All posts tagged: Demolition

Gutting the Cottage.

pile

Here’s how I thought things would pan out with the cottage:

1. Finish the exterior.

2. Take a week off from the cottage, maybe.

3. Gut the interior.

4. You know, the rest of it.

It was all going to be very orderly and civilized.

That’s not what happened, though. Instead, it rained. That’s all it really took. I was about halfway through building the planters outside and I had some extra hands with me, and after an hour or so of working outside in the rain and the mud, I’d hit my limit. It was wet and cold and I had to just call it. Screw civility and order! Let’s wreck some shit.

Demo-ing the interior of the cottage was bittersweet. I feel like a normal gut renovation usually entails removing beautiful and/or salvageable materials and sending them to a landfill, only to be replaced by new stuff that will never have the same quality or character as what was there before. It’s wasteful and destructive and horrible, generally. But that doesn’t really apply here. I’m pretty sure I saved everything worth saving (and probably some stuff that wasn’t), but there wasn’t much. I hated sending so much stuff to a landfill, but it really was trash—broken, beyond the point of repair, with no potential for reuse. Sad.

BUT. It was all very very exciting, too. I’m guessing the house saw a pretty major overhaul sometime in the 40s or 50s (and then some other changes later on), so everything was finished in (very, very damaged) drywall. The kitchen was already pretty much gone, the bathroom fixtures were all inexpensive and lightweight…considering the entire interior of the house had to go, none of the work was all that grueling. And stripping the scary cosmetic stuff away felt good. Underneath the damage and grime and mess, this house looks more or less like any other house. Probably way better than my house would look without walls! It already looks way better, at least to me.

kitchenbefore

Remember where we started off? That kitchen…shudder. It was bad news.

kitchen

See? Better! The studs and joists and sheathing are all in good shape, which is great to see. This isn’t how windows and doors are framed nowadays, but they’ve been holding up fine for a long time and I’m not worried about them. It should be grandfathered in when the framing gets inspected. The whole house is balloon-framed, too, meaning the studs on the exterior walls go all the way from the sill plate above the foundation to the top plate below the rafters. Also not how things are done anymore, but it’s sort of fun to see! It also makes running electrical a little easier, which is nice I guess.

You can’t tell from the picture, but the opening to the kitchen from the dining room has NO support! None. This is a load-bearing wall, and the studs are just cut off at the ceiling. That’s not good! It’s sort of surprising there isn’t a sag (or, you know, the whole thing didn’t collapse). It’s totally fixable, though…just need to beef up the opening and add a header and we’ll be in business. That was actually part of my plan, anyway—to make this opening a *bit* smaller and more defined. Right now it’s sort of trying and failing to be “open-concept” and I don’t want that for this house. Even though this renovation is going to be about 90% new (I reserve 10% for the floors, doors, and windows), I want it to feel old and authentic to what could have been here.  I’ll obviously talk a lot more about that later. Like probably too much. Like probably so much that you’ll want to set me on fire.

upstairs-2

ANYWAY. It was very hard to take a lot of pictures during demo, partly because I was covered in grime and pulling things apart and partly because maybe millions of photos aren’t that necessary. Piles and piles of debris. That’s pretty much it.

This is the middle section of the upstairs, which is the oldest section of the house.  The ceiling here is LOW—like 6’8″, so on the agenda is sorting out the framing in the ceiling and hopefully gaining at least a few inches in the process. It’s nice to see the chimney, but it needs some repairs and I think I’m going to have to repoint it. I’d like to maintain it, though…it’s one of the few original things left in the house and I think exposing the brick will add some nice texture and character to the renovated space.

upstairsroof

Check out that cobweb situation! I wish it had been possible to get better shots of this stuff, because the structural stuff up in here is bonkers. The roof in the middle/oldest section of the house pitches oppositely from how the roofs in the front and the back pitch, leaving some very strange framing in the middle. Nothing was done correctly when the additions were made, so a lot of the framing just got hacked away at over the years instead of properly supported and whatnot. Half of the rafters are sort of just floating there, and the collar ties are floating on the floating rafters, and the whole thing is just insane and bad.

upstairs3

This is the new view from the big bedroom in the front to the back! See what I mean about nothing really being supported in the middle there? But it’ll be OK. The framing job is definitely going to be more extensive than I’d really bargained for, but it’s all fixable. It’ll be solid as a rock soon enough.

By the way, that opening on the right side in this picture, close to the stair banister? That’s the doorway to the old bathroom! The whole thing is GONE and it feels so good! This master bedroom is going to be so amazing without a big bathroom carved into it. I’ll put together a post soon with before/after floor plans so you can get a better sense of this stuff. I’m sure this is a little confusing.

debrispile

So…the debris piles were MASSIVE. There were very large vent holes in the floor in both the front and back bedrooms (to allow heat to travel to the upstairs), which proved SUPER helpful during demo since we could just throw almost everything through the holes and down to the first floor.

Since I sort of jumped the gun on demo, I wasn’t totally prepared with, say, a plan to get rid of all this waste. I’d asked about dumpsters at the Department of Public Works back in mid-September when I first started working on this house, and it sounded simple enough. Since this property doesn’t have a driveway, I’d need to get a permit to place the dumpster on the street, but the folks at Public Works made that sound fairly fast and painless.

Then it came time to actually get the dumpster, and it was not fast and painless. Everyone I’ve dealt with in Kingston city government has been wonderful (and very supportive of this project!), but I think the Public Works folks are a little underfunded and overworked and even just getting a call back was a little difficult. Not having a dumpster was starting to become a problem on my end, since the house was so overloaded with debris that nothing could really get done. And then I finally did hear back and…no dumpster. They’d decided that the street was too narrow to place a dumpster even for a very short period (I offered to fill it in a day or two), so I’d have to figure out something else.

