Category Archives: living room renovation

4th Anniversary Tour – Living Room

This was the first room I worked on. Of course it didn’t look too bad at the start.






Living room, front

I got talked into the exposed brick on the stairway side and thought that this was going to nearly double what I had to do before moving in. Of course I doubled the scope several more times after that.


Then when I enlarged the low and narrow opening between the living room and the kitchen I discovered that the whole house was on one knob and tube circuit – except for a few outlets that were dangerously installed with their wires loose on the outside of the house.


At some point I grabbed the ceiling for stability and it squished – nail pops everywhere! The plan was to ignore this but then I took down all 3 ceilings. Yes, there were 3!


And it looked super scary at the end of this.



The big long wall had to be framed in about an inch because the new chimney didn’t fit flush like the old one did. But now I won’t die if I turn the heat on so it was worth it.



In the back, I opened the wall to the kitchen but I still wanted it to feel like separate rooms. The doorway and window are now the same height. I was a little bit annoying nagging the Irishman to make sure this happened.


And I had a few issues with the stairway wall. The basement stairs are super narrow.IMG_3656


And the door, which was moved rather crudely from the kitchen to the living room after this stairway was built, jutted awkwardly into the stairway woodwork.


Some people take the wall out entirely but I like my basement closed. The Irishman had a great idea though. Build wood paneling (in a 1930’s style of course) with a hidden seam so the wall comes out. His idea, my sketch:stairway paneling

And his workmanship


And I solved the other problem by using a skinny sash bead in lieu of door casing. The cap for the paneling runs straight across and the bead butts up to that, so I got to squeeze in my unbroken diagonal line.


And here it is built. He then filled that hacked out spot with Bondo.


And my favorite feature of the room, the inlaid banding on the floors. This is why my floors are blond.


I picked up a retro modern chandelier and was nervous it would look jarring and out of place in this room, but I’m very happy with it now. The Danish modern dining room set ($218 with tax at the ReStore) helps it blend in, too.


Just about everything else in the room is very traditional. The gods of Craigslist delivered it to me, but I take contrarian pleasure in bucking trends. Ironically, Apartment Therapy says that green will be the “it” color for sofas in 2017. And let’s not forget that I needed 4 friends to help carry it 6 feet above 4 other people’s back yards and dismantle the patio door to get it into the house. Also, I need a privacy fence ASAP mostly because of the yard pictured.

couch in alley

And against the brick wall, a little dresser that my great-grandmother hated when she had it right here in South Philly in the 1920’s, the convex mirror that was my grandmother’s pride and joy, and a (plaster of course) Brancusi bust just like one my friend’s parents have that I was terrified of when I was little. This is why having stuff that matches is overrated. I finally, finally don’t need the electric radiators anymore.


One thing that’s worse than before – drywall jambs and totally rigged 1/8″ thick Masonite trim around the front windows. The windows themselves are garbage so I promise this isn’t permanent, and in a year or 2 I’ll have a facsimile of what used to be there.


And here’s the after – actual nice photos for a change!


My Income Is Risen!

I’m a little late to the party with posting that joke. But anyways, Easter was moving day in the Crooked House! So we met after brunch and I went to get stuff out of her old place. I’m pretty flattered that she wanted to come to the Crooked House because just look at this giant Mediterranean Revival twin in West Philly where she used to live! LOOK! I want this house so bad.

The leaded glass! That fireplace! The gas sconces! Original bathroom tile! Everything! But I’m not sure about having 7 roommates. And the bathroom has new plumbing that was rigged on the outside of the walls and I’m sure there’s a host of other hidden problems too. So it was probably a good life choice that I got a small house.

Anyways, by the time we got to my house, my parents were already there. My mom made dinner while we were going back to return the van and after that we came in to this!


I’d like to think that print on the wall gives me a whole window in the dining room. It was a gift from my French host family in 2004 when I was in high school. The real window gives me light and air but overlooks a dingy blind alley. It also reminds me of my roof deck envy. I just don’t see any good way to get up there, but it’s a similar view. Particularly a little more to the left where there’s a handsome church.


And then there was all the prep for having someone live here. First off, we’ve finally, FINALLY gotten somewhere with the painting! I touched up all the damage on the walls in the back bedroom, put up blinds, and took out some of my furniture. And 3 out of 4 closets are done! I especially have to thank my parents and their friend Evan. Evan came to paint for me even though he never did it in his own house. He told me that he’s no good at it, so I had him do the closet. And he worked in there for 8 hours like a champ and even offered to come back a second time. Weird. And I put up the wood blinds and cleared out the room because she brought a full size bed. It covers all this bare floor but totally works.


