life in an old house

Unabridged to-do list

Making lists is comforting. They provide the illusion of control; a sense of order and the hopefulness that things will get done. I love making lists. I find it is calming. Lists turn chaos into manageable orderly pieces. Lists calm me down. Lists give me hope. Yes, I make lists. Many lists.

Today is one of those crappy days – nothing monumental, but lots of crappy things keep happening. I’ve heard this feeling being referred to as being pecked to death by a duck, and that’s totally it. Lethal by the sum of its parts I guess.

So I am going to use the wondrous power of lists to take a delusionary moment away from this shit day, and compile a comprehensive and exhaustive (exhausting?) list of everything that needs to be done to the house. Starting from the front, working our way in, up from the cellar, to the roof and ending in the back yard. Ready? Here we go:


Finish stoop project

Coal shoot trap – needs new trap door

Strip and repaint gate under stoop

Fix front yard light

Remove cement, create flower bed

Strip and repair façade

Strip, patch and paint cornice

Replace windows

Purchase and install mail slot in front door

Replace entry door hardware



Repoint stones

Do something about the floor

Rebuild cellar stairs

Remove ugly paneling

Retrofit heating system to gas (or something more environmentally friendly)

Remove oil tank

Take down room that houses HVAC, since no longer needed by code (after the switch)

Replace rear hatch to back yard, make functional


Garden level

Finish plastering entry foyer

Replace ugly tile in foyer with something nicer

Fix plaster under the garden stairs

Install proper door trim on tenant’s front door.

Install proper door trim on both sides of French doors in tenant’s apartment

Fix plaster under parlor stairs

Replace all windows

Parlor level

Fix missing bits of encaustic tile in entryway

Hang light fixture in entry foyer

Fix plaster in entry foyer

Remove ugly hallway tile, replace with wood

Fix creaky stairs

Fix plaster in hallway

Strip and re-finish all woodwork

Remove stick on floor in skinny hallway, replace with wood

Clean out closet of doom

Turn closet of doom into 3 piece bathroom

Install new door in closet of doom/3 piece bathroom

Remove green bathroom from existence, prep for future kitchen

Fix floors in front, middle and rear parlor

Finish stripping front parlor summer cover, install

Redo bad fireplace stripping job.

Fix ceiling plaster in front, middle, rear parlor

Remove horrendous ceiling fan, replace with less offensive model

Finish plasterwork in rear parlor wall

Fix pocket doors (middle parlor to rear parlor)

Fix glazing on pocket door glass (middle to rear parlor), strip and re-finish doors

Redo bad strip job on rear mantle

Create new kitchen in rear parlor/green bathroom

Turn one of the rear windows into doors

Make window in bathroom (future kitchen) smaller.

Move radiators in front parlor

Make shutters in front parlor functional (strip?)

Front, middle and rear parlor woodwork.

Replace all windows


Top floor

Move roof access ladder back into closet (where it belongs)

Fix stair hall ceiling, including hole where ladder used to be

Repair stained glass skylight

Repair treads on stairs

Remove ugly tile from hallway, replace with wood

Replace temporary vinyl floor with wood.

Redo bathroom

Turn kitchen into my office/library

Remove drop ceiling in rear top floor

Finish stripping rear fireplace

Rebuild original cupboard

Fix plaster throughout

Turn front little room in walk in closet

Fix plaster in small front room

Make ladder closet not scary, turn into linen closet

Strip millwork in small front room

Paint ceiling and coves in bedroom

Apply second coat of paint on bedroom walls

Finish stripped woodwork

Re-wax floor

Fix squeaky floorboards

Replace middle window, restore small windows

Paint radiator

Replace all windows, except for the 2 original ones



Replace roof

Add insulation in cockloft

Replace skylights

Relocate roof hatch to its original location

Replace downspout as needed



Remove middle and bottom sections of fire escape

Close up top portion of fire escape, but preserve roof access

Install deck

Remove ugly pavers, replace with historic brick

Build new grape arbor

Build outside furniture to create living area under grape arbor

Build retaining wall to address sloping rear yard

Install French drain by the old tree pit

Remove flower beds by fence

Create raised planters to divide living area from grilling area

Rebuild rear extension. While this doesn’t happen, put new roof on extension

Replace squeaky vent chimney with with one less irritating.

Install water spigot somewhere

Install electrical outlet somewhere






DIY Medicine Cabinet

Or, should I say, the medicine cabinet of a DIY’er.

Medicine Cabinet

Scrapes and bruises are par for the course. We have a great assortment of bandages and ointments. Personally, I feel life is too short to go for plain Band Aids. The hubs favors the boring fabric kind, claims the other ones are too small and made for children. Whatevs.

Almost 5 years in and my  biggest boo-boo was this:


Don’t get me wrong. It hurt like a (expletive deleted), but the nail didn’t even fall out, so I had that going for me – which was nice. There have been splinters jabbed under finger nails, pulled muscles, sore backs, that type of thing. But mostly we’re pretty good about our “on the job safety.”


Work around here has ground to a halt, largely because of the hubs’ torn meniscus. Not DIY related (me thinks), but an injury that is taking it’s sweet ol’time to heal. The time where I had to glue his scalp shut  (courtesy of gravity + piece of wood)  and couldn’t look (I don’t do blood) and glued a bunch of his hair in there – even that healed much faster than the knee. This basically means that the bigger projects are taking a back seat – you know, the ones that need a level headed, knowledgeable person – not someone often drunk with enthusiasm, yet easily distracted.