Entire house, completely gutted. No dumpster. How. Why.

This was not terrific news.

The only work-around I could really think of was putting the dumpster in my driveway and somehow transporting all the waste from this house to my house, but that seemed a little insane. It would probably have taken like 30 Bagsters to clear out the whole house, and since those wind up running about $200 per bag here, that was also not a good option. So the only thing left was to take it all to the dump ourselves.

One of the guys who’s been working for me mentioned that his dad had a small-ish trailer for the back of his car that we could use, and my wonderful contractor Edwin offered up the use of his monster truck, so that’s how it started.

truckdumpster

Nice, right? We parked the truck right on the sidewalk, hoped we wouldn’t get ticketed (we didn’t), and brought stuff out on wheelbarrows. We had a few people and two wheelbarrows, so it worked out. A couple people worked on filling the wheelbarrows, and a couple of people moved them from the house, up that wobbly ramp, and into the truck. It wasn’t horrible! Then we strapped a tarp over the whole thing and drove it off while a few people stayed behind to load the trailer. The dump (technically, the Transfer Station) closes at 2:15 in the afternoon here, so we only got three trips in on the first day, but it made a surprisingly big dent in the mess. I should probably get myself one of those trailers at some point. So handy!

dump

The dump was nuts, by the way. I feel like every single person should be required to go to the dump at least once. Schools should take field trips there. It’s not like I’m totally unaware of where my garbage goes, but it’s a different thing to really see it in action and on this kind of scale…and Kingston is not a big city. Huge trucks bring huge loads of garbage into this huge warehouse space. Then huge backhoes push it around and into a pile. Then other huge backhoes take the pile and drop it into a huge hole in the floor, where a huge tractor-trailer is parked. When the tractor-trailer gets full, it drives the trash out to…I don’t even know where. A landfill in some other part of the country, probably. It’s impossible to even fathom the environmental impact of all of this…and the fact that it’s like this here pretty much all day, everyday, and there are places exactly like this everywhere else, too. The whole thing makes my head spin, obviously.

So anyway. Be mindful of your waste. Compost. Recycle. Freecycle. Don’t tear down old houses. The end.

goodies

I did scoop up a couple of treasures from the dump, though! Can you believe someone was throwing these away? So frustrating! The thing that was really aggravating was that one of the workers told me I technically wasn’t allowed to take them, but he’d make an exception. I mean, I sort of understand that they can’t really have people rifling through the dump around heavy machinery and stuff all day looking for crap to take home or take to a scrap yard and get paid for, but come on. There must be a better way! The whole thing is just upsetting. But anyway. I don’t even know if I’ll end up staging this house for sale or what, but a pretty vintage fan and beautiful antique sewing machine for free? Don’t mind if I do.

Oh! Somehow I didn’t get a picture, but the city did end up throwing me a bone and letting me use a city dump truck for a couple days. It was the smallest of the city dump trucks—essentially the capacity of 2 pick-ups—which was the biggest thing they were comfortable parking on the street. They also waived the typical fee (which I think is like $50 a day) for me, presumably due to my good looks and charm, which was super nice and they totally didn’t have to do. So I only had to pay for the disposal fees, which are calculated by weight, and it made things a little easier since I only had to load the truck, not unload it on the other end. Thanks, Kingston!

scrapyard

I also made a couple of trips to the scrap metal yard! There ended up being a fair amount of metal left in the house…the old baseboard radiator covers, a few of the radiators themselves (which are a copper pipe with aluminum fins attached), and a little bit of copper plumbing. The scrap yard is a little more heartening than the dump since you get paid for what you bring (based on the type of material and the weight), and everything is getting recycled, but it was still maddening!

stove

I spotted this beautiful antique wood stove sitting at the top of a scrap pile (terrible picture, sorry!) and offered to buy it back (for what purpose, I don’t even know), and they wouldn’t let me! So frustrating. Again, I sort of get the liability issue and all that, but it seems more than a little ridiculous that beautiful, probably still useful items can’t just be reused instead of melted down or whatever. Right? I’m aware that lots of scrap yards actually have shops where they keep stuff like this so people can do that very thing, but that doesn’t exist at either of the two scrap metal yards I’ve been to in Kingston. Super annoying, right? I’m just glad I didn’t see any clawfoot tubs or I might have actually had a heart attack.

So anyway. Getting rid of the garbage was in many ways a bigger project than the demo was. All in all, between 1 Bagster, 3 loads in the city dump truck, and 7 pick-up truck loads, I’ve had to dump about 14,000 pounds of trash. That’s a lot of trash. I feel shitty about it, but I don’t think there was really any way around it.  All of the disposal came out to the tune of $853.64, which is a decent amount of money but probably about half what it would have been if I was renting a dumpster on top of it, so I guess it all came out for the best. I also made back $254.10 in scrap metal (who woulda thought?), so that helps offset the dumping cost a bit.

upstairs

But hey look! After lots and lots of sweeping and clearing and sorting and mess, the house is pretty clean. It stayed this way for about .5 seconds, though—framing actually began the same day as the last day of demo work! Madness! So it felt like as soon as one mess was kind of almost cleaned up, another mess started. That’s kind of just how it goes. A huge part of my life these days is just managing mess. I go through a lot of respirator masks. And contractor bags. And I come home looking like I’ve been down in the mines all day. It’s way cute.

That big pile of wood in the corner got saved, by the way! I was really careful about trying to get all the trim out in full pieces and save it all, which ended up being a TON of wood (this is just one of multiple piles). A lot of it is very dirty and some of it is flakey and it’s all very multi-colored, but there’s nothing really wrong with it and I figure I can probably reuse a lot of it when the times comes for that! Keeps it out of a landfill and keeps me from having to buy all that trim which would end up being very costly. It’s mostly just 1×4 or 1×6 or some weird size in between, but I figure I can always rip pieces down, maybe add some detail with my router, that kind of thing. I’m sort of excited to see what can be done with it all. It’s like a big puzzle! In the meantime, I’ve finally finished pulling all of the nails out of it all so that the pile can be a little more orderly and easier to manage.

bathrom

Diary time? Are we over this yet? I feel so woefully behind but I’m trying to catch up!

10/8: Worked outside with Chris setting deck blocks while Kodi, Mike, and Mikey worked on moving dirt to my backyard. I worked on planters with Kodi while Chris began demo’ing pink bedroom with Mike. Need to pick up 4 more deck blocks.

10/9: Chris and Chris on demo duty inside. Mike and Mike on excavating yard outside. Me and Kodi finished planters. Edwin came with power washer. Took a break to move bluestone hearth into my library. Cody and I began installing decking. Finished excavating yard with Edwin’s truck. Cody and I finished deck but are one board short.

10/10: Chris, Mike, and Mike worked on demo-ing master bedroom. Cody and I ran to Lowe’s to purchase plants before they are out of stock and 21 bags of topsoil for planter boxes, along with missing deck board. Finished deck. Unloaded soil and sent all workers home at 12:30. Went to Department of Public Works to try to get dumpster. No luck.

10/13: Demo’d upstairs bathroom. Sealed planter boxes, spread topsoil, and planted plants. Guys worked on clearing backyard and disassembling shed. Laid bluestone path to door. Entire crew has head cold, including me.

10/14: Got mulch and pea gravel and pavers for front walk. Edged garden bed, planted, and mulched. Continued clearing backyard.

10/15: Day off. Everyone is sick. Ran errands and started working on restoring front casement windows. Plan to boil hardware overnight.

10/17 & 18: Still sick. Worked a little on windows.

10/20: Kodi’s dad came with trailer and we went to dump with demo debris. Edwin brought truck. Got 3 trips in before closing at 2:15. Went to scrapyard with metal—$129. Went back and continued demo-ing interior.

10/21: Worked on clearing out and gutting basement. Separated salvageable wood from garbage wood, pulled nails from walls studs and ceiling joists. City dump truck coming tomorrow.

10/22: City dump truck came in morning. Filled twice. Demo’d more of interior and loaded stuff from backyard. Started removing rotted kitchen floor and tin ceiling for paint to be stripped. Plaster ceiling discovered above—will demo tomorrow.

Ladies and Gentlemen, May I Present: CEILINGS!

It’s been a long time coming, so I won’t drag it out: WE HAVE CEILINGS AGAIN! SEE?!?!?!?

diningceilingafter

Backing up *just a touch*, since you know how I like to get into the nitty-gritty of it all…wayyyyy back in December, I got it in my brain that it was high time to see what was going on under the acoustic ceiling tiles in the dining room and front parlor (which we’re calling the library now, I guess!). I don’t even totally recollect my logic with this one…we’d been in the house 6 months, we’d basically JUST gotten heat, I was working on the upstairs office, the laundry room was pretty much next on the list…and for some reason I decided to destroy two relatively functional rooms? And not only that, but remove ceilings in the dead of winter in an uninsulated house? I can’t be accountable for my actions. Going back and reading the posts, apparently I didn’t really know why I did it then, so I especially don’t know now. It just happened.

ceilingbefore

To review: the ceilings both looked basically like this. I was not a fan. The tiles were probably installed in the 1960s or 70s, and then bad crown molding was installed around the edges.

I was HOPING at the time that they’d just been put up over the plaster to add a little heat/sound insulation. I had grand delusions of removing the tiles and finding a pretty plaster ceiling above it, in need of only mild repairs. Hell, there could even be the original ceiling medallions, hiding right up there! Who could know!

missingplaster2

It quickly became clear that the tiles were installed as a quick and easy solution to conceal the original plaster ceilings, which were COMPLETELY trashed. I really wanted to save them, but they were just way too far gone.

The demo of these ceilings was HORRENDOUS. It took days and was so incredibly dusty, and heavy, and generally completely hellish. Even considering the condition of the ceilings, it still felt crappy having to remove so much original material from the house, but we had to do what we had to do.

postdemo

After the demo, things pretty much looked like this. At the time, I was completely delusional about how long it would take to get new ceilings in the rooms. I literally remember telling people that I thought we’d be drywalling in a couple of weeks. All we really had to do was run a little electrical and slap some drywall up. How long could that take? I’d have ceilings in no time!

Man. So untrue. So terribly false. I’m basically the village idiot of Blogland.

First of all, having the ceilings open just seemed to afford more and more opportunities for “invisible” improvements, so what started as just re-running the existing electrical (which was, like, 3 circuits) ended as re-running all the existing electrical as well as adding a bunch of new circuits to feed receptacles and light fixtures and coaxial ports and crap upstairs. We also took the opportunity to do some alterations to the plumbing, which I’m really excited about. Next post! It’s too much to get into all of it right now.

ANYWAY, the whole ordeal seemed to drag on forever. Even though the ceilings were wide open, the walls were not, and there was a lot of fishing wires from the panel in the basement, up through the walls, and across the ceilings, up through the second floor, up those walls, up into the attic, through the attic floor joists, and down into the ceilings upstairs…it was hard work. And since my electrician is both busy and flakey (and cheap, and licensed in Kingston, which is why I keep working with him…), what was really something like a 4-5 day job got spread out over MONTHS. Then we had to get it inspected, which took an additional couple of weeks to schedule…and maybe I added some more things to the plumbing list…it just went on and on.

