Category Archives: Phase 2

Planning… Stucco?

So I’ve had a pattern. Do project, burn out, take time off, start 2 new projects. I was around that point in the cycle 2 weeks ago and, well, it was pretty obvious that sooner or later I need to finish painting the kitchen cabinets, get the knobs on, and get glass in the doors. So I took down the ones that the Irishman never painted on the back sides. Incidentally, he skipped all the ones that are the hardest to pop on and off.


And he convinced me that I need to stucco around the patio door this year. I’ve had plywood sheathing exposed to the elements (under an overhang at least) for 2 years now. So after lining one side of the dining area with cabinet doors I filled  the other with stucco materials. Also PVC trim boards for casing around the patio door.


And then I got food poisoning. (And I don’t know what from but I probably cooked it myself.)

So here’s the plan. First off, the old plan was to have the whole rear of the house stuccoed at once. The new plan is to defer the air shaft area indefinitely…


And do it like everyone else did and just redo the part that I can see for now. As in, new stucco on the plywood and the stucco that got this lovely green paint.


Now, stucco terrifies me. Because there are some stucco houses I love.


But there are others that are McMansions. Also, modern stucco is supposed to have ugly control joints so it doesn’t crack. I’m definitely going to need a couple because the stucco around the back door will be installed as a veneer over paint and plywood while the rest of the house (to be stuccoed later) can get it right onto the masonry, the old fashioned way.

So here’s what I’m thinking. I’ll install the new stucco with one horizontal control joint right around the top of the first floor. And I’ll wrap the corner and put the control joint right behind the downspout where you can’t see it. Because inside corners are bad, this means that when I go back and stucco the rest there will be a really long skinny strip of stucco that wraps the corner from the siding (the trim is PVC) to behind the downspout. Then the rest of the back inside the air shaft can hopefully get one seamless coat. Back to this photo again, the little bit of brick that’s showing behind the downspout is where the joint will be. (Note: I’m pretty sure the back of these houses are all a low grade of brick that needs to be stuccoed.)


Then there’s the small matter of texture. What I’ve noticed about old stucco is that it’s not as perfectly flat and often has a heavier texture than new stucco. That house I showed above? The walls seem to have heft. New stucco more often than not looks like a card house.


But the Crooked House is not Tudor. It’s not Cotswold Revival, Colonial Revival, Spanish Colonial Revival, or arts and crafts. It’s a very modest late Victorian, a period when I don’t think stucco was particularly popular. And the back has no architectural style at all really. I’m going to do the walls in a fairly smooth sand finish. That’s basically the plainest stucco finish and it was popular before my house was built and after. It’s also the easiest to do. And I’m skipping the corner bead. I’ll chip off some of the old bad repairs to let the wall be semi-flat, then I’ll just let the corners be a bit rounded off.


The Kitchen – A First Look

All right, the dust has settled in my brain and been (mostly) cleaned out of my living room. Where does this leave us? Well, the kitchen looks more or less finished! Big sigh!


So let’s talk about what I’ve got and why. Painted slab doors. I was emphatic that the kitchen be plain. I wanted this partly because I’m a messy cook – ask me about that time I tried putting ganache frosting onto a hot cake in my parents’ kitchen with beadboard cabinet doors.

And I did it partly to be as unlike the horror of super ornate kitchens as I could. (Even more horrifyingly, this is a 1926 neo-Georgian that surely had some architectural value before it was redone in the style of the Trump Taj Mahal.)

villanova kitchen

I balked at Shaker style doors even though I like them because I don’t trust that they’ll stay in style, and there’s still a little bit of grooves co clean melted ganache out of. But flat doors and all that white had me afraid it would be boring. Now that it’s mostly done though I’m totally fine with it. The upper cabinets will get the same chrome knobs as the lowers and the patio doors will be stained darker. I have drywall soffits because I wanted the cabinets tight to the ceiling and the beams slope.

The toe kick runs right under the dishwasher, which makes it look like it’s floating. The dishwasher is up on blocks because the floor is so low over here. The door threshold juts out from the wall and runs past the door under the cabinets because there was a gap in the flooring near the old door.

