Daniel: 1, Crown Molding: 0

crown1

After I wrote the post last week about the extensive wall repair and skim-coating in the little upstairs office, I couldn’t stop thinking about removing the crappy little crown molding bordering the top of the room. I hesitate to really even call it crown molding because it was actually a mix of a very slightly ornamental molding and even smaller pieces of plain curved molding, depending on the wall. It’s definitely not original—it was installed whenever a previous owner put up a drywall ceiling in this room. The ceiling was installed right on top of acoustic tiles, which are nailed into furring strips over the original plaster ceiling, and instead of nicely finishing off the edges where the new ceiling met the original walls, they just covered the gap with some scrap molding they had around. It’s definitely not the way I would have done things, but the drywall is in good enough condition and there’s definitely no rational reason to rip it all down.

crownbefore

Despite that the molding was very ugly and mis-matched and dumb, for some reason I really thought I’d be OK with it once the walls were repaired and everything was caulked and painted. It was so small, after all, and this room is hardly a public space (we’re using it as an office, but it’s probably been used mostly as a closet for the past century, if I had to guess!), and I could totally just be zen about it and let it go and not care at all.

Once again, I have misjudged and underestimated the power of my own anal retentiveness. It made me crazy.

The options as I saw them were these:

1. Take down this molding, and then put up new, bigger molding that coordinates better with the original moldings around the door and window in the room.

2. Don’t even worry about taking down this molding; just slap some bigger molding on top of it and call it a day! That seems like it would work, right?

3. Take down the crown, survey the damage lurking beneath, weep, then begin the long and arduous process of repairing and taping and mudding all over again to reconstruct the upper edges of the room, like some kind of a goddamn masochist. It would take the skill of an artist and the precision of a surgeon and the patience of a nun and the heart of a lion.

Naturally, I chose option 3.

While purchasing and installing new crown molding was an attractive option for the lazier side of me (not that installing crown is any kind of cakewalk, but I bet I could have banged it out in a few hours), it didn’t satisfy my innate desire to self-inflict emotional and physical pain in the service of renovating this house. Additionally, it just felt wrong for this room. We don’t have crown molding elsewhere in the house (or any evidence that there ever was any), and this room has always been a modest one by nature. It’s the only room where the original tongue and groove subfloor wasn’t covered over by nicer oak hardwood, and the door and window moldings are among the least substantial in the house. I just felt like installing a better-proportioned (and consistent) crown molding would ultimately just look totally wrong because of this, and really…faux? Which is kind of worse, in my mind.

crown5

yayyyyyyyyyyyyy. I just love a project that’s one step forward, two steps back. It definitely makes me feel like I’m great at planning and thinking about stuff and doing stuff right.

crown2

Naturally, the crown had been covering up a delicious amount of plaster damage and all-around excitement. That chunk of bare plaster you can see on the chimney is where a previous skim-coat effort (NOT MINE) chipped off in the process of removing the crown—I did end up leaving some old paint on the walls where it was particularly stubborn, and I felt like I was causing more harm than good in trying to remove it. Anyway, now I get to build that area back up with joint compound/mesh. It’s just non-stop fun!

Particularly big gaps and voids I filled first with small pieces of drywall. I noticed while removing the trim that the drywall ceiling was a little springy (it was NAILED up, not screwed, which seems very wrong to me?), so I also took the opportunity to go around the edge of the ceiling and screw in 3″ drywall screws about every 8 inches to secure it back in position. That helped.

crown4

Then I taped and mudded, mudded and taped! My basic strategy was to spread a fairly thick layer of joint compound onto both sides of the edge with a 6″ knife, then lay the fiberglass mesh tape (half on the wall, half on the ceiling), then embed it and get a clean corner with a corner trowel. This first pass seems to leave a fair amount of the mesh tape still exposed, and some areas looking pretty rough, but subsequent layers and sanding in between clear that up.

crown3

Even though I’ve only done 2 of 3 layers of joint compound so far and in it’s still drying in these pictures and it took a couple days and pushed this project back even further and I had to buy more joint compound and it wasn’t fun at all, I’m really glad I went ahead and did it. I’ve been working on these walls on and off (mostly off, to be fair) for literally months at this point, and now I don’t feel like I compromised on a dumb finishing detail. It’s going to look just as it should (provided I didn’t totally screw something up and it all falls apart in 6 months), and there won’t be anything to detract from the nice elements in the room.

SO. GOALS BY THE END OF THIS COMING WEEKEND. I’M PUTTING THEM OUT THERE:

1. Sand the second coat of joint compound and apply the third. Let dry. Sand again. Be done with joint compound, finally, forever (in this room). 
2. Prep the floor for paint (sand, fill, caulk, vacuum, etc).
3. Prep the moldings for paint (sand, fill, caulk, etc). 
4. Install base shoe molding, fill and sand nail holes and caulk all gaps.
5. Prime walls, ceiling, moldings, and floor.
6. Paint walls, ceiling, and moldings. Paint wallpaper primer on wall that will be wallpapered. 
7. WALLPAPER?!?!?!(!!!!)

OK, this seems maybe unrealistic. But that’s kind of my thing.

Also, my friend Emily is planning to come up over the weekend, and despite that her foot was impaled by a nail last time she was here, she sustained no lasting injuries and as such I plan to make her help me. So maybe it’s possible.

Prepping the Walls in the Upstairs Office!

I’ve been so excited to get it together and finish the little office room upstairs. I talked about some of the early progress back in the middle of November, and then shared my big exciting plan for the space, and I really wanted to have it done by Christmas (HAHAHAHA). And then things happened, like the holidays and the new year and tearing out a ceiling and then another ceiling and closets and…I don’t know. Life. The little office room more or less sat there, leading me to feel like a sad failure.

before

As you might recall, the walls of this room were riddled with pretty much every problem plaster can have. What looked like a fairly regular white room was actually layers and layers of paint on top of the original wallpaper on top of the original plaster walls. Unfortunately, over the years, the adhesives in the original wallpaper (and probably the wallpaper itself) began to break down, leading to lots and lots of cracks and flaking. In order to really restore the walls and prevent this problem from recurring over and over again forever, I decided that the best course of action was to strip ALL of the old wallpaper/paint off the plaster.

There were other major problems, too: all of the corners of the room had been repaired with a crazy (and very bumpy) layering of masking tape, joint compound, caulk, and paint. Same with the cracks, areas of missing plaster, and places where the plaster had come away from the lath but was still present. All of this was problematic because:

1) I want an office with solid walls that are not falling apart and looking a mess and made mostly of masking tape.

2) I plan to wallpaper the main wall of the room, and wallpaper really needs to adhere to smooth walls. None of this bumpy flaking crazy business.

plasterduring

It’s long been common knowledge that once plaster comes away from the lath (you can tell by pushing on it…a solid plaster wall will be, well, pretty solid, while a damaged one will give under pressure), the only thing to really do is tear it all down and replace it with drywall. Not so! Even plaster that looks pretty damaged and messed up can be revived with lots of plaster buttons and TLC. Plaster buttons are those little metal disks. They have a hole in the center, so all you do is insert a drywall screw into the hole and screw it in to either a framing member or lath underneath to pull the plaster back into position. I’m still getting my buttoning technique down, but that’s the basic principle. They’re great for ceiling repair but effective for walls as well.

This main wall of the office (the one that I’m planning to wallpaper!) was a disaster! Huge cracks, crumbly parts, missing parts…yikes. The first step was to scrape out any areas of plaster that were truly beyond saving, then implement the plaster buttons, and then patch missing areas with drywall. I used 1/2″ drywall—it’s best to just find the thickness that’s closest to your plaster. This might vary pretty significantly by the room, or even the area of the wall that you’re patching.

After this stuff is done, it’s time to start filling the voids and taping and patching the cracks and seams. Then the skim coating! Skim coating is the process of coating the wall in a thin layer of joint compound (or actual plaster, if you’re fancy/skilled/are applying it to bare plaster). It’s typically done over the course of 3-5 thin coats, depending on how much texture your wall has.

plasterbefore

The reason that the skim coat is pretty necessary is not only to smooth out areas of major damage, but also to create a smooth surface on areas that aren’t really damaged. I tried to take a close-up to show the actual texture of the walls before the skim coat. This is what all the walls in the hallway/entryway look like post-wallpaper-stripping, too. Just lots and lots of small areas of pitting and damage to the outer plaster coating, which will NOT look good if just painted over. You really need to smooth that stuff out for your walls to look like…walls.

