All posts tagged: Parlor

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!

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.

stud3

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…

demo3

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.

Fun and Funky Thoughts on Asbestos!

There’s a funny little subject that old home owners tend to be loathe to talk about, even among themselves. They’ll sit around for hours and laugh and laugh about uninsulated walls and crumbling plaster and that time they found live electrical wire poking out of the laundry room floor, just hanging out, ready to burn the house down. “Oh, look at us!” they say to each other, “just a couple of goofy lunatics, fixing things up again!”

But——save for the darkly humored and truly sick——their voices invariably drop to a near whisper when a particular subject comes up, their eyes shifting around suspiciously, lest someone might overhear. “Poor suckers——didn’t realize before they went to contract that the whole house was covered in it. Can’t replace the siding, can’t rip off the roof, heat pipes in the basement, popcorn ceilings——asbestos, man…that’s not something you want to mess around with.”

asbestos

Yeah. Asbestos. Or as I like to call ours, the Best Asbestos, because it’s more fun to say. Pretty much all old houses have asbestos somewhere, and there isn’t anything inherently dangerous about it, so long as it’s in stable condition (not flaking and falling apart) and goes undisturbed. The problem is when people start messing with it——unnecessarily ripping it off of heat pipes or crushing it up and throwing it around like confetti. Fact: When disturbed, asbestos-containing materials often release asbestos fibers. Asbestos fibers can be up to 10,000 times thinner than a human hair (so basically they’re invisible, and I think we can all agree that invisible threats are way freaky), and, when inhaled, they like to embed themselves in human lungs and wait around for 30 years or so and then be like—”hey! I’ve been here a while. About time I caused some lung cancer or incurable Mesothelioma and killed you dead!”

Oh, asbestos. Super duper rude, you know?

More facts: Asbestos can be in all sorts of things! That’s what makes it so adorable——it just wants to be at every party, and it doesn’t understand why nobody wants it. There was a time when everyone thought asbestos was super fun and groovy because it helped keep things from catching on fire, but then everyone realized in the 80s that the people who worked with it for years were all dying, and maybe it wasn’t so great after all. Now nobody wants it in their basement or their insulation or their flooring or their popcorn ceilings or their siding or really anywhere at all. It’s like the kid that pooped in the swimming pool, except nobody ever forgave him.

There are a couple of things to be done in an asbestos-related pickle. The best option is usually to do nothing at all. Humans and their asbestos can peacefully coexist for years, as long as everyone just leaves everyone else alone. The second best option is usually encasement, where the asbestos is covered up and ignored forever. Popcorn ceilings might just be covered with a new thin layer of drywall instead of scraped clean, or new flooring might be put right on top of asbestos-containing linoleum tiles. There isn’t anything wrong with this, except for when, many years later, somebody wants to run new electrical wiring or heating ducts or whatever, and they unwittingly disturb hidden asbestos-containing materials. Whoopsie! The Internet tends to agree that a little casual asbestos inhalation from time to time is not so great, but answers vary considerably as to how not-so-great it is. I, myself, prefer to believe that small levels of accidental exposure can’t be all that bad (I feel this way about all sorts of things, for the record: most varieties of drugs, trans fats, sorority girls, Lady Gaga), but who’s to say! Plenty of people think just a little bit basically amounts to a death sentence. Set a timer for 30 years, and try to forget that you’re basically a ticking bomb.

So it’s best to be careful, just in case, when dealing with these things. This is why my ceilings caused me a lot of dread. Have we talked about my ceilings? Well—out of the several rooms in my house, three of the largest ones came with not-so-adorable acoustic-tiled ceilings. There are a lot of different types of these ceilings, but basically they were probably installed to deaden noise, kind of insulate for heat, maybe hide electrical wiring or moderate to severe damage to the original plaster ceilings. It’s all one big exciting mystery, but the fact is that we have them and I would really like to not have them. The rooms all look like maybe they could be really pretty nice with some paint and general fixing, but then it’s like: BLAM—dem ceilings tho. A fresh coat of paint would help a little, but really they just need to take a hike.

