Monday, February 28, 2005

Home Improvement

I don’t understand the concept of professional decorators. In every house I have owned, it was essential that I live in the house for quite some time, sometimes years, before I knew what the house wanted me to do to bring it back to its full glory. On Staten Island, the process of bringing back a shaggy monster to a presentable but loving creature took me a decade, and truly the process was barely begun when I handed the house over to other caretakers. In that house, like this one in Vermont, I was a newcomer.

The Staten Island house was near the ferry to Manhattan, in a neighborhood that was up and coming a hundred and fifty years ago. In a neighborhood of Victorians, my house stood out as old fashioned. It was brick, probably originally painted brick, with a mansard roof and the floor plan of a classic New York brownstone with front and back parlor on the first floor, kitchen in the basement with an entrance out back for disposal of slops. The second floor boasted two large and two small rooms, with hardwood floors laid on the diagonal and a sixty-year-old bathroom. An almost identical floor plan prevailed on the third floor, originally servants’ quarters even in this middle-class structure, which showed only wide-plank subfloors and distressing glimpses of sky through gaps around windows and skylight.

Already outdated architecture when built, the house featured four slate fireplaces painted to look like marble, wood moldings always meant to be painted, doors painted to look like woodgrain and exquisite plaster crown moldings in the first floor parlor. It was a bourgeois dream, an imitation in affordable materials of loftier architecture for wealthier patrons.

Originally built by Orlando and Lydia Lee around 1862, the house was sold in the 1890’s. When Orlando Lee failed to return from the Civil War, one can only imagine what happened to Lydia’s hopes and dreams of a home on the north shore of New York’s now forgotten borough. For the next ninety-some years, the house was in one family, until a local man purchased it along with others on the block and turned it into cheap apartments. The best one can say of his stewardship—and it is a positive thing—is that he didn’t do too much harm before it passed to a local developer and then to me.

Of Italian extraction, local guy Tony lived sometimes on the North Shore with the “Irish broad” next door and their kid and sometimes on the South Shore with his wife. An old man when I knew him, Tony had at one time owned most of the houses on my block, including a multi-family renovated by a gay couple who had since moved on to other houses and other loves.

One sunny afternoon, prompted by too much wine, one of the guys traded notes with me about Tony’s renovation techniques. “Ya see, he didn’t like to put too much money into these things,” Edward confided, “and when we finally had to replace the boiler, we found that it had a big crack in it. Tony had just jammed a tree—yes, a big chunk of a tree branch—into the crack and plastered all around with furnace cement. The amazing thing is that it held for another ten, twelve years until we had to replace the whole furnace. But you gotta wonder what else he did.”

[NOTE: Do NOT try this at home. It was very lucky that this patch held as it did. It was never a good idea. Call a professional to fix your furnace. Muck around with something less dangerous.]

I was able to contribute some other things that Tony’s imagination—or lack of it—brought to the party. Take the large third floor front bedroom in my house. Once I ripped down all the layers of sheetrock on top, I was able to see a sweetly curved plaster wall that tracked the line of the mansard roof. That curve, along with the three-quarter round molding on casement windows that originally swung open to the inside, bespoke architectural details that broke my heart. They were beautiful, livable, and if it weren’t for Tony’s admittedly ham-handed use of sheetrock, I would never have known they were there. With a lot of hours and a cunning amalgam of plaster and joint compound, I was able to reconstruct that one room.

I had some other wins in that house. I paid someone thousands of dollars—I do remember what it was like to have money for such frivolous projects—to rebuild a twelve-foot chunk of the twining, three-floor banister. And then I searched through antique stores and salvage yards to find balusters that matched close enough in cut, and the staircase was reclaimed. I also paid to have water-damaged floors on the second floor relaid, using the original diagonal plan in oak with a simple border of cherry. Two sets of pocket doors on the second floor were unusual for today’s usage of rooms, but they were what the house wanted. And in the short time I lived there, they made for wonderfully flexible space.

Some projects were simple. My memory flashes back to talking to a Tokyo colleague late at night and wondering…what are those big lumps in the sheetrock on the back wall of the second floor? I probably should have waited until the phone call was finished before sticking a pin in one, only to discover that the leaking roof had allowed water to come in, travel down the wall and get trapped between the sheetrock and its paper cover. Eeeeyuck. Mold. Disgusting. But just one of the things that is solved with a judicious mixture of joint compound, plaster, and mold-resistant shellac-based primer.

