Category Archives: house tour

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.

lucky thirteen: a love story and a master 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.

Before you start thinking this post may be getting a little too personal for a Monday morning, let’s just stick to the architecture okay?  I had grand ideas when I started this little journey a week and a half ago that I’d be able to tour you through the house, telling little love stories along the way – and then we’d magically wrap up the tour on the holiday of love itself.  I didn’t really bargain on how long it would take to put these posts together, or how many sidetracks I’d find myself on as I looked back through photographs and remembered long ago stories.  At this rate, we’ll land on something really romantic for Valentine’s Day like the laundry room.  Oh well.  As any seasoned rehabber will tell you, everything takes way longer to finish than you first think.

So, the bedroom.  Here she is.  Funny that I forgot it was pale blue in there – and now we have almost the same shade of blue on the ceiling.  Let’s pretend like it was an intentional nod to the past, shall we?

In this photo you can really see the way the floors were originally finished in our house.  Because this was more of a working class house built for two families, but this was also the Victorian period and there were certain things you did in all houses, fancy or not, you find lots of example in our house of trying to make things appear richer than they were.  The floors were finished differently around the perimeter because the center of the rooms would have always had a rug.  Some people may gasp at the idea that we painted all of our wood trim white, but the trim wasn’t a nice wood and wasn’t in great shape either.  It had been faux finished in the beginning to look like a nicer wood than it really was.

We took out a total of thirteen tons of plaster and lath out of this house.  How do we know how much it weighed?  A little math (and a lot of sore muscles.)  We filled up our large street dumpster with the plaster from all the rooms but the master bedroom – that was the last room we did, and we couldn’t fit another thing into that dumpster.  We had created a chute of rubbermaid trashcans out of the front window to dump second floor plaster into waiting wheelbarrows that we hauled into the big dumpster.  When we got to this last room we drove a trailer up into the yard and just heaved the stuff right out.  The problem was the weight of the plaster quickly caused the back end of the trailer to sink and the front end to rise up into the air.  So every three or four bucket dumps would require someone to run downstairs, climb into the back of the trailer and shovel the weight to the front.  It was a giant, dusty seesaw.  We had to pay to dispose of the trailer contents by weight, so we quickly determined the weight of one room of plaster, and did the math for the house.  Lucky thirteen again, right?  Twenty-six thousand pounds.  I’m aching just thinking about it.  (I did have very nicely toned arms for that wedding dress, let me tell you.)

Plaster out, new framing in.  We had to move our bedroom door to the side to accommodate the new bathroom and stair hall.

Insulation, vapor barrier, ceiling levelers, and then drywall.

Three weeks before the wedding and we had half finished drywall and a bunch of moving boxes.  It was really classy.  I think I heard that my mom cried about the house for the first time.  (To her credit, it wasn’t in front of me.)

We slowly got our act together though – those stairs went in so we could safely access the room.  We started to think about actually building our first closet, a novel idea.  We designed a full wall of ceiling height wardrobes and had them made by a local shop.  The boxes arrived and we lugged those heavy suckers upstairs.  This is where we begin the series of giant MDF boxes that slowly populate our house.  Trust me, you’ll see more.

They got installed.

They got painted.

The kitchen once again became a painting studio for the drawers and doors.

And there they were!  A ridiculous amount of storage.  Our entire luggage collection fits in that upper lefthand cabinet.  It was like Christmas time ten.

The trim was all installed and the ceiling was painted that pale blue (it’s now a slightly darker blue.)

And then a baby moved in with us, in first a cradle at the end of the bed, and then a bigger crib by the mantel.

She was an awesome roommate and an incredible sleeper, and we certainly didn’t mind sharing the space with her, even as she got older and started getting into the shoe cabinet with some regularity.

And so we finally built her a room of her own just above us, and she moved out right before she turned one.  We hung a family portrait above the mantel so that we could remember our former companion.

Some more years went by and we had another baby.  She too slept at the end of our bed, and we frequently slept as well.  We loved her dearly, but she was not a good roommate – a noisy sleeper that needed her own quiet, dark space to tune out the world.  She lasted a couple of weeks in there, and then did an infant victory dance when we let her sleep on her own.  She’s still the same way, throwing her hand across her forehead and declaring “Well, I’m just exhausted and ready for a nap.”  (She said that to me yesterday before plopping into her bed in a very dramatic fashion and pulling the quilt up over her head.)