Now, I was pretty pumped to be great at skim coating. I read over the Plaster Repair Series over at Old Town Home (Alex is such a wealth of knowledge and detail if you’re renovating an old house) probably 25 times to make sure I really understood the process. It didn’t seem that hard, and besides, people on the Internet tell me sometimes that I’m really handy (not really true at all, but I’ll take it). I bought all my tools and supplies and I was feeling pretty confident and amazing about the likelihood that I was a plaster repair prodigy and the whole thing would be a cakewalk and I’d have smooth, beautiful walls in a couple of days.

NOPE. NOPE NOPE NOPE. I have no idea which part of skim coating was so incredibly hard for me to grasp, but I could not do it. Seriously. I made one attempt, felt like I destroyed one wall, and had to walk away for a few days just to recover. Then I made a second attempt on a different wall and felt like I had destroyed that one, too, and I couldn’t even walk back into the room the next day to survey the damage. I think there was a third attempt in there, too. I just could not. 

I think this is why I started demoing so many things. Destroying stuff made me feel like I was still in control and capable of making forward progress. Skim coating made me feel like I was completely inept and my chances of fixing this house were hopeless (seeing as I have to do this in…pretty much every room?). Things were not going well. At all. Like really badly.

I think it had to do with the consistency of the joint compound, or something. You want it to be fairly watery and loose, but actually getting it from the bucket to a trowel and onto the wall and making it smooth is a whole different story. In high school I took Physics and received a B- in the class, so this kind of thing has never really gone well for me. Gravity. Friction. Mass. Slipperiness. Science.

The point is this: I was pretty stoked to rehash my skim-coating experience and break down my technique and be awesome. That will not happen because my skim-coating experience was basically just a lot of chaos and confusion and incompetence and emotional distress. BUT! I think I figured out a general technique by the end that worked for me, so I’ll be really detailed next time, when I’m not so frantic that I don’t really take any pictures because I’m too busy panicking.

mesh

Here is that same wall that was a disaster before. I borrowed Alex’s technique of using fiberglass mesh window screening material to do large-scale patching over areas that were really damaged and cracked, which worked out great! Since plaster will continue to move and crack over time, the idea is that the fiberglass screen isolates the top layer from the movement of the wall underneath, helping to maintain a crack-free surface. This is just after the screen was embedded in the joint compound (I used another screen on this wall, too, but didn’t take a picture apparently), but after a couple more layers of skim coat it’s completely embedded in the wall. You’d never know it was there!

deskwall

CHECK IT OUT. Does that look like a smooth wall to you? It looks like a smooth wall to me! With crisp beautiful corners and no crazy cracks or visible patches or anything. Totally ready for priming and wallpaper!

skimcoat1

The rest of the walls, like this one, will just be primed and painted, but that part seems comparatively easy and silly. Like being allowed to play with crayons for a while after having to read War and Peace in one sitting without blinking.

Also, take note of the new electrical! I said that I planned to have a ceiling fixture installed in this room, and now there is one! And a new plug! And a switch! It’s so modern you guys. Right now the ceiling light is just a temporary light, but I plan to buy a ceiling medallion and a real light soon (MEDALLION INDECISION ALL OVER AGAIN). I think I want to see more of the room come together before making a final decision on hanging vs. flush-mount for the light. It’s a very small space and the wallpaper is pretty bold and I’m worried that a hanging fixture will just be too much going on.

beforeandprogress

Ahhhhh. It looks so…real? Like being beautiful is realistic and within reach?

The one thing I’m already feeling a lot of regret about is leaving the tiny little crown molding in place. The ceiling of this room is actually drywall over acoustic tiles over furring strips over the original plaster ceiling (I know, I know, but it looks fine and there’s no real reason to take it all down), so the “crown” was put in place to create an easy transition between the plaster walls and the drywall ceiling. I was so overwhelmed with everything else during this skim-coating adventure that I opted to just keep it, and now I feel like the walls look so good that I want it gone. It’s just so dinky and damaged and it’s not even the same molding all the way around the room. But I also REALLY don’t want to spend several more days patching and taping and sanding and patching some more, and I feel like for this tiny room, I should just let it go, but…argh. I should have taken it down to begin with.