The plus side of the slowness is that I feel like it really gave me the time to think everything through. So in the end, we’re basically DONE with electrical and plumbing for a while (until the downstairs bathroom rough-in, I guess), which is very exciting. I feel like I really took advantage of the opportunities presented by having no ceilings and I can look back without regrets. I think. I hope.

SO. After months of hemming and hawing over whether I’d attempt to do the ceilings myself (and hearing lots of input on both sides—thank you!), I hired it out. The general consensus seemed to be that this was a job better left to the pros, and since we’re talking about big, important spaces in the house, I REALLY didn’t want to spend weeks trying to DIY this and then end up with bad-looking ceilings, especially after all the work and expense of everything behind the ceilings. Max wisely flat-out refused to be involved, so between all the materials, renting equipment, and at least hiring a second set of hands, it’s not like the DIY option was all that cheap, either.

Part of the serious complication with this job is the joists.  The house is post-and-beam construction, so the wood is hand-milled and irregular. With plaster and lath, a lot of that irregularity can be compensated for by a smooth plaster job. Drywall isn’t really like that, though—it’s rigid but has some flex, meaning that unless we wanted a really wavy ceiling where you’d probably see every joist (and worse, every seam!), it was imperative to level everything out. In the dining room, the archway molding in front of the bay window is only about 2″ below the joists, meaning that dropping the whole ceiling wasn’t really an option. Even if it had been an option, who wants to do that? So the goal was to keep the ceilings as HIGH as possible while still making them as level as possible. Big task. Scary to entrust to a stranger. Scary to DIY. Everything is scary. Hold me.

So I got four quotes, and they were ALL OVER THE PLACE.

1. The guy who swooped in and repaired our box gutters the first time around, Shane, gave me a quote for the dining room and the library. He understood the issue with the joists, and I really liked working with him before, BUT he didn’t seem to have too much drywalling experience, so that kind of scared me. Then he came back with a quote: $3,200. Yikes. Everyone says drywall installation is cheap and fast, so I wasn’t expecting that!

2. Guy #2 I found on Craigslist. He was more of a handyman, but seemed to have experience with drywall. He was also super hot, which is a huge bonus in my book. Unfortunately, he didn’t really understand the issue with the joists, and kept telling me that it should be fine to just shim out a couple small spots and slap the drywall up, which didn’t sit well. His quote for the two rooms: $1,600, including materials. Definitely an improvement, but I didn’t feel like he understood the complexity of the job so I sort of knew I wasn’t going to hire him.

3. Guy #3 was recommended by one of the electricians. Electrician guy told me he was SUPER cheap, had done work in his own house that turned out flawlessly, and he was really friendly and responsive over the phone and showed up when he said he would and all that. I really liked him—he seemed to understand everything I was saying, had good solutions, and was experienced. He assured me before leaving that he’d give me a good price and that he wasn’t the type of guy trying to gut clients. I actually asked him to quote for the two rooms AND the pantry (since it’s small) and skim-coating the old drywall ceiling in the hallway (more on that in a minute). His quote: $7,800. ALMOST EIGHT THOUSAND DOLLARS. Jesus Christ. NO.

4. Then this guy moved in next door. I introduced myself, and he was really nice, and we’d talk every now and then through the fence. It took me a few weeks to notice that on the side of his truck, there was a decal for his construction business! And it specifically listed drywall as one of his services! So I asked him what he was up to, and if he wanted to come over and give me a quote, and he said yeah, and came over, and took measurements, and talked to me about my concerns, and was generally lovely and confident that he could do a good job. I asked him for the same quote as guy #3 (both rooms, pantry, and downstairs hallway skim-coating), but he said the hallway wasn’t really even worth skim-coating and we should just rip it down and start over. His quote: $1,800 + materials.

I honestly have no real idea how much this should all cost, just to be completely frank. $1,800 still seemed kind of high to me, to be honest, but that was more colored by everyone telling me how cheap drywall installation should be. The whole joist-leveling thing makes the job WAY more complicated, so I’m assuming that was a big factor. It’s not a small job and required several days of work and 2-3 people, so the number actually seemed pretty fair, even if it was higher than I was hoping. Thinking I could maybe save a little bit of money, I asked for another quote for JUST the two rooms, excluding the pantry and hallway, and the price dropped to $1,600 + materials. So for an extra $200, I can have both of those spaces done quickly and by professionals? I mean. OK. And this guy lives next door, which might make things awkward if he does a bad job, but also makes him easy to find and less likely to flake out on me since we see each other almost everyday.

SO. HE WAS HIRED.

ceilinglessfoyer

In preparation for his arrival, I tore down the ceiling in the hallway. This ceiling was already replaced with sheetrock in the early 70s, but it looked TERRIBLE. I don’t really have any pictures detailing that, but I guess this was when drywall was still nailed up instead of screwed into place. There were seams EVERYWHERE because whoever installed it used fairly small pieces of drywall. You could literally see every single nailhead, some of which had been slathered in caulk. There was about a 1-2″ gap between the ceilings and the walls, which had been stuffed with newspapers and paper-taped over. Paper tape doesn’t really adhere to bare plaster, so the tape had all separated over time…the whole thing was just a damn mess. So even though I wasn’t super excited about MORE demo, it was the best option.

ceilinglessfoyer2

The first time drywall was installed on the hallway ceiling, they installed it over the lath (but had removed the plaster). Since the lath isn’t structurally necessary and just added thickness (which was a bummer, because the sheetrock covered the top of the molding around the front door), I opted to remove the lath, too.

What this ceiling taught me is that I never want to hear ANYONE complain about demo’ing drywall. It was literally child’s play compared to plaster demo. The whole thing came down in about an hour and was bagged up and in a Bagster in another hour, and I barely even broke a sweat. The hardest part was taking down the lath and cleaning up all the plaster keys that were hanging out above it, but it wasn’t so bad. Max helped me and we had it knocked out and cleaned up in a couple of hours.