This room is in really good shape, but it’s not all perfect and light.  Here’s the dark little secret in the corner I crop out of the photos.  The computer.  Agh.  I hate this beast in here, but its new room is ready and its new desk is next on the to-do list.  I’m one step closer to a zero technology bedroom, minus the iPad for nightly Words With Friends rounds. 

Those wardrobes have had to house a lot more stuff than just wardrobes, but now those items are slowly finding their way into more permanent locations.  I just might need to buy some new clothes now to fill up the empty spaces.

We have books stacked everywhere, but even those are just a week or two away from getting a permanent home!

The room is mostly white, but it’s getting a serious injection of color, and it’s particularly nice in the summer with the leaves just outside.

We’re going to install the old cast iron summer front from the living room into this mantel sometime soon.  

This bed is a favorite place for everyone to hang out – there’s always some girl on it, usually with a book.

Sometimes it’s both girls, spending the night with me this past Saturday while dad was out of town.  (Fun in theory, but they are total bed hogs.)

The light is incredible (north facing) and so I take a lot of photographs in here; you can see my bed covering’s squares in the backdrop of many a blog photo.

Once I even made a hundred little paper quilts and had a paper quilted bed for a day.

I like the light for photographing the girls, and they are often standing in front of the cabinets or wardrobes in photos.

Occasionally I take a photo of myself, but not too often.  I guess this one counts as a photo of a kid too; I think it was the last one I took before F was born.

I can also check out the lines at the deli (usually out the door) across the street from my window, and listen to live blues through the screens on summer afternoons.  

I try not to pick favorites, but this has got to be one of the best rooms for sure.  There are more than a few love stories about this place where we rest our rehab weary heads.

lucky thirteen: a love story and a kitchen

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.

I found this kitchen post to be the hardest to get into.  I’m not sure why, though.  I think it’s because we installed our kitchen in the very early days of the renovation.  We may not have had interior stairs for awhile, but we weren’t about to live over a camp stove for months on end.  But before we could even get to cabinets and appliances we had to deal with this.


Yes, there was even a tub sitting in the middle of the kitchen floor.  That’s the tub that ended up in the girls’ bathroom on the third floor, as well as one of the sinks.  Remember – this was a two-flat, so we had two kitchens to demo, one on each floor.


The back portion of the house is the part that suffered the most water damage in previous years with a failing (or missing) roof.  The plaster in the ceiling was long gone, and some rough attempts at drywall patching had been installed.  The floor was a disaster though – water damaged beyond the point of saving.

But we stripped it down to the bare bones, and built in back again, just like the rest of the house.  We recruited friends along the way to help out.  Some of them made strange faces, but certainly helped us move through the exhaustion.  They didn’t even comment on the paint clothes that I apparently wore every day from June through September of that year.

At one point in the process we priced historic replacement windows for the entire house.  We took one look at those numbers ($1000+ a window) and decided we’d rebuild them ourselves.  We removed them, stripped paint and glazing putty, reglazed them, painted and reinstalled.  We kept the storm windows on the side windows, but we left them off the front (too ugly).  Replacing those windows with insulated units is on the to-do list now, but it was out of the question in the beginning.  So if you came to visit us, you came to work.  Our parents did a lot of that visiting and working, for sure.


I remember drawing up so many kitchen layouts and then spending Saturday mornings running around to cabinet suppliers trying to make some decisions.  We had a very open kitchen layout at first – open shelves above and cabinets below.  Everyone looked at us like we were crazy.  You see that concept a lot these days, but it was like we were speaking some sort of foreign language when we talked about it.  

And the reality was, we just didn’t have the time to make our own kitchen.  By the end of August we were completely overwhelmed with all that needed to be done in the next few weeks, and we just needed someone to show up at our door with boxes of cabinets.  And so they did.

And they are really beautiful cabinets, stained maple, and 42″ high upper cabinets.  They hold a lot of stuff.  Even thirteen years later they are in great shape, although we do need to replace a few hinges that we’ve worn out – they don’t hold the door open beyond 90 degrees on their own anymore.

We installed them ourselves, and that was no small feat.  Those suckers were huge.  