Maybe I’ll gather the strength. Maybe I won’t. Maybe I’ll just put up new, better crown, but that sounds hard too. And maybe expensive. And maybe like something that might not look great. But could it look worse? Maybe it could. It probably could. But it also could look better.

This is the type of thing that keeps me up at night.

chimneydetail

I feel really proud of my corners. All the interior corners were restored with joint compound and fiberglass mesh tape, and the exterior corners were repaired with new corner beads. These corners are a little wonky (it’s plaster over a brick chimney, and there was a lot of damage and weirdness), so I chose to use vinyl corner beads instead of the more conventional metal ones, since they seemed more flexible. I have no clue if this was a good idea, but it happened and it looks OK right now?

So this is what I learned, I think:

1. For corners and small cracks, you want to use fiberglass mesh tape. Do NOT use paper tape to patch plaster. For large scale patches, fiberglass mesh screens are effective and WAY cheaper than large fiberglass screens made for this kind of thing. It’s very hard to work with sections of screen larger than about 4’x4′, so cut and plan accordingly.

2. Give yourself options with the joint compound. I used a mix of pre-mixed joint compound and lightweight setting-type joint compound (90 minute setting time) that you mix yourself from a powder. The powder kind is more cost-effective, but I found it helpful to have the pre-mixed on hand for various things. Somehow I used up almost an entire 65-pound tub, along with a few bags of the powder kind.

3. Experiment with tools. I honestly just could not get my hands and arms to do the things necessary to handle a hawk and a trowel. I think I’m incapable. I pretty much used a mix of a 6″ spackle knife, a 10″ drywall knife, a paint roller, a Magic Trowel, a spray bottle, and lots of rags. Also, corner trowels are VERY necessary. I really can’t recommend the Magic Trowel enough. It saved this project and my sanity.

I know that’s not specific at all, but it’s kind of all I have! I’ll get much more detailed with how I go about plaster repair when I’ve done more of it and really have a technique down, but I don’t want to pretend to teach anyone something I barely know myself just because I pretend to be good at this stuff.

Getting the walls to this point feels like a huge step. Next up is primer, paint, wallpaper, and the floor! The fun stuff.

Happy Birthday, Mekko! 4!

mekko1

My family always had a lot of pets. Not, like, a creepy amount of pets, but enough pets. There was one dog, and then there were two, and shortly thereafter my siblings and I were each allowed our own private living animal to teach us about responsibility. I got a hamster. My sister had a guinea pig. My brother had a small exotic tree frog indigenous to the South American rainforest, whose talents included changing sexes at will, devouring live crickets, and making loud chirping sounds in the middle of the night. The idea was that we’d each care for our own creature independently, and I suppose we did, insofar as children really can do anything independently. The duty still fell to my mother to take us to the pet store for fresh bedding and hay, or to point out when our rooms were developing that pungent odor that meant it was time to give their various enclosures a good scrub-down. Somehow—at what seems now like the very birth of the Internet—my mother found a place online that allowed her to have a cylindrical container of live crickets for the frog sent through the postal service and delivered straight to our mailbox. The pet store was only a 15 minute drive away and they always had loads of crickets, and at the time I remember feeling like the whole charade was sort of silly—a solution to a problem that didn’t exist in the first place. Where did these crickets even come from? How many people had to be involved with the packaging, handling, and delivery of these crickets? Is this really what Scott, our mailman, signed up for when he took on our route?