ANYWAY. Then the plumbers did some more stuff with that ceiling opened up, and then it was time for the drywallers to come in! EEEEP!

The drywallers brought in all the drywall first (they overbought by a couple of sheets, but that’s OK…I’ll end up using it elsewhere, I’m sure!), and some 2″x3″x8′ pieces of lumber. Their original plan to level out the joists was to nail 2x3s to a few of the really wacky joists and get on with things.

Once they really got up in the ceiling, though, they realized just how wonky everything was. Some of the joists were off by a good couple of inches, the whole ceiling was sloped, all the joists were bowed in the middle…yikes! So my contractor quickly re-evaluated and went to buy enough 16-foot 2x4s to sister in every joist. When they got back, they ran a laser level to figure out the low point, and then ran the 2x4s *slightly* above that level so that we’d still be able to see the top of the moldings when the drywall went up. They then planed down a couple of really low spots on a couple of joists—it was a negligible amount, so it definitely shouldn’t affect anything structurally or anything like that.

edwin

This is about the point at which I became really glad I hired this out. Yes, it’s a good chunk of change, but I don’t think this is a solution I would have come to by myself, and it literally probably would have taken me weeks and ended up mediocre and I would have been so sad forever. They had the tools and the know-how and enough hands and bodies to get it done.

sisteringjoists

The guys spent almost the entirety of Day 1 working on leveling out the joists, which I was so grateful for! Once the new, straight 2x4s were in place, you could really see how wonky the original beams are—all of the sistering really made all the difference, here. Since I opted to go with a flat fee instead of an hourly rate, I’m so glad they really took the time to do things right.

insulation

I decided to add some R-38 fiberglass insulation just to the exterior walls, basically butting up against the brick nogging. A lot of readers suggested insulating the whole ceiling both for heat and sound, but you actually don’t really want to do that in a single-family home. If the house was still divided into apartments and on two separate heating systems, then yes, but here you actually want the heat to rise in the winter to help heat the upstairs and in the summer so that both floors don’t turn into oversized saunas. There is blown-in cellulose insulation between the upstairs ceiling and the attic floor, which is pretty much exactly how it should be given the house’s current arrangement. If we ever get around to finishing the attic, we’ll likely remove that insulation (that should only be, like, the worst job ever) and insulate the attic walls and ceiling (probably with closed-cell spray foam insulation, because technology).

libraryceilingup

Watching the drywall go up was, like, the most exciting thing EVER. Even before the taping and mudding, the difference in the rooms already felt HUGE. After living in these cavernous, dark spaces for almost nine months, the drywall immediately made everything feel infinitely brighter and taller and more complete. After all that time, I think I sort of forgot how amazing the natural light is in this house. Of course it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with it in the first place, but getting more of an inkling of how it will look all finished and painted and beautiful is super duper thrilling.

foyerceilingmudded

I’m SO glad we decided to spend the extra time and money doing the hallway ceiling. The guys only used 5 separate pieces of sheetrock (instead of, like, 15, as before!), and it’s all level and smooth and very *slightly* higher than it was before, and it just looks great. The guys taped the seams with fiberglass mesh tape and did 3 coats of joint compound before sanding. I think this photo is after coat #2 of joint compound.

topofarch

I spent a lot of time fretting with the contractor over how important it was to be able to see the top of the archway in the dining room after leveling out the joists and installing the drywall. It was a tight squeeze, but it’s ALL THERE, which is all I can really ask for. Considering it’s been covered up with acoustic tiles, crown molding, and a mess of caulk for the past 40-ish years, it feels really good to be able to restore this funny feature. I need to finish stripping the paint and caulk off of it (I’m definitely not stripping all of the molding, but this is too messed up to just paint), but I think it’s going to look amazing once it’s all done! I tried Peel Away 1 on a section of the arch just to see how it worked, and it works well! Cleaning/neutralizing the stripped wood indoors is sort of a huge messy hassle, but it’s one of those things that’s just going to require a little extra time and care. What else is new!

backofhallwaybefore

One area that I’m particularly impressed by is in the back of the hallway. Only this patch of the original plaster remained in the entire space, and because of the way it curves and slopes and seemed very solid overall, I didn’t want to demo it and try to replicate it with drywall if I didn’t have to. On the last day of work, the contractor brought in a different guy to do the final skimming and sanding on the ceilings and sort out this mess. The new drywall sat about 1/2″ above the placer, and you can see how a lot of a previous skim-coating job had failed and fallen off over the years, and I was just crossing my fingers that they could get it to look acceptable.

backofhallwayafter

WELL. HOT. DAMN. This skim-coating guy was a MAGICIAN. He did this in, I don’t know, a couple hours, and it’s FLAWLESS. It’s so, so beautiful. I keep just walking to the back of the hallway to admire it.

This is when I made the most big-boy decision ever.

You guys, this hallway is really big. Over the stairs, the wall extends, like, 20 feet high. I’ve already done the work of demo’ing non-original walls, opening up original doorways, and stripping all of the wallpaper from the plaster. In the intervening months, several new large holes had to be made in the plaster to run the new plumbing and electric stuff, and now the walls need significant patching and repair and then all need to be skim-coated. Since I spent so much time and effort up in the tiny office teaching myself this skill, and I know I’m technically capable of it, it’s always been the plan to do the hallway walls myself.

Well, after seeing the dope-ass job this guy did on my ceiling in a few hours (which definitely would have taken me days, and probably never looked as good), I asked how much it would cost for him to just skim-coat the entire hallway, upstairs and downstairs. The answer was $500. I debated for a couple of days…and then I decided to go for it.

