Look up!

Our parlor floor ceiling is a bit of a show-off. It’s not super fancy like some of the stuff you see in Cobble Hill, or Park Slope, but it’s enough to class up the joint.


There are harps and other delicate squiggles, some of which are showing signs of aging – cracks and patches and ample evidence of less than perfect repairs in the past.

Parlor Ceiling Detail

If a plain plaster wall can make me swoon, a fancy plaster has me head over heels. I’m insanely protective of our parlor ceilings, which I suppose it’s an odd thing to say – but it’s true. I catch myself staring at it and taking inventory of every crack and poorly patched bit of plaster. It’s overwhelming sometimes because I have no idea how we are going to fix it. I’m sure a mold needs to be made, then what? While I’m getting pretty good at skim coating, I wouldn’t dare make this a DIY project. So, as with all things that require a budget, it will have to wait. For now, I’m keeping an eye out of any new damage, and hoping there is none.


The Cockloft – it’s a thing, apparently.

Brownstones don’t have attics. It’s really the one Victorian thing we’re missing, at least in my opinion. Attics are fun, old-timey and filled with treasures – well, at least in the movies they are.  Our flat roof structures are not conducive to such architectural fancy-ness, so instead, what exists between the ceiling and the roof is called a cockloft. Defined by the fine folks at Merriam-Webster as “a small garret,” this is what we saw when we pulled down the ceiling in the bedroom:

Looking up at the cockloft.

Looking up at the cockloft. 

It’s enough space to crawl through, but you can’t even sit up. Looking up here, you get to see a bit of how the house is put together – and also where it’s falling apart (sigh).


Small strips of wood help stabilize the beams. A lot of these were broken, causing the plaster ceiling to sag – or did the ceiling sag because they broke? Chicken or egg type situation. 

Check out that sweet water damage. We think the water made the plaster heavier, which pulled down on the little supports, which in turn broke. This caused the ceiling to sag and a huge chunk of plaster to fall down. Not an expert, but seems to make sense.


The smaller of the two skylights. This is the one in the middle room. It has been partially tarred over, because why not? Ugh!


The big skylight over the stairs. It needs a good cleaning.

Despite the thick layer of black filth (what I imagine is a century worth of dust, cigarette smoke, oil residue and general grossness), a few treasures await:


Big wheel mechanism from dumb waiter – a terrible cell phone photo. 

The mechanism for the dumb-waiter appears to be largely intact, although the dumb-waiter car is long gone, and the shaft is currently being used as closet space on some of the floors. Maybe some day we may restore it, but it is super low on the list of priorities.

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.”


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!


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.


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.


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.


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…


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


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


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….

Laboring weekend

What a difference a long weekend makes.

Since we still have all our stuff out of our bedroom following the stripping of the woodwork, we decided to tackle the ceiling. Truth be told, I’ve been wanting to rip this down since we first saw the house, since this awful ceiling is guilty of robbing the room of almost a foot in height (and popcorn? Ew!)

Over the course of the weekend, we took down the drop ceiling, as well as what was left of the original plaster and all of the lath. Here is day 1 in 24 seconds.

All of the gory details and photos in a later post.

Gooped up skylight

Our house has two skylights (in various states of disrepair). The main one, above the stairs to the top floor is made of simple stained glass (which is cracked and needs to be fixed at some point). The second one is in the middle room. When we bought the house, the skylight looked like this:

Yes, not only is the skylight painted over, it is also covered with popcorn. Whomever did this is  an over-achiever of doing dumb thing to functional architectural features. Pay no attention to the ugly lighting fixture. We’ll deal with it later. First, let’s let some sunlight into this room, since it’s a center room without windows.

We took down the skylight window. Once in broad daylight, it was even filthier than we thought.

Step 1: Clean the years of accumulated dirt from the roof-facing side of the window

Cue the Peel Away 6. While it works pretty well, particularly for a product that is no-toxic, be prepared to do more than one application, particularly if you have many layers of paint. I have lost count as to how many buckets of this stuff we’ve used thus far.

In the process of removing the glass, the frame kinda sorta came apart…

It was fixed with hardware on the roof facing side. While not perfect, it’s a vast improvement: the semi-finished project probably needs one more round of cleaning to eliminate the smudging. After that, we shall tackle that horrendous popcorn….

Popcorn is for eating, not for ceilings

The top floor of our house has a new-ish ceiling. Best we can tell, there was damage to the original plaster that was “fixed” with dry wall. Eventually we’d like to take down the ceiling and restore it back to its original condition. In the mean time, we can live with it as is. What we cannot live with is the popcorn. There is popcorn on the ceilings. On the walls. On the woodwork. It’s a hot mess.

This is what some of the woodwork in our bedroom looks like:

There is similar sloppiness on the walls and on the doors. Our bedroom looks like a cannon of popcorn ceiling exploded – an no one bothered to clean it up. Until now.

Turns out it’s not hard to remove stray popcorn bits. A wet towel helps saturate the dribbles, which turns them into a paste you can just wipe off. It was a lot less messy than I expected.

The biggest challenge has been the heat wave we’ve been having in New York these past weeks, so this is still a work in progress. To ensure we don’t slack off too much, Sir Kitty provides careful work site supervision: