lucky thirteen: a love story and the outside of a house

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.

Talk about procrastination: I started this series in January and I’ve yet to write this final love story about the house – the exterior. I can explain this dawdling fairly easy. I’m not so in love with the exterior of the house. And that’s really an unfair statement, because there are so many parts of this house that I really love. After our first major pass with some scaffolding, I used to declare loudly to anyone that would listen: Are you looking for my house? It’s the prettiest one on the block. And it sort of was. The whole street was looking a little rough around the edges, but the good bones abound. The first decade we were here saw a tremendous uptick in rehabs – everyone wanted to get in on the action. In the late nineties / early 2000’s you could still get your hands on the occasional shell of a house for a song. And if you were willing to get your hands dirty and do it right, you stood to make a pretty good return on your investment. Ah, 2007. Remember those days of real estate miracle cream?
Luckily, we weren’t looking for a fast in- fast out kind of relationship with this place. And luckily we bought in early, so we never found ourselves priced out of the neighborhood, despite the work and money we’ve put into the place. M may have referred to the place as our “practice house” a few times, but it’s always been a home. It might still be lacking in that magazine ready interior slickness that you often see in homes in print or for sale, but it isn’t lacking in good infrastructure. Everything we’ve done to this house has been with the best quality materials and equipment, diligent research and detailing, and careful (to the point of being slightly obsessively particular) installation. If we couldn’t afford to replace the original windows with the best historically accurate windows, then we removed the originals, painstakingly reglazed them, and reinstalled them until we could afford to replace them. We’d rather put plastic up on the interior to help insulate the single glazing in the winter, rather than put in cheap insulated vinyl windows. 
Which brings me back to my original thesis statement – that I’m just not in love. Not yet.
To me, the outside of my house really pushes me to accept our limitations – on budget, on time, on drive. It’s not that I don’t have to face this particular beast on the interior of my house, but that’s different.  That’s private, behind closed doors. The outside of our house is just out there, for everyone to see and judge. Thinking about this makes me realize I need to divide this post into two: The House Exterior, and Our Street / Our Neighborhood. I first thought I might merge those two into one, but I think they need to be kept separate, although they are inextricably linked. Linked in the way that the sad, sad state of my outdoor spaces make me feel personally inadequate, embarrassed and judged, but the very fact that my neighborhood is such an eclectic collection of building styles and types in various stages of renovated glory or shabby, neglected disrepair, we are perfectly free to move along this journey of renovation without feeling rushed or judged (personal angst aside). No house looks like another, no family inside looks like another. Sometimes I try to imagine picking up my house and planting it in another neighborhood or suburb somewhere. We would likely become “that family”, the one that causes raised eyebrows and secret scorn for sometimes letting the yard go to pot because we’re spending every waking hour on some interior project. There’s very little drive to keep up with the Jones’ around here. There are bigger efforts expended in learning how to live with all the various other Jones’, and at the end of the day that feels a little more important (to me, at least) and is also a story for another day…
So let’s start back at the beginning, shall we? Because watching the journey unfold always boosts morale around here. I suppose we have come a long way.…..

Here she is right around our purchase date. Dilapidated roof, missing attic windows, ugly storm windows, peeling paint, missing mortar, temporary wire fence. Gorgeous.

The entry porch was wooden and falling apart.

But hey look! So was the rear entry porch! There was also some bad home remedy attempts at tuckpointing around those rear windows that was pretty attractive.

Here’s the view of the third floor that you can’t see from the ground. I like a good siding made of asphalt shingles.

And some close ups of that stair that should have been condemned.

Every time we used that stair another piece fell off (hence the pile of sticks).

Once the snow melted we got a glimpse of the backyard. There was a sunken brick path from the house to the alley, a chain link fence on one side and a new but very uneven white wooden picket fence on the other two sides.

he fence didn’t look too bad from the alley – at least on this side it looks straight and painted. The retaining wall is made out of railroad ties (no longer permitted) and both of these things are now deteriorated beyond repair.

We quickly figured out that, at $1000+ a pop, our historic replacement windows weren’t going to be happening quite yet, so we pulled each window out, one by one, and restored them. We reglazed each window because most of them had small holes or cracks. We reinstalled the ugly storm windows over the side and back windows to help keep out the cold, but we left the front windows storm-less.

That first summer we worked on the house was HOT. We worked through the long fourth of July weekend in the uninsulated, unairconditioned attic and about died. It was time to get the AC going. After lots and lots of demo and cleanout, it was fun to build something new! Even if it was just a concrete pad for condensers.

The front of the house was in sorry shape, and the first order of business was tuckpointing. We had stared at houses throughout the neighborhood and knew there were good jobs and bad jobs. When we saw the building across the street (the building that now houses Blues City Deli) being tuckpointed, we hired the masons on the spot. Our neighborhood’s houses have two different kinds of brick on them – the front facades have a harder, more uniform looking brick, with tight mortar joints, often black. The mortar looks beautiful when done right, but the black mortar didn’t stand the test of time as well as some of the lighter ones, so those joints always deteriorated more quickly. Some people have tried to go back with a new black mortar, but it ends up looking terrible without that pencil thin profile. We learned that the key was to have a mason work completely by hand – no power tools to remove old mortar and potentially widen those joints. 

Once it was done, it looked like a completely different house. Sadly, I have no photographic evidence of the two months that we spent on scaffolding on the front of the house. Those photos are lost in the great abyss. But we spent the second spring / summer here climbing up and down those things. It was amazing how quickly we got used to the height, and thought nothing about painting up there for hours on end.

We calculated sixteen hours of work in each section of the cornice. Scraping, repairing, priming, painting three colors. The intense prepwork paid off. Twelve years later it still looks great (north facing helps), but I think next summer or maybe the following will be scaffolding time again. This time we can employ the children!

