Month: February 2016

Kitchen Floor Band Aid

Our 1895-ish brownstone was originally designed as a 2-family house.  The rental apartment was on the top floor, with an owner’s duplex occupying the garden and parlor floors. But you knew that already.

This arrangement has always seemed weird to me, because it means that the most ornate floor of the house, the parlor with it’s fancy-ish entrance, is mostly closed-off. When we bought our house, after more than a decade of having upstairs neighbors (and all the fun that goes along with that – water leaks, office chair derby, loud children), we decided it was enough. We set up our house as an owner’s duplex over a garden rental. This means we get to use our fancy-ish entry way, but in return we also have the very small top floor rental kitchen, as the original owner’s duplex kitchens in brownstones were always on the back of the garden level.

Some day when we win the lottery save enough money, we will move the kitchen to the parlor level and create the 1920s kitchen of my dreams. Until then, we make do with tight cooking quarters. How tight of cooking quarters, you may ask? Tight enough that the fridge is in a separate room.

Besides the lack of space (and proper appliances) the biggest problem with the kitchen is the floor. I wrote at length about my hatred of stick on tile, and how the top floor of the house was covered in 3+ layers of wall to wall stick on tile. I HATE STICK ON TILE! That, you definitely knew.

The kitchen and the skinny hallway that leads to it were the only spots where I didn’t pull up the tile, thinking (ha ha) that a new kitchen was in the near future. In the 4 years we’ve been in the house, the stick on tile did what stick on tile does, and it moved around. The trail of adhesive was a magnet for dirt and proved to be impervious to cleaning, leaving faux grout lines of dirt.  It was gross. It had to go.

Because the kitchen is (allegedly) just temporary, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money on the floor. This room is still into play (I want it to be my office, the husband wants to turn it into a bathroom), so there is no sense in going all fancy with a floor that will likely get ripped up. I started looking for options and actually looked at stick on tile (gasp!) but thankfully was able to stop myself before having to sink so low. Turns out, there is a vinyl floor product that is basically a tongue and groove floating floor. Who knew? Not me, since EEEW, vinyl!


It’s a special order at Lowe’s, so I grabbed some free samples (which come to think of it, the kitchen is so small, it would technically be possible to use just samples. Hmmmm…) Anyway, I eventually  swallowed my pride, placed my order for a (yuck) vinyl floor and never looked back. It certainly looks immensely better than the peach sea shell motif we had, and while somewhat flipper grade, it’s a good compromise for something we hope is temporary. When we are ready to remove it, the boards will pull right up and can be re-used elsewhere (or donated to Build it Green). No muss, no fuss, nothing into the landfill.

This is what the floor used to look like. Grossest portion not pictured.



The skinny hallway had some really sloppy flooring installation – the excess flooring was just bent around the baseboard, rather than being trimmed.


We started peeling off the layers, and found this:


Everything came up very easily, and the pine floor was surprisingly not all that sticky.


But nothing is ever easy, and  you know there has to be a catch. There is always a catch. In this case, rotted floorboards by the window. What started as a 1-day project became more like a weekend project.


The rotted floor was repaired, as was the wonky woodwork under the window (you can see the panel removed in one of the photos)


Additional delays included union mandated cat feeding, which meant all work had to stop until the cats were good and ready to move out of the way.

We chose the Platinum Oak pattern, mostly because it hid dirt well and only minimally clashed with the cabinets. Would a darker floor look better? Sure? Does this one looks like something you’d see in a cheap flip? You bet. But it looks clean, most of the time.






(or at least I think that’s what the weird bird thingies are).


I’ve been working on this summer cover for what seems like an eternity. Actually, that’s a lie. If I had been working on it, I’d be done a long time ago.

It started out like this:

Fireplace Cover before

The initial strip revealed this:

Fireplace Cover Detail

And then it sat. And sat. Half finished. I finally brought it outside, switched the stripping method from the milder PeelAway to the more toxic (but faster) ZipStrip (hence being outside) and got a bit more done:


While it’s still not done, the griffons look far more regal without the orange paint.


The design of this summer cover is fairly common. The griffons and the bowl of flames are fairly common in houses nearby built around the same time. What makes this one different, is that the cast iron seems to have been gilded with something. It was a copper-y color to it, and some of the stripped sections are tarnishing green. Usually the covers are just black, even the ones that are not painted to look black.

I’m really excited to see what this looks like once all the paint is gone. Sadly, I’m not equally excited to pick the last bits of remaining paint off.

TBT: Advertisements, 1895

If you are researching the ownership chain of your New York City home, or looking for the builder or architect, chances are you will spend many hours browsing the Real Estate Record & Builder’s Guide. A weekly publication listing all the real estate transaction in the city from 1868 to 1922, the guide lists buyer, seller, amount paid and, if you’re lucky, an actual address, not just the distance from the nearest intersection. The search engine is clunky and it requires a lot of patience.