Here’s the thing. Skim-coating is not fun. I’m OK but not great at it. I’m sure it would turn out fine, but it would also take me weeks and be super boring and messy and exhausting, and that’s a LOT of time to dedicate to something so relatively inexpensive to just get someone else to do faster and better than I can. I can think of about a thousand things I’d rather be doing with that time. I don’t overwhelm all that easily, but the list of projects on this house is a bazillion items long and if throwing 500 clams at this hallway gets it paintable and way more complete within, like, the next WEEK (omg, I know), I’m soooo down.

So that’s that. I’m so excited for the skim-coating wizard to come back and work his magic. I’m excited to not have to do it. I’m excited to clean up all of the drywall dust all over the house without feeling like it’s a waste of time because I’ll just be making more dust for weeks on end.

Oh, and WHAT’S THAT NOW? I ordered a ceiling medallion as a test to see if I liked it.

Choosing ceiling medallions, for whatever reason, has been one of the most agonizing parts of this entire renovation/restoration thing I’m doing. I’ve literally been thinking about medallions since before we even closed on the house, and bookmarking various products for over a year. I think it’s so hard because the house does have so many of its original features intact, but the ceiling medallions are long gone and we don’t know what they looked like. I’ve always felt strongly that the medallions need to look appropriate to the house, which means they should be appropriately Greek, elegant, and grand, but also sort of blend in so that what’s essentially a big piece of foam glued to the ceiling doesn’t end up being the stand-out architectural feature, you know?

I did a fair amount of research on what would fit in style-wise with the Greek Revival of it all, which led me in a more ornate direction than I was originally inclined to go. I didn’t want to go crazy with something super intricate and Corinthian, for the aforementioned reason of wanting it to blend in, but I also feared going too simple would end up looking kind of 1920s and all wrong. Finally I just closed my eyes and hit the order button on this guy at Home Depot (which really has an amazing selection of medallions online, but not in the stores) and hoped I wouldn’t hate it when it came. I chose it because I felt like the size would be pretty grand, and it’s kind of middle-ground on the intricacy spectrum, and it has that acanthus leaf motif which is typically Greek Revival.

Even when I opened the box, I kind of wasn’t sold. It seemed like maybe it was too big and maybe just completely wrong. But then I had Max stand on a ladder and hold it up to the ceiling, and I pictured it all caulked and painted and with a light fixture hanging from it, and now I’m ON BOARD with this thing. I need to order two more, which kind of sucks because of COURSE I picked, like, the most expensive piece of foam on the planet, but I think it’s just right.

I think I’m going to paint it with some watered-down joint compound or something before hanging it, to kind of fake some age into it. It looks a little too new and the pattern looks a little too defined to me.

ANYWAY. WOW THIS POST GOT LONG.

Now that the ceilings are done, next up on the agenda is finishing repairing the walls in the dining room and prepping everything for paint!! AND THEN PAINTING. AND THEN MOVING FURNITURE BACK IN. AND THEN CRYING TEARS OF JOY.

It’s all happening!

The Downstairs Bathroom.

After a couple months of stalking the listing online, the price on our house finally dropped and a few days later I worked up the nerve to call the listing agent to inquire about it. “It’s a great house,” she told me, “it needs some work, and the one big thing is that it does need a new furnace, but otherwise it’s a great, solid old house!” It was a nice chat. I set up an appointment to view it a few days later, and we were about to hang up when I asked. There isn’t really a delicate way to initiate these kinds of conversations, but I had a hunch that had been building for a while. “So,” I said, “did somebody die there or something?”

She paused, and then sighed. “Well, yes, the previous owner did die in the house, but it was of natural causes. He was old—it wasn’t anything violent or anything like that, I can assure you. It’s a really great house—I think you’ll like it.”

I suppose it’s possible that the death might have scared off a particularly superstitious potential buyer or two, but it seems rather unlikely. By today’s standards it might be a little alarming, but before the 1950s or so it was very common for people to both start and end their lives in their own homes. More than likely, he wasn’t the first person to die here—just the most recent. Sad? Sure. A little eery? I guess. But hardly cause for alarm. It was one of those details that stayed in the back of my mind, but I didn’t really fixate on it.

It was clear from our first walk-through that the house needed just a tad more work than the listing agent had let on during that first conversation. Little things like the roof and the unusable kitchen had apparently not been worth mentioning, not to mention the downstairs bathroom, which appeared to have had some kind of plumbing issue that left it literally crumbling, the tiles shedding from the walls like concrete from the Tappan Zee Bridge. For some reason it looked like the door, which was lying its side in the living room, had been ripped from the frame and forcibly removed.

before

“You’d want to redo this bathroom anyway,” she told us. “That back wall is shared with the laundry room, so you could knock it out and double the size. You’d have room for a walk-in shower or whatever you wanted!”

Obvious plumbing issues and cosmetic details notwithstanding, I loved this bathroom just as it was. It’s teeny-tiny—which I think is perfect especially for a downstairs bathroom—and the 1930s tub, sink, and toilet were all in relatively good shape, especially given their age and the condition of the rest of the room. It’s one of the spaces that I couldn’t wait to renovate and make usable again. It’s going to be so beautiful someday. Really. I promise.

One day the real estate agent called me with some good news. “I found out that the plumbing in that downstairs bathroom is fine, as far as we know. I spoke to someone from the clean-up crew and it turns out that the missing tiles were removed by them because they were unsightly.” Unsightly. I’ll never forget that choice of words.

“Is unsightly a euphemism for, like, covered in blood and human remains?”

She only laughed.

“OK, that bathtub has got to go,” Max announced when I told him about the conversation.

“Well, we don’t know that he died in the tub,” I explained. “He could have just, I don’t know, fallen in the tub, but managed to make his way back out again, or, well…we weren’t there. Anything could have happened. It’s a nice tub. I like that tub. They don’t make tubs like that anymore.”