What I’ve realized in adulthood that I didn’t adequately understand as a child is that having crickets delivered through the mail cut out one small thing for my mother to worry about. That’s a big deal when you spend so much time dealing with the constant issues and minute problems of three small children and five pets. The key to keeping up was efficiency and practicality. I’m aware now that parents these days will often book a doctor’s appointment for their children at the slightest sign of a sniffle, but my mom’s strategy was typically to let time and over-the-counter medications take care of things, unless they began to look somewhat serious. The same was true for the pets. I have a feeling my mom will resent this characterization, so I’d like to point out that we were well cared for and, where pets were concerned, highly indulged. My hamster was, after all, treated to multiple rounds of life-saving antibiotic regimens and her life ultimately ended after several days of overnight care at the vet’s office. But the general philosophy was that serious reactions were reserved for times when chances of extreme misery or death seemed high. Otherwise, a little Tylenol and daytime TV could probably fix it.

It’s a logic that still makes sense to me. If Max had it his way, we’d be at the vet’s office at least a couple times a week, the dogs getting poked and prodded and tested for exotic medical conditions he read about online. He worries constantly and endlessly that they might drop dead at any moment. I think I’m a pretty reasonable, responsible pet owner, but next to him I’m basically a scene from Old Yeller. 

That’s how it was a few weeks ago, when Mekko threw up as Max was getting ready for work. It wasn’t a lot of vomit. Max insisted that I take her directly to the vet, and I told him that she was probably fine (Pit Bulls have notoriously finicky stomachs) but that I’d keep an eye on things, and he told me that if she died it would be all my fault. Noted. Good chat.

As soon as he walked out the door, though, I heard it. That gurgling, weird sound that dogs only make when they’re puking.

The expression on a dog’s face after it’s vomited is the saddest thing in the world. Not only do they feel sick, but they feel really guilty about being sick, and they want nothing more than for you to know how guilty they feel.

We walked a few steps down the hallway back toward the kitchen so I could grab the paper towels and a slice of bread to help settle her stomach a little. Then it happened. She just…stopped. Then she kind of crouched. Our eyes were locked, and hers grew three times in size. She looked like she was about to sit down, but then she stopped halfway. This is the conversation we had, telepathically:

“Come to the kitchen, baby! You’re OK.”
“I can’t. I can’t move from this spot.”
“Mekko, why aren’t you moving?”
“I can’t.”
“Mekko, are you…shitting??”
“I think so. I think I am shitting.”
“Oh my god. Oh my god. Um. I officially don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t either. This is all happening so fast.”
“Oh dear lord, that is just disgusting. Oh Mekko. Oh Honey.”
“OH GOD WHAT IS HAPPENING TO ME I’M SO SORRY.”
“Holy fuck, this is foul.”
“WHY IS THIS HAPPENING. WHAT IS COMING OUT OF ME.”
“I’ve never seen this before. I never want to see this again. I literally don’t even know how to clean this up.”

And then it was over. We just stood there, staring at each other, both of us sort of frozen in shock and inaction. Saddest Thing in the World II: perfectly healthy, relatively normal dog momentarily looses complete control of bowels. Then she ran to the couch and hid in shame.

I decided to stay home and monitor her for a few hours, and that was the end of it. Whatever it was had evacuated itself from her system, and by noon she was acting completely normal, if still a bit humble and apologetic.

The severity of the foulness of that day continues to haunt me weeks later, but in a way, I think it brought Mekko and I closer together. That’s kind of how it is when you have a dog. They can take a massive, explosive crap on your floor while staring you directly in the eye, and you’ll still think they’re the most special, endearing thing on the planet.

We’ve had Mekko for 2 years today, which is crazy both because it seems to have gone by in the blink of an eye and because it’s so hard to remember what it was like without her. I realized last night that if I knew me two years ago—less than a year after meeting Max, still a student, and very unsure about so many things—I would have told me that I was crazy to adopt a super energetic 2 year old Pit Bull with a mysterious past from a shelter I knew nothing about after walking her around a city block for five minutes. I would have told me to get a grip, and that when the time was right, I’d find the right dog. Someday, but not today.

But that’s the thing…maybe there are better and worse times to adopt a dog (or do all sorts of things, really), but there’s never really a right time. There’s never really a time that’s just GREAT for the potty training and the added expenses and the unexpected vet visits and the bad behavior and the enormous puddles of shit on your floor first thing in the morning, and all of the many things that come along with being a pet owner. But you make it work.