A bonus of spending so much time poking around is that you get to see some of the building trade ads of the time. For instance:

Real Estate Record V55 Feb 23 1895

February 23rd, 1895

Fred Brandt, maker of roofing, cornices, skylights and inventor of the stationary zinc wash tub. How ’bout that?

Jacob May March 2 1895

March 2, 1895

Pretty much every brownstone has one of these under the stoop. They have been securing our homes from “burglars and sneak thieves” for at least 120 years. Wonder if Jacob made ours.

Metal Ceilings March 21895

March 2, 1895

N.Y. Metal Ceiling Co. advertises its product as suitable for residences, offices, stores, schools, hospitals and churches. Selling point? “Can be applied over old plaster.” Cracking plaster is not a modern problem…

March 2 1895

March 2, 1895

Here I was, thinking that 19th century sidewalks were always made of blue stone, granite or wood blocks.* I guess in 1895, there were already 4.5 million square feet of concrete sidewalks in the city.

And what is in no way a precursor to Page Six, nearly a whole page dedicated to “Gossip of the Week – South of 5oth Street.” Here is a sample from March 9, 1895:

Gossip of the week March 9 1895

* if you happen to find yourself in Greenpoint, go to West Street (near Oak Street), where you will find the last remaining wood block sidewalk in the city. There isn’t much left, maybe the span of a building or two.

Bedroom update

The great bedroom saga has been quite the epic (as in long and torturous) project. Here is a recap and here is a tour of the whole third floor as it used to be.

A full post is to come, but here is what it’s looking like

Betroom wall

The first coat of paint is on the walls, but it hasn’t really been cut in yet, so it’s sloppy around the edges . This drives me crazy, as I can’t stand sloppy paint jobs. (Yes, it’s yellow. More on that later). All everything that appears to be painted white isn’t really painted yet – it’s just primer, so that’s why it looks blotchy and gross. Other notable improvements: there is a ceiling! And moldings! The picture rail took a bad beating from the paint stripper, but we decided to keep it as is rather than replace it (there is a pretty close match that can be had for about $6 foot + shipping. Husband used the kryptonite word “but this one is original to the house.” Dammit! he wins)

Berdoom light fixture

Ah, the ceiling of proper height and no popcorn! The fact that it’s not really painted? Totally small potatoes in comparison… The light fixture is up, but it will need to come down so we can get rid of that glob of paint leftover from its previous life on a ceiling somewhere in Detroit.

(that goofy looking light bulb is a faux Edison LED bulb. The light is crazy yellow and I’m not sure how I feel about it. Evidently I don’t feel strongly enough to remove it. Inertia is a powerful thing)

A public service announcement

(a true story of real estate bat shittery)

I was working on a TBT post for yesterday, pulling photos of the house the day we got the keys. I spent some time looking through lots of pictures and pulling the ones that I thought would best illustrate what the Pink Lady looked like when we became her caretakers.

For some reason, I didn’t take any pictures of the garden level kitchen before we started working on it, and I wondered if the old listing for our house was still up – you know, the with SOLD in big bold letters where the asking price used to be. Figuring I could still find the old listing, I googled our address. And that’s when things got interesting.

A house two doors from ours has been on the market for a while. It’s a cheap-o flip with a giant price tag, but taste  is subjective thing – so whatever.

(the flipper of that house ripped out an intact Kilian Brothers mantel, the wall where it stood for 120 years is now a featureless exposed brick wall. But again, taste is on the eye of the beholder).

(also, exposed brick in a brownstone? It’s the avocado green kitchen of our times.)

The part that concerns me is that the address of the house in question was actually our address, while the interior photos and the description belonged to the house actually for sale. The exterior photo was of the house next-door.

I called the broker listed, who didn’t seem to think this was a big deal at all. Well, when you’re dealing with real estate agents, who as a group belong in the same realm as used car salesman and personal injury lawyers*,  it is a huge deal. Last time this happened (yes, this is not the first time a  broker used our address for a listing) I ended up with an agent breaking into our house with a client in tow, parading through our home before realizing they were in the wrong house. Yes. that actually happened last spring.

I kept scrolling down the Google results and found another listing, this time for our house and the listing agent was the person representing the seller when we bought the the Pink Lady.  It seemed to be a new listing, virtual tour and all (with the old photos I was looking for). The listing included a random price (not the asking price at the time we purchased it)  and a listing ID. WTF, right?

I called up that broker and left her the meanest voice mail I could muster, which I’m sure sounded pathetic, because I have a cold and my voice is about 3 notches lower than usual – or maybe that made me sound like a rich old lady with her lawyers on speed dial? Anyway, that listing came down right away. Given her lack of skill when we were dealing with her, I’m inclined to chalk that one up as a mistake. The other listing however – the one for the house 2 doors away – I believe is more malicious. I took several calls to get it taken down, including threats of getting lawyers involved. By the end of the day yesterday, the listing was gone.

One would think that that for as much as brokers like to say it’s all about “location location location,” that the ONE THING they should get right is the address of the property they are selling. I was told by a few people who deal with brokers on a regular basis that this is more of a systemic practice. I don’t understand how listing the wrong address benefits them, but I do live in a neighborhood where harassment is rampant, and the calls, flyers and knocks on the door asking whether the house is for sale are constant. There is a lot of shady stuff happening in Brooklyn real estate. Scruples, it turns out, are in very short supply. 

Regardless of whether it’s a honest mistake or something more, I know this much: it’s illegal to advertise a property for sale without the consent of the property owner.

So here is the public service announcement part of this post: if you live in an area where real estate is bananas, such as brownstone Brooklyn, you might want to Google your address on a regular basis. You never know, someone may be advertising your house for sale.

What do you do if it happens to you? If you are a resident of New York state, you can file a complaint against the broker and the real estate agency here. You should also contact the office of the Attorney General and the local real estate board. If you see the add on sites such as Zillow, there is a button to click to report fraud. I suggest you do that, too. It goes without saying you should keep frame grabs of the ads.

This concludes the public service announcement.

* of course, not all real estate agents are bad. My mom was one, as was my mother in law. A dear friend  is an architectural historian  (and a real estate agent).  The nice folks behind House By We, who represented us on the purchase of our house, are professional, competent and honest.

Water, why do you have to be so water-y?

We have been having a ridiculous winter this year. Very warm, until it became ridiculously cold and then warm again. I don’t even want to think about what these extreme temps and the thaw/freeze cycles are doing to the portions of our façade still covered in paint. (oh, but I do…).

During yesterday’s torrential downpour of epic proportions, I was ready with our two shop vacs to bail water from the cellar. We have done extensive work to keep the water outside and we succeeded for most part. The French drains in the back yard encourage rain water to go into the ground, rather than into our cellar, but the wild card has been our neighbor. See, when you live in a row house, what happens next-door doesn’t always stay there.

Last winter our cellar flooded twice because of burst pipes in the adjoining brownstone. It was not fun. Since there has been a lot of work going on next-door, I figured with the amount of water falling form the sky, surely some of it would find itself into the nether parts of our house. To my surprise, our cellar stayed completely dry. Yey!

But like everything in an old house, victories are short lived. There is always something lurking around the corner, ready to whack you upside the head to wipe that smile off your face (where it clearly doesn’t belong). This time, water figured a different way in. Like a civilized person, it came in through the front door.

The day started, innocently enough, with a me trying to clean the encaustic tile in the entry way. It’s pretty gross and in need of some elbow grease.

Tile Before

In googling how to clean encaustic tile, I found that everything involved purchasing some kind of cleaning product, something that would involve me leaving the house and spending money, none of which I was inclined to do right there and then. Instead, I decided to use the same stuff I use for cleaning our old bathtub: A paste made of baking soda, dish soap and water. It’s a mild abrasive that shouldn’t harm the tile.

(I did learn that ye old timey Victorians kept this tile looking presentable by applying weekly coats of wax or oil. Some of the oil may have been absorbed into the tile for good, hence some blotchy-ness).

(Personally, I just think this area has long been neglected and hasn’t seen some soap and water in a long long time)


I merrily applied my environmentally friendly home-made paste and scrubbed with a small brush.


Some of the grime came off pretty easily.

Test Clean

But it clearly requires more work, or else I wouldn’t have to point out the clean area… There are stubborn stains that didn’t come off with the first pass. Since the entryway  needs work (see broken tiles), I’m not ready to go all out and clean it so that it can be sealed. I just want it not to be absolutely gross.

Water on the floor.jpg

I was making (slow) progress, but the floor was (slowly) looking a bit more presentable, as seen on the left side of the photo. However, I noticed that no matter how much I wiped it down, the floor was getting progressively wetter.

Turns out yesterday’s rain came from the south, directly hitting the façade of the house (normally rain hits the back of the house). As the storm grew stronger, more water started pouring from under the door and from the mail slot.

So it was time to bust out the old junky towels. Soaked through 3 beach towels before it was all done. And by then, I didn’t feel like cleaning anymore. So we’ll try again some other time. There is still a lot of grossness to be removed from the pretty pretty tiles.


(here is what I used to make the paste: 1 cup baking soda, 2-3 tablespoons of dish soap, enough water to make it a paste).