The Great Radiator Shuffle!

There’s this hip new dance in town called the Radiator Shuffle, which involves multiple strong plumber men removing century-old cast iron radiators. Then, once they’ve all left, a small nice Jewish boy pushes said radiators around into different rooms with all the strength in his arms and legs because he’s an anal weirdo.

It’s really fun.

So this is what happened.

pipesbefore

You might remember these heat pipes that went up the corner of our dining room, next to the now-removed non-original closet. You probably don’t. But you MIGHT because many (like, probably at least 3) commenters brought up that I should consider removing the pipes when they appeared in photographs in earlier posts. The long and short of it is that the radiators were probably installed around 1900, and our house was probably built around 1840, and so almost all of the radiator pipes serving second floor radiators are exposed throughout the house because the whole heat system was retrofitted. It doesn’t really bother me—it’s part of the history, and they’re not all that obtrusive—and these were particularly out of the way, so I kind of disregarded the idea of trying to get them removed. What a hassle. I hate hassle.

JK, I love hassle. My whole life is hassle, and finding ways to create more hassle. I thrive on it.

So when my plumber mentioned that while the pantry was gutted anyway (oh yeah, remember how I’m supposedly renovating a pantry, too? How’s that going? Shut your goddamned mouth. That’s how.), it would be pretty easy to remove the unsightly-ish pipes and have them buried in the wall.

I hemmed and hawed very slightly, but going ahead with this relatively simple and relatively inexpensive change affords multiple benefits.

1. The pipes aren’t terrible looking but the room would look better (and more historically accurate) without them. So there’s that.

2. The pipes had to be messed with anyway because one of the pipes actually branched off into two pipes above the ceiling level. One pipe fed the radiator above, and the other one went straight up to a big holding tank in the attic from when the system operated differently than it does now. The holding tank was removed when the boiler was replaced, but because we still had a dining room ceiling then, the pipe had to just be capped about a foot above the floor on the second floor. Not a cute look. So that pipe had to be disconnected and capped at the joint under the floor, which is easier said than done. I have no idea if this is making any sense. Bear with me.

middlebedroomradiatorbefore

3. This is the radiator the pipes were feeding (the pipe that goes straight up is the one leading to the tank in the attic). Note how it is sitting on a weird white wood platform instead of on the floor. I really don’t know why this is. A leak might have rotted the floor boards at some point, leading to them getting cut out and this piece of wood artfully put in its place? I don’t know. I don’t really care. Removing the radiator would give me the opportunity to feather in new floor boards to cover this area, which was very appealing. It would also give me the opportunity to move the radiator over a few inches to center it on the wall (between the corner and the door to what used to be the upstairs kitchen, which is frustratingly right out of frame), which I like. I like centering things.

4. Our heat system originally relied on steam, and at some point it was converted to hot water. I’m glad this was done, whenever it was done—there are more options for hot water boilers, I believe it’s more efficient, quieter (steam radiators “knock” as the pipes heat and cool), and I find the heat a little nicer (steam radiators get hotter—ours are never too hot to touch but they work EXTREMELY well regardless). ANYWAY, steam radiators require quite large pipes, since they have to transport steam. Hot water radiators, by contrast, need much smaller pipes—I believe 3/4″ is standard. Since our system was converted but the pipes were never swapped out, this essentially means that we are wasting energy (and money) heating a bunch of hot water to fill these huge-ass pipes when we could be filling very small pipes and saving a lot of energy. Even though I’m really pleasantly surprised by how low our heat bills were this winter (especially when compared to our friends with oil-powered systems—YIKES YIKES), the idea that we could be doing better by exchanging some of the huge pipes for little pipes was appealing. The new pipes will be run with Pex, which is a relatively new type of flexible plastic piping that is much cheaper and easier to install than copper, but seems to be just as good (if not better, since copper pipes tend to corrode around the joints after many years, and burst easily if they freeze).

SO. DECISION MADE. LET’S DO IT.

The pipes came out. The radiator was moved out of the way a couple of feet. I lifted up that little platform under the radiator  so I could start thinking about how to repair the floor.

holeinfloor

So, this is not so great, FYI. Because so much of the subfloor had been cut out, the plumbers were actually surprised and amazed that the radiator had never come crashing through the dining room ceiling. That would have been really bad, considering these things weigh several hundred pounds and I do NOT like surprises that weigh several hundred pounds.

holesindiningroomfloor

Removing these pipes obviously means that I have to do some floor patching in this room, which got me thinking about moving the dining room radiator.

diningroomradiator

Here’s a bad picture of it in its original location. It was sort of an awkward spot because there’s already so much going on with this wall, between the window and the archway to the bay window. The radiator covered a lot of the molding, which just looked sort of bad and lame.

diningroomwallbefore

Lurking in the back of my mind for a while had been moving this radiator to this wall. This is the back of the wall where I’m installing the faux-fireplace in the library, and at some point in time I’m almost certain there was another mantel here with some kind of stove for heat. When the mantel was removed, the baseboard was patched in pretty poorly, and it just seemed like a good location for the radiator to live to hide that.

Typically radiators are installed under or at least near windows (for good reason—the radiator is supposed to warm the cool draft coming in from the window before it alters the temperature of the room), but my plumber assured me that moving the radiator to this wall wouldn’t make any appreciable difference for how our heat would disperse and that I should do whatever I wanted.

Nobody should ever tell me that, btw. “Whatever I want” is usually a recipe for disaster and devastation.

So out that awkwardly-positioned radiator went, out went the big pipes in the basement leading to it, and over I shimmied it to the opposite wall (on some furniture mover things, which are pretty amazing if you need to move heavy shit alone).

diningroomradiator-moved

Here it is, freshly shimmied. I like this location for a radiator—after all, it’s the location of an original heat source, and I think it just looks nice. Anyway. Whatever.

diningroomradiatormoved

Removing the dining room radiator had the added benefit of revealing some interesting information about how the house was finished originally, or at least around the turn of the century when the radiator was presumably installed! That’s not wood (or poop) you’re seeing on the moldings—it’s actually faux-painted to look like wood. The moldings themselves are made out of wood, obviously, but often this was done in houses of this era to make the actual lower-grade wood look like nicer wood. I’ve never considered trying to strip the woodwork in this house (except occasionally when it’s really bad, but even then only to repaint it), but this pretty much confirms to me that the woodwork was never not painted—whether it was this faux-finish or various shades of white and beige.

originalwallpaper

This wallpaper was also lurking behind the radiator, right over the original plaster. You can’t really tell, but the dark lines in the pattern are actually a gold metallic. Fancy!

ANYWAY.

Moving that radiator in the dining room led, naturally, to me wanting to move another radiator—the one in the foyer. You know, while we’re having so much fun.

hallwayradiatorbefore

Maybe it looks OK in pictures, but this radiator, while beautiful, was also rather strangely located. It’s in the center-ish of the entire space, which makes a certain degree of sense, so as to diffuse throughout the entry/hallway evenly, but this space between the stairwell and the wall is only 3 feet wide. Add in a radiator that sticks out 10-11″ from the wall, and you’re left with a passageway just about 2 feet wide. It made the hallway feel unnecessarily cramped and strange, and impossible to move large objects through. Additionally, the area of the hallway/entryway that gets really cold in the winter is by the door. Even with more effective weather-stripping, I think this will pretty much always be the case, whereas the middle and back of the hallway seem to get enough heat from the surrounding rooms to be pretty comfy. My plumber concurred with all of this.

So out that radiator went, and moved closer to the door. The foyer space before the stairwell is really quite large (about 6′ wide), so it feels much less obstructive there, and it’s SO nice to have the hallway next to the stairwell restored to the right width.

hallwaysansrad

Once those pipes are gone and the floor is patched in, it’s going to be awesome. I love this change.

But then I had another idea. The radiator in the dining room, in its new location, looked a little small to me. The radiator in the entryway, in its new location, looked a bit large. Additionally, the dining room is a much bigger space that we actually live in, whereas the entryway is comparatively small and functions as a pass-through to the other rooms. And the plumbing needs to be re-run anyway, so what if I just swapped the two? It’s literally no extra work.

The radiator from the hallway? So. Fucking. Heavy. Even on furniture movers, it was almost impossible to budge. But I did it because I have a lot of determination and a lot of self-doubt and needed to just to see how it would look.

hallwayradindiningroom

It looks awesome. I feel like the size is just right.

radiator-in-entry

And the old dining room radiator works really well for the entryway, I think! My plumber actually wants me to move the radiator even closer to the entry door, but I’m stubborn and I like it where it’s sitting now—closer to the doorway to the library. I think closer to the front door would feel a little crowded and sort of take up the entire wall, whereas in this position we still have the option to add some coat hooks to the right of the radiator.

Oh yeah, I might have stripped down the front doors. The house looks more shanty than ever! Awesome.

I didn’t rush to have the new plumbing run and the radiators reinstalled because having them disconnected means it’s a pretty swell time to have them sandblasted to remove all the layers of old paint and caulk (yes, caulk) and garbage that has been layered on over the years. Cast iron radiators lose efficiency the more times they’re painted, so not only will stripping them down make them look super fancy and bring out the intricate patterns on them, but they should also work better. It was with this terrific plan in mind that I asked the plumbers to also disconnect the awesome corner radiator in the library (which is extra caulk-y)  in the hopes that I can just get them all done at once (and by “all,” I really mean 4—there are 11 in the house).

Once the plumbers left, it suddenly felt like pressure was ON. I mean, ideally these rooms (hallway/foyer, library, and dining room) would be DONE by the time the radiators return and get re-installed, so they don’t get damaged during the ceiling installation and all of the wall repair and painting. Which means I really want these rooms done(ish) by…late September?

It’s the end of July, FYI. I might be overly ambitious. But I REALLY want those rooms to be functional and finished looking. It’s about time! I’m tired of having so many spaces under construction and actually living in so little of the house. I need to spread my wings and fly. And also get some of the furniture and art out of the upstairs kitchen, basement, and garage. It’s piling up and I feel like a crazed hoarder.

Bright-ish spots:

1. The sandblasters are currently BOOKED BOOKED BOOKED and said I couldn’t get any of my stuff in until late August-early September. That’s actually OK—it buys me some time to figure out what to do with the radiators, exactly. Which feels largely reliant on what we’re doing with the floors, which is the subject of the majority of my inner turmoil nowadays. Stay tuned for some whining about that another day. Anyway, it also gives me lots of time to consider renting a sandblaster and doing it myself in the backyard, which seems like a bad idea all around but one that I continue to think about. A lot. Someone talk me out of it. Or INTO IT.

2. Originally I thought that having the radiators out also meant that the pressure was on to refinish the floors before the radiators needed to be reinstalled. I met with a floor refinisher the other day, though, and he said this was not the case. Which makes a lot of sense, since obviously not everyone who has their floors refinished also removes all of their radiators in preparation. ANYWAY, he said that since they’re out already, he might as well rough-sand the area underneath where they’ll go, just to make things a little easier, and then we can refinish the floors for real when everything is done-done, but any pro floor refinisher should have the necessary equipment to sand and refinish around radiators. So that takes a little of the pressure off, I guess, although definitely makes the DIY floor refinishing idea seem even more complex and impossible. Anyway, even though I’m really excited to refinish at least some of the flooring (on the first floor, only the dining room, library, and hallway have hardwood, so it isn’t a big job), the more responsible move is to wait until more of the house is done so I don’t have to panic over every paint drip or scratch or joint compound puddle or whatever. Renovating is tough on floors, even if they’re protected with paper and dropcloths, so I definitely want the bulk of that stuff out of the way first. Floors might end up being a 2015 or 2016 or 2030 project. Sighs.

3. The electricians are DONE (for now) AND we passed electrical inspection yesterday! This is VERY exciting, since it means we can now drywall the ceilings! AHHHHH! Considering we took down the ceilings back in December and January, I’m SO ready to have ceilings again. The ceilings are pretty much holding up everything at this point—there’s no sense in doing a ton of wall repair when there’ll just be a ton more to fill in the crumbling areas between the old walls and the new ceilings. I want ceilings bad and I want them now. Or yesterday.

4. I’m still debating whether to do the ceilings myself or not. On one hand, I met a semi-sketchy dude who wants to help me with them and says he has lots of experience, and it wouldn’t cost a lot to enlist his second set of hands. On the other hand, this isn’t something I have any experience with, and because our house was built pre-industrial revolution, our beams are not at all level—meaning wonky drywall unless the beams are properly and carefully shimmed out. I met with a contractor (this is #4…all the others were either super pricey or I didn’t feel comfortable with them…) who I really liked, so I’m waiting for his bid…if we can afford it, this is one thing I’m inclined to hire out. After redoing the office I feel comfortable doing all the necessary wall repair and skim-coating—and there’s a lot of it—but the ceiling isn’t really something I want to gamble with. Also it sounds like the opposite of fun as a DIY.

I’ll stop rambling now.

Ana Gasteyer’s Bathroom Makeover!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

I’ve mentioned this vaguely a couple of times on Instagram and Twitter, but I’ve been doing some design work for a pretty awesome client—the super-duper-multi-talented Ana Gasteyer! Ana’s pretty amazing: she was on SNL for six seasons, has been in a bazillion TV shows and movies (most recently Suburgatory), played Elphaba in Wicked both in Chicago and on Broadway (along with a bunch of other theater work)…she’s exceptionally cool. Aside from that, Ana is totally fun and funny and laid-back and has great taste and is just an all-around pleasure to work and play with. This job has been so much fun.

I met Ana initially through Grace about a year and a half ago, and since then we’ve pretty much been working our way through overhauling her whole apartment. We started in the master bedroom and bathroom, and have since moved on to the living room and dining room (kitchen, I’m looking at you next!).  There are still some loose ends to be tied up (as these things go…) in the more major areas, but they should be share-ready soon. But today: the bathroom! It is done! It is glam!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover (Before)

Here are some before shots of the bathroom, just to get an idea of where we started. Ana and her husband, Charlie, and their two kids live in an old warehouse building in Brooklyn, which was completely rehabbed about 15 years and turned into a bunch of really great loft apartments. While certain things about the renovation are really nice—like the marble basket-weave floors, the sinks, the tub, and the plumbing fixtures—the builders sort of skimped-out on other stuff. All of the walls were totally naked (aside from the cow triptych courtesy of IKEA), the light fixtures were all contractor-grade and totally sad, and despite being a master bathroom, it had almost no permanent storage—just two small medicine cabinets on either side of the sink and that glass shelf underneath the mirror. Not cool, builders. The bathroom is also situated in the middle of the apartment, meaning it has no windows or natural light, which also contributed to it feeling a little cramped and not as nice as it could be (also, disclaimer: hard to photograph). So basically the bathroom had these really nice elements but desperately needed more storage and a big shot of style. So in I came with my storage ideas and style.

Ana really wanted the bathroom to feel glam and a little glitzy and fun, so we tried to go a little over-the-top with some design elements while still keeping it grown-up and pretty.  Aside from more storage overall, Ana also desperately wanted a vanity where she could sit and do her makeup, which was a tall order! This bathroom really isn’t very large—definitely no space for a normal piece of furniture—so it required some creative thinking to get from Point A to Point B.

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Anddddd, here it is!

OK, so obviously I just have to just skip all the details and lead with this: DAT WALLPAPER!!! It is amazing, no? It’s from the new Rifle Paper Company collection from Hygge & West, designed by Anna Bond, and it is absolutely scrumptious. Going super dark and dramatic with paint is always a tough sell, but wallpaper takes it up about 20 notches since it’s definitely not something you want to get wrong. I’m so glad Ana loved this pattern as much as I did, though, and gave me the go-ahead to have it installed here. The pattern is screen-printed and has an amazing hand-painted feel to it, and I love how glamorous and luxe it feels while also having a super fun vintage vibe. The gold in the pattern is just perfection in real life, which has been my experience with all Hygge & West papers with metallics: never too much, always just enough. Just how I like it. OOMPH. I love it. Ana loves it. Everyone loves it. It’s that good.

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Believe it or not, the black really does make the whole room feel SO much bigger and more expansive—it’s sort of unbelievable. Dark colors work so well in spaces without a lot of natural light, whereas whites and other light colors can often feel really flat and lifeless. It adds so much dimension to the room.

The wallpaper was installed by Sarah Merenda, who is fabulously talented (both as an installer and an artist!) and amazing to work with. We were a little concerned about how wallpaper would fair in a bathroom, but Sarah assured us that using a good wallpaper primer and a strong paste would keep it adhered to the walls, particularly if everything was allowed to set for a couple of weeks before being exposed to steam or moisture. Ideally you’d also have a fan to vent the moisture—unfortunately this bathroom doesn’t have one, but Sarah said it should still be OK as long as the glue had a couple weeks to harden up.

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

OK, I’ll stop gabbing about the wallpaper now. Other stuff! To add some more architectural interest to the space without spending a ton of cash, we opted to put up a chair rail and this paneling detail on the lower half of the walls, all with stock pieces of molding from Lowe’s.

The chair rail is actually three different pieces that I put together, and then our fabulous painter/carpenter, Ryan, installed everything all fancy-like. He did such a great job! The lower half of the walls and the chair rail are painted All White by Farrow & Ball, which is delicious quality paint. It’s so pretty.

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cabinet2

To address the storage and vanity issue, the only way to really go was custom. I designed this piece (and then had it fabricated by a cabinet builder) to be about as big as it could be without totally overwhelming the space or blocking something important like the shower door or the toilet, since Ana and Charlie will probably need to use that stuff. Even though it’s much bigger than the little dresser that was there before, the shallower depth actually makes it feel less intrusive while still providing a ton more storage space. Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Also, vanity! Since there wasn’t room for a ton of storage and a vanity, I made the middle section of the built-in a drop-down desk and picked up an adjustable DALFRED stool at IKEA that Ana can move to the front of the vanity when it’s in use. There’s a mirror mounted to the back of this section and a cut-out for an electrical outlet, so it’s super functional and fits all of her lady potions and tools. Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

One of my favorite improvements to the space was framing out the existing mirror. This was done by our carpenter (and inspired by the molding in my house!), and it makes the mirror look so much more finished. It just conceals the frosted border (which you can kind of see in the first before pic), which we all thought looked a little dated and out of place, and I think it ties in really nicely with the molding work and with the custom cabinet now. Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

I also love the light fixtures! We went from the blandest of the bland to the glam-est of the glam, basically. The two boring flushmount fixtures over the sink got replaced with these reasonably-priced flush-mount crystal chandeliers from Overstock, which I love in a weird way? They’re a pretty far cry from my normal taste, and on their own they’re a little…questionable, but I feel like they really work in this room. Glitzy! And I have to say, the crystals really do cast some nice light and subtle patterns onto the walls. Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

The light over the tub was definitely calling out for a chandelier, so we hooked it up! I found this guy vintage on eBay, and I think it’s so cute! It’s just the right scale for the space. And look what’s at the top there—a pineapple! We bought and installed this light fixture longggg before the wallpaper came into the picture, but I love how they ended up tying together. Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Between having a crazy busy career, a husband with a crazy busy career, and two kids, Ana wanted the bathroom to be as easy and low-maintenance as possible. I’ve long been an advocate of the ease of towel hooks as opposed to formality of bars—lest you wondered where I stood on bathroom towel politics—so we removed the original bars (which were sort of oddly located anyway) and installed new hooks. It was a little challenging to find ones that were inexpensive and reasonably matched the existing plumbing fixtures, but I finally found these at Home Depot for the sweet price of $14. Easy towel hanging! Success!

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

Manhattan Nest | Ana Gasteyer's Bathroom Makeover

I loved working on this bathroom SO MUCH and I’m really happy with how it turned out, and I know Ana loves it too—which I guess is the important part. I can’t wait to share the other stuff we’ve done! It’s so fun to see all the elements come together in real life after rolling around in your head for so long—as soon as the wallpaper went up, we all kind of went from feeling so-so about things to SUPER HAPPY ABOUT EVERYTHING. True story. Wallpaper = happiness.

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Maybe you want to get in on the fabulous new collection from Hygge & West by Rifle Paper Company, too? I want to help you. Hygge & West wants to help you. We all want to help you. But you have to help yourself—go get it with this 20% off discount code! Make yourself feel happy, too.

This post is in partnership with Hygge & West!

Progress in the Front Garden!

I feel like I’ve probably opened a few posts this way by now, but whatever: when I was a kid, we moved from one new-ish house in suburban Northern Virginia to a new-new house also in suburban Northern Virginia. Looking back, the move shouldn’t have been a big deal. The two houses were maybe a 10-15 minute drive from each other. The old house wasn’t anything terribly special, and the new house had more space and exciting futuristic amenities, like an ice maker. We didn’t have to change schools or anything, and all our stuff was coming with us, so I’m not really sure what the hell our big problem was with the whole thing.

I blame my brother, Jeremy. Since he was three years older than my sister Laura and I, and I guess we took our emotional cues from him, his upset over the move became our upset, too. And we were very upset. Whenever we went to visit the new house while it was under construction, whether it was to check out the newly-poured foundation or later to pick out our bedrooms, Jeremy stayed in the car. He was having none of it. And while I wasn’t about to sacrifice the opportunity to choose the best bedroom just for the sake of solidarity, Laura and I weren’t much better. We bitched and moaned the whole time, and were general nightmare children throughout the entire ordeal. Moving day found me literally clinging to the curtains of my old bedroom, wailing as if I’d been set on fire while my father dragged me out of the only home I’d ever known and into the car.

Semi-related: the curtains were part of a larger dinosaur motif that had been enacted throughout the decor of my room a few years prior—the bedspread, sheets, wallpaper border, and said curtains were all of the same pattern and very obviously formed a set. I guess since the new owners also had a young son and liked that the wallpaper border matched the curtains, they negotiated the sale of the curtains with the home. Altogether, the various dinosaur-themed pieces displayed quite a dramatic effect, but separated the whole thing just seemed sort of sad and amateurish, decor-wise. I still consider this decision a grave error on my parents’ part, if only because my new room looked really bad with just the comforter left as evidence of its former glory.

ANYWAY. In a move of questionable parenting, my mother and father attempted to quell our complaints and unrelenting sadness with bribery. We were promised a second dog, which we eventually got (Yophie, the best dog ever). We were told that we could each have our own small pet, which we eventually did (I got a hamster and my sister got a guinea pig and my brother got a small exotic frog). Lastly, we were promised that we could all have our own garden.

This last promise still puzzles me. It isn’t as though our old house didn’t have a backyard that we could plant shit in—as far as I know, we’d just never really had any inclination. My brother spent most of his time indoors on his computer, and my sister an I had a swing set we were quite fond of and a whole lot of Barbies who, thanks to me, were always missing the majority of their hair. Gardening? Sure. I guess. Whatever, Mom.

My sister gave it a try, growing mostly edibles like strawberries and a few cucumbers every summer. I started with tomato plants, which I quickly learned needed to be watered and staked and caged to stay upright to actually bear tomatoes. My parents used to buy bagels and lox and cream cheese JUST for the occasion of eating my freshly harvested tomato crop, and I remember both really liking bagels and lox and cream cheese with a tomato on it and the idea that I’d actually grown a part of what I was eating.

And that’s how tomato gardening became my main passion in life. It was a lot of work and I liked it for whatever reason. I was a weird kid.

Soon my interests expanded, I think when my mother took me to our local farmer’s market for the first time. There were a few vendors who sold various types of non-edible plants, and I made quick work of taking over all of the space allotted to my sister and brother with black-eyed susans, astible, hosta, lilies, lamb’s ear, various ornamental grasses, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t remember. When I’d filled up that space, I moved on to other areas of the backyard. When I got bored of that, I picked up where the landscapers left off and started filling in the front yard, replacing some dead azaleas with more exciting hydrangea bushes, putting some peonies  and evergreens on a forgotten strip of land next to the driveway, splitting the perennials that had matured in the back and moving them to various other places…I was prolific. Despite our hard, clay-dominated soil, for some reason everything I planted seemed to thrive. I’d spend entire days outside, completely engrossed in my gardening, and then make everyone come admire my efforts. In the summer I’d clip my flowers as they bloomed and arrange small vases of them throughout the house. In retrospect, I’m sure my mother was thankful for the free labor and fresh flowers, but I can’t really imagine my childhood without gardening. It taught me all the platitudes about life that gardening is meant to provide: about patience, the payoff that comes with a hard day’s work, and that it was OK to have a hobby that was totally my own—solitary, slow, and hardly the type of thing boys weren’t supposed to be spending their time on. I loved it.

I continued gardening here and there until I graduated from high school, albeit without quite the same vim and vigor I had when I was younger, and then I stopped. I moved from one apartment in Saskatchewan, Canada to another, and then I moved to a dorm room in New York, and then an apartment on the Upper East Side, and then another apartment in Brooklyn. Aside from a few houseplants I’ve kept alive with varying degrees of success, I never had the outdoor space or the inclination to do anything else gardening-wise. And sometime in the space of that near-decade, I forgot how much fun I used to have.

WELL. As much as I love working on the inside of our house, the electrical work is still not totally done, which means we’re more or less at a stand-still with what can be done for the moment. I’ve been getting some things accomplished here and there, but I’ve taken the opportunity to really start focusing on the outside a bit more—more specifically, the front garden that was created when I built the fence! The weather in the Hudson Valley has been beautiful, and even though I’m trying to be cautious about spending money on plants when I really need to be saving for ceilings and stuff, I’ve been having a hard time resisting buying a few things and putting in a ton of work to make my garden dreams a little closer to reality. Doing all this work in the front also helps distract me from the disaster in the backyard, which is an added bonus.

So! What did I do? Let me explain.

before2

It started with this huge clump of hosta growing next to the gate in the front yard. See it? It was huge. I had to dig out a section of it when I was breaking up the weird concrete path next to the entryway of the house so that I could fit a wheelbarrow into the space to cart off the concrete chunks and bring in soil to back-fill the resulting hole. I realized while doing this that the clump of hosta was long overdue to be divided and thinned out a little, so one thing led to another and I ended up digging out all of it and dividing it up into still-sizable chunks—25 plants in all!—each of them probably still bigger than what you’d buy at a nursery. All from about a 2’x3′ space. Crazy! I know the common wisdom with perennials is to divide them in the fall while the plants are going dormant for winter, but my childhood experiments in gardening taught me that hosta is super hardy and can pretty much be divided whenever. It won’t look so hot after it’s divided, but the next spring/summer it will re-emerge and look great.