Then, would you believe what a difference clean windows make? The front ones have survived the whole remodel plus I’m sure many years of neglect before that. My dad was mocking me pretty hard for how bad they were. The house is actually brighter now.


And the stained glass transom is clear now! Who knew? My mom had this made for her first house. She said that she had it made by a local stained glass maker. He told her he couldn’t make it the way he wanted for her price. She wouldn’t come up, so he made it the way he wanted and undercharged her instead of toning down the design to fit her budget.


It hasn’t been properly displayed in over 30 years. Now she said it’s in a better spot than it ever had. I get a disco ball effect when the vestibule light is on!

Stained Glass Disco Ball.jpg

I’ve run out of room to tell you about the super exciting kitchen work. Soon though!


Ups and Downs with the Bookcases

So first of all, yes I got them! I took the Suburban up to the seller’s house in Perkasie, and we got all of them except the middle lower unit in. This meant an hour and a half of driving over my usual afternoon commute. The seller is a concrete contractor and was working closer to where I work the next day, so he offered to bring it to his job site so I could get it there. But then he finished early and brought it to me instead. I said before that last week was bad. But then he showed up with this on his trailer. And yes, that’s my bookcase on the truck.


And here they are in the house! They’re supposed to go on the other side of the room and will get a little cosmetic tweaking – more on that later – but this is a start.


Sadly, the lowest shelf of the upper shelving units is fixed. won’t house a TV . But if I can choose between practical and solid mahogany… there’s no contest. The middle base unit has a pullout and a carousel for a TV, so that got me thinking that I could just be old fashioned and keep my TV 4 inches off the ground, too. And that way if there are people with bad taste in TV coming around too often, I can install locks on the doors! Should they insist on being allowed to watch, I’ll see if I can rig something up using the boiler as a stand and and throw some lawn chairs in the basement.

And then, remember how the bases are too deep to fit in my house? I plan to cut 5 inches off the backs, then rout out the side panels and reinstall the original backs to make them look like they came that way. This was easy in my mind. We’d run them through the Irishman’s table saw. He left it in my house and we’ve used it plenty.

But my dad wasn’t comfortable with us being able to balance something that big on such a small table. So instead he said we could clamp on a fence and cut them with a circular saw. We took one out to the sidewalk and made the first cut. The result? Wavy. A disaster.


I’ll need a Plan B. Either going to Philadelphia Woodworks to have a real wood shop and professional guidance – at $70 an hour – or hoping I can do better redoing the cuts with a router. But for now I’ve just thrown the room together to leave this project till later.


I thought seeing things bit scrunched and the couch off center was going to make me twitch, but I gave it a shrug. It’s fine. Also, I’ve figured out that the couch will be smushed against the bases if I size them to fit the stereo receiver, but because there’s a big gap behind the cabinets above the baseboards, I’m just gonna be lazy and cut a big hole in the backs. Problem solved.

Closing down the sawdust factory… and making room for a party!

Yep, that’s a big change isn’t it? Once I got used to having nice woodwork everywhere I realized that I had very few big things left that needed to be cut up. There were the countertops, and then everything else is small enough to do in the basement. So we got some odd jobs done. Shampooed a rug, my sister did some painting, and her boyfriend and I cut up my countertops into all the pieces I need to fit my kitchen. They need a little work to be installed right, but the messy part is done.


So as soon as that was done, we brought in 4 cars full of stuff over 2 days. The Suburban wasn’t available to me, but I’ll call this Moving Day Number 5. I crapped up the dining room table immediately.


My policy was always to take all the free kitchen stuff I could get and now I have an awful lot of things so this seemed like the way to make sense of it all. I had to wash construction debris off a lot of it. But somewhere around this point I was getting texts from friends who wanted to see each other on New Year’s Eve. So I said, “Why not come for dinner at my house and stay over?” And would you believe that my friends said yes?

I fiendishly unpacked, washed, and put away all my stuff. I cut shelves down for the custom sized wall cabinets. I put things on shelves. I found the hardware for my bed, assembled it while Tame Impala sang “It’s getting closer” to me on the radio.


I took a moving box full of my grandmother’s Pyrex dishes to the hole in the wall Indonesian restaurant on the corner and then set up a makeshift food warmer. One of my friends said I’m too classy for the


My brave friends had warm clothes and were ready to camp out in a construction site. But instead, they walked into this!


When they walked in I was on a ladder vacuuming the sawdust I forgot about off of the lights in the upstairs hall. This looking like a house thing continues upstairs! But the civility ends a few inches east of the antipasto.