Look at us, all avant garde with our stainless steel appliances.  Living the high life, we were.  (High life, minus indoor plumbing.)

We opted for plastic laminate countertops, and they’ve been just perfect for all of these years.  There was no way we could have afforded anything else at the time.  We had a hole where the dishwasher sits for awhile until we saved up for a nice Bosch model that we’ve had for almost a dozen years now and love.  The stove was a floor model on sale for half price at Sears, and I threw myself over the top of it because there was another man trying to take it from me.  That stove was the first thing we bought for the house, long before we ever swung a hammer.  It sat in our friends’ basement for months, and then we installed it and giggled at our good fortune.  M’s parents bought us the snazzy microwave above for Christmas that first year, and helped us install it – the best kind of gift, really.

Still, there was trim to be installed, and additional cabinets to be saved for on the other side.

But we had so many other projects going on that we had to focus and prioritize.  I loved finding this picture below.  Just spend a minute taking it all in.  I’m sure it was a Saturday morning.  There are waffles on the stove top, the kitchen table is covered in plastic and stair treads ready to be stained.  There are blueprints in the corner, shelves stacked full of random kitchen equipment, and still no trim around the window.  I’m sitting in the cold weather version of my paint uniform, sketching out ideas or details for something.   It seems chaotic.  It is chaotic.  But I’m quite sure that I was having a ball right then – figuring something out, planning the next step.

And the next steps slowly came…

…we installed that trim.

We even found time to make a little play kitchen for E’s second Christmas.  I love seeing all the homemade kitchens floating around the interwebz these days.  They make me smile because I remember doing the same thing (pre-Pinterest) – using scrap pieces and leftover hardware from around the house.  The sink was a stainless steel popcorn bowl we got as a wedding gift.  The faucet was original from the house.  As E grew older, my sister purchased this from us because she wasn’t finding a set for her own kids that she liked.  Then F came along and we didn’t have a kitchen so we bought one from IKEA.  Ha!  That cracks me up.  Sometimes you’ve only got one homemade play kitchen in you.

And then we started filling the other side of the kitchen with cabinets, and we finally painted the inside of that window.  It looks like I graduated to M’s paint clothes at that point.  I know that’s his shirt.  And I also know better than to paint on a ladder in socks.

When we first built this kitchen, we weren’t cooks – at least not beyond that sort of graduate school cooking level.  I’m quite sure I had never baked and decorated a batch of cookies on my own, and I’m also quite sure I had never catered desserts numbering in the high hundreds to any event.  When I look at my kitchen now I see a lot of things that I would do differently.  I’d have a better connection to the backyard, I’d have deeper countertops, drawers instead of cabinets, open shelving, and more organized storage for pantry and baking items.  I’d have a long, uninterrupted island for massive baking spells, and a certain oven that I dream dreams about.  It would be whiter and brighter (sounds like the dining room dream?) and there would be marble for sure.
The funny thing is, when I look at my kitchen in photos I don’t really see the kitchen at all.  I see all of the things that we do in there, and the details of the space really take a back seat.

There’s baking…

…and making.

Good smells from the stove,

and the table.

There are always little helpers underfoot – some of them sneaking pasta into their cheeks while they work.

And there’s lots of giggling, especially when there’s ice cream to be made.

I may not have that fifteen foot long island prep area, but I can make 300 cupcakes at a time (even if the rest of the family has to go out for breakfast).

And then we can clear it all off and make monsters for parties…

…conduct science experiments,

and make holiday cards until the wee hours of the morning. 


And sometimes we do it all at the very same time.

I may dream of bigger connections to my neglected back yard, but the window works perfectly well for watching a bubble blowing sister just outside.

And the light in that room in late afternoon is spectacular.  I photograph many a thing for this blog on that back window sill or propped up on that high chair tray right beside the window.  Art projects, fresh food from the market, decorated cookies, birthday celebrations… all of it happening within this room.  Maybe it will change over the years to come, but I still call it my dream kitchen now.  





We’re headed down there right now to build clay sculptures (for the little one) and a cell model for a school project (for the big one).  And then we’ll clean it all up and make our Mardi Gras treats later this afternoon.  A dream kitchen and an empty Saturday afternoon.  That’s my kind of love story.