The rooms in question include:

The front parlor/future library room:

parlor

These pictures are craptacular and from our first viewing of the house, but it could be so cute and so nice, right? I mean, it has that cute little chandelier and a CORNER RADIATOR!

ceiling2

Except for this…Ugh. Ceiling. Why you gotta be all?

Then there’s the dining room.

diningroom

All those cute doors and nice moldings and that crazy arched bay window area. It’s like charm on charm on charm, 24/7.

ceiling4

ceiling3

Oh right, except that mess of a ceiling. This is the room I’m most worried about, since there’s a pretty significant sag over by the bay area, which I guess was “repaired” with some clear caulk. Fancy!

Then there’s that room I always call the “middle bedroom” upstairs, which might become a master bedroom sitting/TV room kind of place. This room needs a whole mess of work (the bump-out bay window thing is a crazy disaster zone of missing windows and unpainted drywall and weird and mysterious fixes), but the thing I hate most?

middle-room

ceiling1

You guessed it. More acoustic tiles. The ceilings in the upstairs of our house are lower than downstairs, so this one feels particularly sad and oppressive instead of just all around very…blech.

These ceilings were one of the first things I noticed when we looked at the house for the first time. I remember asking our home inspector about them, and the conversation was basically like this:

Home Inspector: Really, this is a pretty great house. Solid foundation, great features!
Daniel: I know! Do you think those ceiling tiles contain asbestos, though? I’ve read they can contain asbestos.
Home Inspector: No, definitely not. I’m 99% sure they don’t.
Daniel: Oh, that’s great! What makes you so convinced? Ones that look basically exactly like these usually contain asbestos, and it’s not like the house isn’t more than old enough. Sorry to sound like a worry-wart, but am I missing some kind of non-asbestos identifying feature?
Home Inspector: Well, when you put it that way, if you’re really worried about it, I guess it’s best to have them tested because you really can’t tell about these things just by looking.

I didn’t further shame him by pushing the point about why he was so sure, but yeah—home inspector dude didn’t really know what he was saying. Which convinced me that, without question, our ceilings were most definitely chock-full of the stuff, which was a bridge we’d just have to cross some other time. We decided to forego the asbestos test that we could have written into our contingencies: partly because we were already offering a rock-bottom price, and further negotiating for asbestos abatement was not going to be a winning strategy, but mostly because we didn’t really want to add another item to the growing list of super valid and legitimate reasons we should probably definitely not buy this house.

We’ve been waiting the last few weeks to get some electrical work done in the entryway/hallway, so things have kind of reached a stand-still in there, since I don’t want to start repairing plaster until we’re done messing it up and making holes for new wiring. Naturally, my attention quickly shifted to wanting to destroy another area of my home, since that’s what I seem to like doing these days. I seem to have reached a weird breaking point with these three ceilings (particularly the dining room, since that’s the room we’re really using the most and it still looks terrible), and I want them gone yesterday. So instead of doing the truly reckless thing of just tearing them down in the middle of the night, or the slightly more reasonable thing of hermetically sealing the room and myself and going about a little DIY asbestos abatement (which is legal in the state of New York, but may not be in your state…), I decided to go ahead and be a grown-up and have those ceilings tested. I’m really very proud of this display of restraint and consideration for my own health and the health of those around me.

testing

So I went around with a spray bottle in one hand and a chisel in the other and took little samples of each of the ceilings. I immediately put them in baggies, and I immediately labeled the baggies. Then I printed and filled out a form and wrote a check and sent my samples to MACS Lab in California, where a team of scientists/magicians would analyze the samples and tell me if removing my ceilings would or would not cause me to die later in life. I watched a lot of CSI during my teenage-hood, so I have a general sense of how this whole montage looks. A dark, dramatically underlit lab full of beautiful people. Microscopes. Slides. Centrifuges. Computers with fancy graphics that either flash ASBESTOS in red or NOT ASBESTOS in green with the molecular breakdown of my mystery ceilings rotating, semi-translucent in the background. That’s definitely how it works.

Have you ever sent anything through the actual mail before? Let me tell you, the amount of waiting involved is AGONIZING. I waited for, literally—and I kid you not—DAYS to find out. I told a friend and neighbor what I was doing, and he was horrified that I even wanted to know at all. I told him my credibility in the home design/renovation blogosphere would be ruined if I didn’t take asbestos seriously, and then he stopped talking to me altogether.