The stove is up on blocks, too, so now it has a toe kick of its own, painted white. The Irishman thought I was crazy for wanting it white. I thought he was crazy for wanting it blue. Now he says I need to repaint it real white instead of the off white I’ve used everywhere else. I probably will eventually.

The end of the peninsula gets one big panel spanning the 2 cabinet heights, 2 floor heights, and floor slope. The plywood riser between the 2 countertops will be white until I add backsplashes.

Remember how I thought this piece of trim was too skinny?


The door opening is now 3/4″ narrower. The way it was before would have been even worse on the kitchen side than the living room side.


Now to finish the room, I’d like to get the painting done this year, though countertops, shades or curtains, and backsplashes will have to wait. My mom wants me to paint the trim the same blue as the lower cabinets. I’m thinking I’m happy with the room being a bit plain, but it was an idea. Colored trim works just fine in her house.


But as the idea intrigued me and I feel like showing off the fact that I don’t have crappy vinyl windows, I’m thinking of painting the window sashes over the sink blue.


And in a year or 2 we can figure out livening the space up with the missing bits. Mainly counters and backsplash tile, but I’m also thinking of putting in roller shades made of patterned fabric and wood valences to hide the rolls. Of course, just because I can’t finish the room this year doesn’t mean you can’t volunteer ideas for it.

And, one more shot from the living room side because I don’t get things this tidy every day. I still want to paint the inside of that cabinet blue. And get glass in the doors.


An Irish-Made Kitchen

So here’s the deal. Yes, the HDF was kitchen cabinet doors. I’ve been told that it is a suitable material for cabinetry. I hope I was told right.


And the rest of the deal. What I said about being burnt out from tedious work and a messy house was true. I was absolutely ready to live my life unencumbered by house projects. The house had gotten a thorough cleaning and I had friends coming for dinner. And the Irishman needed a job and begged me to let him make my cabinet doors. I relented and on my first day of freedom he set up his cutting station on the sidewalk. And as the doors came through the saw he brought them in and dropped them onto my clean countertops. I told him that friends were coming over to cook and started moving them into the basement stairwell. He said, “I need them where I can get to them.”

A bit later on he asked me, “Where are you taking your friends tonight?”

Now let’s back up to how the project was planned, aside from the fact that it wasn’t. I had a few things oddly laid out: wall cabinets stacked 2 high and cut to non-standard sizes, fillers scribed to fit tilted walls, toe kicks scribed to fit sloping floors, a plinth holding the stove level, and a split-height peninsula room divider. The plan was to get a shop to make these, and I was gonna start with Semihandmade, a company that makes custom fronts for IKEA cabinets. The Irishman told me a while ago that he’d make them for me and slash Semihandmade’s price. At the time I think he had access to a shop. This spring, not so much.

And all these conditions came together to create a few of the greatest horrors I’ve endured since buying the Crooked House. First, he used the sidewalk in front of my house, shielded by an awning, as his shop. He had materials stored there under a tarp for the whole project, making my house an official nuisance property. No one reported me though.


And my living room became his lay down area.

Then there were his wildly unrealistic expectations about how fast he could work without a proper shop plus our usual agreement that I’d pay him for his time meant that I had a terrifying series of promises of cheapness and fastness followed by him hitting me up for more money. At one point I cut him off and he threatened to walk. I wondered when to cut my losses and put the stuff in the basement.

The Irishman started working shorter days. My fuse shortened more than his days. I started berating him every time he told me he was taking a break. People at the office heard me. He took offense that I was mad at him. Finally, it was my mom who intervened. She read my bank statement and totaled up the ATM withdrawals that paid him. Only she knows. I don’t want to. But now the Irishman decided that he owes me forever, that he’ll finish the job dutifully, that he’ll take on a litany of other projects, and that there’ll never again be a copper between us. (Read that sentence with a thick brogue.) I don’t know how she manages to slay like this over and over again. (The gun is plastic)


Anyways, one week became… 6 1/2. My plans to enjoy spring fell through. My plans to pay off Phase 1 are delayed a solid 6 months. But I’m a big step closer to a finished kitchen. Was it worth it? No way. Anyways, I’m desperate for a break. Maybe a long one. But the Irishman says he owes me work and I’m not about to miss collecting the debt. We’ll see how I do both. In the meantime, I should have my house back tomorrow – guess what that means I’ll be doing!

