First off, thank you guys for all of the feedback on my kitchen renovation post last week! I’ve read all the comments but am still working my way through responding, so bear with me if you’re waiting on a response! I love how much people care about this stuff, and I genuinely appreciate having so much helpful feedback as I pull this plan together. It challenges me to keep playing around and refining and trying different options, and that’s very helpful at this stage! I’m sure I’ll be changing things up until the moment I actually do them (and then probably after—let’s be honest here), so we’re totally still in the playing around phase. Fun times!
ANYWAY. I’ve been working on finishing my bedroom. We know this, right? I’m sitting in it right now (what’s a desk?) and there’s still a fairly long hit-list of little things to wrap up, but even now it’s functional and comfortable and I just love it! It’s a wonderful room. But even though I know exactly how it all went down, I’ve still been thinking a lot about what the hell took so long. It feels like I’ve been working forever on this room. Just a few weeks ago I was standing around, surveying the mess, and genuinely wondering if this bedroom would ever be a space I could actually to sleep in. It’s always darkest before the dawn, I guess.
There’s this yet-unnamed phenomenon that I’ve experienced with each room in my house, where it feels like the renovated space betrays the wild and wooly and exceedingly messy process of getting it there. What’s that thing they say, about the start of a relationship being the most exciting part? That’s how I feel about rooms in my house, I think. Every un-renovated space feels like some sexy stranger, like an acquaintance I can’t wait to get to know better. I see all of the good—the possibilities! the potential!—and very little of the bad. But then I really dive in. And if I’ve done my job well, by the time I’m done I’ve spent so long overturning each stone, investigating every flaw, pouring some level of TLC into every single feature, that it all becomes old hat. That old romantic spark gets replaced with familiarity, and by the end it all feels kind of ordinary.
Not to be too self-congratulatory, but I think maybe that’s how it should feel. Despite the many, many hours of work that I’ve put into this space, even I forget what it really took when I look around the almost-complete room. I sit there trying to reconstruct the whole long process and all the moving parts in my mind to justify the amount of time I feel I’ve spent on it, because it kind of looks like I just painted the walls, ceiling, and trim and put up a new light fixture, and it’s hard to not feel like something is terribly wrong if it really takes me almost four years to get around to that relatively small amount of work.
But that’s the illusion, not the reality. Cognitively, I know this. I was there! I did the work! And even though that feeling can almost be deflating, I try to look at it as an indicator of success in this mission of restora-vating an old house. The room doesn’t look or feel like it underwent a big renovation—rather, it pretty much just looks how I think it should. It doesn’t look like it endured years of neglect and mistreatment only to be revived and altered by some lunatic blogger guy. It kind of just looks like it’s been nicely maintained over the years, and just got a fresh paint job. When you work really hard on something, I think there’s a natural inclination to want that work to be evident in the final result, but I’ve learned that the best kind of work when it comes to old houses is the kind that you hardly notice when all is said and done.
So what am I going on about? Well, let’s take a trip. Through TIME.
It’s May 31, 2013, and I had just done a final walk-through and signed the most daunting set of papers I’ve ever signed because they granted me the legal ownership of an entire fucking house. I’m 23 and have no idea what the hell I’ve just done, but it’s all very exciting. Here’s the bedroom, which at this point is the most bedroom-y room of the second floor apartment. The same second floor apartment that’s had its electrical panel disconnected, so there are no working lights or outlets. The best thing about the second floor is that its attending hot water heater in the basement works, which is more than I can say for the first floor. It still has no working toilet—that doesn’t get fixed until a few days later.
The grainy-ness of this photo isn’t helping my case, but right off the bat the bedroom had some issues beyond a light and easy refresh. The walls had been painted many, many times over possibly multiple layers of old wallpaper, which was now separating from the original plaster beneath, and would fall off in small chips or larger pieces with little provocation. That cheap little sconce next to the closet door was the only light source in the room, the baseboards sustained a tangle of old phone lines and jacks, and I think the entire room had 3 electrical outlets. Which actually isn’t bad, considering some of my other rooms.
Every part of this room needed some attention that wasn’t necessarily immediately obvious from a quick glance, but became more evident upon closer inspection. It looks like the whole wallpaper-separating-from-the-plaster thing had been a long-term problem, “fixed” with generous smearings of caulk and, in many places, some combination of caulk, masking tape, joint compound, and what appears to be cement.
Oh hi, Max and Mekko! By late October of that year, Max had hosted one of his friends for a weekend and they went rogue and started stripping the paint and wallpaper off the original plaster. I’d been good about just leaving everything alone up until this point, but seeing them making such a big mess armed with only a couple spackle knives immediately weakened my resolve and I joined in the fun. “Don’t start this unless you intend to finish it!” I remember telling him and the friend, which even I can admit is pretty rich coming from me.
Naturally that friend, that night, and the booze involved with it came and went, and left a little less than half the room stripped down to the plaster. And that’s how it sat for the next several months, because my house-related work was still reserved for more pressing projects and Max was over it.