Mekko is a great dog. I’m so glad we met her, and I’m so glad we brought her home. I can’t imagine my life without her, and I can’t believe she’s already FOUR! Happy birthday, Mekko! Here are some snapshots of the birthday girl from the past year:

mekko-collage

Mekko is a Pit Bull Terrier, one of the world’s most misunderstood and unfairly stigmatized dog breeds. Pit Bulls are incredibly kind, patient, loyal, affectionate, intelligent, and resilient, and I’m so glad that we adopted one. It’s estimated that around 90% of Pit Bulls brought to shelters in the United States are euthanized, and that only 1 in 600 will ever find a forever home—so please, if you are considering getting a dog, please think seriously about adopting a Pit. Further, if you have a dog, please spay/neuter and encourage others to do the same. 

We adopted Mekko from Sean Casey Animal Rescue in Brooklyn, an organization that works tirelessly to rescue animals in need, with a particular focus (though not exclusive) on Pit Bulls. Every year, I make a donation to help them continue the work that saved our dog. If you’d like to donate too, you can do so here. Every little bit helps!

Life
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Dining Room Closet Demo + Pantry!

before

One of the things that caught my eye the first time we saw the house was this closet door in the dining room. Because so many of the original features of our house are intact—all the interior doors except one, all the moldings, the windows—this door really sticks out. It took me a minute to figure out what went on here, but essentially the current pantry in the kitchen and this closet in the dining room used to house a service stairwell. The stairs ran up from the basement and out a doorway in the kitchen (which looks to have been closed of during the 50s kitchen renovation). The pantry door in the kitchen served as the entrance to the stairwell that led from the kitchen to the room above the kitchen on the second floor, which I’m guessing was the maid’s quarters. I don’t think our house is really big or grand enough to have had a whole big Downton Abbey-style staff, but we do know that there was a live-in maid in the early part of the 20th century and I’m guessing there would have been a couple of employees prior to that, too.

ANYWAY, at some point (maybe 1930s? 40s? 50s?) the stairwell was ripped out, the openings in the floors were patched in, and two closets were put in its place: the small pantry in the kitchen and this closet in the dining room. As we figured out when we took out the dining room ceiling, the dining room was at some point divided into two spaces, so I’m guessing this closet was used for clothing storage and the room inside the dining room was a bedroom.

Now it’s just an extraneous closet (there’s a shallow linen closet on the opposite side of the dining room—there are more images and a floor plan in this post if you really want to follow all of this action). It doesn’t match the room and it isn’t original and it isn’t necessary. Since there are so many doors and windows in this room, this is kind of the only wall to put a credenza on, which I like having in a dining room for storage and serving purposes. And since we ripped out the ceiling anyway and now have to do a bunch of drywall work in this room, we might as well just do it all at once, right?

So there. That is all of the logic that led to me deciding to destroy another thing.

closetbefore

This closet was real scary. Also really hard to photograph. The walls are basically a patched in mix of drywall, plaster, wood paneling, and beaverboard (which is a lightweight fibrous sheathing type of material that’s used in several places in our house, all of which we’ll be replacing…it’s the worst). Clearly there’s been some water damage (from what, I do not know!). Clearly nobody has ever cared even a little bit what this closet looked like.

oldpantry

This is the only remaining photographic evidence of the old pantry. Lest you were confused, in fact that is not fake wood paneling on the wall, but instead wallpaper made to look like fake wood paneling, which evidently pre-dated the stairs being removed, since below it is joint compound used to patch in the damage left behind from removing the stairs. It’s all so fancy!

I think the shelves in the pantry were actually the old treads from the stairs, though. The cleats are scraps of molding. Pretty crafty.

demo

The whole demo process was fairly straightforward and easy since the existing materials were so crappy. I started by taking out the shelves and the extraneous pieces of paneling and breaking the beaverboard off of the walls. The dividing wall between the closet and the pantry was impressively framed out with 2×4 lumber, which was pretty easy to knock out of place after cutting the vertical pieces of framing with my Sawzall.

