Big Project

Early Stages of a Garden

It’s been a cold, long winter in New York City. Yesterday was the first day of spring. Next week, we will likely be smacked upside the head with a Nor’easter once again. I am so done with the Polar Vortex.  This time last year, I was already playing in the dirt. This year, however, I’ve been keeping my excursions outside to a minimum. A winter person I am not.

We spend a ton of time outdoors during the warm months, and while our back yard has been presentable(ish) over the past 2 summers, a big overhaul was always part of the house master plan. At some point. In the very very distant future.

Backyard2012

Backyard in 2012, our first summer. The big bushy plants to the right are tomatoes. It was a fantastic year for tomatoes.

Backyard2013

The backyard in 2013. The fence was replaced and we built a planter/retaining wall to compensate the height difference between our yard and the one behind us. It was a terrible year for tomatoes.

3/4 of the way through this particularly harsh winter, our garden redo got bumped up in priority, courtesy of the water that came gushing into our basement during a rain/freezing rain/snow/rain event. We realized we needed to pay some attention  to the garden drainage and the pavement that is not sloping away from the house quite enough. Oh, and the holes. There are holes where the coal chute joins  the house.  Because, why not?  True to the old adage of “project begets project,” we figure we might as well go the Full Monty on this. In addition to the must-do-to-keep-the-basment-dry (re-sloping the surface closest to the house and installing French drains  throughout the yard), we’ll be doing a fair amount of cosmetic work, too. Woo hoo landscaping!

FloodedBackyard

This is what happens when it rains: the water has nowhere to go, so it just hangs out.

Puddle

This is actually really close to the house. Not good.

About 4 months ago, we had preliminary plans drawn by a fantastic landscape architect (aka, dad). The design calls for separate living areas in our compact yard: seating under the grape-vine (new arbor, pebbles underfoot), a grilling area and eating area (both paved with reclaimed old pavers), as well as shrubs and perennials evoking a Victorian garden.

Garden Board

The design, along with some of the materials and plants. Yep, I do suck at Photoshop.

To put the design into practical perspective, I ventured outside today and drew it in chalk, making some changes along the way. I think I worked out most of the kinks (and found a dead bird along the way).

Chalky

Pardon the ugliness, but the garden is still asleep.

Dad says good garden design has a bit of mystery drawn in. I don’t think he means all the blank spots on his sketch, but rather that one should not be able to see everything all at once, that one would wind their way through, and discover new areas. That is easier said than done with a back yard that measures about 40 feet x 18 feet. Dad proposes a complete re-think of how we use the space. The table will move to the back of the yard, where the vegetable garden is (at some point, it will get sanded and slathered with Tung oil – yep, on the list). The area beneath the grape-vine will get fine gravel, and will house a seating area with custom-built wooden benches. We’ll reduce the hard surfaces of the yard (which will also help with drainage), and use reclaimed old brick pavers as our main surface material.

Salvage Pavers

Sweet old brick pavers. How I love thee!

It all sounds fine and dandy. Once reality sinks in, including carrying all this stuff through the house, I’m sure it will be a different story.

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Update-ish

With the weather getting cooler stupid cold, the work outside has slowed  stopped. October/November were not particularly productive because work (as in we need to fund this restoration by actually working)  got in the way. Here is where we left things off:

Facade

The garden level is mostly done, but there are still some stubborn patches, primarily where the stone is deteriorating. It’s particularly bad where there are patches on the brownstone. I have yet to find a good method of removing paint from cement (at least I think it’s cement – I can’t tell for sure since it’s covered in paint).

Facade2

Not surprisingly, we are STILL waiting for estimates from the contractors for the stripping and repairing of the brownstone. Somehow, I have a feeling I’m in this for the long haul and I best get cracking and learn how to patch the stone myself.

Weekend projects by crazy people

A  comment from a neighbor pretty much sums it up: “I always see you here, working. Never partying.  Just working.”

Before

I’m pretty sure the neighbors think I’m absolutely certifiable. Stripping a stone façade is really not a typical DIY project. People usually hire professionals to do that, and methodology aside, I do understand why.  Passers-by provide random words of encouragement, usually punctuated with “that’s a lot of work,” or “this would go a lot faster if you hired someone.” No shit!

This past Sunday over the course of 8 hours, I managed to strip about 18 sq feet of stone. At first glance, seems like a worthy amount, until you realize that it’s really a drop in the bucket. Not accounting for windows and doors, the area of the façade is 558 square feet – give or take.