Hosta isn’t really my favorite plant in the world and this variety of it definitely isn’t my favorite, but I don’t dislike it and I had so much to work with. So I started digging.

Before1

The first to go was actually the patch of grass in front of the original wrought-iron fence—a little over a foot of space between the fence and the sidewalk. I considered planting something evergreen here, but decided that was a bad idea when I remembered how much snow we got last winter, and how covered this area gets when we shovel the sidewalk! I felt like anything I’d plant would just get completely ruined, and we’ll be better off with something that completely dies off in the winter. Hosta it is!

The basic process of gardening this area was to dig out the grass and a fair amount of the soil to bring the ground level down a bit. It had built up a lot over the years, and the grass/clover/weeds had overtaken a good 6 inches or so of the sidewalk! It was kind of labor intensive filling up the wheelbarrow, bringing it to the back, and dumping everything in the newly-excavated area where the asphalt used to be, but it was kind of fun, too.

hostaprocess

After I dug the area out, I started placing my hostas about 2-3 feet apart. They’re going to continue to expand over the next few years, so I wanted to give them some space to fill out. After the hostas were planted, I mulched the area with black mulch and filled in the gaps with some creeping jenny and purple heart. I find that it’s easier to mulch around bigger plants, but easier to plant smaller things once the mulch is down. We’ll see how it all does! The purple heart is a perennial and supposed to be about 12″ tall and wide, so I’m hopeful that it’ll fill out and provide a nice contrast with the hosta. A few commenters have warned about creeping jenny (or any creeping ground cover, really!), so I’m keeping an eye on it. I liked the idea of planting something that would fill in around the purple heart and the hosta (and even creep onto the sidewalk and between the cracks, if it looked prettier than the weeds…), but I also don’t want it to be too aggressive and kill the other plants in the process!

after4

OK, yes, I’m aware that this doesn’t look so hot. The hostas definitely went through some trauma during the splitting process, and like I mentioned, they probably won’t really look too great until next year—I was hoping they’d perk back up this summer, but I don’t think it’s going to happen! They’re still growing and are just beginning to flower, though, so they’re OK. Just a little in shock and need some time to establish themselves.

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I love our sidewalk, by the way. It’s made of these enormous and very old locally-quarried bluestone slabs, which is pretty common in the Hudson Valley and in Kingston. During all of this gardening, my neighbors from across the street sauntered over to talk about plants—they’ve lived in their house since 1958 (!) and were so excited to see us taking care of the outside a bit! They told me that there was an initiative at one point to replace all the bluestone sidewalks in Kingston with concrete to make winter shoveling easier, and while plenty of other people leapt at the chance, the previous owner of our home (yes, the same one who died in the bathtub…) would not, under any circumstances, allow the city to replace the sidewalk bordering his house. That still makes me feel really good for some reason. Even though I spend a lot of time wondering what the hell this man was thinking when he paved our yard with asphalt or smeared caulk on a beautiful old radiator, it’s nice to know that for whatever reason, he was so instrumental in saving this bit of history. I think our sidewalk is absolutely beautiful, so I’m happy I get to take care of it a little bit. I love being able to see the edges of the bluestone slabs on that side! It makes me want to plant out the “hell strip” between the sidewalk and the street in a similar manner, too…I’m sure I’ll get to it someday.

process2

After I finished planting the area in front of the wrought-iron fence, I still had a bunch of hosta and pretty much just needed a place to dump them! I put three back where the original enormous clump had been…and then I started obsessing over the bluestone path that leads from the sidewalk through the wrought iron gate and to the new wood gate (and continues beyond it!). At some point, somebody set or, more likely, re-set all of these slabs in concrete. I think it was an attempt to keep water away from the foundation of the house, but it wasn’t doing its job—the concrete hadn’t bonded with either the bluestone or the foundation, leaving lots of gaps and cracks and weeds growing through the cracks and general ugliness. You can kind of see what I’m talking about here, although I didn’t really get a good shot at all.

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summer20141

I didn’t really plan to, but I ended up digging out all of the concrete and moving the bluestone slabs and re-laying the path entirely. It was a workout, but I think it looks a MILLION times better and more charming and more period-appropriate this way.

Once I got all the hosta in the ground, I felt the urge to get some stuff planted back along the new wood fence line and start to establish a little path through the future-garden.

path

A big slab of bluestone in the backyard was unfortunately damaged during the asphalt removal, so I chipped the concrete from the salvageable pieces and began to set them in a little path through the space. I like how it turned out! I didn’t do anything fancy like set them in gravel or sand or anything like that…I just messed with the soil until they were level and let them sit. Old school! It’ll be interesting to see what happens with it over the next couple of years…if it’s not fairing well, it’s not such a big deal to just redo it. Anyway, the path looks a little silly and arbitrary right now since there’s still a fair amount of sod in the front of the garden that I need to remove, but that would then involve buying lots more plants and that shit adds up. Someday, though, the path will be a nice way to get into the garden to water and prune and all that.

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ANYWAY. I figured I’d start by getting some stuff in the ground by the fence line, so I marked off the general shape of the bed with a garden hose and got to digging! The shape didn’t really matter too much since the rest of the sod will eventually be dug out, too, but I wanted it to at least look kind of OK in the interim. I’m not honestly sure when I’ll do that second part of the project…hopefully later in the summer, but we’ll see!

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Andddd, done-ish! Done for now. Whatever.

I know this picture is awful, but it was the only one I got that kind of shows everything going on back here…

after2

I’m really pleased with how the bluestone situation is panning out. Removing all the concrete and rearranging the stones opened up a nice little gardening bed area next to the porch, which is nice! I already feel like the hosta behind the fence line needs to go and get replaced with boxwoods or something evergreen, but I’m hoping I can catch a sale. My favorite boxwood variety is the “green velvet” ones (which are a little softer and less formal feeling than the traditional boxwoods…), but I’m having an impossible time finding inexpensive ones. The cheaper and free-er I can keep this project, at least for now, the better!

One of the things I love about gardening, though, is how low-pressure it is, relatively. Stuff can pretty much always be moved and shifted around, so I’m not expecting it to be perfect the first time around…I just wanted to get some things going while the weather is nice. The hardest part BY FAR is getting all the old sod/weeds out of the way, so I’m glad to have a lot of that over with!

So here’s what I planted…

hydrangea

Along the fence line in the back, I took a bunch of your suggestions and put in some big Hydrangea bushes. They aren’t so big right now, but they’re supposed to be huge! Like 6-8 feet tall and wide, although I’ll probably prune them when they start to get huge to keep things a little under control. The two on the left are Tardiva Hydrangea and were only $15 a pop at Lowe’s, and since I wanted one more and they didn’t have it, I compromised and bought a “Pinky Winky” (seriously), which is the one in the photo above. As the flowers mature, I guess they’ll start to turn pink from base to tip before dying. Sounds nice! The two varieties seem pretty similar, so it’s OK that they aren’t all identical, at least right now. Who knows how I’ll feel in a year or two.

