Dining Room Closet Demo + Pantry!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

The Apartment, After 2 Years of Living: The Living Room

The house is in all-out chaos mode. Ripping out the dining room ceiling sort of had a snowball effect of more and more demo, which has not only created an enormous mess but also brought the number of ongoing projects up to a semi-crazy, semi-overwhelming, basically-unmanagaeble tally. It’s kind of at the point where I just look around and find myself completely incapable of even prioritizing tasks anymore, so I’m just chipping away at all of them randomly and hoping that if I keep on like this, everything will meet some kind of happy resolution. Totally good strategy? I guess we’ll find out.

Even though I like the idea of moving along one room at a time, in practical application that’s just not really how it works with a house in need of this much work. It doesn’t make much sense to just do a little drywall work without just doing most of the drywall work or update a little of the electrical without updating a lot of the electrical. My hope is that if we can get a lot of this stuff taken care of at once, we can go back to the room-by-room strategy and just do the fun stuff like skim-coating* and painting** and making things pretty***.

*not fun at all.
**also not very fun.
***maybe moderately fun, but not that fun either.

So that’s pretty much where things stand. Chaos. Confusion. Too many things. It makes me feel so ALIVE.


So, to distract both me and you from the fact that I’ve become a perma-dusty garbage person living constantly in filth and despair, I figured maybe let’s talk about things that are currently pretty and clean? Instead of things that I promise will one day be pretty, even if everyone thinks I’ve lost my mind at this current moment?

I posted a little 2-year update on our bedroom at the Brooklyn apartment back in October and intended to complete the series by posting about each of the rooms every week or so, but that didn’t happen. Why? I don’t know. I get distracted.


My goodness, those walls. Sometimes I forget about the red walls when we moved in, and then I remember the red walls, and I become so grateful for good primer all over again.

Probably the biggest question I get from people about this apartment is how in the world I finagled my landlord into letting me make all these changes to my rental, and the answer is more or less contained in this picture (bearing in mind that this low-quality iPhone shot is actually very forgiving). When we moved into this apartment, it was kind of a wreck. It’s a beautiful 1890 building, sure, but it hasn’t been well-maintained (trust, the public areas of the building are horrendous). I think most standard New York City lease agreements either allow painting only with permission or stipulate that walls must be returned to white upon move-out, but that clearly did not happen here. It’s probably best practice to not have missing pieces of flooring, either, and maybe making sure that electrical outlets are operable and covered is also a good plan. Bathroom doors that close are nice, too. As for that legally-required smoke detector? HAHAHA. LOLZ.


The point is, while I did volunteer to paint the apartment myself if our landlord agreed to cover 1/2 of the cost (I would have done it anyway, because…red walls), that was pretty much the start and end of it. And in our building, I think that’s 100% OK. I’m pretty confident that all the things I’ve done are objective improvements, and it just seems silly (and, frankly, unwise) for me to ask permission every time I want to help improve their property. I think this kind of landlord-tenant relationship is pretty standard in Brooklyn, but all I can really say is that you have to evaluate your own individual situation as objectively and honestly as possible when considering altering a rental, and just because I did something doesn’t mean that you should also do that something. My (lack of) consequences might be very different from yours!


Anyway! I love this room now. It’s gone through lots and lots of iterations in between that “before” picture and this one, and if we hadn’t bought the house, I’d probably keep messing with it until the end of time. But there is zero extra time, money, or effort in my life anymore that I’m willing or able to devote to futzing with this space, so it’s done enough! I like it.

Clockwise: lucite tables are vintage. Couch is IKEA. Pillows are CB2 (discontinued). Desk is vintage. Wall lamp is OneFortyThree. Tree is a Fiddle Leaf Fig. Pot is Target (discontinued). Ceiling light is the Cartell FL/Y Suspension Lamp. Chair is a vintage Eames Lounge. String light is Patrick Townsend for Areaware. Basket is West Elm Market (discontinued). Mirror and pottery on mantel are vintage. Credenza is vintage. Eames shell chair is vintage, base is from Modern Conscience (quality is terrific, btw). Coffee table is vintage. Rug is vintage.


