lucky thirteen: a love story and an attic bedroom

We’re currently celebrating our house’s thirteenth birthday (thirteen years with us) and its 128th birthday on this street.  To watch and read about the whole process in those early years (pre-blog), check out our rehab slide shows, nine of them, here.


Here we go – marching up the stairs.  Speaking of stairs, if I were going in some sort of respectable order here then I should focus next on the second floor stair hall and the stair that we eventually built to the third floor.  But I’m going to revert back to my 2003 frame of mind where we jump ahead to creating a third floor nursery without having a way to actually get up there.  Details, details.  I will also warn you that there are way too many photos in this post so feel free to scroll through quickly.  I just love this room – I love the whole floor really.  So much so that I named this blog after it.  

Clarification:  my husband named it, driving on a barren stretch of highway somewhere in Iowa.  I wanted to tell stories about the house and the people that lived in it – particularly the resident of that third floor.  The other third floor room was my studio at the time of the blog conception, so anything worth talking about – projects, preschoolers – was happening up there in sky.  Third story + stories=  third story(ies):  tales from the top floor.  It was also a subtle reference to the neverending stream of thoughts moving through my head – my own third story / attic if you will.  Enough of the history lesson, let’s dive into the photos.

In a word (or two words):  pigeon poop.  This just about sums up the condition of the attic.  Dirt, soot, poop (and a few actual bird remains), a nasty straw mattress covered with striped ticking, a few newspaper clippings and a few old glass medicine bottles.  No windows, just boarded up holes.  No walls, just exposed masonry with missing mortar and a leaning east wall.  The front mansard was failing, the woodwork rotting, the old slate held together with roofing tar and paint.  No access – just a rickety little rear stair from the second floor porch.

Everything about the space screamed condemnation charming attic nursery.

In July of that first year, when the temperatures topped one hundred degrees, we worked in the uninsulated and unventilated attic to install a new shear wall down the center as well as some blocking in the ceiling for some added steel rods.  These details were designed by the engineer we were working with on the project, and they were put in place to stabilize the slightly leaning west wall of the house.
You can also see that the mechanical work was progressing that summer – the unit that serves the second and third floors resides just outside E’s room and is accessed from her room.  That’s the unit sitting in the middle of the attic.
After we did this initial work we ignored the attic for a few years and focused on other spaces.  Then 2003 rolled around and we were expecting a new addition to the family so we figured we couldn’t ignore it much longer.
Before we could even think about the interior space we needed to tackle the sad state of the exterior of this room.  This is when we started calling it the most expensive nursery on the block.  The picture above is the rotted cornice that was underneath this ugly piece of white sheet metal.  The picture below is of the dormer window in pretty rough shape as well.  Despite its rough shape I had still painted it to match the rest of the house in 2001, but the whole thing was leaning and needed replacing.
Only one of the four original brackets was still on it.
And speaking of brackets – the large side ones at either end of the cornice were long gone as well.  In the seventies and eighties when these neighborhoods were really run down, so many people stripped the houses of anything vaguely architecturally interesting that could be sold in salvage and antique stores for money.  I’m sure they brought more cash than the buildings themselves were worth at the time.  The slate was past its prime, coated with roofing tar in areas and painted over.  The gutter was shot.
Up went the scaffolding and up went M.  I’ve painted up that high – it’s really, really high.
Off with the old roofing, off with the dormer – and then new dormer framing and roof sheathing patching.  I’m still amazed that M was able to rip this thing off and then rebuild it to match the existing (only straight this time), plus work and help take care of a newborn.  We were really, really crazy.
New cornice work at gutter.
And now we can move indoors for a bit – spray foam insulation (Icynene) throughout the attic.  That was a fun day – watching the hose snake up from the street and filling the stud cavities in just an hour or two.  This stuff is amazing – expensive – but the only option for the space, particularly the roof, where we couldn’t vent traditional insulation.
The basic box was built and the roofing paper was installed.  Time for the slate and copper professionals.
You can see the new copper gutter in the photo below, and that large square hanging out on the end would form the “roof” of the new brackets that M was furiously working on inside.
There they are – mid-painting, so you can still see some white primer in places.  There are over one hundred pieces in these guys – and they are huge.  Just look at the five gallon bucket behind them for some scale idea.
New copper cornice at the top, and the new brackets are installed with their little copper roofs.
By now it was November and the weather was much colder and we needed to paint.  So the tent and the rented heater came in.
Then the exterior was done – and just in time for snow.  I love this photo with the snow on the new slate.  You can peek through the window and see that we were still unfinished indoors.
After the outside was buttoned up we continued working on the inside – using salvaged pine boards from the attic to finish out the front sloping wall of the bedroom.
It was seriously brown in this room when all that trim was installed.  The wardrobes were finished and we installed those as well.  Which meant that it was time to paint until we couldn’t paint anymore.
Baby went to sleep in our bedroom below and I went to work – every night, late into the night.
But hey – it was worth it!  The white paint looked amazing, and I had just enough light blue in there to keep us from going blind.
More painting on the wardrobes – inside and out.  The wardrobes were designed to sit on top of the mechanical duct run that feeds this room and our bedroom below.
Time for new flooring.  The attic had no salvageable flooring – it was just rough, water damaged pine, so we went with a solid Brazilian cherry floor in a color and width that was the same as the rest of the house.
With both babies I was kind of weird about not putting a nursery together before they were actually here.  We didn’t know what we were having (boy or girl) and we’d never met them, so it seemed hard to put together a space for them prior to meeting them. The only thing that I did do before E was born was to paint these tiles with a scene from The Little Prince.  The tiles were fired and tucked away for months until it was time to add them to the old mantel that we installed in her room (salvaged from one of the downstairs rooms where we added the staircase.)
Around this time we moved the little one up to her room (because we now had stairs – another post on that addition), and I painted the front wall of the room with these little flowers and buzzing bees at night after she was sleeping.
The room came together as a pretty sweet little nursery, and stayed that way for several years.
Just in time for E’s third birthday we finally got around to putting a permanent “door” on the access to the mechanical equipment shown in one of the early photos.  We designed it as a removable bulletin board with a ledge that has a light fixture attached to it and enough room to set an alarm clock and a couple of paperback books.  The back panel is fabric wrapped homasote, and it’s held up really well for the last six years.  After she fell asleep we installed it, and when she woke up she was three!  And she no longer had a giant hole in the wall!  Progress!
Here’s another view of the bulletin board,and her room as it slowly started to evolve into a bigger kids room.  These were the photos used in the Reader Remodel feature on Young House Love.  That day when we had 80,000 visitors come through the room.  (It got a little crowded.)  So hello again to all of you new friends that stuck around after that visit this time last year.
Fast forward another few years and it was time to take the room up a notch for the tween years.  I designed a desk to be attached to the existing front ledge, and M worked his magic in the basement building it.  We installed on a hot, hot day in August, just in time for her birthday reveal.

She loved it.  And it’s never been this clean since.

I love everything about this room, but mostly I love the girl that lives in here.  I love walking up the stairs and seeing her hunched over her desk, working on her latest project.  I love tiptoeing in late at night, turning off the bedside lamp and sliding a bookmark into the pages of her still open book while she sleeps.  I love the view of the Arch and the view of the deli from that window, and I really love opening the sash a bit in summer to let the sound of lives blues flutter in.

Talk about a transformation in this house nine years ago – in so many, many beautiful ways.  We’re pretty lucky to have such good story(ies) to tell about this place.