“Yeah, but he probably died in the tub. We can buy a different old tub that someone didn’t die in.”

“But you’d never really know that nobody died in that tub, either. Somebody could have died in pretty much any used tub. How about we get it re-glazed and call it a day? It’s really the perfect size for that bathroom. We can’t just stick any tub in there.”

“I swear, I will never use that bathroom.”

“Fine. It’ll be my bathroom.”

“We’re not keeping that tub in the house.”

“We’ll see.”

This, by the way, is a fight that we haven’t stopped having for a year.

Knowing about the tub bothered me only slightly more than knowing about the death in the first place—which is to say, not very much. As far as causes of death go, dying in a bathtub is relatively unremarkable. The bathtub came up again once or twice more with our plumber during inspections, but otherwise nobody really mentioned it again until after we’d bought and moved into the house.

That’s when our neighbors began to introduce themselves. Apparently lots of people knew about the bathtub, or at least about the death, and Max was quick to forge fast alliances with whomever would listen about my plans to keep the tub. With the exception of maybe 2 people that I can think of, this news has been met unanimously with shock and disgust. “Well, it’s too small to really take a nice bath in, so it’ll really just be for showers,” is my general refrain. Historically, this has helped a total of nobody feel more comfortable with the idea.

“I’ve been an EMT for coming on thirty years, and I’ll tell you—when they opened up all the windows to your house, well, I’ve never smelled anything like that in my life. I’ll never forget it.” This was our neighbor Karen, who came by shortly after we moved in. According to her, the body had been there for a while. Maybe a month, by her professional estimation.

Once, as a teenager, at the height of the popularity of the CSI franchise, my twin sister and I attended a two-week summer class on forensic science. It was there that we learned about the Body Farm, a 2.5 acre plot of land in Tennessee dedicated to the study of the decomposition of human remains. Depending on the conditions and circumstances, lots of different things can happen to corpses over time: in hot and arid climates, for instance, a body left outside will essentially dry up and mummify, but in general they tend to decompose pretty much the same way. In essence, they liquify. In the case of our particular corpse, some percentage probably evacuated itself through the plumbing while the rest stuck around and marinated, waiting to be discovered—by who, we still don’t know.

When we first got to the house, my idea of a significant and readily available improvement to the downstairs bathroom was re-hanging the door, so that we could more effectively ignore it over the ensuing months and possibly years. We have a functioning bathroom upstairs, so there wasn’t any major rush to get it up and running.

Remember what I said about this bathroom sharing a wall with the laundry room, though? Well, that’s thrown kind of a kink in the plans. While we don’t particularly need a second bathroom, we really want a laundry room. The extent of our renovations elsewhere means a whole lot of dust and debris and general filth, and not being able to do laundry in our own house has quickly become incredibly annoying. We generally show up to the laundromat once every couple of weeks with four IKEA bags stuffed to the gills with dirty laundry, and the whole affair is just a big, moderately expensive hassle (those machines aren’t cheap!). The house came with a busted-up washing machine attached to some leaky exposed copper supply lines, but it wasn’t terribly useful since we didn’t have a hot water supply on the main floor until the installation of our boiler in November. Then, of course, the machine promptly died. There was never a dryer, and lacking the necessary electrical circuit and receptacle to install one (not to mention a dryer vent), we’re pretty much starting from scratch. Including having to run new electrical and plumbing through this bathroom wall. “Easy,” I told the plumbers. “I’ll just demo out this bathroom wall and we can get on with things.”

salvageable

This got me more excited about renovating the bathroom someday, because there’s already so much great stuff in it! Check out that hook! Check out that toilet paper dispenser! The sink is also really cute (it’s a little rusty in spots, so we’ll probably have it re-glazed). Normally I wouldn’t really think twice about replacing an old toilet with a new, modern, efficient one, but this one is so pretty that I even want to clean it up and keep it. There’s a painted-over transom window over the door, which I can’t wait to strip. I even love the medicine cabinet! I don’t know if I’ll keep it as a whole cabinet or just harvest the mirror, but I do quite like it. I think the radiator will probably go just because the room is so extremely small and I’d rather do something wall-mounted that could double as a towel warmer and free up the floor space just a little. The window is small but works in the room and has really beautiful textured glass that I didn’t take a picture of. And, of course, the corpse tub. Having all of this beautiful old stuff already here, combined with the tiny size (small room = fewer materials!), makes me feel like we could probably renovate this room fairly inexpensively, even with new plumbing and electric.

ANYWAY.

Picking up where the Crime and Trauma Scene Contamination crew left off, I donned some work gloves and a respirator and started to peel back and dispose of the old tiles surrounding the bathtub and the drywall underneath.

clapboard3

Whats that now? Clapboard? Peekaboo!

So, apparently this used to be an exterior wall. Which made very little sense to me, considering where this room is located. Here I will refer to my floor plan:

FIRST-FLOOR-BEFORE

The bathroom to which I am referring is #10 and highlighted in pink for ease of identification. The laundry room is #9. The wall I am talking about is what divides the two.

At first I thought the laundry room was just a later addition, but then I realized that didn’t make any sense because the clapboard I was uncovering was the exterior, not the interior. Huh.

clapboard4

Further excavation revealed that the wall was definitely clapboard. The walls—which were partially drywall but mostly the same lightweight “beaverboard” used elsewhere in the 20th century “improvements”—were hanging on old 1×2 furring strips which were nailed to the clapboard. Well. Isn’t that special.