I don’t know, stuff and things on top of the desk. I still love that Christopher Gray print from Erie Drive.


OK, time to fess up…we got a huge TV. Over a year ago. My little 26″ TV wasn’t cutting it anymore, and at some point we decided that our next TV purchase should be approximately 400 times larger. I know the chic blogger thing to do is have, like, some modestly-sized TV covered with a curtain wall of cotton-velvet panels underneath which is a gallery wall of some fake art surrounding the TV and painted dark to minimize the presence of the TV and pretend like TV isn’t something they do while they continue to try to invent an invisibility forcefield for said TV, but that’s dumb. A TV is a TV, and TV is pretty great these days, so who cares? Despite that I know on a cognitive level that this enormous television is tacky and huge, I’ve also successfully deluded myself into thinking that because it’s mounted and scaled kind of like a piece of art, it isn’t so conspicuous. Ha.

We’re boys. Leave me alone.

We got a good deal on this very slim LED LG model (I think maybe they were phasing it out…I can’t seem to find it for sale anymore), and I have to say it’s super nice. I don’t know lots about this stuff, but I guess LG isn’t considered one of the high-quality brands, but the picture quality (and even sound quality!) on this TV are amazing, and I remember it being slimmer than the nicer Sony and Samsung counterparts. No regrets! I mounted it to the wall with a TV mount from Amazon, which I remember being fairly challenging (this wall is plaster over brick, so I used huge lag-bolts to secure it). Then I wrapped the cords together with a rubber band and stacked some books in front of them “temporarily” while I figured out a better solution. Then I completely stopped caring because my shows were on.


Pretty much my most successful NYC thrift score of the last year was that I found a Design House Stockholm Block Lamp at Salvation army for $6. SIX. DOLLARS. It was missing the cord and light socket, but those parts were super simple to wire up DIY-style with stuff from one of the lighting stores in Chinatown. I’ve wanted one of these things for a longgggg time, so the whole event was incredibly exciting.


The collection of amateur studio pottery on the mantel continues to grow, but I can’t help myself! Max’s younger sister, Ana, made that little green bowl as part of a ceramics class to fulfill a studio art requirement in college. Evidently she almost failed the class because her pottery was so elementary and unrefined, but that’s what I love about it! I think she could make a career out of making lousy bowls and selling them for $95 in Williamsburg, but I guess maybe she has other priorities. I’m glad we got one of her pieces before she retired from the ceramics game.

Want to see how this room has progressed over the years? Here are some posts listed chronologically that follow the progress. You know, if you’re having a super boring workday or whatever.

1. The New Nest
2. Settling In
3. I Like All Colors that are Black or White
4. Credenza
5. Slow and Steady but Mostly Just Slow
6. Rocker
7. Radiator: Painted!
8. Fiddle!
9. Shambles
10. Mantel Things
11. 65.
12. New Desk!
13. Adventures in Vignetting.


The Great Box Gutter Repair Update!

When I was in high school, I became possessed of the notion that I wanted—nay, needed—to join the crew team. I was about 5’2″ at the time and around 100 pounds, yet still my main condition for joining the team was that I didn’t want to be a coxswain. Thinking back, I probably did it solely out of a misguided desire to develop more shapely arms (I did not), but at the time nobody asked any questions. The coach was also my math teacher, and in my school—where activities like theater and debate reigned supreme—it wasn’t so easy to get five kids to willingly spend hours rowing a boat together, especially if it was also part of competitive sport. As long as all of my limbs technically functioned, I was not only automatically accepted to the junior varsity team but also allowed to be a diva about it. And I demanded to row. Soon thereafter, I became the most absurd bowman the sport has ever seen, a position that evidently traditionally requires both strength and a certain amount of skill for things like steering and stuff.