Taking out the old doorway was pretty self-explanatory, too. I took off the door, then carefully removed the casing (it isn’t anything fancy, but who knows…maybe we’ll find a use for it somewhere!), then used my Sawzall to cut between the studs and the jamb, severing the nails keeping it in place. After that it was pretty easy to just knock out with a hammer intact. I saved it all, just in case.

pantry

OK, clearly this space is impossible to photograph well right now, but here’s how it stands now. Long, super skinny pantry, here we come! The space is very narrow (about 33 inches), so my plan is to run very shallow shelves along the wall on the right and deeper shelves in the back. I actually MUCH prefer very shallow shelves for pantry-type spaces (easy to keep canned goods and jars and stuff organized), so I’m excited about it. The deeper shelves will hold larger items and the microwave. While we’re doing the other electrical work, we’re going to run a new outlet or two to this pantry and an overhead light, which will really help with the dark-and-scary-torture-chamber situation we currently have going on.

As for when this is all going to happen…I’m not sure! While having a pantry would be nice, and I don’t think the project will be very expensive, it just feels sooooo low on the list of priorities right now, what with all the other half-done projects around the house right now. I don’t know. I know we’re still in the pretty early stages of all of this, and I really don’t mind having so many things in flux (the snowball effect of renovating made it a little unavoidable, so I’m not really blaming myself here), but I really want to get something done that will make an appreciable difference in our living situation. I think I need a little morale boost…just something that proves that I can create some good-looking order out of all this chaos and remind myself what the hell I’m doing here.

All I’m really saying is that the pantry isn’t important enough and I really just need/want to finish that office. That would feel amazing.

newframing

To frame in the old doorway opening, I ended up reusing the studs from the little wall that divided the pantry from the old closet. There wasn’t anything wrong with them, so I just spent about 10 minutes taking all the old nails out and then maybe half an hour cutting everything to size and screwing it all together (I used big heavy-duty 3″ wood screws for decking because I had them around and I didn’t want to mess with nailing). Then I just lifted the completed frame into the opening and screwed it into the surrounding studs and header and floor joist. It felt pretty construction-y and exciting.

Next up will be cleaning up the scraggly edges of the plaster and patching in a new piece of drywall. I think I’m going to do that stuff myself since it’s going to take lots of shimming and skim-coating and anal-retentiveness to make this enormous patch appear invisible once the room is all painted. As for patching in the baseboard, there isn’t a huge rush (particularly since a large piece of furniture will be on this wall anyway), but I do plan to have the millwork replicated to patch in here and on another wall where we’re missing some in a different room.

Hopefully by the time the office is wrapped up, we’ll have a new ceiling in the dining room and it’ll be time to really tackle it. Aside from patching in this big gaping hole in the wall, this room should be fairly straightforward. I’m so excited! I put together a realllllly bare bones plan with what I’m thinking about right now. Obviously it’s missing a rug and plants and art and stuff, but…whatever.

diningroom

1. Trim will be crisp white. Walls will be grey-ish white. Doors may or may not be black. I go back and forth about black doors for this house, but I think I like the idea.

2. I think I chose ceiling medallions, after tons and tons of anxiety and debate. It’s HARD. This one is 29″ wide and from Machen Supply, and I think it will really complement our moldings without feeling like a huge statement. Even though I love a super ornate ceiling medallion, it just doesn’t feel altogether right for this house. And since it’s repro and made of plastic and all that, I don’t necessarily feel like I want it to be a big feature in the house, you know? I’d much rather have the real, original stuff take the spotlight. I think we’ll use something different on the second floor, but I like these ones for the first floor.

3. I’ve been hoarding this light fixture for a long time—so long that it’s unfortunately discontinued! It was from West Elm and it was called the Long Arm Chandelier and it’s really very nice. I don’t think they made it for very long…I’m surprised it wasn’t more popular! The shades swivel up or down, so I think we’ll probably aim ours upwards so you won’t be able to see the bulbs (meaning we can use more Cree bulbs).

4. Big rosewood credenza that we already own. This’ll be great to use sometimes as a serving surface, to hold our booze, etc. etc.

5. Chairs we already own.

6. The much-debated NORDEN table from IKEA! I’m still looking for a used one (there was one on Craigslist but the seller never responded to my emails…jerks), and I know plenty of people weren’t sold on the idea, but I still like it.

Demo. Demo Forever.

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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?

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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