Even though none of these are my absolute favorite variety of hydrangea, the price was right and I think they’ll be great when they mature next year and the year after. If not, I can put them to work elsewhere and plant something better up here. Not worried! I do think the size will be super nice, though, and the white flowers against the black fence will look really pretty. The hydrangeas should bloom in the summer and into the fall.

sedum1

Near the start of the path, behind the hostas which I want to remove, I put in 3 Dazzleberry Sedum, which are a type of succulent that seems to do well in our zone (5). I liked the blue-purple-grey color of the foliage, and that it stays pretty low (about 6″ high) but spreads a good 2-3 feet. I guess they’re supposed to start flowering in early summer and continue until the beginning of fall.

sedumbuds

One of them has started flowering since I planted it, and it’s pretty! I dig it.

Behind this sedum is some bleeding heart, which I transplanted from the backyard. It was getting strangled by hosta in its old location, and since the backyard is going to go through a lot in the next few years, I wanted to save it before it got killed. Bleeding heart is a really delicate plant, so it isn’t looking so hot post-transplantation, but I think next year the softness of the foliage will look nice among the hosta and the sedum and the hydrangea, and it should flower earlier in the spring. I’m trying to keep in mind that it’s nice to have things flowering at various times.

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Beyond that stuff, I threw some irises in that I also took from the backyard…same deal, just trying to save them before they get destroyed. I love iris but honestly have no idea what this variety is or what the flowers will look like, but I guess they also bloom early, so assuming they come back, it’ll be nice to have those little patches of color scattered around until the other plants take off for the summer.

I also planted a clump of 3 Autumn Joy Sedum, which should reach about 2′ high (they’re so tiny right now!) and about 2′ wide. I might have planted them a little close together, given this, but it happens. They should start to bloom pink flowers late in the summer and into the fall, which will be nice as everything else starts dying out. I like them! I’ve seen some mature plants around the neighborhood so they seem to do well here.

after10

In the back corner near the pine tree, I planted a Golden Mop False Cypress, which is supposed to potentially be really large—like 10 feet wide and 6 feet high. It can be pruned, though, and I wanted something evergreen to kind of fill in this corner near the tree, and I liked the color contrast it provides. It’s a slow-grower, though, so I don’t know how long it’ll take to start doing what I want it to do…

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Anyway,  I know it’s hard to get super stoked about a bunch of dead-ish-looking plants and things that really need to mature and fill in and this remaining patch of grass that still needs to go, but to me this reflects a lot of hard work and a huge amount of improvement! It can only keep getting better…at least that’s what I keep telling myself! In any case, the neighborhood is super happy about all of this, which makes me feel really good.

purpleheart

hostabuds

after1

I still have a ton to learn when it comes to gardening. I sort of ignored the traditional wisdom of amending the soil with good compost/topsoil/humus/etc., which may have been a bad idea. My friends in Kingston talk about how amazing and fertile their soil is, so I figured I’d give it a try just plopping things in the ground and seeing how they do. I do need to pick up some fertilizer at the very least, though.

Oh! And yes—I am aware that black mulch can be toxic to dogs. My dogs don’t really seem to be interested in eating it at all, but given that this is a dog-free front yard, I’m not really concerned. I’ll definitely keep that in mind when I get around to really working in the back, though.

Phew! OK, I know I can’t be the only one going a little garden-crazy right now.  Who else is logging some serious summer garden hours? Tell me EVERYTHING.

 

House
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The Asphalt is Gone!

It’s a story I end up telling a lot.

“What brought you to Kingston?”

“A house.”

And it’s true. We came up here with some friends for a weekend in late December, fell completely in love with Kingston, got drunkenly curious about real estate listings, saw one for a house around the corner from where we were staying, and trespassed on the property the next morning on our way out of town, just because we were so curious. I remember spending the drive back to Brooklyn and the rest of the day fantasizing about buying it, imagining how easily (HAH!) it could be restored, and how fun it would be to live in this amazing little city I hadn’t even heard of the week before. I thought it would be a passing thing, that maybe the next day or the day after, I wouldn’t wake up and go to bed completely obsessed with a vacant house 2 hours away that I’d seen for all of 10 minutes. And then I did something stupid: I bookmarked the listing on my internet browser. It was kind of like having a song stuck in your head—you can either try to avoid it or just give in and listen to it on repeat. It couldn’t hurt to just check in on it every few hours or so for weeks on end, just to see if it had sold or was in contract or something. Where was the harm in that? People check Perez Hilton all day at work and don’t go out and try to purchase a celebrity.

Then the price dropped. And I did another stupid thing: I called the listing agent. Just to find out what the hell was so wrong with this place. Just so I could stop thinking about it. Surely the foundation was crumbling into the ground or carpenter ants had whittled all of the wood framing down to unstable toothpicks or something really bad that would just put the whole thing to rest.

But it all sounded fixable. And it was just a two hour drive. And we weren’t doing anything that Saturday. Would we like to come for a walk-through? Sure. I guess. Why not.

Remember that thing I said about seeing it first in late December, though? There was about 2 feet of snow on the ground. Snow has a way of masking certain flaws and making everything very charming. By the time we actually came for the walk-through, it was the end of February. The snow had melted. The house was still more or less the same, but the yard looked significantly less attractive than I’d imagined it when all you could see was a blanket of white.

Asphalt. So much asphalt. Almost the entire yard was covered in asphalt.

At that point I was way too obsessed with the house to let a little blacktop get between me and my future home, so I ignored it. We’d cross that bridge when we got to it. No biggie.

Now that we’re over a year into home ownership, though, and it’s summer, and I have outdoor projects on my mind…I really wanted the asphalt to disappear. I know lots of readers thought I should make lemonade out of these lemons and cover it with this and build that and just let it be, but I might not be accurately portraying just how much asphalt there was. Especially once I built the fence to create a separate front yard from the backyard (which I’ve been doing some work on, yay!), we were left with a relatively small area of grass and a vast majority of our backyard covered in asphalt.

Before4

What. A. Disaster. Not only was the snow covering all this asphalt, it also covered an old foundation behind the garage—part of a never-realized plan to extend the garage, apparently. The foundation was a total mess…it looks like the previous owners wanted to extend it a certain distance, then decided to extend it even further, then never quite finished and just threw a bunch of cinderblocks into the center of it and ran. I tried to get in there a couple of times to clear the weeds and see if we could use it in some way, but it was just a losing battle…so instead it just became a weed jungle. So charming.