We are still hoping to fix the cornice and strip the façade this summer and researching our scaffolding options. The hubs seems to think his knee will be OK with this. (Perhaps my drunk enthusiasm is contagious?)

Things will get done, however slowly. It would only stop raining so I could get the back yard done, that would make me oh-so-happy. Since we’re in for yet another rainy weekend, I’m fairly confident I’ll spend a good deal of time complaining about it, while ignoring the pile of laundry or the other 9,000 project I could be doing.


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.



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).

TBT: Wallpaper

I love peeling back the layers of our house, unearthing little clues about the past. In a recent kitchen refresh ( swear I’ll post about it soon), we came across this teeny tiny piece of wallpaper. (Hand shown for scale)


(I really should moisturize)

The little fragment was hiding behind the stove, well, behind where the stove currently is. As you can see from the original floor plan, it seems the stove is now where the double sink used to be. This may explain why the plaster was all messed up and the last little remnant of the long gone wallpaper basically just fell off the wall.

Original Floorplan

(yes, I need to write about finding the original floor plans to our house. I will. Promise!)

Anyway, the wallpaper doesn’t look to be Victorian. I’m not an expert, but to me it looks like something from the 20s or 30s. The piece is so small, it’s hard to tell if the pattern was little, or if the surviving nugget just happens to show a misleading piece of the design. I did a quick check on Second Hand Rose’s website and didn’t find anything similar. Regardless, it goes into the curio of the life and times of the Pink Lady.


The tyranny of water in its many forms

Fun fact: snow is made of water. Snow melts and turns into water. Water will follow the path of least resistance and end up in the basement. Given its liquid slinky-ness, water flows a lot faster than you’d expect.

Last night, as I was feeling pretty accomplished for asking the Hubs to check on the wonky dehumidifier in the basement. I thought “way to go! We’ll get ahead of all this humidity and make sure the basement is not damp. Yey me, the responsible homeowner.” Without a care in the world, I amused myself by taking the stupid Buzzfeed quiz on what profession should I have, or what Muppet character I should be (CEO, Animal). Hubs is in the basement a looooong time, and eventually resurfaces in a huff. Water is pouring in through the hatch. A lot of water, he says. Our basement is notoriously damp (hence the dehumidifier), but the look on his face makes it clear that this is worse. Much worse.

I immediately think it’s my pseudo snow moat in the front yard. I piled the snow pretty high on top of the coal chute. I thought it was fun. Stupid me, the silly and immature homeowner.


My moat just needed some water and a drawbridge

Turns out the problem was with the rear hatch instead. A lot of water was coming through and it was hard to tell exactly where, because (of course) this happened around 10 pm. Down the fire escape we go with flashlights and shovels. Did I mention it was raining?

The culprit was a frozen downspout, actually  THE frozen downspout since there is only one for the whole roof. Why? Because in spite of its beauty, Victorian architecture doesn’t always make sense. Anyway, the rain was melting the snow and the water was finding alternate routes to the ground. It just so happens that the best path was into a puddle at the base of the hatch.

After a lot of shoveling and moving stuff out of the way, we concocted this makeshift gutter to channel the water away from the house.

Tarp gutter

Last night’s McGyver gutter as seen this morning.

It actually worked. The problem was this spot, where water was coming down super close to the foundation and just making an enormous puddle.

tarp gutter 2

Shockingly, this held up with the wind and all the rain. Yey 0.7 mil plastic drop cloth.

I don’t have any photos of the water in the basement, as we were in full crisis mode to make it go away. I think we probably vacuumed up about 1oo gallons or so, maybe more. Of course, the wonky dehumidifier that got us started on this is broken. So happy Valentine’s Day Hubs. Haven’t you always wanted a shiny new dehumidifier?

Living in a construction zone

You bought the perfect house, and so what if it needs a ton of work? You are a hardy person. You have experience buying a less than livable space and making it awesome. You are not afraid of getting dirty completely filthy. You are not a girly girl, and the only reason you keep nail polish remover in the house is to help dissolve adhesive and other construction related substances from your skin, as not to look like a complete hobo when you (finally) leave the house. You totally got this.  You understand the pitfalls and the drawbacks of DIY-ing your way to a fantastic home.  Yet, every now and then reality sets in, and what gets old is not just the never-ending list of projects, but  living amidst the chaos and aforementioned filth that go with fixing up an old house. While regular construction is dirty, an old house is exponentially dirtier – all those decades of dust, pollution, smoke, all just waiting to waft free.


Exhibit A: dirt

Take our bedroom for example.  It has been un-inhabitable  for about 5 weeks. The professional paint stripping begat the ceiling restoration, which begat the fixing of some minor electrical things, which begat – oh god, where will this end? Over dinner recently,  these words actually came out of my mouth: “Our bedroom is in shambles, and we’ve been forced to take up residence in the rear parlor. And the cats, there are so many cats…”  at which point I realized I’m one six toed cat away from sounding like Little Edie of Grey Gardens.

But onward we push. If the weather holds I think I should be able to finish the stripping of the garden level of the façade. The bedroom now has a functioning light, and the circuitry has been sorted out.  And yes, the beams have been leveled. Photos and details ahead.