Some of the paint came off super easy, yet there are patches of stubborn pink that will need a second application of PeelAway. Damn you pink paint!

SlowProgress

The angle of the sun makes it difficult to see any progress. Behold my amazing Photoshop skills! Yellow denotes done-ish. Click to enlarge. 

But wait! There is more!

Because we have two major projects going at the same time (hence the crazy people part) while I scrapped and scrubbed, the hubs worked on leveling the bedroom ceiling beams. The question of the day was “level it to what?” Under normal circumstances, you’d level to gravity: something is either level or it’s not – simple as that. But  nothing is ever as simple as it should be, at least not at our house. As is the case with many old buildings, ours settled over time and the floors are no longer level. The Pink Lady has a noticeable dip towards the center, common to brownstones. It used to drive me crazy and I wanted it gone, but I’m so used to it now I don’t really notice it anymore. Call it charm. Call it being realistic.

The previous fake ceiling was leveled to gravity, making the moldings look super crooked.

Old Ceiling

 

If we leveled the new ceiling to gravity, then leveled the floors, we would have to open the walls and adjust the all the door openings (2 regular doors and the massive double pocket door), or else the doors wouldn’t close). That just seemed too big of a job in the grand scheme of things.

So reality rears its ugly little head again, and since the dip is normal and is not affecting the structural integrity of the house, we decided to level the ceiling to the floor. By having everything crooked together, it will appear straight. Basically we’ll be mimicking the original ceiling (minus the sag in the middle).  Cooky plan, I know – but it seems like the best option.

After the required number of trips to the hardware store, the uttering of a lot of profanity, and a few beers, we are perhaps a teeny tiny bit closer to being done.

Another day, another project (and a post with terrible photos).

A normal person may look at what projects need to be done and prioritize accordingly. A normal person may look carefully at the options available and make sure not to overburden themselves by taking on more than they can handle. A normal person will finish a project before starting a new one.

Well, normal people we are not.

Over labor day weekend, we tore out the bedroom ceiling. A cheap patch job of installing a false dry wall ceiling (and covering it with popcorn) robbed the room of its original height – plus it left us wondering what lurked above it.

Old Ceiling

This is how it used to be (pardon the cell phone photos, but in possibly what was the only case of good judgment here, we did not bring the big camera in with us).

Half gone

Dry wall pulled down, you can see the old ceiling through the 2x4s

Turns out the damaged original ceiling was still up there, minus a big chunk of plaster right in the middle. It was severely bowed towards the center of the room, which is probably why the plaster fell off. There were signs of water damage. Fun!

Just a little bit of plaster missing...

Just a little bit of plaster missing… And seriously – what’s up with all the popcorn?

After we removed both ceilings and the original lath, we discovered that the support structure  was compromised: the strips of wood attaching the ceiling to the roof had come lose over the years.

lath

Presented without comment

Open ceiling

Open ceiling, cockloft above.

With the ceiling gone, we had a good look at the space above – more like a crawl space than an attic, it’s called a cock loft (and yes, because I’m totally immature I can’t say it without giggling). It’s kinda interesting to see the structure from above: the sky lights, some strange built-in alcoves. The filth up there is indescribable, the dirt is nearly impossible to wash off the skin. I suppose that’s what 120 years of dust, coal, cigarette smoke, and old fart residue looks like. Absolutely gross.

Dirt

This photo doesn’t fully capture how dirty we were. And by the way, the Facetime camera on the iPhone is absolutely awful!

The space is now ready to be re-built. We saved a piece of the ceiling molding so that we can restore it in the new ceiling. Sadly, most of it was gone so we’ll have to rebuild from scratch.

Moulding chunk

It was a total bummer to have to remove the moulding, but most of it was already gone. What was left did put up a good fight. We will use this chunk as a template for the restoration.

Since all the prep work has been done, you’d think we’d finish it off quickly. That is where you’d be wrong. This past weekend was dedicated to working on the stoop railing and doing a test stripping of the brownstone. Why? Well, winter is coming and it needs to be done. The stoop has been the Hubs pet project during the summer. Amidst finishing grad school, the crazy rains of June and the sweltering temps of July, progress has been slow. Happy to report one whole side has been stripped and coated with primer.

As for the masonry, we’re having a hard time finding someone who will strip/repair the brownstone the in the way we feel it should be done.   So I decided to do some tests and see if I could do it myself.

Cue stripping test #1: Some PeelAway 1, a bit of time, some water and some citric acid later – voila! Brownstone without paint.