The season started out alright. Practices took place often in the third floor hallway and the stairwell of our school, where we worked on getting in good shape or something. I’m not an especially strong person, physically, but I’ve always been good at things that require endurance and stamina, so practice time suited me. I could run up and down stairs until my legs fell off, or row thousands of fake meters on the rowing machine, and I remember thinking thoughts like “hey, look at me, I am a total athlete. I’m going to be awesome at this whole sports thing.” Many days we’d also go out onto the river to practice in the actual boats. I was less good at this part, but I chalked it up to being distracted by the scenery. We practiced on the Potomac River from a rock formation upstream of Key Bridge down to the Kennedy Center, and floating around in the middle of the Potomac on a beautiful fall day surrounded by, like, gorgeous trees and D.C.’s monumental landmarks was really very pleasant. The part where we got yelled at from a megaphone to work harder and row faster was less fun, but it seemed like a decent trade-off for getting to enjoy the outdoors.

We never did terribly well in the competitions, but that wasn’t all that surprising. Lots of schools seemed to have high school students who looked a lot like high school students on TV look—what with their adult-like bodies and actual muscles lurking between their bones and their skin—but our team was just a rag-tag bunch of kids who weren’t suited for any of the other sports. We never really expected to win, so we were OK with just spending a few hours out on the water playing along. The thing that we hadn’t really anticipated, though, was that fall would eventually give way to the early months of winter. This unrelenting march of time, combined with our ridiculous costumes of sleeveless spandex unitards, began to make everything progressively more miserable. That’s when things really began to fall apart.

One Saturday, we had to go to a competition on the Anacostia River. The thing that nobody tells you about with crew is all of the waiting involved in the meets. You put your boat in the water and row out to somewhere nearby where the race starts, and then you sit. You sit for a really long time in this holding zone until it’s time for your race, which only takes a couple of minutes. All of the sitting and the waiting wasn’t so bad in the warmer months on the Potomac, but it was essentially unbearable on this morning on the Anacostia. First of all, the Anacostia is a horrifically filthy waterway without much in the way of scenery, and on a grey rainy day, the whole thing is a total bummer. Second of all, what might feel like a slightly cold and drizzly November morning onshore felt something like being directed to stand outside naked during a blizzard whilst sitting stationary on a boat in the middle of the river. My shivering approached something not unlike a seizure, my teeth chattering so hard that, if I’d had fillings, I’m positive they would have come loose. I was so cold, and so wet, and so much of my body was exposed, and I was surrounded by so much garbage, and there was no way to make any of it better.

I have no real concept of how long we sat there, but it felt like days. It was long enough that I recall weighing the relative benefits of throwing myself into the trash-strewn water and drowning myself, or at least drinking the river water and waiting a minute or two for the toxic sludge to work its way through my system. I remember hoping that the rain might pick up and I’d be dealt the mercy of getting fatally struck by lightning—something, anything, to end it all in the sweet release of death. What I remember most was the feeling of certainty that this—right there, in that moment—was the most amount of misery I had the capacity to possibly feel. Nothing would ever be worse, and if I survived it, the rest of my life would be, essentially, easy. Until recently, that’s more or less held true.


I think probably trying to fix this gutter was worse than that. It was worse than anything.

Here is the sequence of events that led to this moment:

1. We have a terrible time finding a contractor who would take the job of replacing our ancient roof who isn’t also trying to take every last penny of our entire renovation budget.

2. We finally find a contractor we can afford. We are able to finance the job and pay it off over several years, but still—it’s a roof. It’s like the most amount of money we’ve ever spent on anything (aside from the house itself), so we really, really want it to just go well. This seems like a reasonable hope to have when you are paying professionals to do the thing that they professionally do.

3. Workers begin job by tearing off majority of old roof. It quickly becomes clear that our poorly-maintained box gutters (which are gutters that are essentially built into the structure of the house rather than attached like a regular modern aluminum gutter) had undergone a lot of damage and deterioration and rot over the years, all of which I detailed in all its gory detail at the time. It is devastating.