Before3

Anyway, I guess the previous owner had several cars AND a boat at one time, so I’m sure all of this pavement seemed like a decent idea at the time. We only have one car, though, and no boat or any reason for the backyard to be paved, and there was really just way too much of it for any kind of creative solution to remedy. If we didn’t have dogs it might be another story, but even though I don’t really like grass and I don’t want any in the front of the house, I do want the dogs to have a nice big area of grass in the back that they can run around in. Dogs love grass. That’s just science.

Before5

Because the asphalt runs within a couple of feet of the property line on two sides, it really limited our landscaping options. The back of the yard faces this house, and the other side faces a rental property in the front and a commercial business in the back…all of which I’d like to get a little privacy from with some taller trees and planting, but it doesn’t really make sense to do any of that until the fence is replaced and the asphalt is removed.

Aside from all of this, the asphalt is just such a bummer. It’s totally ugly, it wasn’t in good shape, it doesn’t serve a functional purpose, and it just makes the house and garage and whole backyard look and feel really sad.

So there. That is my whole defense. I wanted it all gone. Clean slate, fresh start. I briefly considered leaving an area next to the garage for parking, but I’d so much rather do that with a couple strips of bluestone with some groundcover surrounding it or something other than a huge bed of pavement. Even parking can be charming if it’s done right, you know?

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I wasn’t quite sure how this whole removal process would happen, though. In the earlier, stupider days of homeownership, I thought maybe I’d rent a dumpster and jackhammer and do it all myself.

This was an insane plan.

Then my plumber, Carl, mentioned that he owned a backhoe. It makes sense, given that he has to tear up streets and sidewalks and stuff sometimes, so I half-jokingly asked if he wanted the pleasure of removing all my asphalt. And he did. So I let him. Just like that! I really love Carl—he’s done all of our plumbing work at the house, and he’s super great to work with and reasonable and just an all-around awesome dude. I’m so happy he was up for this, even though it really doesn’t have to do with plumbing at all! What a guy.

I don’t think any of us realized how intense the removal would be. It took four days, I think…first with the small-ish backhoe you see above. Mostly they broke up large portions and put them all in a pile. It was incredibly exciting.

Underneath the asphalt was a TON of gravel, which I wasn’t really anticipating. I guess that’s how it’s done? News to me. Instead of leaving me with a gravel backyard instead of an asphalt backyard, I asked that we excavate down a bit further to remove a lot of the gravel. Some gravel I can deal with, but not to the point that you can’t even see the soil. That was not the point of this whole exercise.

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At the end of Day 1, Carl let me play around on the backhoe for about 45 minutes while he and the crew mocked me relentlessly for being so confused by all of the levers and buttons and stuff. Eventually I got the hang of things and I got to feel really badass and cool for a while. I didn’t want it to end! I know this action-packed shot might look like a skinny confused kid with bad posture messing around in my backyard, but it felt exactly like Sigourney Weaver in Aliens. Here is a more accurate depiction of events:

aliens

Pin away.

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Next came this second backhoe. It was bigger and more powerful than the first. They started to tackle the pile we’d made the day before and load it into a dump truck. I wasn’t allowed to drive this one.

We thought it would take maybe 6 loads of the dump truck to clear the yard. After a while everyone lost count, but the final tally was somewhere close to 20. Insanity.

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The final day of work involved THIS. It was so awesome. I definitely was not permitted to operate this thing, but it was pretty amazing to watch. It cut through the asphalt like butter and was just generally the coolest thing that’s ever happened.

This is when I told the neighbors I was building a pool.

After all the removal was more or less completed, they worked on compacting the newly-exposed soil and grading the yard out and making everything look less like the post-apocalypse.

garageafter

Anndddd…DONE! It’s so weird to see the back of the garage like this! Now you can really see where the window is missing, which was relocated at some point to the laundry room. I’m tempted to say that a long (longgg) term goal might be to put a couple of french doors on this side of the garage and a fire pit/conversation zone situation in this area. Could be kind of amazing? Maybe a pergola of some kind?

There’s about 5 feet of space between the left side of the garage and the fence line, which I think I’d like to pave with salvaged bricks and use to store our garbage cans and compost. It’ll be nice to have them out of sight! That will free up the space on the other side of the garage for some plants, like maybe a simple boxwood hedge or something. As I mentioned before, to replace the old driveway I’ll probably install two strips of bluestone and some ground cover like Creeping Jenny. As you can see, the old gate is ENORMOUS (much bigger than it needs to be) and falling apart, so replacing the fencing on this side of the house is next on my fencing hit-list. Not only will it be a big functional improvement, but we’ll also have replaced all of the chain-link facing the street, which I’m really excited about. Old busted-up chain-link fencing is also a huge bummer.

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As for the rest of the cleared space, it’s just so exciting to have this blank canvas now! I think replacing the rest of the chain link with wood fencing will go a longgggg way toward making the backyard feel more private, and adding some tall trees along the fence line will also help immensely. That building you see in the back is a commercial business—it’s not like it’s super busy or anything (despite their enormous parking lot…), but getting some more separation from it will still be really nice. I think most of this area will likely end up just being grass for the dogs, but I do like the idea of doing some kind of really long raised bed in the back for a vegetable/herb garden.

Anyway. Big dreams.

Before that stuff can all happen, though, we need to get some fill dirt! I didn’t even think about this beforehand (I know, I know…) but removing 20 dump trucks of material is…a lot of stuff. Unless we want to end up with a pond in the middle of the backyard when it rains or snows heavily, now we need to get fill dirt brought in and grade out the land. The last thing I ever really envisioned paying for is dirt, but I’ve been assured that I will be hugely sorry if I don’t just bite the bullet and do it before trying to do any landscaping/grass-planting, etc. It’s pretty much the most boring thing I can imagine, but that’s how it goes sometimes!

I’m not exactly rushing to do the fill dirt thing while I’m working on digging out the grass and weeds and crap in the front yard. It’s nice to be able to just fill a wheelbarrow and dump it all in the newly excavated area in the back, and might even end up saving us a little bit in the long run. If we have the dirt, we might as well use it, right? I don’t want to buy a bunch of dirt and then end up with more dirt and nowhere for it to go. That just seems unwise.

And now I’m writing a blog post about dirt. Awesome. I’m so cool and trendy.

Fireplace-ish!

study1

There’s this room in the front of our house on the main floor that I’ve always been a little baffled by. There are only four main rooms on the first floor (kitchen, dining room, living room…and this room), and I’ve taken to just calling it the “front room.” Sometimes it’s the “parlor” (fancy!) and sometimes it’s the “den,” but the truth is, I haven’t been sure what to do with it. Our house really isn’t that big (about 2300 sq. feet, which feels huge for us, but we’re used to living in little apartments), so it feels sort of stupid to have a whole room for which I haven’t been able to decide on a dedicated function.

