a sense.

The greatest accomplishment, by far, was the results of the hours put in by Repair-O Man (a.k.a., Brother Rob). After following through with a suggestion from Rob’s mom: taking out the wall behind the built-in china hutch and opening up the middle section, the project just seemed to languish sadly in the kitchen. While everything else around it was being transformed, it sat dejected, waiting its turn at rejuvenation. Rob and I had a general idea as to what we wanted, but didn’t have the least little clue as to actually make it happen.

Repair-O Man had a plan.

We knew that the shelves themselves needed to be extended, but we weren’t sure as to just how that was going to happen. Sure, cut boards to fit, etc.; but how do you fasten them on? Screws? That would look tacky. Those funny, wrinkly nail thingys? That would look even worse. Repair-O Man came up with a solution that we would never have considered in a million years: joining the extension with biscuits. Yes, I said biscuits. With biscuits, wood glue, and about a million clamps, the shelves now came out flush with the wall behind it.

When we took out the wall (way, way back in January), we saved the old beadboard backing. Repair-O Man cut down the segments needed to enclose the top and bottom cabinets and reinstalled them. Adding some 2X4’s for additional support, he fastened sheetrock over that. The chimney that ran along the right side of the hutch presented a problem, in that the plaster had come off in jaggedy line. Repair-O Man just cut a piece of sheetrock to match the outline of the old plaster. The new then met the old and were joined by a hearty dose of mud later on.

The rest of the restoration falls on our shoulders, but that’s okay. This part, we can do. It looks like the kitchen could become the second room in the house to reach full completion. (And to think, I honestly expected to live with the big hole in the wall well beyond our move-in date!)

The rest of the weekend activities didn’t render quite the same dramatic results; nevertheless, they were equally as productive.

We said goodbye to the old claw-foot bathtub that had been in the bathroom since 1910 and, recently, lying on its side in the living room for the past two months. Rob and I scooted it out onto the porch and were happy to see it go the next morning, because, from across the street, it looked like a dead Holstein. Rob’s cousin came and picked it up (well, maybe not picked it up). It’ll find a new home in a house that is yet to be built.

Rob and I cut, fitted, painted, and installed beadboard panels in the bathroom. Specifically, the pieces that go behind the fixtures (as that’s what the contractors are getting ready to install). We figure it’s easier to do that now than later. We found that beadboard siding was infinitely cheaper than the paneling we bought for the kitchen. Since we were planning on painting it anyway, we used a heavy-duty sealer/primer to cover it front, back and sides. We also slapped some on the wall. Taking this measure, and also caulking around the edges, should ensure that moisture has little chance of working its way behind the panels and end up becoming vast civilizations of mold colonies.

This wont come as news to you seasoned restorers, but we’ve discovered that the little things – trim, baseboard, wainscoting, etc., end up taking more time than we originally imagined. It seems like you spend hours with little to show for it. Still, we know that it’s all part of the process. People who come over always say that we’re "really making progress," and we’re holding them to their word.

I imagine the bathroom will be nearly finished, by the end of the week. We should have the trim in the guestroom ready to put back on the walls by Thursday or Friday. On Friday, the "Installation Team" is going to come out and put in our – ahemCorian countertops.
Renew, Restore, Rejuvenate . . . and later, maybe, Relax.