Our original fence was long gone, but the large decorative posts were there. I found these gorgeous fence sections at a local salvage place and we had a local blacksmith cut them to fit. He also made those smaller intermediate posts that were missing too. The gate we have was there but not original. It’s in bad shape and we’d love to replace it someday.

The same blacksmith made our steel entry porch. I love the open stair treads that knock dirt and water off your shoes as you head in. They are not comfortable on bare feet though! Because this is the only access to the back yard from the front – and it’s only six feet wide, we wanted a porch that could be moved if we ever needed to get big equipment through there. The porch is bolted to concrete piers hidden under the brick sidewalk.

Speaking of bricks – our entire backyard had a layer of them, under about a foot of soil. We first thought we just had the rear sidewalk until we tried to do some basic lawn grading and add new yard drains. Ha! Look at that fake smile. Pulling up bricks that have been locked into place for 125 years is

Endless supply of free bricks though! And we found two diamond rings – so at least there was a little treasure at the end of this sweaty, nasty road.

We salvaged enough bricks to make a nice sized patio in the back – after regrading the area with compacted gravel. Did we hire that job out? No. Instead we made countless trips to the quarry, hauling over three tons of gravel ourselves and then compacting it by hand with a hand tamper. Then we laid the bricks with sand in between over a long weekend – the hottest, most humid weather on record. My parents were there, and have yet to forgive us for that.

M’s parents came down and helped us frame out the rear porch and balcony, and then we installed ipe decking on the lower level. It’s a gorgeous wood, but really expensive, so we had to hold off on the balcony floor above. We’re still holding.

Later we added the porch railings, but we still haven’t trimmed out those 6×6 posts. We’re waiting until we do the final work on the balcony. I cross my fingers each spring that we’ll get to it, but those are also still crossed.

Once the five billion bricks were extracted (you can see the tremendous pile along the fence – even after we used a few thousand between the houses and for the back patio), we started working on backyard drainage and then yard grading.

We laid out a simple planting bed near the patio to get some privacy from our very near neighbors, 

and then we seeded the whole thing.

And grass grew!

And my sister got married and we had a zillion left over plants from her wedding.

Later that fall (2003) we had scaffolding again, and this time we got serious about the mansard.

I detail most of that work in the post on E’s room here, but here’s a close up of the original slate that had been painted at some point, and was past its long life expectancy (100 years).

And here’s the new slate being installed, with shiny, shiny copper flashing everywhere! This was a very exciting time!

M made new brackets to replace the missing end ones on the cornice, and we painted them inside before hoisting them into place on the exterior. These suckers are huge and heavy.

You can see it installed (it has the secret star on the side – the peeling white cornice beyond is our neighbor’s).

Fall turned into winter, and the temperatures dropped so we made an insulated heat tent for constructing and painting the new dormer.

Tada! Our crowning achievement. It’s been ten years, and I’m still blown away that M built this all. It looks just like the original, only better. So much better.

The next year we tackled the basement, which I think could be considered exterior because of the dirt floor.

We broke up and hauled out the thin portion of concrete slab at the entrance…

…and then dug out seven inches of dirt, installed perimeter waterproofing / drainage and a sump pump in the corner.

Hauling this out bucket by bucket sucked. After day one we got smart and hired a local college student and paid him to help us out. Much better. (At least for me, M still worked.) At this point in our lives we were used to ibuprofen for breakfast and dinner.

This was the dirt hauling dumpster before.

And after.  My back hurts just looking at this.

Rock down, vapor barrier down, new drain lines, ready for concrete. (And I can’t find any after photos of the floor either.) If you go down there now you can’t see much floor – it’s a full blown storage / workshop area.

The seasons come and go, and slowly the backyard is returning to its jungle state. The fence is pretty dilapidated by now, and some panels are completely missing. The rear retaining wall is falling down. We’re going to have to deal with this all – and sooner rather than later.

We still maintain the patio, adding sand every few years where it’s washed out.

We removed the ivy from the front yard where it was taking over and replanted grass that looked really good for the first season.

Before it gave way to the clover.

Last fall we had tuckpointers again, this time on the side and rear of the third floor. 

We replaced the flat roof – one of those necessary tasks that cost a lot of money but no one ever sees.

I have grand visions of what I think our house and our yard could be, but those are tempered by the reality of time and effort that I know it will take to make any of them happen. I may not yet love it all, but there are many, many little pieces that I do love so very much.

That dormer window, the dogwood blossoms, the Christmas tree in the window and chalk drawings on the sidewalk.

7 Responses to lucky thirteen: a love story and the outside of a house

  1. Just beautiful!! I love the history behind it and how you are trying to keep the historic look but update it a bit. GORGEOUS house and yard. Keep the blog entries coming! Very inspiring.

    • Thanks! If you haven’t seen them already, all the various rooms are covered in detail – just click on the dormer drawing labeled house tour in the side bar. They are all there – except this one. Oops – I need to add this in tonight.

  2. a wonderful retrospective — gripping, in fact! Question: were the sunken bricks in the backyard an old patio? And lucky you to find treasure in the backyard 🙂

    • i’m not really sure why there were so many bricks in the back. This was originally a two-family flat in a working class neighborhood. I’m going to venture a guess that the brick paving was more utilitarian in nature than a leisure space, but I don’t really know.

      I thought the treasure was junk and almost threw it away. I should probably write about that story!

    • yes! please write that story. love the blog.

  3. Pingback: buried treasure | third story(ies)

  4. I love everything about your home! I would love to live in a house like that. And I don’t mean that in a romanticized way. I know you must have to do a lot of work to maintain it. What kind of grass did you use? Good luck with your yard.

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