IMG_1454

Step 1: apply layer of PeelAway that is at least 1/8 of an inch think. Kinda like frosting a warm cake. Got a bit melt-y…

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Step 2: Cover with the nifty paper provided. And wait.

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Step 3: remove the goop and wash. And wash. And wash. Then spritz some citric acid and wash again.

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And there you have it: stone (mostly) free of paint.

My biggest problem is that I’m super afraid of heights and I have no idea how I’ll get to the second and third floors….

One bold step

Our brownstone is pink. Well, at the moment it’s mostly pink, as the paint is peeling in large chunks.

IMG_1180

Yep, it’s starting to look really bad. Not only does it look bad, but paint is also bad for the brownstone itself. It traps moisture and causes the stone to basically turn into sand. Not good. Not good at all.

We want to return the façade to its original non-painted stage. As you can tell by the photo above, this task is being helped by the elements.  Living in the sad looking house is starting to make us feel sad. So we decided it’s time to find someone to strip the paint and patch up any damaged spots. Easy right?

Wrong! Contractor #1 seemed to be on the right track, but has yet to provide an estimate (it’s been a month!). Contractor #2 declared the façade strong, but also stated that he will chip it all away and rebuild it with tinted cement, as it won’t withstand power washing. Um – what kind of an idiot would dream of power washing brownstone (which is a form of sandstone)? I mean, duh!

I have been looking at brownstone façades and I can always tell when they have been chipped away and redone, because the material used tends to have a flower-pot quality to it. Sure, sometimes the stone is too far gone and needs to be patched or replaced. But to just start off removing the very thing that makes the house special? No, thank you. Turns out we’re quite protective of our brownstone.

So what to do? Would it be crazy to tackle this ourselves? The pink latex paint is coming off is big pieces. How hard can this possibly be? Somehow I have a feeling I’m abut to find out.

 

 

Waking up from a long winter nap

We blew through our funds getting the garden apartment ready to rent, as well as spending money in the very un-glamurous-yet-very-necessary electrical and plumbing departments. Towards the end of last year, with the garden apartment rented, it was time to take a break and save up some cash for the projects ahead. They are:

Façade

Façade: This could potentially be a huge cost. The original façade is made of brownstone, which has been painted many times over the years. In its current iteration, it is pink. And it’s peeling. Our hope is once the paint is removed, the brownstone will be in good enough shape to be left alone, sans color. In case you are wondering, this is what it looks like now. Yes, we are the creepy house on the block….

SAMSUNG

Powder Room: Turning this once-closet back into a bathroom is the first step into a larger project of moving the kitchen down to the parlor level (it’s currently on the top floor, next to our bedroom).

Icky Parquet

Parlor Flooring: The original parquet floor is long gone. It’s been replaced with fake parquet, which was poorly installed and is lifting all over the place (the splotchy marks on it are not dirt, but residual glue form a sloppy installation). The idea is to replace it with period accurate parquet, with a nice border around it.

New Hatches: our house has two hatches, one in the front, one in the back. The front one was used as a coal chute, not sure what the one in the back was used for. In any case, both hatches are in dire need of replacement. The brick in the front hatch also needs repointing and the chute door needs a little love to make it look less like a horror movie set.

So yes, there is a lot of work ahead…

Making an entrance

The entry way to the garden level apartment used to be a narrow hallway flanked by a mishmash of closets. The space was barely wide enough for a person to get through – a fairly thin person that is.

This is the best “before” shot I could find. The closets are to the right. Pay no attention to the debris on the floor (that is what happens when you pull up ugly tile)

What is probably the world’s skinniest door. It turns out it’s hiding a really cool forgotten feature.

There was also evidence of some major water damage and a lot of rotted wood. Yum!

It gets worse before it gets better… demo in progress

The closets were not particularly well built and seemed cobbled together from whatever materials were available, just short of cardboard. We removed them and in the process found the old dumb waiter shaft.

Looking up the dumb waiter shaft from the garden level. The “ceiling” above is the bottom of the pantry on the top floor.

Looking up into the attic from the top floor kitchen, we found the dumb waiter mechanism still more or less intact.

We replaced a water damaged wall and created a nook for coats and shoes where the closets used to be – after all, we didn’t want to give up all the storage in that area.

Cell phone snapshot of the new coat nook in progress

There is now space to comfortable access the apartment and as a bonus, the awful tile is gone (and replaced with durable and earth friendly bamboo flooring).

Not quite finished yet, but much better already