That is Courtesy the Italian store around another corner. Remember, I didn’t just move to South Philly for the fun of having a small house with a tiny yard and no parking. And here are my guests, looking not too traumatized. Don’t tell my grandmother I didn’t use the table pads.


Just before midnight we took a walk, and had the pleasure of watching idiots burning their Christmas trees in the middle of an intersection with tons of lighter fluid (they even threw in the bottle) and no street closures. And of course no cops came because this is Philadelphia. Just drive around it.


We stuck around until the really loud explosions started (still not sure what that was) but there was no crater on this corner at the end of our walk.

There’s a bit of a dark side to having a dinner party with no kitchen sink though. I’ll leave you with this. Happy New Year!




The Irishman Giveth, The Irishman Taketh Away

To be fair, he didn’t actually take anything from me. He gave me 3 great days this week. I think that’s it, so lots of stuff is done, but there’s chaos everywhere and I’ve left it where it was for 4 days. Because there was this holiday I totally ignored. Then I decided not to ignore it on Christmas Eve and threw just enough together to save face.

So, Monday he came and we got the dryer vent pipe through the corner cabinet. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. He bored through a wire. Panic ensued, but we were able to free it from the spray foam with enough slack to add a junction box in the cabinet and everything is fine. Tedious, but it’s done! You can barely even see this stuff with the carousel in place.


Then he installed the higher base cabinet for that room divider I was talking about and all the woodwork in the living room! We actually have more done now including the trim at the top of the big opening, but I forgot to get a picture. I opted for dish storage on this side of the peninsula because I don’t really like stools, but this is high enough that I can eat standing if the table is set. That means it’s too high for short people.


Some of you were a little confused about my wordy description of the awkward corner where the peninsula has 2 heights and wraps around the pipe chase and door casing. Here’s what it looks like in real life. Not so bad, right?


And here’s the best view I have of the whole room. I have enough of that Formica to splice on pieces at both ends of the L you can see, and to do one side of the stove. The other side of the stove is going to get more of the free oak I have on the bar top. I think I’ll want the oak to the right near the door. Sometime later I’ll upgrade the work areas to all one material but probably keep the oak bar top for good. Do you agree with all this?


Then, remember how the floor slants? Well, my counters are near the standard 36 inch height at one end of the room, but then over here they’re a solid 3 inches higher. Which I love. But it means that the whole kitchen is not for short people. And then my wall cabinets are so high I can’t reach them without a stool. But my 9 foot ceilings are basically the only place where my house gave me more than minimum sizes (or below today’s minimums) so I have to use it. I’ll also need to shim up these cabinets a weensy bit.


There are a lot of loose ends to tie up but overall I’m pretty happy!

How hard can it be to get a couch into a rowhouse?

I mean, I knew my front door was narrow. Then I learned that authentic 18th Century furniture doesn’t have legs that come off. So I knew I was bringing it in the back. That means bringing it up through the alley from the street 60 feet away. No big deal, right? The alley is narrower than the sofa, but it’s only lined with 6 foot walls, so it just means holding it up above your head. My mom’s friend offered to come so she could ride in on it wearing Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra eye makeup.

Before we could bring it in, the patio door had to come out. I had the foresight to contact the sales rep my distributor was in touch with and he sent me instructions to take the panels out. Because this isn’t something that normal people do.

patio door instructions.png

The really aggravating part here was cutting out the caulk all the way around that door panel. And for that you get a super exciting short video of me cutting out the caulk.

Then on to actually bringing it in. Remember what I said about the 6 foot walls? Well, that’s true after the first pair of houses. Right next to the street, the house on the right has a 7 foot wall plus barbed wire on the street side. And the house on the left is built all the way to the alley with a wall way to high to pass anything over. And if that’s not bad enough, the phone lines are all droopy and criss crossing the alley everywhere. Yayy.


So we needed chairs and a ladder. My friend sat on the wall and lifted the wires up so we could push the couch through under them. 2 other friends stood on the sidewalk lifting it as high as they could to pass it to us.


And then part way through someone was smart enough to think of covering the wall with blankets. This was revolutionary because we could set it down on the stringers halfway onto someone else’s property.

Displaying image1.JPGDisplaying image1.JPGcouch in alley

And then after this it was easier for a bit. But you see we had more power lines to cross. Then finally we took it through 2 other people’s back yards, which was so much better. Just not the one you can see above because the whole yard is completely full of junk.

And… In it went!


But let’s back up a bit before you get too excited about how my living room looks.


I’ll need to clean off the residue from when the phone lines rubbed against it and then cover it with sheets before I use the saws again. We also broke the guys off some of the phone lines. My friend said he’d help me reattach them and I said no. I accept no responsibility for the disgraceful state of those lines. If I’m feeling generous, I’ll call them and tell them to come clean it up themselves.

But it’s out of the way before my parents get their Christmas tree. Or, before they bring it in. Look what’s on their driveway now.


Building the Paneled Panel

Did you think I forgot about this? You might have since I haven’t mentioned it since January. It’s looked like this for about as long as I can remember. Leave your kids at home.


But the panel on my stairway wall is very much still happening. Here’s the sketch I made way back when.

stairway paneling

The whole point of doing this was to make the wall come out for access to the basement. I can’t remove it all though because there are switches and wires in that wall. The Craftsman-style long skinny panels are perfect though because the panel closest to the door can be fixed while the next 3 come off. On top of that, there was one aesthetic problem I wanted to solve. Not a huge one, but while I’m at it…

You see, the door to the basement used to be in the kitchen and someone filled it in (weirdly), moved the stairs toward the front of the house, cut the door down, and put it on the side of the stairwell. This was a big improvement in the kitchen, but I wasn’t fond of the weird wall where the door used to be or the way the casing around the new door jutted into the stairway woodwork. Plus, there was a triangular chunk of the wood hacked out and filled in with drywall and caulk. I think this happened in the 50’s. (And remember, the house didn’t look that bad when I bought it.)


I decided to use a wainscot cap to finish the paneling, which is now thicker than the edge of the stairs. And there is no casing at all around the door, just a little strip of sash bead. And the cap comes so close to the door that the bead doesn’t even go all the way around. The Irishman thought I was crazy for wanting to do it this way, but he said he’d build it. He sent me a photo of the opening with sash bead all the way around the door, which was wrong! So I quickly sketched it (not to scale) and texted him a photo. (Though this is a scan. It looks better.)


And then he built it and it’s perfect. Except that little hacked out triangle. He’s going to stick a piece of plywood in there and then fill the cracks with Bondo. As in auto body filler.


And remember how I was going trim inside the panels that looked like the sticking on the door? That didn’t quite work out. He hates wasting molding passionately, so he made custom panel sticking out of the scraps of my upstairs casing. It’s that small piece to the left. He says we’ll find a place to use the reeded part to the right, too.


So that’s where we are now. It was hard. And because I’m paying him by the hour, it was expensive. But I love it, and if I get my finances in order by 30 it’s all good, right? Stay tuned, finishing touches are coming together so there might be a big reveal in the near future!

So much win with the Irishman

I had very little to do with any of this. Except I went to the Home Depot 5 times this weekend. I’ve been waiting for my next door neighbor, a master carpenter, to be free to work for me on Saturdays. After 4 false starts I was starting to get pissed (but this is what contractors do, right?)

So what happened? The bathroom door! This is the only one that won’t be in the way of the floor finishing. It’s also the one I really want. I can always say, “Stay downstairs, I’m taking a shit.” But having a door brings the place to a new level of classiness. Up to below-average!


And…. he put up the rim lock! I took like 30 photos of this door. Here’s another for you. I took like 30. And opened and close the door about 100 times.


So you know my house is old. My walls are weird thicknesses. My doors are from Philadelphia Salvage and they’re not square and they’re weird thicknesses too. So when I say custom, I mean building jambs for crooked doors installed in crooked walls over crooked floors. He said, “Ya buys couldn’t frame fer shit.” I said, “Who?” and he snapped back, “You and yer father.” But how much can you expect of a civil engineer and a financial analyst?

Also, I realized to my horror that I had neglected to get a decent set of hinges for this door. So check out his craftsmanship going around the bathroom floor and my stupidity of having him install a broken hinge. The upper one is whole, so this is something we can figure out later.


Then it was on to the windows. He asked how I wanted them built. How to finish the edges, how far out beyond the trim to bring them. Totally custom work is not fun for someone who has no idea how to deal with blank slates. So my answer was a trip to the basement. “Build them like these.”


And here’s what I got! Remember how I said the house is crooked? The windows aren’t. It makes for an interesting look.


And he’s pre-cut the trim for the sides of the windows downstairs. I don’t have the materials for the headers but we can pretend. Also, I wanted to make the headers of all the windows and doors toward the back of the house line up. The one window in the kitchen was too low, so the trim steps up. You can see here how that worked out.


I’m thinking that if I put up blinds, no one will ever know that I cheated the trim up to match the others. Much better than ripping the brick out to raise the lintel, eh?

Oh. And remember how my living room became a disaster? This job got it there again. I swept up a half dozen shovels of sawdust today and called it good enough. And one more shot because my mind is blown that this man can build jambs that fit every bit of crooked perfectly and slide right into place. The smoke smell had better not linger though.


Digging Into the History of the Stairway

Since there’s nothing new to talk about with what I’m doing right now and I got quite a few comments about my banister, I thought it’d be a good time go in depth with its history.

People might say it’s original and unique. It is neither of these things. Remember, someone remodeled my living room in the 1930’s. Before this time, I think the house had a parlor, a dining room, a vestibule, and a hall. I could be wrong about some of this but I had proof that the outside corner of the wall separating the living room from the vestibule once had a wall attached to it that divided the room width wise and made a hallway. See how wide the casing was next to the vestibule door? That was because they never plastered over where the wall was!

Living room, front

Living room, front

There are also dowels in the brick wall, indicating that there may once have been a decorative plaster arch dividing the living room length wise. That setup is common on South Philly. But these two ghosts of previous interior treatments contradict each other. That makes me wonder if the unbroken living room ceiling I have now could be the third version of the room (and the one I put back in). But anyways, if I’m right about all this, all the houses on my street may once have had walls around their staircases. Either that or the stairs turned sideways near the bottom and let out into the dining room.

I also found a ghost of the original railing upstairs. Under the oak flooring in the hall, the original pine floors have holes for the original balusters drilled into them. I can only see these two. This is interesting because my upstairs and downstairs banisters don’t match perfectly and I wondered at first if the upstairs one might have been original to the house.


So you believe it’s not original, but why do I say it’s not unique? It looks a lot like the one in my parents’ 1951 Colonial, but that’s not what I meant.


Plus mine is nicer than theirs. The biggest difference (besides that cool carved flower) is that mine has a compound curve. Whereas my parents’ railing has a segment for the vertical curve and a volute segment that is totally flat, mine has a piece that puts the vertical and horizontal curves together in the same spot. It’s still 3 pieces of wood with little seams, but it’s much more graceful that way. Like a roller coaster.


But what of the flower? You’ve never seen anything like it before, have you? That’s what I said when I bought the house, but since then I have been in 3 other Philadelphia rowhouses with the exact same one! One right on my block, one 3 blocks west, and once clear across town in Kensington. The only explanation that makes sense to me is that these railings were all made of off the shelf components. Maybe unique to Philadelphia, but not within it. Renovation contractors in the depths of the Depression must have been putting them into middle class homes all over the city.


Peeling back the last layer on the front windows

I have these neat paneled alcoves under my living room windows that are original to the house – I think about 40 years older than the rest of my living room’s current incarnation.  One of them is super crooked. The paint was chipping badly, so even though they’re not going to show, I conceded that they needed to be stripped.


They came out way nicer than I thought they would. By better, I mean stain grade. Once I burned the paint off, stripping the varnish was effortless.


I’m happy with the way they look, but it creates a dilemma. I’ve already committed to painted trim throughout the house. I peeled back a lot of layers on this wall, so I think it might be good to go through them again.

Before I started there was a lot to like: Craftsman trim, deep sills, alcove radiators, and those awesome inlaid floors.

Living room, front

Living room, front

But other things were not so hot. If you look at the upper left corner of the left window, there’s a chunk missing from the crown molding. And worse, the jambs were lined with crappy plywood paneling. It turned out that this was covering damage from when the interior wall sagged. But the windows were attached to the outside brick wall that stayed level. You can see the crappiness of the paneling and the huge amounts of caulk holding in the boring radiator covers here. It’s the best shot I got of this.

Radiator cover removal

Radiator cover removal

And the best part is, the sagged jambs were holding the wall up! They were the framing! so I couldn’t fix them without sacrificing the whole wall! I still feel a little sad about sacrificing so much of the before house.


But anyways, I now have drywall jambs around these windows. I’ll recreate the “before” look with nice trim after those crappy windows meet their demise. The problem is, I still think it will look best to paint the alcoves. If they’re stained, the painted trim will look weird. Or I could paint the sides but stain the panels. And in the end, I’m probably going to put deep window sills back on and they won’t show anyway. The original sills are wrecked. The original sills were nailed to them and I did the best I could to put them back together.And though I want to recreate that part of the 1930’s remodel, in my dreams I will also reinstall the pocket shutters that were taken out at that time.


So what do you say I should do? Paint it? Stain it? Paint the sill and sides but not the panels? Do you want to smack me for being neurotic enough to even ask this question? Staining this teeny bit of trim is either doing right by 120 year old pine… or wasting my time on something that won’t be visible or fit with the rest of the house.