Something tells me that this will not be a great strategy when we renovate this bathroom for real. Old furring strips nailed to really old clapboard is probably not going to be so great or so safe for holding up hundreds of pounds of cement backerboard and tile. I kept moving…

demo2

Turns out, the whole room is clapboard, except for the actual exterior wall that the window and sink are on. Underneath the beaverboard ceiling is a tongue-and-groove beadboard ceiling!

I have deduced, therefore, that this bathroom used to be a small porch. Nifty! It occurs to me that this is probably why the upstairs bathroom actually has older fixtures (like that amazing sink, and the toilet that we unfortunately had to tear out on our 3rd day in the house)  than the downstairs one—because it’s older! The top of the toilet tank has a date stamp from 1935, which makes a lot of sense. We know that the house was originally split up into two units in the mid-30s (the Great Depression did that to a lot of houses, and we’ve found newspaper listings for the second floor apartment from 1938), so it was then that they enclosed the porch, then basically built a whole room inside the porch, and BOOM—bathroom.

You can’t really tell from these pictures, but all of this was also covering up an old doorway opening from the kitchen onto the porch. Crazy! Obviously, I think all of this is super cool. Like uncovering a time capsule.

clapboard

bricks

Unfortunately, because these are originally exterior walls and this is my house, it also means that underneath the clapboard, the walls are stuffed full of bricks and mortar. Yep. This is called “nogging” and is how our whole house is “insulated”—I put it in quotations because it has an R-value of less than 1. It was done in a lot of houses especially in the northeast in the 19th century, both as a primitive form of insulation and as a way to keep mice and rats from getting into houses. Normally nogging is composed of “garbage bricks”—like ones that were broken or misshapen or not fired at the correct temperatures. It fell out of practice toward the end of the 19th century. It’s not structural, so it can be removed, but obviously access is pretty much impossible without ripping down all the plaster on interior walls or all of the clapboard off the exterior walls. This is why I just laugh when people try to talk to me about doing blown-in insulation, like I’ve never heard of the concept. I KNOW IT’S A THING. IT IS NOT A THING FOR US. 

nogging

Obviously, this also makes it impossible to run new electrical or plumbing through the walls, which is sort of important in modern bathrooms. So basically this means that all of the stuff nailed to the clapboard has to come out, then the clapboard has to come down, and then the wall cavities have to be emptied out. Yikes! I’m not sure I can totally wrap my mind around carrying and transporting this literal ton of bricks, but at least I am young and strapping and willing to pretend that my home renovation doubles as an acceptable exercise routine, since I can’t seem to make it to the gym.

Before anyone tries to get in my face about preserving the clapboard, ask yourself this: do you want a clapboard-covered bathroom? Like, really, in real life? No you do not. We will, however, save the salvageable clapboard, which may come in handy when we get to work on the exterior and rip off the vinyl siding. We’ll also save salvageable bricks, which I have lofty ideas about repurposing when we get to work on landscaping. It’ll be great.

floor

Oh! And I pulled up the hideous faux-terrazo linoleum and the plywood underneath it, and look! The same hardwood flooring (which we think is fir! not oak, as I had originally thought…) runs into the bathroom, too! I wasn’t really expecting that, but it’s kind of cool. I have no idea if this floor will end up being worth salvaging (there are some areas of rot and holes from old plumbing and a million nail holes from the plywood, and the total floor area is super small anyway…), but it does make me think about putting a wood floor in the bathroom instead of tile when we eventually renovate. Stained black? I like the idea of that. It feels a little less sterile than tile, which I think is nice for the main floor.

demoafter

This has to be the most grueling bathroom demo in the history of mankind. It’s gutted, and now it essentially has to be gutted AGAIN. And then the BRICKS. MADNESS.

It’ll be worth it if we get laundry, though. Eyes on the prize.

Dining Room Closet Demo + Pantry!

before

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

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

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

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

closetbefore

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

oldpantry

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

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

demo

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

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

pantry

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

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

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

newframing

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

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

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

diningroom

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

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

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

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

5. Chairs we already own.

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

Demo. Demo Forever.

header

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?

demo1

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!

demo2

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.

demo3

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.

crucifix

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?

demo7

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.

demo4

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

demo5

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.

demo6

To preempt some questions and comments…

1. I’m definitely not leaving the ceilings open with the joists exposed like this (painted or unpainted). I’ve seen that look great in certain places, but that’s the thing: certain places. I think it can work beautifully with architecture that’s more rustic, but this house is a Greek Revival—it’s kind of the opposite of rustic. It would just look like we were missing ceilings. I promise.

2. We haven’t hired out the job yet, but I’m anticipating that having both of the ceilings done will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $1,200. I’m working on gathering more quotes (I’ve only gotten two, but one was wayyyyyy crazy expensive and I’m not considering it), which reminds me: if anyone in the Kingston-ish area has a good drywall guy, I’d appreciate the info!

3. A few people commented on my post about the other ceiling asking if I’d use blueboard and plaster veneer instead of drywall. For those who don’t know, this is a process similar to drywalling, but the entire surface is coated with lime-based plaster (basically the top layer of a plaster wall, without the other two layers and the lathe underneath it). Done well, it’s more or less indistinguishable from the real thing, and a great option for historic restorations. I’m trying to get a quote for this, but I’m guessing it will cost more than we really have available to spend on this, and I just don’t think that I can justify or afford the added expense for this project. For a wall, I’d definitely consider it (and feel more comfortable attempting it myself, maybe), but for a ceiling…I think a good drywall job will be totally fine.

4. When I say that we’re running new electrical, I don’t mean that we’re adding a bunch of stuff! In each room, there will still just be a single central light fixture. As a general rule, I don’t really like recessed lighting (or track lighting) in old houses, and I have a feeling that all fancy speaker systems (which I have no plans to install, but still) will be wireless within a few years anyway. All I’m really talking about is swapping out existing wires with new wires and adding more outlets where necessary.

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