4. Roofing contractor tells us that there isn’t anything he can do, and I need to find someone qualified to make the repair of re-framing, sheathing, and lining the gutters. No, he has no recommendations. Other than to get it done within the month, since winter’s a-coming. We are in deep shit, officially.

5. I go into panic-mode and delude myself into thinking I can probably rebuild a 34 foot long gutter, two stories in the air, by myself in a weekend. Not my finest moment.

6. I try really hard for like 4 days. It is very cold on the roof, but I spend essentially all daytime hours up there regardless. I have a bad cold. I realize I have very little clue what I’m doing, but I keep trying anyway. I panic more. I descend into madness and admit defeat. I am broken.


This is where things start to get lots better:

1. I talk to somewhere around 6 contractors. Some of them are very expensive. Some of them are only regular-expensive. I choose a regular-expensive contractor, who is vague about when he can start the job. It is getting more winter-y, and various structural components of my house are basically exposed to the elements. Finally, the contractor hands off the job to another contractor. I no longer really even know what’s going on, but I’ve stopped caring. As long as it gets done.

2. Other contractor, whose name is Shane, turns out to be terrific. He seems to fix things very well. He costs a little less than expected. Things are OK.

I didn’t want to get in Shane’s way, so I don’t really have many process photos, but the one above is the reconstructed structure of the box gutter over the front porch. Look at that! Because the gutters that he had to repair were various sizes and in various states of disrepair, each required different things. The sheathing on these gutters over the porches had completely rotted, but for the most part, the framing members were in decent and usable shape (though he did reinforce them where necessary). Then he sheathed the gutters in a mix of exterior-grade OSB and pressure-treated plywood.

So we went from this:


To this: (!)


Check it out! Doing what it’s supposed to do!

OK, I know it’s not the most beautiful thing in the world, and old house purists might be screaming at their computer monitors in horror. There are a couple of different ways to address repairing box gutters, and there’s a lot of disagreement in the old-house-world on the best way. Traditionally, these gutters were lined with metal (either tin or copper), which was painted to help preserve their longevity. Lots of roofers or gutter people who work with box gutters will still line them this way—either with aluminum or copper. Obviously copper gets obscenely expensive, and was just completely out of the question for us, but both metal options have to deal with the issue of expansion and contraction. Properly lined gutters are done in sections with soldered joints to allow for expansion and contraction of the metal under different temperature conditions, but very often these joints fail over time, allowing for water to seep into the structure below. Which isn’t cool at all.

The other option is using a very thick rubber called EPDM (basically pool-liner), which is obviously not historically accurate, but seems to work. Lots of people seem to not like this solution because it’s so historically inaccurate and because using it goes against the manufacturer’s installation recommendations, BUT the general consensus seems to be that in terms of functionality and longevity, it works great. With all that in mind, we chose to go with EPDM, both because it was much less expensive and because it seemed like potentially a better material in terms of avoiding problems down the line. I really hope this was a good choice because I never want to deal with this bullshit again.


Here’s the overhang over the front door, after all the rotted bits had been removed.


And here it is now! Cool, right? At some point, I’d REALLY like to get better-looking downspouts for this area, since those cheap modern aluminum ones aren’t really doing the house any favors visually, but that can wait. The water is draining like it’s supposed to, and also not rotting away the house from the inside. Success!


As for the HUGGGEEE gutter that I spent so long working on, it needed a much more comprehensive reconstruction, including all new framing, sheathing, and lining. Unfortunately this entire side of the house—including the soffit—has bowed out over time (probably an effect of our rafters not having collar-ties, which help keep the pressure of the roof structure from bearing down on the exterior walls), which really threw the pitch of the gutter off. We thought we might have to completely reconstruct the soffit, but luckily Shane was able to just fix the pitch of the gutter with the new framing and avoid a much more extensive re-build. Point is, now the water drains toward the downspout at the end instead of pooling toward the middle.


