One of the side effects of renovating an old house, I’ve found, is the way my brain has come to toggle between the absurd optimism I feel before a project begins and the extreme despair I experience when my ideas about how things will be collide with the reality of how things actually are. Everything is more or less microcosmic of this entire renovation endeavor: “These 150 year-old rotted box gutters—I bet I can just fix them myself in a weekend!” and “This kitchen…it just needs a couple coats of paint!” are just miniature versions of “this house…there’s not that much wrong with it! We’re terrific!”
False. Everything is hard and it takes forever and there are no such things as happy surprises we’re not that terrific. The end.
I had this big idea when we tore down the acoustic tiles on the dining room ceiling that the original plaster ceiling above it would be in pretty great, totally fixable condition. Why did I think this? Probably TV. Mostly delusion. It’s easy for me to blame things on TV on account of how many years I’ve been watching it, but mostly I’m just really pretty dumb.
The ceiling was not OK. It had to come down. It took us like 3 days and and tons of labor and clogged pores and 50 contractor bags and 3 tons of garbage and a truly awe-inspiring amount of dust to get rid of it. Romantic times with my fiancé I’ll cherish always.
Then, because I despise and actively ward off emotions such as happiness or peace or joy, I had this fun idea: now that one of the acoustic tile ceilings is down and has to be drywalled, why not see what’s lurking under the other acoustic tile ceiling, in the room right next door?
I know that the responsible part of my brain did this for good reason: if I’m having a ceiling professionally drywalled, it’s going to be less money and less chaos in the long run if I just have them both done at the same time. But the delusional side of my brain, the kicky one that informs between 99-100% of my daily actions, did it because I really thought the other ceiling would be in pretty great, totally fixable condition, which would be a huge morale boost and exciting pick-me-up.
Why? Because. Because contrary to all evidence like maybe just having done this a week earlier, I convinced myself that the house was totally going to cut us a break on this one. It couldn’t possibly be like the other one, because science and pipes and karma and things. Right?
These ceiling tiles were made of a different material than the other ceiling tiles (don’t worry, I knew this beforehand and they were each tested separately for asbestos). The dining room had individual tiles, but these were actually more like large, embossed panels made to look like individual tiles. Let that sink in. Somebody actually WANTED it to look like they put up an acoustic tile ceiling, but they didn’t. That was the actual aspiration with this.
So that was the first thing I noticed. The second thing I noticed was how removing the panels also brought a shower of dried mouse poop raining down on my head like glitter at a Mariah Carey concert. So much mouse poop. We don’t have mice, and I’ve never seen or heard a mouse, but apparently that was not always the case. There used to be a mouse, and it used to poop all the time, and now that poop was in my hair.
The third thing I noticed was that this ceiling was obviously erected by some kind of evil genius lunatic. LOOK AT THAT FRAMING. Could they have just nailed furring strips to the joists like in the dining room? Absolutely not. Instead, they definitely needed an intricate series of interlocking, multi-layer framing using a combination of furring strips and old lath and probably at least 400,000 nails. Why. Why was it like this. Why would someone do this.
The fourth thing I noticed was that the plaster ceiling? Actually looked pretty great! My earlier wager that it would be pretty great was right on the money. I felt really smart for arbitrarily deciding this earlier on, and very validated that I really listened to my gut on that one. Thanks, gut!
Moving down the room toward the front of the house, though, I noticed that the plaster seemed like it was getting a little iffy. The cracks were bigger and there were parts where the multi-layer furring catastrophe was nailed directly through sagging plaster and up into a joist, causing even larger holes and voids. By the time I got to the corner, I was frantically putting up plaster buttons to keep huge sections from falling. I decided this was probably/definitely the worst of it, so I was going to continue being careful and cautious and trying to save what was there.
Removing acoustic tiles from a plaster ceiling is basically like opening a present. You never know what you’ll find, but usually it ends up being death and plague and hardship.
Aaaaaaaaand, yeah. By the time we made it three quarters of the way around the room, it was patently clear that this ceiling was even worse than the other one, which is really saying something. There’s just really no way that I know of to fix something this far gone and have it look even a little bit good.
At this point, the ceiling just sat like this for a week or so, festering. We had a couple of houseguests, and Max made the grown-up decision that it wasn’t OK to put them through living in a house where plaster ceilings were being actively removed. Ever the hostess.
Then the houseguests left. Then Max had to go back to Brooklyn. Then I was alone in the house. Ohhhhhhh shit.
I don’t really have any process photos of removing the crazy intricate wood framing, partially because I was alone and it was the middle of the night and I chose to just pretty much forego tools and do the whole thing with brute strength and my bare hands. It was all very primal and barbaric. The only picture I do have is of this crucifix-shaped piece of framing that fell from the ceiling right next to me just like that. I don’t know a lot about Jesus but I’m going to guess he also would not like this ceiling.
Or I’m cursed forever now. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
Here’s the majority of the wood that came down from the ceiling BEFORE the plaster removal even began. Unbelievable, right? Such a ridiculous amount of material to hold up some fairly lightweight fiberboard. Bizarre.
A lot of the plaster came down by itself while all the framing was coming down, leaving about 2/3rd of the ceiling missing before the real demo even began. In the picture on the right, above, you can see where the original ceiling medallion used to be! Unfortunately we don’t have the medallion or any way to really know what it looked like, but it was helpful to be able to measure the imprint to at least get an idea of the size I’ll need for reproduction medallions. I’m still deciding, but I actually think I might go a little bit bigger than the original—like 30 inches across instead of the original 24″? #rebel
And, just three-ish back-breaking days later…no more ceiling! As with the dining room, we’re taking the opportunity to run new electrical to replace the old fabric-sheath cable inside BX (not because it’s necessarily unsafe, but because it’ll never be easier to do than it is right now). This room is also right below our bedroom, so it should be pretty easy to add some much-needed outlets and perhaps even a light fixture (!) up there. Even though I would have much preferred to have been able to salvage the original plaster ceilings, I am sort of happy about the prospect of doing this electrical work now and being able to do it much more quickly than if the ceilings weren’t open.
To preempt some questions and comments…
1. I’m definitely not leaving the ceilings open with the joists exposed like this (painted or unpainted). I’ve seen that look great in certain places, but that’s the thing: certain places. I think it can work beautifully with architecture that’s more rustic, but this house is a Greek Revival—it’s kind of the opposite of rustic. It would just look like we were missing ceilings. I promise.
2. We haven’t hired out the job yet, but I’m anticipating that having both of the ceilings done will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,200. I’m working on gathering more quotes (I’ve only gotten two, but one was wayyyyyy crazy expensive and I’m not considering it), which reminds me: if anyone in the Kingston-ish area has a good drywall guy, I’d appreciate the info!
3. A few people commented on my post about the other ceiling asking if I’d use blueboard and plaster veneer instead of drywall. For those who don’t know, this is a process similar to drywalling, but the entire surface is coated with lime-based plaster (basically the top layer of a plaster wall, without the other two layers and the lathe underneath it). Done well, it’s more or less indistinguishable from the real thing, and a great option for historic restorations. I’m trying to get a quote for this, but I’m guessing it will cost more than we really have available to spend on this, and I just don’t think that I can justify or afford the added expense for this project. For a wall, I’d definitely consider it (and feel more comfortable attempting it myself, maybe), but for a ceiling…I think a good drywall job will be totally fine.
4. When I say that we’re running new electrical, I don’t mean that we’re adding a bunch of stuff! In each room, there will still just be a single central light fixture. As a general rule, I don’t really like recessed lighting (or track lighting) in old houses, and I have a feeling that all fancy speaker systems (which I have no plans to install, but still) will be wireless within a few years anyway. All I’m really talking about is swapping out existing wires with new wires and adding more outlets where necessary.