Happy woman cleaning

(I won’t be holding my balance on one foot in heels.)

In With Old Windows?

So we’ve been through the brick and the cornice. Finishing off the Phase 2 façade work means replacing the windows. Remember what I have? Total junk. I was glad to learn how bad they were because I didn’t want vinyl windows under any circumstances and I can replace these without feeling guilty. To review:

I bent back the aluminum capping and then left it like this for several years.


I never like aluminum capping, but mine looks like this. (That scalloped marble lintel looks great in this photo though!)


Random scraps of wood nailed into the jambs apparently to bring the openings down to a stock size. (The gorilla glue is no longer extant.)


That window above was so racked I could see sunlight through outside the top sash. Now it’s gobbed up with caulk.


The window jambs had sagged and separated from the windows. And they were structural! So they were unsalvageable.


Living room window casings

I partially removed the counterweight cavities in the process and then the insulation people filled them with spray foam. The remaining wood wasn’t in great shape – you can see chunks of the remaining framing missing.


I really love old windows best, but no houses I looked at still had them. So I decided to afford the best new windows I could find. And Craigslist brought me the very nice cottage style 2-over 2 Marvins in the back bedroom.



The originals would have been 1-over-1 (no muntins) but I think the style I got kinda makes up for the replacements being too perfect with non-wavy glass. I got 3 more (with my Obama energy loan!) to finish off the back and the plan was always to get 4 more for the front.

But then I met Wesley, a historic preservation carpenter specializing in buildings way older than mine. He said that by the time my house was built the windows would have come out of a catalog and are all standard sizes. People in his line of work collect them to cannibalize the wavy glass and install it in even older windows. And so, he says I should easily find period correct sashes that are exactly the right size to fit into my jambs! Unfortunately, I’ll have to take down my cheapie Eucaboard and the blinds on the front of the house to measure for the new/old sashes. (They look better painted. You almost can’t tell how bad they are.)


So, yes, I’m considering pulling out (drafty, poorly installed) double-paned windows and reinstalling old single-paned wood. Do you think I need psychiatric help? It’s true that getting nice new Marvins would be more efficient than un-replacing them with something period correct. But old windows will last longer. Old wood is much more resistant to rot than new. If I slip up with repainting my Marvins I could someday be stuck with buying new sashes. (NO ALUMINUM CLADDING ON THE FRONT!!!) And even if I don’t they may only last a few decades. Old windows can last forever. And besides that, I love everything about the pulleys and chains and counterweights on an old window. They slide better than anything new.

And I’m not blind to energy efficiency concerns. First off, windows are the very lowest return on investment you can get for efficiency. Even worse than solar panels now! So they might make sense if the old windows are really, truly wrecked and beyond restoration or if you have bad replacements. Good weatherstripping and storm windows on an old window will get you 95% of the efficiency gains from a new window. It should also cost a lot less upfront, and more of the cost would go to local labor. (The downside is that restoring them will be my local labor.) So yes, old windows are sensible, even (possibly) for someone who doesn’t have any! Definitely give them a chance before you commit to ripping them out!

Facade Plans Post 3 – How NOT to Restore Historic Masonry

Then comes restoring the brick, and this job is scary. I’m going to take the paint off my brick. Many sources recommend avoiding this as it can damage the substrate, but you saw what the paint looks like on my house. For further reading, I suggest this piece from the National Park Service, the preservation guidelines for Boston’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, and the New York and Philadelphia Rowhouse Manuals.

The problem is that traditional bricks have a durable outer layer from being kiln fired. Inside of that they’re much softer and it’s important  not to take that off. So…

What you really should never do is of course what everyone does. Scrub pointing, or covering over the mortar joints with new mortar without removing the old. This alters the look of the brick and it doesn’t hold up.


Don’t power wash the brick with high pressure. Traditional bricks were kiln fired and you could take off the outer later, which is the most durable part. And NEVER sandblast historic masonry. This can wear away the surface badly, altering its appearance and shortening its life. I encountered this poor facade on tony Spruce Street. I would have thought it was some kind of rustic 1920’s brick except for that little square that was once covered, revealing the same pressed brick as I have. Also pictured: scrub pointing, paint.


NEVER use dry heat like a heat gun. This can drive paint deeper into the masonry and make permanent stains. Plus, it doesn’t work well on masonry.

NEVER clean or strip masonry when there’s any risk of frost as any extra moisture that absorbed could freeze, expand, and cause the masonry to spall.

Avoid driving too much water into the masonry even in mild weather as it’s weaker when wet. Repointing before cleaning the surface is a good move, but you can also temporarily caulk the joints and repoint later.

Don’t sand or grind the surface.

Avoid strong acids (Hydrochloric/Muriatic) and alkaline (lye) products and only use in very limited applications.

Don’t use acidic cleaners on acid sensitive stone like marble. (That’s me!)

Don’t expect surfaces to look brand new. Some patina may be desirable and vigorous efforts to remove troublesome stains or residual paint can damage the substrate.

So what can you do? Use the gentlest means possible. Low pressure washing, hand scrubbing, washing with a non-ionic detergent, some mild acid and alkaline cleaners, steam cleaning, and dangerous chemical solvents can all be effective. Test in an inconspicuous area (which I don’t have) preferably a full year before proceeding, but at least a month.

And when I repoint I must not use modern masonry techniques. My house is made of traditional clay bricks with lime mortar. Modern mortars are harder than this kind of bricks, so if the wall shifts, the bricks fail instead of the joints. Some preservationists recommend only using lime while others specify a soft mortar made with lime and Portland cement.


My façade is pressed brick, which is very smooth and uniform with very thin mortar joints. The mortar is washed or colored red to match the bricks. Scrub pointing is putting a false wider mortar joint over the real ones. This kind of halfassed job eventually pops off and until it does, it fakes the look of inferior and historically incorrect masonry.

And what about that damaged area?


I think I should use a water resistant coating here. These are formulated to let water vapors out but prevent liquid water from getting in. Never use a waterproof coating that traps both. And even the best of these products can do more harm than good, but it sounds like treating the damaged areas only could help preserve it. Or if I pick the wrong one it could help destroy it.

So this will be fun right?

Facade Plans Post 2 – A Cornice Vocabulary Primer

The first day of façade work is gonna be fun. I’ll triumphantly rip down the awnings, the capping around the windows, and the siding over the cornice. This will wait until after there is no danger of frost, probably next spring. All façade work including the brick and windows will then need to be done by fall so that the house is waterproof without the awnings.


But let’s start at the top. The cornice is aesthetically important since it’s really the only decoration a flat-roofed rowhouse has, but it also has a function, partially protecting the façade from rain. At first I regretted having a wooden one, thinking the stamped metal ones would be easier to restore. Now I’ve thought better of it and feel much less intimidated by what I have under the ugly.

But today let’s take a very geeky look at how it’s put together.e. Though it has a distinctly Victorian look, my cornice has essentially the same parts as Classical architecture. And so I want to name them properly.

Cornice Detail

The drip edge is part of the roof. This is the roof’s highest point – there are no gutters and the downspout is on the back. I think the original would have been galvanized tin but now I have a modern aluminum one. I’ll probably dent it and call the roofer back to replace it. And today’s off-the-shelf aluminum drip edges are deeper than the traditional ones, so I’ll have to decide if I want a custom one, if I want to cheat the crown down, or if I’ll just let it partially obscure the crown and ignore it.

Then comes the crown. This part is where I most often see rot on other houses, so there’s a good chance I’ll be replacing it. Luckily it’s a standard molding.

Below the crown is the fascia, just a flat upright board. Behind the fascia is the soffit, a flat horizontal piece of wood. You can see that the fascia makes a drip edge, so I’m hoping most of the cornice is protected.

Below the soffit is the bed course, which is much bigger on my cornice than in Classical architecture, but it’s still the same thing. It’s mainly a big flat board with reeding cut into it, and I think I can count on that being in good shape. There are also 5 decorative brackets, 4 rosettes, and half round molding near the top and bottom. These fancy bits are often missing or damaged.

Below that is the frieze, which is technically not part of the cornice anymore. (Architecturally correct language would call all of it together an entablature – but I’ll avoid pretention and stick with cornice.) It’s also reeded and has 4 more rosettes that are smaller than the ones in the bed course. And below that is the foot molding, which is small enough that it might also be wrecked. Below all that there are 2 courses of brick set to look like dentils. I suppose we could call this the architrave.

So when it comes time to restore this, my fingers are crossed that the larger flat boards are all intact. I can use some Bondo if I need to. I’ll have new crown and foot moldings made out of good wood if I need to. Luckily I only need about 14 feet of each. This much of the job has to be done in Phase 2. The brackets and rosettes, not so much. If they’re in bad shape and I max out my budget again, they may have to stay down a while.


Planning the Facade Post 1 – Existing Conditions

I wouldn’t call my endeavors to get rid of junk and catch up with routine cleaning blog worthy, at least not yet. So now seems like a good time to get back to what I really like writing about – obsessively scrutinizing old details and making fairly technical restoration plans. So to start, here’s the most important job I’ll do in Phase 2, restoring the façade.


The house. Facade restoration to come.

The good news is I have all the original window and door openings, the marble steps, and the cornice. None of these things are in good condition but they’re all there. Stripping these houses of their character was a thing, especially in the 70’s it seems.

Here’s a good view of all the abuse these houses get. From right to left, vertical siding on a cornice, removing lintels and sills, patching with non-matching brick, punching through holes for air conditioners, replacing facades entirely with ugly brick, and leaving the original facade in place but covering it over with new brick, formstone, stucco, or siding.



And so I snapped up something with enough left that it can be great someday. So let’s look at some of the details. At the top I have  a pretty wooden cornice.


You don’t believe me? Under that siding I’m expecting to find this.


Of course I have no idea what condition it’s in. I’m hoping that most of it is restorable. What can’t be restored can be remade, some of it in stages.

Then there are the awnings. Some people told me that they’re charming, but I hate them. They cover half my windows, block my view of the sky, leave me with a dull yellowish light. Plus they are showing their age and they obscure the charming little scallops on the marble lintels. This is one of the only architectural frills the place has. (Also note the shiny lunch truck-style capping on this house.)


So why are the awnings still up 3 years later? Look down by my front door. There’s a fair bit of water damage and they’re chalking away. I don’t care about restoring the damage, but I need to seal this area with something appropriate to stop it from getting worse.


Things aren’t rosy for the rest of the brick either. It’s been painted red, the marble is painted white, and although the original mortar joints were red, they painted white lines onto the bricks! Usually over the mortar joints but not always.


Then there are the windows. I have some of the cheapest vinyl windows you can buy here, and they’re 15 years old – near the end of their lives – and so poorly installed I had to seal the top sashes shut with caulk. I bent out the aluminum capping in 2013 to see what’s behind it.


I peeked behind the capping to see what’s there, and 3 years later it’s still bent out like this. But I don’t care. Aluminum capping is so vile I don’t think this makes it any worse. I have the original trim around the windows, but under the white aluminum capping the sills are capped with lunch truck style chrome plated capping.


The basement windows are also poorly installed and missing their original security bars. (These are next door.)


The front door is relatively new. I wish it were old. It’s in a style that comes pretty close to Victorian but misses the mark slightly. But it’s solid mahogany so I don’t plan on replacing it. The glass, however, is not authentic and I’d like to replace it with something plainer before refinishing the door. And the latch that was on the door wore out. This interior door knob gets the job done but it’s not long for this world.


Next up, we’ll get into the nitty gritty with historic masonry.