Taking down the ornate plaster rosette in the first floor front parlor was not complicated, but it was an adventure, involving me—alone on a ladder—and two sofas to catch the pieces. Ultimately, the reconstructed plaster painted in ornate colors was re-installed to a sheet of secure plywood and re-integrated into the ceiling, complete with those wonderful twelve-inch-deep plaster crown moldings lined out in gold and cream and white.

Other projects were more involved, including the reconstruction of the first floor bathroom ceiling, after the second-floor bathroom plumbing exceeded its useful life. It turns out, you see, that old cast iron pipes have a life of about sixty years before they start to “pinhole.” Once that happens, they leak into the walls and floor and ceiling, with the inevitable result that eventually the whole soggy mess comes crashing down. I learned to be grateful that the compromised beams had not come down along with the twenties-vintage cast iron bathtub. So we (the plumbers and carpenters and me) pulled out the second floor bathtub, reinforced the beams, re-did the plumbing, put in new tile floors and walls, and the whole room should be good for another century.

The kitchen was another such project. When I moved in, there were two kitchens, one in a first floor addition extending out into the back yard, but unaccountably with no actual exit into the back yard. The house was a legal two-family, and the other kitchen was in a front room on the second floor, and as soon as I could afford not to have a tenant, I took back the whole house and started to reclaim the first floor kitchen. I really didn’t have a choice. The window at the far end of the galley kitchen was leaking badly and the frame had rotted. A door to the garden seemed to be an obvious replacement.

But if I was going to replace the window with a door, I needed to move the stove which currently snugged up to the window. And if I was moving the stove, I might take the opportunity to paint the cabinets and replace the (horrible, nasty!) counter and backsplash. But if I was going to pull out the cabinets for repainting and reconfiguring…it would be the right time to do some insulation in this substandard and chilly structure, and maybe some new outlets and lighting would be a good idea? I didn’t even know what to do with the pantry that appeared to have been a dumbwaiter to the basement in a previous life.

By this time, I was down to the studs, and my brother was crooning, soothingly, into the phone….”You pulled a thread on the sweater, didn’t you?” Well, yes. I did.

How did I get into this mess? I didn’t have enough intellectual stimulation at work. Note to self: watch that.

And I really, really wanted to learn some of these skills: painting, plastering, planning, being the general contractor. Thousands and thousands of dollars later, I had a really great time, even though I didn’t always recognize it as such and even though I didn’t even come close to getting my money back when I sold the house. But for entertainment value, you just can’t beat the experience of figuring out how to put back that sweet curve to a wall (water on a paint roller applied to a double layer of eighth-inch sheetrock to enhance the curve) or rediscovering the exact right colors for a house. I wouldn’t trade the experience for any amount of money or for anything else I can imagine.

I would also think twice before buying another house with as many major problems. Water damage will forever be a big red flag for me. Having a roof right now is nice, but I lived through moldy walls, crumbling woodwork, compromised beams, the incredible collapsing bathroom, and the bizarre image of water pooling inside the glass bells of my front hall chandelier. Can you spell short circuit?

My Chattanooga house required nothing more from me than new wallpaper in the bedroom and living room and a little paint, mostly in a nice green-tea color. If I had stayed longer, something would have had to be done about those birds on the entryway wallpaper…but I wasn’t there long enough to worry with them. I did manage to eradicate the dreaded and dreadful hostas from the front flower beds, but not the hydrangea that still threatens Chattanooga.

Here, life is not so frightening. The guy who sold me the house had an ex-wife who delighted in wallpaper with tiny floral prints—ick! Last summer, I disposed of her above-ground pool (this summer it will be an herb garden) and miles of nasty, cheap tan carpet. Even though the house is chillier this year without it, my spirit is warmed to see the fourteen-inch maple boards that run right through to my study, and my new gas stove offers a focal point and cheerful warmth in the living room. Living room (maroon floral stripe), kitchen (two varieties of tiny floral print divided by a border “chair rail”—who ever thought this was a good idea in a room with uneven floors and only seven-foot ceilings?) and upstairs bathroom (straw hats with blue ribbons—I am speechless with horror) wallpaper have been replaced, and I would have sworn that the next priority was the dining room. Or possibly painting the faux wood paneling upstairs. Maybe even rebuilding the walls to the stairwell—not even a challenge—and painting them to match the soothing blue-green of the living room

Until today. I walked into the downstairs bathroom and within minutes, without the aid of any tool other than my fingernails and my distaste for tiny-print-floral-wallpaper, much of the wallpaper was gone. I hate when that happens.

But you have to listen to what comes next. If it is the bathroom wallpaper that needs to be shredded, who am I to argue?

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