By March of 2014, I’d had enough of the half-stripped walls and resolved to make some progress on the bedroom again.
It’s tempting for me to think of this as a project that got way too spread out over way too much time, which maybe is the case, but it’s not like I was sitting around in between! This is 10 months into home ownership, and I’d renovated the kitchen, the laundry room, and had just wrapped up work on the little office. We’d had the roof replaced (which ended up being very time-consuming on my part due to the issues with the box gutters—trying to fix them myself and then dealing with 3 or 4 roofing contractors to finally get it resolved), some necessary plumbing/heating work including a boiler replacement, and the two electrical panels upgraded to one large one. We’d worked to restore the original single-family layout of the house, opening up blocked doorways and demolishing non-original walls. I’d demo’d the fixtures and cabinets out of the upstairs kitchen, done some major clean-up work in the backyard, stripped wallpaper from the hallway walls, demo’d out the living room and dining room ceilings, removed a non-original closet from the dining room, moved a bunch of radiators around, built a fence, planted a garden, watched all the asphalt get removed from the backyard and a large shallow pond develop in its stead, done most of the demo in the downstairs bathroom, replaced the countertops from the earlier kitchen renovation, did round 1 of restoration on the front doors, and saw Beyonce in concert. All of this felt like such a slow slog at the time, but going over my photos and writing it down here actually makes me feel pretty good about the pace. We were also splitting time between Brooklyn and Kingston at this point, so it was a pretty busy period in my life.
ANYWAY. Stripping the walls was basically a two-part process that entailed an initial scraping and then going back with a vinegar-water mixture to get that sticky brown paper underlayment stuff off the plaster. Messy but not particularly difficult.
During the great radiator shuffle/exposed pipe removal effort, these exposed heat pipes in the living room—which ran right in front of the window moldings!—got removed and exchanged for new Pex lines that run up the wall that divides the living room from the hall and across along the ceiling joists. The bedroom radiator’s location didn’t change but that’s the kind of “invisible” work that affected more than one space, including the bedroom. This was done while the living room ceiling was completely demo’d.
Also while the ceilings downstairs were removed, it was a good time to run some new electrical to the bedroom. We added two outlets, a cable jack, a central ceiling fixture with a light switch next to the door (how fancy and modern!), and replaced the wiring that powered the existing outlets, including one line that ran through an unsightly conduit on the exterior of the house from the basement to the second floor. That conduit got removed this past summer, so I’m giving myself a retroactive pat on the back for good planning.
The electrical is actually my biggest regret about the bedroom. This house was built before electricity, but when electrical outlets were originally added, they put them in the baseboards rather than on the walls. I had thought that this no longer satisfied modern electrical code, and I think in some places maybe it doesn’t, but my electrician assured me that it actually was permissible here if it was something I wanted to do for consistency. I opted to go with the modern convention—placing them on the wall, about a foot from the floor—and now I really wish I hadn’t! I love the baseboard outlets in old houses and, as long as I’m legally allowed, would like to stick with that and relocate outlets to the baseboards where possible moving forward. In most cases it’s very easy to do myself, so not a huge deal.
God, that dog color-coordinated really well into that phase of the bedroom. Maybe I shoulda left it!
Then, once again, the bedroom sat totally on the back burner while other projects both in and out of my own house took over my life. If you’ve ever retrofitted old plaster walls with new electrical, you know it’s difficult/impossible to get the box installed very cleanly without the surrounding plaster sustaining some damage. So there I slept, in this room with the mostly raw plaster walls, portions of it crumbling and creating a small but very noticeably endless supply of dust (terrific for allergies!), one of those small plastic utility lights mounted to the new ceiling box with a single exposed bulb. Talk about a retreat!
So anyway. That went on for about 2 and a half years.
The bedroom still didn’t feel all that pressing until it just got totally blown up this summer, when I up and decided to add an additional window to the room. It’s a decision I stand by, but also one that I didn’t totally appreciate the ramifications of until the room had been reduced to THIS mess:
If you’ve been following along in recent weeks and months, you know the rest. I installed the window, sheathed and re-sided that elevation of the house, insulated the wall, put up new drywall, patched in some of the hardwood flooring, replicated the original window casing to trim out the new window, repaired and skim-coated the three remaining walls, restored the original window in the photo above, spent hours prepping all of the original moldings for caulk and paint, and—finally—got to the point of actually PAINTING.
And it’s still not done! But now the list feels much more manageable and less pressing. The doors need to be painted and the hardware restored. Two windows need to be restored. One window just needs paint. The other window just needs a sash lock. The dresser needs new knobs. The bed needs a mattress (hey, a full-size mattress fits on a queen size frame, just not very nicely!). I have to patch and paint the hole in the wall where the sconce was, because now the electric has been completely and safely removed. I need to figure out window treatments and get them ordered and installed, and then spend the next few years moving furniture around and in and out until it stops feeling like a nice thrift store display up in here.
So. Ya know. Still some doing.
And THAT, my friends, is why this shit takes forever! But progress still feels good.