For the past several months I’ve been using it as a very poorly located workshop and staging area for working on other spaces in the house, but since it’s adjacent to the dining room, also lacks a ceiling, and needs new electrical to be finished up, it makes sense to renovate the two rooms more or less simultaneously. Which means I’ve had to start thinking more seriously about what to do with it.

Here’s what I don’t want:

1. A main floor bedroom. No need, and I think it would be weird.

2. A den/TV room. There’a a whole other living room just across the hall (you can look at the floor plan here, which might help this make more sense…) which is enormous and going to be incredible someday. I know it’s often customary to have a more formal living room and then a less formal hang-out space with a TV and whatnot, but I don’t really believe in formal living rooms. That living room is going to be the best room in the house, and I want it to get used. As for the TV, I don’t really think I want one on the main floor at all. There’s a room upstairs that I think will make a really nice, cozy TV room, and I like that idea much more.

So what does that leave? Well. Let me tell you.

A study. That’s what we’re calling it. We have a ton of books that need a home (right now they’re pretty much shoved anywhere they’ll fit). We’ve both been transitioning to working much less from Brooklyn and much more from Kingston (yay!), but now Max really wants/needs a place to work that isn’t our bed. I envision this study having a desk, a chair or two, bookshelves, a nice rug…a place that doesn’t feel too formal and off-limits for a main-floor room (people should still feel free to mill about in it during parties and whatnot) but still functions as place we can get stuff done. I’m obviously partial to my little compact upstairs office, but I think this will be pretty great when we want to be working or hanging out together.

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cornerradiator

That said, the furniture layout thing was still just…confusing me. Part of the challenge of the room is that it has three large windows, a radiator, two doors, and a funny little closet, but there’s no real focal point. It’s like there should be an architectural element to anchor the room around that isn’t there.

study-2

I might feel that way because there should be an architectural element that’s missing.

Originally, this wall sported some kind of fireplace. At some point, I think in the fairly recent past (50 years or so…), whatever was here was removed. You can tell because of the missing piece of baseboard, and the spot where the floor was very artlessly patched in with the wrong type of wood where I’m guessing there was some kind of stone hearth.

My normal inclination with stuff like this is to just let it be what it is and work with what we have, but then my friend John mentioned that he had an old mantel sitting in his basement that he’d taken out during the renovation of his insanely gorgeous house. And that I could have it. For free.

mantel

Oh. Well. That changes things, now doesn’t it?

A word about my friend John: he’s sort of the best. I love him to pieces. He’s welcomed us to Kingston with open arms, and made our first year here so great. He’s a veteran renovator and terrific to bounce ideas off of and nerd out over old house stuff, knows everything, and is just so kind. Everyone loves John. We’re so lucky to have him in our lives. He’s spent about 6 years renovating an incredible 1720s stone house around the corner from us (originally it was a tavern, and before he bought it, it was a doctor’s office!—you can see his Sneak Peek on Design*Sponge here!), and he has impeccable taste and is just so frustratingly clever. The more time I spend in his house, the more I appreciate all the little details and smart solutions that just make so amazing (and, in turn, make me feel like a totally inadequate garbage person). It’s endlessly inspiring. I think I want to do a series of posts about all the little things that make John’s house so special…so keep an eye out for that! Maybe that sounds boring but I swear it will blow your mind.

ANYWAY. Then I became obsessed with the idea of adding a fireplace back to this room. It just doesn’t feel right without it! It should be there, and it’s not there, and it makes the room feel weird and ungrounded. A fireplace is what this room needs to be whole again. I feel it in my bones. It’s going to be purely ornamental, and that’s totally OK. We’re hoping we can make the other fireplace in the living room wood-burning someday, but this one can just be for looks and candles and pretty for the sake of pretty. Who cares.

The mantel also comes with a really cool and very heavy cast-iron insert/cover thing that is still in his basement, but coming here soon. So stoked.

demo1

When I got it home, I immediately started tearing into the wall that it’s going on, just to see what was back there. I had this idea that maybe there would be an original firebox lurking in the wall, and I needed to know. This whole area was patched in with sheetrock, and underneath it old sheet metal had been nailed into the studs. Weird.

demo2

Once I exposed the edges of the sheet metal, I started peeling it back…

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Between two studs, there was essentially a column of bricks skim-coated with plaster or joint compound or something. I noticed that the bricks look more like the “garbage bricks” that are inside all of our exterior walls rather than chimney bricks, so I eased one out and hoped that the whole chimney wouldn’t come crashing down.

demo4

Behind those bricks where the actual chimney! Huh! There’s a vent hole, which is weird because there’s a whole separate vent hole near the ceiling. I guess this one was replaced with the other one? Or all of this effort to seal it off so well was because this chimney used to vent the ancient boiler, and carbon monoxide poisoning is not cool. I don’t know. Anyway. No firebox. No biggie.

fireplace1

One thing I didn’t anticipate is that this mantel is HUGE. It’s quite a bit longer than whatever was here originally. My inclination is to center this new mantel on the wall rather than offset it to the side, as the original one was (which centers it in the room, but only if the fireplace fits the original dimensions, which this one doesn’t). Sure, I could cobble something together myself that might look passably good and fit more with the original dimensions, but I love that this one has a story and a past and that it’s free and was given with love. I don’t think trying to modify the proportions is a good idea. And even though it didn’t work for John’s house (he thinks it was fabricated and added in the 1920s, so far from period appropriate for him…he had a new mantelpiece custom-built that looks much better), I think it’s kind of perfect for ours! I think it complements the original woodwork really nicely and will just fit right in.

venthole

wallbow

Unfortunately, the wall that it’s going on is sort of a disaster. I’m all about preserving as much of the original plaster as possible, but this wall is already a weird mix of newer drywall patches and bad plaster repairs and a whole lot of joint compound and it’s just looks really bad. There are enormous cracks that have clearly undergone unsuccessful repairs over the years…it’s just a mess. I think I’m going to just bite the bullet and take it all down and start over with new drywall. Just this wall. Normally with drywall you just tape and mud the seams, but my plan with the wall and the ceilings is to do that and then skim-coat the entire thing with joint compound (and maybe experiment with mixing in some plaster of paris for a harder surface…something an old-school renovator told me he’s done with success in the past), so I think it’ll look really authentic when it’s all said and done. Part of what makes plaster so appealing is the texture of the imperfections, so I don’t want three perfectly-imperfect plaster walls and one that looks brand new, you know? I think it’s possible.

Anyway, I’m really excited about this faux-fireplace development! I have to decide on the exact placement (centered on the wall, I think, will look the best…), and then cut out some flooring and replace with a stone hearth and patch in surrounding flooring so it all looks seamless. I’m leaning toward honed marble (hopefully I can find a remnant piece without spending too much money…), but there are so many options! Soapstone? Slate? Bluestone? Hmmmmmm….

It’s going to be good. So very good.

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