There she is! The beast. Again, not the most glamorous looking thing in the world, but it really does fine from the street, which is what’s important. Even though it might have been easier to just sheath right over the box gutters and attach regular modern gutters (which is what most people do in this situation), I’m still glad we decided to restore this original feature. Even though we didn’t go all-out and line them with fancy metal, we were still able to preserve the original shape and structure of the roof and cornice (sheathing over it would have meant a sudden change in the pitch of the roof because the angle of the edge of the roof to the edge of the gutter is different than the overall angle of the roof, if that makes sense…if it doesn’t, just trust that it would have looked totally awful). And instead of tacking on new gutters, we were able to maintain the original crown molding that tops off the cornice. Because I think the cornice is definitely one of the best architectural features of the house, I’m super happy it wasn’t compromised because of all this.


Speaking of the crown molding, you might notice that it’s missing! Unfortunately the original material was badly rotted and unsalvageable, so it’s being replicated now (so cool!), since it’s not exactly something you can find stock. In the spring, we’ll attach the new crown, finish fixing up a couple of damaged corbels (hello, generous slathering of Bondo in the after picture…), caulk, and paint everything.


Even though I really wish all of this hadn’t happened the way it did, there were a couple of silver linings. The first is that I really like the contractor who did the work, and it feels good to have a trusted professional in the arsenal when we need more stuff done that I can’t do myself. The second is that after trying to deal with the gutters myself, all the interior stuff feels like small potatoes. Maybe it’s not so fun to rip out a plaster ceiling, for instance, but it feels comparatively super easy and fun compared to crying on the roof. Third, it gave me a chance to really see and understand more about this house! I used to love old houses pretty much for completely superficial reasons (doors! moldings! pretty things!), but it’s fun learning more and more about how and why things were build the way they were. It’s sort of weirdly empowering to be able to explain and diagram exactly how our box gutters are built, and it’s kind of exciting to see the “guts” of the house that are usually covered up, even when the circumstances might suck. Take for instance this peek at the pegs joining together our timber framing! It’s cool because it further supports that our house is definitely older than we originally thought—the listing said 1895, but this style of post-and-beam construction went out of fashion in the mid-19th century, when sawmills brought about during the industrial revolution allowed for smaller, more precise dimensional lumber and homes became cheaper and faster to build as a result. The amount of craftsmanship that went into just the structure of this house is so remarkable.

We still have a ways to go with the roof (a couple more roof surfaces and a few more gutters haven’t yet been addressed…ugh), but I’m glad this stuff got taken care of in time for winter. Even though looking at these gutters might be way less satisfying than, say, the bathroom renovation that we might have spent the money on otherwise, this was an essential repair that needed to happen now, so I’m glad it did. Sorry, bathroom! I’ll aim to get to you by at least 2030.

The Dining Room Ceiling. Oops!


It seems to me that there are only a couple of general strategies to choose from when undertaking a major renovation. The first is to just bite the bullet and do it all at once, often before even moving in, usually with lots of assistance from trained professionals. Any walls that need to come down have the chance to come down, systems get upgraded in one comprehensive effort, and then everything gets put back together, painted, decorated, and BOOM…that’s it.

Then there’s the other strategy, whereby one chips away at things piecemeal for a matter of years, never with enough time or money, living endlessly in a state of chaos and destruction that hints only vaguely of progress. In an effort to avoid going completely insane, one might try to keep things contained to, say, a single room, only moving onto the next thing when that space feels more or less completed.

This isn’t an altogether bad plan, so long as one does, in fact, stay focused on one or two relatively contained projects. Where the strategy fails is when, on Saturday morning, one might decide that despite everything else going on (the entryway/stairwell/hallway, the upstairs office…), now’s as good a time as any to see just what’s going on under the dining room ceiling. Because why not?


Backing up just a little bit, our dining room ceiling was clad in nail-up acoustic ceiling tiles probably in the 1960s or 70s. Aside from being completely at odds with the architectural style of the house, they had sagged and become discolored over the years, and the crown molding that was added around the edges looked cheap and out of place. Check out that area above the arched bay window  molding——the ceiling covers the top of the molding, and the added crown further cuts it off and just makes everything look generally awful.

There was never a question in my mind that the tiles had to go, and after having them tested for asbestos (negative!), the seemingly pain-free process of getting rid of them was just soooooo tempting. It haunted me daily. We’ve been using the dining room almost constantly since we move in, and during every meal I’d just sit there, plotting.

I knew from when I took the asbestos sample that the original plaster ceiling was lurking up there, but its condition was a huge mystery. Because this renovation is fueled by 1 part coffee and 1 part delusion, I had this adorable idea in my head that the tiled ceiling was probably installed for sound insulation (since the second floor used to be its own apartment), and that the original plaster ceiling above would need a little repair work, but be completely salvageable.


This idea was relatively supported when we started to take down the tiles. The ceiling above, though full of many, many cracks, didn’t appear to be sagging or very damaged. Taking down the tiles themselves was going really fast, and then we’d just have to take down the furring strips and restore the plaster. “I’ll be painting by the end of the weekend!” I thought.

Oh, Daniel. You sweet handsome thing.


Moving across the room, though, things started looking…not so good. I’m kind of pissed that this picture is so bad because it REALLY does not portray the amount of damage that this ceiling had. There were HUGE areas of plaster completely missing, lots and lots of other areas where the plaster had separated from the lath and was crumbling and sagging, and other areas of pre-existing drywall patches that had seen MUCH better days. About 1/3rd of the ceiling was in somewhat decent shape, but the rest was a total disaster.


Oof. This is not exactly what we were hoping for.


A lot of the plaster was being completely supported by the furring strips, so when those came down, things really started to fall apart. I still held out hope that things would be OK, but by the time the furring strips had all been removed, it became pretty clear that this ceiling was just past the point of repair.

I know that at this point plenty of people would just cover the entire thing with thin drywall and call it a day, but something about adding more and more layers to things just feels viscerally wrong to me, probably because it’s been the renovation method of choice for this house for the last hundred years. Not only does it make future renovations and upgrades much more challenging, it would also slightly lower the ceiling height (which wouldn’t be a huge deal, except that it would cover the very top of that arched molding since it’s so close to the ceiling already) and add even MORE weight for the structure of the house to hold up, which just seems like an all-around bad idea.

Even though I’m not a restoration purist by any means, it’s definitely disappointing that this ceiling wasn’t salvageable. I know plaster can be brought back from pretty dire-looking conditions (Alex from Old Town Home has a terrific series of posts about this very thing), so I was prepared to have to do a lot of work, but I really didn’t think the whole thing would have to go. I tend to think plaster is superior as a material to modern-day drywall, particularly as a sound insulator, and from an aesthetic standpoint, it just feels sort of lousy to be removing original features and materials from the house (that’s why we bought it, after all!). It also sucks to be responsible for a bunch of waste that now has to get carted off to a landfill, but removing the ceiling and starting fresh kind of seemed like the only decent option.

We learned a couple of interesting things about the house in the process of removing the ceiling, though, including that at some point the dining room was divided into two rooms! To illustrate, I made this crappy Sketch-Up model. I’ve been working on teaching myself Google Sketch-Up for a few weeks now, and I’m maybe finding it a little addictive and a fun way to plan out future renovation projects. I’ll probably bombard you with more Sketch-Up renderings every now and then, since I really can’t stop myself from making them…


Anyway, look at that funny little room carved into the dining room! My theory is that the house has gone through a couple of periods of being a single family home versus being split into two apartments. Obviously we know how the house was divided up the last time it became a two-family in the mid-70s or so, but I think it was also converted to a two-family in the 1930s (we’ve found an apartment listing in the local paper at our address from 1938!), then possibly converted back to a single family in the mid-1960s. In any case, I’m guessing that this little room inside the dining room functioned as a bedroom after the 1930s renovation, and maybe the door outside the archway was an entryway? I have no idea if this makes sense or is interesting to anyone else, but I thought it was kind of cool.