ANYWAYS.

Then an email showed up in my inbox with the results. My blood pressure went up. I kind of knew what was coming, but I opened it anyway, since I’d payed a whole $35 per sample to get this terrible news, and I figured I should stop delaying coming up with a plan.

NO. ASBESTOS.

NONE. NOT EVEN A LITTLE. I read over the form a few times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. Unfortunately it looks like I am not legally allowed to reproduce the form here (fair), so you’ll just have to believe me. It was amazing, like that time I found Mariah Carey’s instagram account. I sent a series of overly-excited tweets about the matter.

Now I obviously cannot WAIT to rip down these ceilings. I dream about it at night and during the day. It will make everything approximately 400,000 times better to have flat, beautiful ceilings. It fills me with hope and happiness to know this is a possibility that won’t cost me thousands of dollars, thousands of hours, or my life.

Of course, this quickly brought with it a whole set of very serious and important questions and decisions. Namely:

1. What is under the acoustic tiles? These tiles were nailed onto furring strips, which are secured to the original ceilings (not glued!). From what I can tell from when I made holes to take the samples, the original plaster ceilings are still right up there, waiting to be uncovered! All of these ceilings are in the oldest section of the house, so they’re probably somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 years old. A lot can happen to plaster ceilings over that amount of time, so I’m certainly not expecting them to be perfect—lots of sagging and maybe missing pieces and whatever damage that I assume caused them to be covered up in the first place.

2. How do I make the ceilings beautiful again? I really want to save as much of the original plaster as possible, and fill in where necessary with new drywall. Alex at Old Town Home has a great post about repairing plaster ceilings with a magical-sounding product called plaster buttons (or plaster washers), which help bring sagging plaster back into position. I already bought 200 of them, so I guess I’m basically a plaster ceiling repair professional.

3. Medallions? Crown molding? Old houses usually have super beautiful plaster ceiling medallions in the middle of the ceilings surrounding a light fixture. I think my ceilings would look incomplete without them, and I want to add that extra level of super amazing fabulousness, at least to the downstairs rooms. House of Antique Hardware has some really great options——a bit of an investment, but worth it. Once everything is caulked up and painted, they look just like the real thing. I’ve thought a lot about adding crown molding, too, but I think I’ll pass——it would cost a ton of money to do it right (small crown molding with the huge moldings around the doors and baseboards is going to look extra-crappy), and I don’t think it’s necessary. If I feel like we need to add it later on, we can always do that!

www-1.47parkavenue.co.uk

Whenever I think about amazing ceilings, I think about 47 Park Avenue. Aside from the very extreme British fabulousness of everything Michael does to his amazing house, I am obsessed with having ceilings like his. Also, vintage Venini chandeliers, but that’s besides the point.

I thought that we needed to choose simpler ceiling medallions because our moldings don’t have all the ornate flair of Victorian finishes, but after gathering some inspiration (this picture, namely), I feel like maybe that isn’t the case? Maybe I need to track down really elaborate ceiling medallions to go with the really elaborate chandeliers that I will someday own? I’m not sure. I guess it’s a while off.

So. Lessons:

1. Things that look like asbestos might not be asbestos. Get them tested! It’s cheap and easy.

2. My ceilings are going to be amazing! I trust we can all sleep better tonight knowing this.

3. I would sell my soul for that chandelier.

The Doors are Open!

before1

before-2

When our house was divided into two units in the days of yore, one of the more unfortunate-looking alterations was blocking off these two doors right inside the entryway. The one in the top photo leads to the front parlor (accessible through a door in the dining room), and the one in the second photo leads to the big living room (accessible through another door in the back of the entryway. You can see how this looks on the floor plan here.). Luckily, the original doors were right on the other side of the plywood, but unfortunately they were both locked! It kind of begs the question of why the additional plywood barrier was really necessary at all, but then again, old houses come with a lot of questions about why things were done the way they were done.

