Following the installation of the interior stair, things really started to pick up around the house. There was really no other choice – if we didn’t want to live out of boxes for the rest of our lives.
We started filling in the missing puzzle pieces around the house, and a lot of these projects were really fun because they helped finish off an area, or complete a task. We found a dishwasher on sale, and added it to the refrigerator we also got on sale and the stove that I threw myself over (quite literally) to stake my claim on a floor model clearance. Early March was cold that year, and the moment the mercury hit 50 degrees our tuckpointers were on the building. They did a really great job on the front of the house, preserving the extra thin joint lines by hand removing the old mortar before repointing. The rest of the house was tuckpointed as well, and the interior of the house (even with all of the windows taped and masked) had a fine layer of red dust for a week or more. It seeped in everywhere.
When spring arrived, we rented a truck load full of scaffolding and erected it ourselves, snaking our way up forty feet into the air. Naturally, once we got the scaffolding in place it began raining and didn’t stop for a month. We resorted to painting by spotlight some nights in order to take advantage of a 12 hour dry spell. Each piece of wood trim or window frame was stripped with a heat gun, sanded and patched, double coats of primer and then painted. The elaborate cornice, one of the signature pieces of the house, was rotting at one end, where the front downspout of copper had been missing for years – likely stolen. The two end brackets – both nearly four feet in size, were missing – all that remained was the faint outline of each on the brick from a sloppy painter in years past. M repaired the damaged cornice with intricate pieces to match and fit, and I painted it in three colors, some with a tiny number 2 artist’s brush. On the first panel I was so very careful to paint each individual piece precisely for both top coats. On the second section I was looser on the first coat, anticipating more precision on the final. When I scaled down the scaffolding for a lunch break and looked back up at the hasty first coat from below, I could not tell the difference between the two. Thirty plus feet will do that to you. I continued to be careful, but no longer corrected 1/8″ overlaps, or a stray brush stroke here or there. Each panel – there are five total – took an estimated 16 hours for stripping, sanding and filling, and another 4 for painting. All of the rigorous prep has paid off – 6 years later it looks as good as new. We did leave the reconstruction of the two end brackets for another day, and we painted the existing teetering attic dormer with plywood on the front just enough to cover the peeling white paint. That project would have to wait as well. We installed a new copper downspout, and when we wrote out the check we realized first hand why copper is the first thing to be stolen off an abandoned building. I didn’t sleep well for a week, waking often imagining someone removing it in the night.
Next we moved onto the half bath downstairs, choosing a new tile pattern for the floor and installing it, purchasing new plumbing fixtures and a great light, reglazing the window and trimming out the rest of the room. The window in this room was the first absolutely complete window in the house – right down to the new window sill and apron that M recreated with several router bits to match the nearly destroyed original. Now we had facilities on the lowest level, and didn’t have to race up the stairs to the original bathroom (which was good, because we still didn’t have a railing on the stairs). Trim work continued throughout the first floor – a painstaking task of sorting through piles of existing trim taller than me – finding the right size pieces to maximize its coverage and prevent as little waste as possible. Then stripping, sanding, patching, priming and painting each board foot – and there were hundreds of them. Rosettes and butterfly casing, and all new picture rail trim in a profile to match the original exactly which had splintered and cracked when we removed it from the plaster walls during demo. We knew that we wouldn’t have enough trim to complete the entire house – we were adding lots of new walls and new openings and some trim didn’t survive demo – but we had priced the matching replacement trim and after closing our gaping jaws once again, we knew that new trim to match was out of the present budget.
That fall we found a salvaged wrought iron fence in a nearby antique store, and hastily took a tape measure to it to see if it would work. Although the panels weren’t the correct size, the overall length was sufficient, and we knew with a good blacksmith and some new steel posts we could make it work. When we purchased the house only the gate remained – a plastic fence was staked into the grown, perhaps a previous owner’s feeble attempt to keep out strays. We learned somewhere along the way from the elderly lady next door that she had actually watched two men remove it years and years ago in broad daylight. She said nothing to them, thinking that they must have been hired by the owners to remove it. They weren’t. Incidents like this happened all the time in our neighborhood and those surrounding it all through the 1970’s and 80’s. Urban neighborhoods that thrived through the mid-century really suffered from the new interstates that plowed through the area, fragmenting the existing neighborhood fabric, the flight of many (predominately white middle class) to the growing suburbs, and the disinvestment and rampant absentee landlordship that resulted from this. Many of these old beauties were stripped of all their ornament – sometimes the mantel or the fence were of higher value than the property itself. As a result, the rehabbers have to hunt through these salvage shops now to find all of the missing pieces.
We celebrated our first wedding anniversary in Chicago, and on the flight up there we were both poring over our latest This Old House magazine. We saw an ad for a new combination washer / dryer and we were instantly interested. The technology has been around for ages – and these kind of machines are seen frequently in Europe. The concept was new here, but it seemed like the perfect solution for our second floor laundry. We really wanted to maximize the storage in the room and have a countertop for folding clothes above. You see undercabinet w/d’s everywhere now, but six years ago they were still a novelty. We sketched out the room on the plane, and then a couple of months later we drove back to Chicago in a rented van to pick ours up – it was the closest location where you could find one. We built the machine into the storage, and included integral drawers for sorting dirty laundry and plenty of space to store household items. It was our first real storage outside of our kitchen, and we were thrilled with it.
We got so jazzed with our new storage that in the spring of 2002 we moved onto designing and installing our new wardrobes in our bedroom. Just like we wanted to avoid soffits in the house, we felt adding closets into the rooms would be very awkward and never look quite right. We did need a place to hang our clothes other than our temporary rod which kept getting displaced as we finished off rooms. We designed an entire wall of floor to ceiling wardrobes that sit on a platform that allows the trim of the room to wrap around the base (the same detail is in the laundry room). We had the boxes, doors and drawers made locally by a great custom millwork place, and then we installed those ridiculously large and cumbersome units ourselves. We primed and painted for weeks on end, and every single room of our house was full of pieces in some stage of the painting process. I’ve never seen such disarray. I had flecks of white paint in my hair for weeks – much of the painting required me to stand inside these things.
We waited until it got really hot and muggy and attacked the back yard. The brick on the side of the house had obviously settled over the 115+ years, and was caked in mud and weeds. Once we started pulling these guys up, we slowly discovered that our entire yard had been brick and all of it was 8″-12″ below the grass! If you stuck a shovel in to move dirt you hit brick. Excavating those bricks one by one was like pulling something out of quicksand. We scraped them off, stacked them up and marvelled at our good fortune, even with our aching backs. Over the next few weekends we picked up gravel – one ton at a time from a nearby quarry, and shovelled it into a wheelbarrow and compacted it into the side “alley” and new back porch. We did eleven tons this way, hand tamping it to compact it, and to help bring the grade back up to its original location, and solve the drainage issues that had caused it to run off in the first place. My parents came in for a weekend and helped us set bricks into the sand bed on top of this gravel, M’s parents came in to help frame the new two-story side porch (the original exterior stair being long gone!) We regraded the back yard, sans bricks, found two buried treasures (diamond rings!) and re-seeded and planted a few things for some color. The existing hodge-podge of fences still remained, so the back yard was a far cry from a beautiful garden, but it was such an improvement, and was taking shape.
And then fall came again, and it was time to move back indoors…
See all the previous volumes here.