ANYWAY, back to plaster removal. If you’ve heard anything about how intense removing plaster is, BELIEVE EVERY WORD. It took us about 3 intense days to get the whole thing down, first of all. The dust was INSANE—despite closing all the doors and masking everything off, dust still got EVERYWHERE throughout the entire house. It doesn’t seem like it’s physically possible, but it is very possible. The biggest challenge, though, was probably the weight of it all. We might be relatively scrawny dudes, but I’ll still say that moving around bags and bags and bags of downed plaster was bonkers. It’s so very, very heavy, and so dusty, and there’s so much of it, and the whole thing just feels insane.


We didn’t find anything terribly notable in the ceiling, but it is sort of fun and cool to see the original gas lines that lit the original light fixtures before the house was electrified. The lines are disconnected and don’t do anything now, but of course we’ll leave them in place anyway. It’s fun having that kind of history lurking behind the walls!

We saved all of the lath, just in case I end up wanting to reuse it somehow (or just give it to the very talented Ariele to do something pretty with).


To deal with all the waste, we gave Bagster a try! Have you seen this? It’s basically a massive IKEA bag, which you buy at Home Depot for about $30 and fill with all your crap (in our case, hundreds and hundreds of pounds of plaster). We filled the entire thing with the plaster ceiling and the furring strips alone (the acoustic tiles were light enough that they could go out with the regular trash, and we saved the lath!), which is just sort of an astounding amount of material to think about, particularly when I picture the relatively small and neat stack of drywall that will replace all this. The pick-up/dumping fee was $162 (it varies by region), so while it wasn’t exactly cheap, I’m not sure we could have saved any significant amount of money by using any other disposal method, and I really did not want to shuffle around 40 contractor bags of plaster any more than I had to. Overall, it was a great experience.


Even though the whole ordeal kind of sucked, it actually feels really good to have everything opened up, cleaned out, and ready for the next step. We’re planning to run new electrical lines while it’s so easy and we have the chance (our house is mainly wired with fabric-seathed NM wire inside of armored BX cable…there isn’t anything inherently dangerous about it, but we might as well upgrade it when the opportunity presents), and having the entire ceiling open should also make it pretty easy to get some new electrical to a couple of spaces upstairs, too, which would be really exciting. The house in general is under-electrified (not enough lights or outlets!), so even though I wasn’t really expecting to do this now, it feels exciting that we can check some of this off the list sooner rather than later and be able to see at night and plug stuff in.

As for finishing the ceiling, I can’t really decide whether or not to attempt it myself. I definitely want drywall (as opposed to tongue-and-groove wood or tin tiles, both of which just aren’t right for the house aesthetically), but I’ve never drywalled before and I really don’t want to screw it up! It doesn’t seem like the hardest thing in the world, but the taping and mudding definitely takes some technique, which seems about 10 times harder to master on a ceiling. I’m in the process of getting a few quotes to hire it out, so I’ll probably go that route if it isn’t wildly expensive. I’m sort of wimpy and defeatist when it comes to drywall, I admit!

I’m super excited to get the dining room a little more together. I really love the architecture of the space, so it’s one of the rooms I’m most excited about in the house. I’ve been doing lots of planning and scheming and thinking about how I want the room to look (and a little more work since these photos were taken last week…), and I’ll share it all soon! It’s going to be great.

Also, Happy New Year, everyone! I don’t generally do the resolutions thing in a very formal way, but I do want 2014 to be full of lots of fun, lots of projects, and lots of blog posts. I hope you’ll hang around. Thanks for helping to make 2013 so much fun!

Back to Top