My best guess is that blocking the doors this way was an attempt to further insulate the downstairs apartment from heat loss and sound, particularly if the owners chose not to heat the entryway, since it wasn’t part of anyone’s living space. You can kind of tell in the pictures that instead of just nailing the plywood up and calling it a day, whoever did this also took the time to smear a bunch of wood putty over all the nail holes and surrounding the entire edge of plywood, creating an impenetrable seal that made it more or less impossible to rip the plywood down from the front without totally messing up the surrounding moldings. Fun!

I thought we’d rip this plywood down on, like, day 1 in the house, but that didn’t happen. It didn’t happen on days 2 or 3 or 4 or 5, either, and after living this way for a few weeks, I just hit my limit of having ugly plywood sheets erected in my entryway. There’s only so much a person can take!

keys

Like most old houses, ours came with a big heavy box of keys. Almost none of the keys are labelled, so I have no idea what most of them do or if they even match any existing locks, but I was hopeful that one of the 5 skeleton keys would have to fit the locked doors.

Nope. Of course not.

We went down to the local locksmith shop, and after re-trying all of our keys, he moved on to a huge handful of skeleton keys he brought with him. No dice. Naturally.

Instead, he had to go back to the shop and make us a custom key. I would take a picture, but of course now I’ve misplaced it among our renovation disaster. We don’t really have any reason to ever lock these doors, but I hope I can find it somewhere, since we spent like $80 on all this drama and I want my souvenir.

ANYWAY. Locksmiths are magicians. He got the doors open. There was much rejoicing.

doorsblocked1

At some point, I started to wonder what was in that 6-ish inch space between the plywood and the door. Maybe there would be hidden jewels! Stacks of money! A family of borrowers!

There was none of these things. Instead, there was a big panel of weird fiberboard sheathing stuff, similar to homasote. Then with that out of the way, there were also pieces of wood running horizontally behind the plywood, nailed into the door frame. The horizontal boards were then wood-glued and nailed to the plywood, and all of the edges had received a generous coating of caulk, just for good measure.

So thorough. So impressive. So annoying.

I had thought that with the doors open, I’d be able to just knock down the plywood by running at it and throwing my body against it until it came tumbling down, a strategy I learned from handsome men encountering locked doors on TV. But with all these added reinforcements, that seemed like a recipe for a couple broken ribs, so the shrimpy nervous Jew side of me re-evaluated.

crossbraces

I started by removing all of the visible nails that I could from the doorframe with a pry bar.

jigsaw

Since the plywood still wouldn’t budge, even with the nails gone (shocker!), I broke out my jigsaw and just started cutting out sections of the wood, all haphazard and sloppy-like.

debris

Then I started kicking out sections, like the man-beast that I have become.

I went so H-A-M on this plywood, you guys. So very H-A-M.

actionshot

This action shot doesn’t begin to portray how badass I was in this moment.

Nothing can portray how badass I was. You just have to believe.

vogue

Here I am, vogueing, you know, as you do. I realize now that this post would be so much more primal and saucy if I had been naked behind that piece of plywood.

NEXT TIME.

linus

Before long, the doors were open! There was light! There was air circulation! There were new ways to get from room to room! SO. EXCITING. OMFG.

Pausing for a second, this view is the exact reason why I have no real interest in altering the existing layout of our house. I love the amount of symmetry and order that the original layout has——the way that these doors are directly across from each other (the angle of the photo makes them look a little off, but they aren’t), which is repeated with the other door to the big living room and the dining room, and the doors from the parlor to the dining room to the kitchen. A lot of people (both here on the blog and in real life) keep suggesting that I do things like widen the entry into the front parlor or open up the wall between the front room and the dining room, but that would completely throw off the proportions and sense of order that I think make the interior layout of this house really special. Designing a house this way doesn’t just happen by accident, and I think it would be an enormous mistake to start futzing with things like that.

I tried explaining this to Linus, who clearly doesn’t care.

mekko2

We get it, Mekko, you’re a beauty queen. We’re trying to talk about doors, here.

Now we just have to take the vestibule wall down! I can’t believe we closed on the house almost 2 months ago and it’s still there! The deal I made with myself is that I’d do that as SOON as the kitchen is done (celebratory demo is kind of like champagne, yes?), which means its days are verrrrrry numbered.

 

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